Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Therapy of Desire

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics

With a new introduction by the author Martha C. Nussbaum
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 600
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Therapy of Desire
    Book Description:

    The Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual discipline, but as a worldly art of grappling with issues of daily and urgent human significance: the fear of death, love and sexuality, anger and aggression. Like medicine, philosophy to them was a rigorous science aimed both at understanding and at producing the flourishing of human life. In this engaging book, Martha Nussbaum examines texts of philosophers committed to a therapeutic paradigm--including Epicurus, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, Chrysippus, and Seneca--and recovers a valuable source for our moral and political thought today. This edition features a new introduction by Nussbaum, in which she revisits the themes of this now classic work.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3194-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Introduction to the 2009 Edition
    (pp. ix-xx)

    The Therapy of Desire(henceforthTherapy) appeared fifteen years ago, so it is time to reflect (as I did with the Updated Edition ofThe Fragility of Goodnesson its fifteenth birthday) on some ways in which these intervening years have shed new light on the book’s primary themes and contentions. If I focus on my own ideas and not the huge amount of valuable work by others, it is simply because to do anything else would require a book at least as large again.

    Therapyattempted to show in just one area the fertility and quality of the Hellenistic schools...

  2. Introduction
    (pp. 3-12)

    The idea of a practical and compassionate philosophy—a philosophy that exists for the sake of human beings, in order to address their deepest needs, confront their most urgent perplexities, and bring them from misery to some greater measure of flourishing—this idea makes the study of Hellenistic ethics riveting for a philosopher who wonders what philosophy has to do with the world. The writer and teacher of philosophy is a lucky person, fortunate, as few human beings are, to be able to spend her life expressing her most serious thoughts and feelings about the problems that have moved and...

  3. CHAPTER 1 Therapeutic Arguments
    (pp. 13-47)

    Epicurus wrote, “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.”¹ The ancient Skeptical teacher, too, portrays himself as a healer of the soul:² “Being a lover of humanity, the Skeptic wishes to heal by argument, insofar as possible, the arrogant empty beliefs and the rashness of dogmatic people.” As a doctor tries out different remedies on the ailing...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Medical Dialectic: Aristotle on Theory and Practice
    (pp. 48-77)

    Aristotle was not the first ancient Greek philosopher to argue that philosophical reflection and teaching on ethical and political topics have a practical goal. And the analogy between philosophy and medicine had been used already to make this point. But with his characteristic explicitness Aristotle set out more clearly the reasons why one should see ethics as practical and not simply theoretical, the contributions theory might make to practice, and the ways in which theory itself might be shaped by the demands of practice. He not only brings the medical analogy forward, he also takes it apart—arguing that in...

  5. CHAPTER 3 Aristotle on Emotions and Ethical Health
    (pp. 78-101)

    Nikidion is an emotional person. She loves her friends and feels joy in their presence, hope for their future. If one of them should die, she weeps and feels great grief. If someone should damage her, or someone dear to her, she gets angry; if someone should help her out, she feels gratitude. When others suffer terrible harms and wrongs, she feels pity for their suffering. And this means that she feels fear as well, since she perceives that she has similar vulnerabilities. She is not ashamed of these emotions. For the city in which she was raised endorses them,...

  6. CHAPTER 4 Epicurean Surgery: Argument and Empty Desire
    (pp. 102-139)

    Epicurus wrote, “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, if it does not throw out suffering from the soul.”¹ He also said, “What produces unsurpassed jubilation is the contrast of the great evil escaped. And this is the nature of good, if one applies one’s mind correctly and then stands firm, and does not go walking about [peripatēi] chattering about the good in an empty fashion”...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Beyond Obsession and Disgust: Lucretius on the Therapy of Love
    (pp. 140-191)

    The poet Titus Lucretius was born. Later on he went mad from drinking a love potion. In the lucid intervals of his insanity he wrote several books, which were later edited by Cicero. Then he died by his own hand at the age of forty-four.”¹ Jerome’s famous story bases itself upon two evident facts about Lucretius’ poem: that its poet-speaker claims to speak to us out of an intense personal experience of love; and that this same speaker, allegedly from the point of view of lucid rationality, condemns and assails love with a bitterness seldom equaled in poetry. But Jerome’s...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Mortal Immortals: Lucretius on Death and the Voice of Nature
    (pp. 192-238)

    Epicurus writes: “The correct recognition that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding on an infinite time, but by removing the longing for immortality” (LMen132).

    But Nikidion might think incorrectly. For she might, as often happens, take a walk at dawn in the early spring. She might feel the knifelike beauty of the morning. See leaves half unrolled, translucent, their sharp green still untouched by life; the sun striking sparkles on the moving surface of a stream. And she would listen, then, in the silence to the sweet and deadly music of...

  9. CHAPTER 7 “By Words, Not Arms”: Lucretius on Anger and Aggression
    (pp. 239-279)

    Battle. Chariots equipped with scythes slice off the limbs of the enemy. Legs and arms lie warm on the ground, still trembling in their blood. One man charges eagerly forward, unaware that his left arm is being trampled by the horses. Another presses on without his right. A third tries to rise without a leg, while the toes of his severed limb lie twitching on the ground. A head cut from the warm trunk preserves the look and gaze of life. (III.642–55)

    Forest. An unarmed man is seized in the jaws of a wild beast, who begins to devour...

  10. CHAPTER 8 Skeptic Purgatives: Disturbance and the Life without Belief
    (pp. 280-315)

    So far, in describing Nikidion’s education, I have emphasized the differences between Epicurus and Aristotle. One is more revisionary, the other more inclined to trust appearances; one uses practical reason to produce freedom from disturbance, the other values it for its own sake; one may deprive the pupil of autonomous intellectual activity, the other insists on the value of that autonomy. It is now time to insist that, along with these differences, they have some very important traits in common. For both believe that human health requires having many definite beliefs, including ethical beliefs. Aristotle’s attitude to ethical belief is...

  11. CHAPTER 9 Stoic Tonics: Philosophy and the Self-Government of the Soul
    (pp. 316-358)

    There is, I assure you, a medical art for the soul. It is philosophy, whose aid need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves. We must endeavor with all our resources and all our strength to become capable of doctoring ourselves” (Cic.TD3.6). “I am writing down some healthful practical arguments, prescriptions for useful drugs; I have found them effective in healing my own ulcerous sores, which, even if not thoroughly cured, have at least ceased to spread” (Sen.Ep. 8.2). So first Cicero, then Seneca, display the Stoic use of the medical analogy, which is...

  12. CHAPTER 10 The Stoics on the Extirpation of the Passions
    (pp. 359-401)

    In order to get a deeper understanding of the Stoic conception of therapy we must now turn to their account of the emotions or passions¹ and its consequences for their picture of the “cured” person’s life. I begin by setting down, somewhat dogmatically and without detailed textual argument, certain features of the Stoic conception of the human end or good that will play a role in the Stoics’ diagnosis and treatment.² (This will not prevent us from asking, later on, how the diagnosis and this conception of health are interrelated.) According to Stoicism, then, only virtue is worth choosing for...

  13. CHAPTER 11 Seneca on Anger in Public Life
    (pp. 402-438)

    In the spring of 1991 I visited the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, lecturing to the required cadet ethics course on the topic of moral dilemmas. After my lecture I ate with the officers in their club overlooking the Hudson River, where leaves were unfolding on the banks and a stiff breeze sent ripples glinting across the water. The clean beauty of the April day made blood, sand, and brutality in the Gulf seem like distant dreams. And I thought about the young cadets, now calmly doing moral philosophy on the banks of the Hudson, but someday in some...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Serpents in the Soul: A Reading of Seneca’s Medea
    (pp. 439-483)

    Imagine, first, the ending, staging it in your mind as the audience for Seneca’s recitation-dramas would have staged it:

    She appears on the steep slope of the palace roof. The man she loves stares up at her. He sees her looming over him (995), radiant and boiling, wrapped in the red light of her grandfather Sun.¹ (She wrapped his helpless bride in a cloak that ate her flesh with snaking flames [818–19].) She will not die of this light. Fire is her patrimony, as snakes are her familiars. She calls down to him to lift his swollen eyes her...

  15. CHAPTER 13 The Therapy of Desire
    (pp. 484-510)

    So philosophy, in these schools, makes itself the doctor of human lives. What should we make of their achievements? A comprehensive philosophical appraisal would require nothing less than answering the fundamental questions of human life. We would need to get clear about what the death of a human being is, and whether it is ever right to fear it; about what forms of attachment to undependable external things a human life needs in order to be complete, and whether one can have these without debilitating uncertainty; about how much uncertainty and need a person can endure, while retaining integrity and...

  16. List of Philosophers and Schools
    (pp. 511-516)