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On Bernard Williams’ chapter Possibility, Freedom, Power

Williams is writing about a third sort of necessity, distinct from two he treats earlier in Shame and Necessity: the first is the necessity of one human being acting under the power of another while the second is the necessity that is felt to hold due to some sort of practical grasp of a situation. The first is “necessity imposed on some human beings by others,” the second is “the inner necessity of practical conclusion” (130). The type he is treating in this chapter he calls “supernatural necessity,” but by this he does not mean ghouls and goblins. He means a sort of necessity that escapes typical human ways of explaining the world—this method of explanation, for Williams, is something that is historical, and the supernatural of the ancient Greeks is not self-evidently the same as what we moderns might feel to be supernatural, and there is not typical way of explaining the world, as such.

In order to demonstrate how the two senses of supernatural necessity are alike yet distinct, Williams spends much time reflecting on how Greek tragedies are read in the modern world. We can read them, but there are moments in them that are opaque: our sense of the necessary power of the Greek gods is not the same as the audience of the tragedies, and we do not grasp all that they contain. Williams’ remarks on the aporias reached by several critics as they try to explicate Aeschylus’ rendering of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is to the point. The critics see necessity and agency as mutually exclusive states: either Agamemnon chose to murder his daughter in order to appease the gods, or he was compelled to do so by them. It was either external necessity or internal volition that caused the action to occur.

Williams proposes an alternative reading to the dilemma, one that sticks very close to the literal meanings of the text. He emphasizes that Aeschylus’ text reads that Agamemnon “put on the harness of necessity,” which is a conscious decision to do something on his part, but one that shaped the sort of actions that would be possible for him thereafter. The verb in the text, Williams also notes, is the same one used to express that a warrior is putting on his armor for battle. Necessity is not merely compelling here; warriors very well could have made the decision to enter a battlefield without wearing armor. But at the same time, it is not merely a question the agent’s choice; hoplites might choose to enter a battlefield wearing only their skin, but the force of the situation dictates that they would be prudent if they did otherwise.

In the context of Agamemnon’s decision to put on necessity’s harness, Williams argues that there is something like this going on. There is a sort of internal logic, a “long-running necessity” that is imminent within the situation that confronts the unfortunate father, and all he can do is recognize it and adopt it as his own. In this way, a “long-term design” becomes seen as necessary within a particular moment, and comes to motivate the moment itself (136). Which might seem like a strong sort of determinism, but this is not the case: Agamemnon still must choose to make the necessary course his own. And it is in this that Williams, glossing Heracleitus, sees the possibility for necessity to be seen in a more complex way. Williams writes

Ethos anthropoi daimon, Heracleitus said, “a man’s character is his fate,” and more than one writer has observed that an important feature of tragedy can be captured reading this saying in both directions. The character’s motivations are what shape the life  he is fated to have: the way his life is shaped by fate is through his motivations.  (136)

It’s not hard to see how this could be applied to Aristotle’s understanding of ethos, which itself is something of a compelling necessity, but not one that is wholly external to the agent. A bit later in the essay, Williams writes the following:

The working of supernatural necessity does not involve immediate fatalism or anything like it, Sometimes, as in Agamemnon’s case… necessity presents itself to the agent as having produced the circumstances in which he must act, and he decides in the light of those circumstances. In other cases it shapes events without presenting itself at all. It may not be known to the agent himself or known only after the event, or, most typically, it is known before the event, but in some indeterminate, ambiguous, or riddling form, and it comes to be determinately understood only afterwards. (139)

There is something in the distinction between the sort of necessity that is clear prior to the act and the sort that becomes clear only afterward that strikes me as similar to the sort of knowledge of one’s own character that Baracchi was talking about in class. I will have to flesh that out and perhaps see if I can develop it.

In further fleshing out supernatural necessity, Williams notes that there is something seen to be linked to a chain of events that is currently underway. This thing, this omen, is held to be avoidable, perhaps, by the agent who perceives it, but at the same time unavoidable. Hence, it is not a simple, flat fatalism with regards to the world. Williams writes,

Fatalism, in this sense of long-term or deferred fatalism, does not require the belief that no action ever has any effect. So far from fatalism ruling out all effective action of any kind, its characteristic quality, on the contrary, demands that some action and decision do have an effect. It is not that people’s thoughts and decisions never make a difference, but that, with regard to the vital outcome, they make no difference in the long run, although one might have expected them to do so. (141)

Williams uses this to explain the compelling force that many tragedies, ancient or otherwise, are felt to have: there is something unavoidable, a force of fate the drives things onward, that the actions of characters within the dramas are seen to be unable to sway. All the same, the characters strive to change it. It is because of this that the twists and turns of a tragedy’s plot unwind and intersect: Oedipus’ father doesn’t wish to be killed by him, so he sends him away; his caution however does not save him, as later Oedipus does in fact kill him, in spite of—as a result of?—his efforts to stop it from happening. This is all a result of the supernatural.

Williams notes, “There is a special indeterminacy about the operations of the supernatural and the ways in which it can generate necessities and suppress possibilities” (145). It adds an element of unreason into the results of actions—even if that unreason is seen to be purposive. And it has this, Williams argues, because of the skill of the author. But an author’s skill is for nothing if his audience cannot perceive it. So there must have been an overarching sense of the supernatural, in Williams’ terms, in ancient Greek audiences. Which must have had something to do with their notion of what Williams is calling “character,” ethos.

Williams further glosses on what he feels supernatural necessity meant for the Greeks. “The relation of human beings to supernatural necessity inevitably invokes the image of being in someone’s power. The mere idea that things are shaped, one way or another, in relation to human purposes—in particular, against them—is enough to ground that image” (151). What seems to be at stake here is largely a coming to terms with the brute fact of human limitation, and the bounds placed on intention. What one wants to come to pass may not; the world may have other plans.

This is not the case in our appreciation of the world, but what can we say about how it relates to Aristotle’s notion of agency?

Categories: Notes.

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