Wang the Waterseller and Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the Fragility of Goodness

Late in the first act of our production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, Wang the Waterseller cautions the Gods: “Awakened Ones, Don’t be too hard on Shen Te. Maybe your expecting too much?”

Wang’s simple plea stands out in a script that wrestles with big ideas and bigger theories. For our production, Wang’s defense isn’t of Shen Te as a good person, but rather a warning that being good in Szechwan is no easy task. But what is the essence of a Good Person in our world? Today, in 2016? To shed some insight, we turned to one of the greatest minds of our modern world, philosopher Margaret Nussbaum.

Nussbaum argues in her 2001 publication of The Fragility of Goodness, Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, that

The condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something you couldn’t prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

The paradox of the human condition, Nussbaum reminds us, is that while our capacity for vulnerability — and, by extension, our ability to trust others — may be what allows for tragedy to befall us, the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against hurt by petrifying that essential softness of the soul, for that denies our basic humanity:

Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, “I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.” That really means, “I won’t be a human being anymore.”

You see people doing that today where they feel that society has let them down, and they can’t ask anything of it, and they can’t put their hopes on anything outside themselves. You see them actually retreating to a life in which they think only of their own satisfaction, and maybe the satisfaction of their revenge against society. But the life that no longer trusts another human being and no longer forms ties to the political community is not a human life any longer.

“Awakened Ones, don’t be too hard on Shen Te. Maybe your expecting too much?” Are we expecting too much in 2016? It would seem we are more like the latter end of Nussbaum’s comments and we’ve retreated into expecting nothing at all.

 By ensemble member Elyse Cowles. To buy tickets for the Good Person of Szechwan running now through 9/11 at A Red Orchid Theater, go here!

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