Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, and Philosophy: A Preliminary Inquiry

Timon cover

George Anastaplo


Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill.
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,

Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foiled searching of mortality;

And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-schooled, self-scanned, self-honored, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguessed at—Better, so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness that impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole voice in that victorious brow.
—Matthew Arnold, “Shakespeare”

Useful comments about William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens have been made in our time by Howard B. White, Paul A. Cantor, Harold Bloom, and John E. Alvis, among others. They illuminate for us the political and other interests of Shakespeare and his times.

Leo Paul de Alvarez offers suggestions about the use made by Shake­speare, in this play, of Alcibiades, drawing on (even as he significantly adjusts) Plutarch’s account of this remarkable Athenian. The de Alvarez suggestions include intriguing speculations about how Alcibiades might have best been used to permit Athens to deal sensibly with the grim challenges of the Peloponnesian War.

Timon of Athens can be said to be one of Shakespeare’s more challenging plays, but not because of its merits as a piece of drama. How much of it is indeed the work of Shakespeare need not be our concern here.


This play can be considered a “minor league” version of King Lear. Lear himself is much more interesting than Timon. This is reflected in the fact that Timon of Athens, unlike King Lear, is rarely staged. But both plays do deal with eminent men who are devastated by the ingratitude they encounter from those whom they have generously (if not extravagantly, and hence impru­dently) benefited.

There are in Timon of Athens characters who resemble attractive charac­ters in King Lear, such as Edgar and the Fool. But the King Lear versions of these characters tend to be more serious and hence more interesting.


There is of particular interest for us on this occasion Apemantus, whose appearances include one as a fellow-traveller of the Fool (in Timon of Athens, Act 2, Scene 2). The Fool can even refer to Apemantus as a philosopher, just as had the original compiler (probably not Shakespeare) of the Dramatis Personae for the play, who identified him as “a churlish philosopher.”

The churlishness is evident throughout the play, as Apemantus confronts (indeed mercilessly chides) Timon both in good times and in bad. Indeed, this is what has come to be expected from Apemantus by everyone whom he encounters.


Apemantus’s pronouncements are hardly edifying. Nor are they truly instruc­tive, however challenging they may sometimes seem.

His quite predictable railings at the follies of others, are too much the “expression” of his temperament to be philosophical. He, as the Weeping Philosopher (but not in the Heraclitus tradition?), can be considered the counterpart (almost in caricature) to the Laughing Philosopher (in the De-mocritus tradition).


This play may be most valuable for us in that it can induce us to consider how Shakespeare himself understands philosophy. This is the point we are most concerned with and begin to notice on this occasion.

This point has recently been noticed in another way by an eminent Shake­speare scholar, David Bevington, in his book, Shakespeare’s Ideas: More Things in Heaven and Earth.  His first chapter is entitled, “A Natural Philoso­pher.”

Early on in this work Professor Bevington recognizes limitations upon his inquiry. Thus, he notices at the outset:

This book is dedicated to the proposition that the writings of Shakespeare reveal the workings of a great mind. True, we have no literary criticism or other theorizing as such from his pen. . . . Shakespeare does not discuss philosophers very often, and may not have read widely in them. He cites Aristotle twice in throwaway comments. . . . He never mentions Plato or his Academy. Socrates appears once by name as the hapless henpecked husband of Xantippe (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.69-70). Shakespeare’s four refer­ences to Pythagoras seem to regard his ideas as a bizarre joke. . . . Although the concept of stoicism is important to Shakespeare, . . . he uses the word ‘stoics’ in a simple comic remark to characterize students who prefer diligent study to fun and games (Taming, 1.1.31), and he says nothing about Zeno or his followers. ‘Skeptic,’ skeptical,’ and ‘skepticism’ form no part of Shake­speare’s vocabulary, however much he may have pondered what we would call skeptical ideas….

Not only are traditional philosophers rarely referred to by name in the writings of Shakespeare, but there are surprisingly few references to philoso­phy and, when used, the reader can wonder (is it intended that he wonder?) what it means. Indeed, one can be reminded by all this of the age-old tension (if not even the conflict) between poetry and philosophy—with poetry tend­ing much more to that “self-schooled” condition that Matthew Arnold no­ticed in his tribute to Shakespeare and with various questions noticed by me on this occasion that have been anticipated perhaps in the following lines from Ben Jonson’s instructive poem:

… I, therefore, will begin. Soul of the Age!
The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!.
My Shakespeare, rise…
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names…

He was not of an age, but for all time! …

Nature herself was proud of his designs,
And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines!
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other Wit….

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the Poet’s matter, Nature be,
His Art doth give the fashion….

For a good Poet’s made, as well as born.
And such wert thou. Look how the father’s face
Lives in his issue, even so, the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind, and manners brightly shines
In his well-turnéd, and true-filéd lines,
In each of which, he seems to shake a Lance,
As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance.

A disturbing tension between poetry and philosophy may even be implicit in the conditions and conduct that led, some years ago, to my suggestion that Martin Heidegger is “the Macbeth of Philosophy.” That is, may not Heidegger (who seems to be enjoying a troubling resurgence these days among influential scholars)—may not he be grounded more in poetry than in Socrat­ic philosophy (but without the saving grace of Shakespeare’s innate decen­cy)?

Heidegger does seem, at least to me, to move in his interests from the pre-Socratics to the post-Socratics. That is, the life of Socrates (including the social/political risks knowingly run by him) does not seem to be of serious interest to Heidegger.

Indeed, one can wonder what Shakespeare might have done with Heidegger himself. This twentieth-century Thinker (not Philosopher) does seem to have been an instructive Trimmer of the first order, someone worthy of enduring contempt.

Perhaps there is in Heidegger the learned perversion of a Germanic ele­ment epitomized by Goethe’s Faust. It was Faust, it will be remembered, who decided that there had been “in the beginning” not the word or mind or even force, but rather the act.


Shakespeare, too, was very much concerned with acts, and especially with how one thought—or ought to think—about them. How he himself thought—and wrote—about them has been critical in shaping the English-speaking peoples.

Indeed, I have ventured to suggest elsewhere that only the English-speak­ing peoples have been able (since the Middle Ages) to maintain, on a large scale and for centuries, constitutional government. And for this a sovereign Shakespeare may be responsible, to a significant degree.


Is this due, at least in part, to the chance that accounts of Roman institutions and Roman thought were far more accessible to Shakespeare (and his audi­ences) than were their Greek counterparts? The influence of Shakespeare, with respect to Roman matters, is suggested by how much more esteemed Marcus Brutus is among us than he is among those peoples profoundly shaped by artists such as Dante (who can, in the depths of the Inferno, even dreadfully link Brutus to Judas Iscariot).

What Shakespeare took from the Romans seems to have been blended by him with what the British political tradition offered (as drawn on in his History Plays). It remains to be seen, of course, what Modernity and Global­ization (as well as ever-growing national populations) will do to the long-established foundations of Anglo-American constitutionalism.


We return to Apemantus by again wondering what philosophy meant to Shakespeare and how that affected his moral and political influence. He did not seem to regard philosophy primarily as a mode of inquiry, with a view to identifying and clarifying enduring questions.

One consequence of philosophical understanding, as seen in the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, may be an awareness that all human actions aim at the good. Characters such as Shakespeare’s Iago pose a serious challenge to such an assessment, unless one (following Othello’s lead) identifies him as Satan­ic. Indeed, it should even be wondered whether Iago is humanly possible.


A related challenge for us is what Shakespeare understood about the pursuit that we identify and cherish as philosophy. And, we must wonder, on what basis does he reject it, ultimately, if that is indeed what he is inclined to do?

Should we regard any such rejection as uninformed and hence not to be taken seriously? What might we—if we are reliable partisans of genuine philosophy—what might we know that Shakespeare did not know, and what difference does that make?

Although Shakespeare’s Apemantus is not truly a philosopher, he (and even more his creator) can make us usefully wonder what should be meant by “philosophy”—and what that should do to and for us. 1 draw, in closing this preliminary inquiry, upon observations I had occasion to make in a 1973 conference on modern psychiatry—some perhaps relevant observations that were included a decade later in my American Moralist volume:

[We are concerned to discover] what the ancients knew about the proper way of looking at and shaping the human soul. I should note that our most useful bridge between the ancients and the moderns may be Shakespeare, even though he seems to have far more concern than do the ancients for what we call conscience and guilt. In this respect the moderns, and especially the psychiatrically-oriented, seem to be very much affected by Christian influ­ences… . The critical difference between the ancients and the modems [and, I interpolate the question here whether Shakespeare is, fundamentally, a mod-ern—the critical difference] may be stated in still another way. The ancients believed, or at least believed it salutary to affirm, something that the moderns tend to deny: a judgment about whether a human activity is natural or unnatu­ral, good or bad, is an essential, perhaps even the most important part, of any description of it. It is partly in reliance upon this opinion that [genuine philoso­phers such as] Plato and Aristotle always had in view the best in all their efforts to describe what is and what may be, and hence in their efforts to guide both the human being and the community to achieve what they could in their [ever-changing] circumstances.


These remarks were prepared for the Midwest Political Science Association Convention, The Palmer House, Chicago, Illinois, April 2.2011.

The materials drawn on here include the following:

Alighieri, Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIV.

Alvis, John E., Shakespearean Poetry and Politics,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, eds. John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West (Carolina Academic Press, 1981), 3-26.

Anastaplo, George, “Character and Republican Government,” (posted July 2010) (on William Shakespeare and the constitutionalism of the English-speaking peoples).

______. “Character and the Constitutional Heritage of the English-speaking Peoples,” (posted October 2010) [on William Shakespeare and mod­ern constitutionalism].

______. “Further Thoughts on Macbeth and Heidegger,” (posted November 2010).

______. “Heidegger and the Need for Tyranny,” [in Anastaplo, The American Moralist, 738-739], (posted May 2011). See also, Anastaplo, “Constitu­tionalism and the Good: Explorations,” Tennessee Law Review 70 (2003), 737-851, esp. 780-802.

______. “Is Iago Humanly Possible?,” in Anastaplo, “Law & Literature and Shakespeare: Explorations,” 26 Oklahoma City University Law Review 1(2001), 98-109.

______.  “Prudence and Mortality in Shakespeare’s Tragedies,” 40 University of Pittsburgh Law Review 730 (1979), 730-745.

______. The American Moralist: On Law, Ethics, and Government (Ohio University Press, 1992), 135-136, 144-160.

______. The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Swallow Press, 1983).

______. The Constitutionalist: Notes on the First Amendment (Southern Methodist University Press, 1971; Lexington Books, 2005).

______. “The Macbeth of Philosophy,” [adapted from Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist, 738-739], (posted August 2011).

Arnold, Matthew, “Shakespeare,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 704.

Bevington, David, Shakespeare’s Ideas: More Things in Heaven and Earth (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), I.

Bevington, David, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Longman, 1997), 185 (“the weeping philosopher,” “the laughing philosopher”), 1256-1292 (Timon ofAthens).

Bloom, Harold, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead Books, 1998), 588-599 (Timon of Athens).

Cantor, Paul A., “Timon of Athens: The Corrupt City and the Origins of Philosophy,” In Between: Essays and Studies in Literary Criticism 4/1 (1995), 25-40.

de Alvarez, Leo Paul S., “Timon of Athens,” in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, eds. John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West (Carolina Academic Press, 198 I ), 157-180.

Jonson, Ben, “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 217-219.

Kilbourne, Frederick W., Alterations and Adaptations of Shakespeare (The Poet Lore Compa­ny, 1906), 133-141 (“Timon of Athens”).

Lucien, Timon, or the Misanthrope.

Murley, John A., ed., Leo Strauss and His Legacy: A Bibliography (Lexington Books, 2005). Oxford Classical Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1949), s.v. “Democritus” (the laughing philoso­pher), “Heraclitus” (the weeping philosopher).

Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (“Life of Alcibiades,” “Life of Antony”).

The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Shorter Fifth Edition), eds. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy (W. W. Norton & Co., 2005), 217-219.

White, Howard B., Copp ‘d Hills towards Heaven: Shakespeare and the Classical Polity (Mar-tinus Nijhoff, 1970).

See, also, as a reminder of the age-old philosophy/poetry tension, Aristophanes’s The Frogs (Loeb Classical Library, 1968, trans. Benjamin Flickley Rogers). Consider, especially, the following lines by the Chorus (1482-1499) after the contest in Hades among the great, now-dead tragedians as to who should return to Athens in its then-current need (a contest won by Aeschylus):

Blest the man who possesses a
Keen intelligent mind.
This full often we find.
He [Aeschylus], the bard of renown,
Now to earth reascends,
Goes, a joy to his [polls],
Goes, a joy to his friends,
Just because he possesses a
Keen intelligent mind.
RIGHT ills and befitting,
Not, by Socrates sitting,
Idle talk to pursue,
Stripping tragedy-art of
All things noble and true.
Fine-drawn quibbles to seek,
Fine-set phrases to speak,
Is but the part of a fool!

The Chorus is followed immediately by the divine Pluto’s words (1500-1503):

Farewell then, Aeschylus, great and wise,
Go, save our [polls) by the maxims rare
Of thy noble thought; and the fools chastise,
For many a fool dwells there.

It should be recalled here that Aristophanes was the author also of The Clouds, a comedy that Socrates had to deal with in Plato’s Apology. Consider, as well, Leo Strauss, Socrates and Arisiophanes (Basic Books, 1966), 11-53, 261-262, 311-314,321 (Plato). Compare Plato, Symposium.

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