By Neville Birdi
I recently went to Stratford-upon-Avon and saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Timon of Athens. In my humble opinion, the production was lacklustre where the different visual themes and tones jarred with each other. However, this article is not a review of the performance, but a discussion of the play text and story itself.
Timon of Athens is my favourite Shakespeare play – and I know that is a severely bold claim to make. But yes, whilst I admire Hamlet, The Scottish Play, The Tempest, and all others, I have to rank Timon first. The reason is quite simple – nothing, to me, evokes such great tragedy and emotion as much as Timon’s story. Wittingly or otherwise, I would argue we have all experienced, in some fashion, Timon’s journey, and this article serves as a discussion of his tribulations, how we might all share in them, and how might we resolve such troubles.
For those who have not read the play (I urge you to go away and read it now and come back! Spoilers to follow…), I will provide a short synopsis:
Timon, an ancient Athenian nobleman, is introduced as one of the greatest philanthropists of the city. He is generous to everyone, and gives money and gifts unreservedly. Timon routinely holds parties, inviting noblemen and even more common folk to his feasts.
However, in order to facilitate such lavish spending and generosity, Timon must borrow heavily from moneylenders. Eventually, the money runs out, and the moneylenders demand their bonds be repaid.
Timon, despite his steward’s, Flavius’, warnings, does not seem worried, and dispatches his servants to go to some of his friends, whom he had wined and dined regularly, to ask for financial aid. Timon does not doubt that his friends will help him – he, of course, had given to them so generously before, and he truly values them as his closest friends. Such close friends would never betray Timon…
But, to Timon’s dismay and surprise, all his friends turn their backs on him giving excuses to the servants and him as to why they cannot spare any money. The excuses are pathetic, with one of the Lords saying
‘If you had sent but two hours before -‘. Timon brings these friends in for one last ‘feast’, where he serves them warm water and launches a diatribe against them and humanity.
Elsewhere, Alcibiades, an Athenian general, has been exiled from the city. He decides to stage a rebellion against Athens and influences the army to join him. He hears about Timon, who has also be exiled and apparently has gone to live in a cave far away from the city.
Meanwhile, Timon, whilst digging for roots, instead finds gold. He launches into another tirade against gold, humanity, and the Gods. Alcibiades finds Timon’s rustic dwelling and meets Timon. Timon offers Alcibiades gold to convince the general to march on Athens, destroy, and conquer it. Alcibiades agrees. Some pirates pass by Timon, and Timon offers them gold too, as long as they too launch attacks on Athens to help to destroy it.
The city of Athens comes under great siege and the senators beseech Timon to return and calm the rebellion, but Timon, despite the bribes of the Senate, refuses and tells the senators to hang themselves on the tree by his cave.
The senators finally give in to Alcibiades and give him his enemies and Timon’s former companions. Alcibiades proclaims this as a victory and promises to withdraw from Athens and make peace. At this moment, the Senators and Alcibiades are informed that Timon has died alone in his cave.
So, what are we, as an audience or reader, meant to learn from Timon’s tragic story? The most glaringly obvious lesson is to beware of one’s friends, select members of your closest circle wisely, and be sure of their characters or risk being betrayed, in times of need, by ‘fair-weather friends’. Shakespeare has given out this warning a few times in various plays, most notably, ‘Hamlet’:
The above quote comes from Polonius, the father of Laertes and Ophelia. He gives this advice to Laertes as he sets off to University abroad. Although Polonius is often portrayed and perceived to be a stuffy old fool, the advice he gives to Laertes, although long-winded, is sound and valuable. The advice states that one should try one’s friend’s loyalty, and if they show themselves to be loyal and worthy, then hold them close to one’s self; do not entertain every person as if they were your closest and dearest friend. It would have been very useful for Timon to have had Polonius as his father!
The speech in ‘Hamlet’ elucidates the wisdom that is lacking in Timon’s story – Timon does not test his friends’ loyalty yet he holds these friends very dear to him, showering them with gifts and plaudits despite them not actually doing anything to deserve such rewards. So, we can learn that we must be careful of friendship, but I am interested as to whether there is an implicit moral bond between people when a supposed ‘friendship’ is established. After all, Timon never made his ‘friends’ sign a contract establishing that they must come to his aid when needed. Indeed, his supposed friends capitalise on the informal foundations of the relationship between themselves and Timon by turning their backs on him.
Friendship is also not a determined state – there is not one moment where a bond between persons is established to have strengthened enough to be worth of being dubbed a ‘friendship’. Hence, the state of being in a supposed friendship is not enough to warrant moral obligation. Perhaps, there is an argument to be made that individuals, regardless of being ‘friends’ or not, have a moral obligation to assist others where possible by virtue of the other being a human. This conjures some idea of humanity having a moral obligation to itself. However, it seems bizarre to think that I might have a moral obligation to assist my enemy just because he is human; rather, my desire is to hurt him, not to aid. I note that I am deviating from Timon and his specific story, so I will not go into any more detail, but I would certainly encourage further discussion on whether humanity has a moral duty to help itself and those under its name.
An aforementioned quote by Flavius provides us with the next moment in Timon’s story to ponder over. Flavius says that it is strange when, ‘man’s worst sin is, he does too much good!’. Timon’s tragic tale throws up another tickling query: can too much good, be bad?
One might think that too much of something is bad, things should be had in moderation (whatever one might deem ‘moderate’ to be). However, such ‘something’ is typically a negative thing, or something with very negative implications should it be had in excess. Examples that spring to the fore are junk food, cigarettes, or video games. One doughnut, or one cigarette, or an hour of video games, won’t kill or damage your health too much. However, if everyday, you consume a baker’s dozen, five packs of Marlboro Gold, and six hours of gaming, then it will be quite detrimental to your health.
One is often told regularly that one is under consuming things that are normally good. For example one should eat more fruit and vegetables, drink more water, or take more exercise. Therefore, our minds perhaps to do not link positive activities or goods with over consumption: we do not think that we can have too much of a good thing. This could not be farther from the truth – if you over consume water (roughly six litres worth in a short span) you can die from water intoxication, if you eat nothing but celery, your body will begin to waste away due to a lack of protein and nutrition, and so on. It is clear too much of anything can harm someone.
Now, does this idea translate to actions, more specifically morally weighted actions? Instead of talking about doughnuts and celery, we can replace these foodstuffs with morally good (which I am dubbing ‘virtuous’) actions, and morally bad (which I am dubbing ‘evil’) actions.
Let us pick a typically virtuous action (I won’t go into what is deemed virtuous or evil as this is a whole new can of worms – suffice it to say I will go with intuition or what is the social norm), for example, telling the truth (being honest in action and word). Now extrapolate this to a situation where this occurs at the highest frequency – one always tells the truth. Is this now bad?
Well, if it was left to such thinkers like Kant, who indeed did believe that one must always, no matter the circumstance, tell the truth, then one would say that no, it is not bad. If one always tells the truth, then one is incapable of deception and keeps one’s dignity intact. This not only is good for the one who is honest, but good for others, as they cannot be deceived and hurt by dishonesty.
However, some might argue that always being honest is bad. If one is always honest, then one cannot defend one’s self from one’s enemy – for all the enemy would have to do would be to enquire into one’s thoughts and he could outmanoeuvre one and attain victory (do a quick Google search for the counterexample of the ‘axe murderer’ to Kant).
Furthermore, if one is always honest, tactfulness could be lost. ‘White lies’ are often used to shield individuals from awkward, rude, or otherwise negative situations – the lie is ‘white’ as it is seen as pure; a lie that does not harm and is done out of good intention. Now individuals will, and have, debated this subject for millennia, but one can observe, at the very least, that there is a debate to be had as to whether moral codes are, or should be, absolute. Hence, there is room to think that doing ‘too much’ good, can indeed, be bad.
Let us consider Timon’s case: Timon’s virtuousness is his generosity, and his virtuous action is giving to his friends (I, naturally, for the purposes of this article, assume such generosity as typically virtuous). In the story, his virtuousness is taken to its extreme – he always gives to his friends. The result of this, is that Timon goes bankrupt; his friends do not help his insolvency, and Timon is cast out to the woods to die. It certainly appears that his virtuous action has turned Timon’s life sour.
One can see that it is perhaps the case that Timon’s virtue of generosity was misplaced. He was generous to the wrong kind of people, and so doing too much good, unwittingly, for the wrong people or situation, caused bad effects on Timon. Hence, one might determine that yes, it is possible to do too much good, and such goodness creates reflexive suffering.
However, one might argue that the action itself is not marred, and nor is Timon. Giving freely to one’s friends is still a virtuous action, even if those friends would not reciprocate, and Timon is still a virtuous person for doing so. The result that Timon is abandoned and exiled does not impinge on the virtuousness of Timon’s prior behaviour. One might determine, therefore, that virtuous action is good in itself, but does not necessarily determine good consequences.
In my view, Timon’s bitterness is a reaction to the above statement. His misanthropy comes from a place of expectation. Timon expects that his good action and good will should be returned by humanity. After all, if one was good to humanity, why should it have cause to be evil back? However, what Timon does not acknowledge is that there is no karmic force in the universe, and whether or not someone acts out virtuousness or evilness there is no guarantee that what will come to affect one is of the same quality of which was given out (that is to say good actions are not necessarily rewarded with good effects on the subject). Indeed, Plato, via Socrates’ character, in the dialogue, ‘Phaedo’, argues the same: ‘misanthropy develops when without art one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable […] and when it happens to someone often […] he ends up […] hating everyone’ (Stern & Plato, 1993).
Then perhaps the lesson to be learned is slightly less obvious than what was once observed, but is simple nonetheless: do not hold great expectations of humanity, or the world – such expectations will invariably mean you are overwhelmed by bathos and disappointment. Now, this might seem like a dour and sullen conclusion, but it should actually be quite cheery.
What this advice should evoke is an element of nonchalance and frivolity in one’s life: do not spend so much time worrying or hoping, it is best to get on with your life and do the best you can. If you spend your time hoping for the best, or believing that goodness in the world is certain, then you will be let down and betrayed. Likewise, do not be such an ardent pessimist that you believe the world is awful, hateful and always out to get you – like misanthropic Timon; the world is not so tragic, and even Timon had his chance for redemption, but was so addicted to his hate of humanity, he spurned the opportunity.
The message here is to tread a line between the two states of believing wholly in the goodness of the world, and believing wholly in the evilness of the world. The world is in fact both, but it can succeed in letting you down because you believe that you know its moral nature. And even if, on the off chance, you happen to guess its nature correctly – its still better not to care, dodge the chance that you could be let down, and simply tiptoe through the tulips. Be the Timon who gives generously, and be the Timon who spurns the Senators, but whatever you do, do not get stuck on your own dogmas like an old Timon of Athens.
- Shakespeare, W., Middleton, T., Dawson, A. B., & Minton, G. E. (2008). Timon of Athens.
- Stern, Paul (1993). Socratic Rationalism and Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Phaedo. SUNY Press. p. 94.