As Tony Tanner notes in his Introduction to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, the play presents us with a succession of extremes.
Timon begins as a civic demigod, feasting the senators and lords of ancient Athens with an apparently bottomless bounty. When his wealth runs out, the feasting turns into fasting, and Timon is shocked to find that his friends profess themselves unable to assist him. Denouncing humanity as a whole, he flees the city and lives like a beast, calling down plagues upon his fellow man.
As Tanner observes, Timon’s generosity and malice are equally “indiscriminate.”
The philosopher Apemantus tries to explain to Timon that the kind of “friends” one buys with jewels and bacchanalia cannot be expected to stick with you in hard times. Timon concedes his error, but never recognizes the nature of wisdom.
As Plato’s Socrates teaches, wisdom demands that we measure the goodness of things according to their place within the order of reality. When buying shoes, the wise man seeks not the largest or most expensive pair, but one that fits best. Likewise, the wise doctor prescribes no more or less medicine than is needed to cure the disease.
As for the virtue of generosity, a true friend gives gifts thoughtfully chosen to benefit his companion, not to buy his praise with extravagant pleasures.
Timon castigates his betrayers for worshipping the god of gold, but he does not grasp in what sense “the desire of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).
When we regard money as a means of doing good, our desire for it is moderated by a subjection to objective criteria. When instead we pursue money as an end in itself, moderation has no basis. Divorced from the order of things, desire leads to excess, which results in evil.
Neither Timon, nor the city he curses, succeeds at understanding the wisdom of moderation. That is why this darkly comic play ends in tragedy.
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