Illustrated portrait of Martha C. Nussbaum
(Illustration by Marta Zafra)
Martha C. Nussbaum

Questions for the legal scholar, philosopher, and public intellectual.

What surprising job have you had in the past?

Actress in a repertory theater.

What would you want to be doing if not teaching?

Writing!! Which, of course, I do already.

What do you hate that everyone else loves?

Loud noise in restaurants that makes conversation impossible.

What do you love that everyone else hates?

Opera, a great passion; I guess most people are just indifferent, but some do hate it.

What was the last book you finished?

Nora Nickum, Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest.

What was the last book you recommended to a friend?

Nickum’s book again; also Patrick Mackie, Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces.

What was the last book you put down before you finished it?

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s History of a Town: clearly a wonderful satire, but I don’t know enough Russian history to get most of the jokes. But since a young relative of mine is writing a dissertation on him, I needed to get partway into it in order to talk about his project.

What book—or other work or idea—do you relish teaching?

I love the ideas most, but as exemplified in courses of many kinds and texts of many kinds.

What book changed your life?

There are so many, but perhaps I’ll say the tragedies of Euripides.

What person, alive or dead, would you want to write your life story?

I don’t see why any good writer would do that. They should write about their own lives. Actually, a Japanese philosopher did write mine, an intellectual biography; but I had to make her rewrite it completely because she assumed that as a woman, I must have had a life of unhappiness and struggle. But I am a very happy person. I felt she was talking about her own professional struggle.

What’s your least useful talent?

Answering many emails very rapidly—because it has gotten widely known, so students from dozens of countries write me for advice. It multiplies distractions.

Who was your best teacher, and why?

My high school French teacher, Marthe Melchior, a tiny woman whose passion for literature and philosophy was contagious until the day she died. My best friend and I started a French drama society to act classic plays in French, and she then urged us to write our own plays. Mine was about Robespierre and the French Revolution. The last time I saw her, at a reunion when she was around 90, she said, “Vous voyez, Martha: je suis encore jacobine.

Tell us the best piece of advice you’ve received—or the worst.

Best: don’t become a professional actress, use your intellectual gifts instead. But I had to find out for myself.

What advice would you give to a brand-new Maroon?

Try out many things and pursue what you love. Don’t worry about jobs. Your four years are groundwork for your entire life, so the humanities should play a large role.

What UChicago classroom moment will you never forget?

A seminar two years ago in which a group of gifted law and philosophy students gave me the most amazing critical comments on a book on animal rights, now published with much thanks to them.