Martha Nussbaum, an accomplished classicist and prolific philosopher, begins The Cosmopolitan Tradition with a well-known anecdote about Diogenes the Cynic (taken, like most details about his life, from Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Eminent Philosophers). Scorning convention, Diogenes slept in a tub, wore rags, ate scraps, copulated and masturbated in public, and spoke his mind pungently and uninhibitedly. This behavior did not lack for admirers, even in high places. One day as he lounged in his tub, sunning himself, he was visited by Alexander of Macedon, then in the process of conquering the world. Looming over the philosopher, he said, “I am the great Alexander. Ask anything of me.” Without looking up, Diogenes replied, “Would you please get out of the light?”
Alexander was reportedly amused, and many subsequent generations have been mightily impressed. But it was not merely a clever retort. There was, Nussbaum contends, a core of principle to Diogenes’s answer. He thought (that is, Nussbaum thinks he thought: like Jesus and Buddha, Diogenes left no writings; all we know of his opinions comes from the writings of his Cynic and Stoic successors, Zeno, Chrysippus, and others) all that mattered, or should matter, to human beings are our most important capacities: moral reasoning and free choice. These are what make us human, what confer on us that inner dignity that is the human essence. Only what diminishes those capacities, turning the will away from single-minded pursuit of virtue—emotional attachments, ambitions, vanity, pleasure seeking, and other seductions—is evil. Hunger, pain, imprisonment, even enslavement do not turn the will from the Good and so cannot rob us of our moral dignity; nor can wealth, power, or fame enhance that dignity. As Nussbaum puts it, in a condensed statement of her overall argument:
Cynic/Stoic cosmopolitanism urges us to recognize the equal, and unconditional, worth of all human beings, a worth that the Stoics grounded in (practical) reason and moral capacity. Yet the founders of this tradition also introduce a problem with which the tradition has been wrestling ever since. For they think that, in order to treat people as having a dignity that life’s accidents cannot erode, they must scoff at money, rank, and power, saying that they are unnecessary for human flourishing. The dignity of moral capacity is complete in itself. Diogenes doesn’t need to ask Alexander for a decent living, citizenship, health care: all he needs to say is, “Get out of my light.” Moral personality is complete, and completely beautiful, without any external aids.
I … cast doubt on this idea, suggesting that human dignity requires support from the world in two different ways. First, dignity, even if unaffected by bad conditions, is insulted by them: the worth of human dignity demands something better, something like equal respect from both people and institutions. Second, in many respects the inner life of hope, emotion, and will can be affected by conditions beyond people’s control. To recognize this is essential if we want to appreciate the full importance of worldly conditions to human flourishing.
Diogenes stands at the beginning of the cosmopolitan tradition. But why is it called cosmopolitan? Nowadays the word means “urbane, sophisticated, worldly, cultivated, at home everywhere.” Diogenes the Dog—“cynic” comes from the Greek word for dog—was presumably not cosmopolitan in this sense. But when asked where he came from, he allegedly replied, “Kosmopolites,” as if to say “I’m a citizen of the cosmos,” or “My homeland is the universe.” In a world of city-states, Diogenes was announcing a new basis of political allegiance: not geography or class but, in Nussbaum’s statement of cosmopolitanism’s fundamental principle, “the equal, and unconditional, worth of all human beings, grounded in moral choice-capacity.”
The Greek Cynic philosophers were numerous but mainly important for giving rise to Stoicism, which greatly influenced the, in turn, enormously influential Cicero, as well as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. All took their inspiration from the Cynic and Stoic ideal of inner self-sufficiency, resting on virtuous behavior and self-command. This was a large step forward for moral philosophy. But Nussbaum identifies a serious problem with the cosmopolitan tradition, which she calls “the bifurcation” and to which she recurs throughout the book. The Cynics taught that if someone were fully in possession of his own soul, then no external deprivation or assault could affect him morally. Material welfare seemed of secondary rather than primary importance, and even liberty was not necessarily more favorable to self-command than bondage. But if the accidents of life—money, status, and power—could not, according to the Stoics, erode a person’s dignity, then why care about poverty, inequality, illiteracy, even slavery? For centuries philosophers in the cosmopolitan tradition—Cicero, Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Hugo Grotius, the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments—accepted this inference, with only occasional glimmers of humanity and common sense breaking in. The bifurcation was largely, if not quite completely, overcome much later, during the Scottish Enlightenment, and it is a large part of the story Nussbaum has to tell.
Nussbaum makes large claims for Cicero. The work she concentrates on, De Officiis, is, she claims—a little surprisingly—“perhaps the most influential book in the Western tradition of political philosophy” and “the foundation for much of modern international law, including both the law of war and human rights law.” “In general,” she writes, “Ciceronian duties of justice involve an idea of respect for humanity, of treating a human being like an end rather than a means.”
For Cicero, injustice violates a person’s dignity. Such violations include, in Nussbaum’s reckoning, physical assault, sexual assault, cruel punishments, torture, and takings of property. Duties of justice are strict and universal. By contrast, duties of material aid are weak, full of exceptions and qualifications. Cicero assures us that we need not draw too deeply on our own material resources to aid others. Clear priority goes to family and close friends, who have some right to depend on us. The republic deserves our strong support, but strangers and foreigners are mostly out of luck. The latter must be “great and lofty in soul, despising human things,” and should “seek nothing but what is morally good and appropriate, nor should he yield to any human being or any disturbance of mind or [ill] fortune.” This disjunction between the two kinds of duties is the legacy of Stoicism, the bifurcation at full strength.
The Stoic tradition lasted many centuries and still commands respect. But to a modern person, there is something very wrong about its relative discounting of material aid. Nussbaum spells it out:
People have long held that there are certain things that are so bad, so deforming of humanity, that we must go to great lengths to prevent them. Thus, with Cicero and Seneca, they hold that torture is an insult to humanity; and we now go further, rejecting slavery itself. But to deny people material aid seems to such people not in the same category at all. They do not feel that people are torturing or raping others when they deny them the things that they need in order to live—presumably because they do not think that these goods are in the same class. Humanity can shine out in a poor dwelling, and it can appear that human dignity has not been offended by the poverty itself. Poverty is just an external: it doesn’t cut to the core of humanity.
But of course it does. First of all, certain living conditions are an offense to humanity whether the person is inwardly altered by them or not. And, second, there is a considerable likelihood that the person will be affected by them. The human being is not like a block or a rock, but a body of flesh and blood that is made each day by its living conditions. Hope, desire, expectation, will—all these things are shaped by material surroundings. People can wonderfully rise above their conditions, but that does not mean that the conditions themselves are not important, shaping what they are able to do and to be.
The Cynics and Stoics claimed that the essential human capacity was morally informed choice, or the ability the identify and choose the Good. They understood what is obvious: that coercion—through torture, rape, etc.—impairs our autonomy or ability to freely choose. They did not understand what is less obvious: that deprivation—through hunger, ignorance, overwork—also impairs our autonomy. Therefore they strongly proscribed coercion but only weakly enjoined material aid. This difference is the bifurcation.
In recognizing the dependence of the will on external conditions as well as internal dispositions, surely we correct a philosophical error on the Stoics’ part. Still, I cannot help adding a slightly skeptical observation. The bifurcation Nussbaum identifies is indeed important and recurs throughout history. But is it based on a philosophical mistake, as she believes? Or are the duties of justice universal and strongly binding because even the rich and powerful are sometimes in need of justice, if only against other rich and powerful people; while the duties of material aid are not universal and are only weakly binding because only the poor and powerless need material aid? So also with the law of nations: if civil and political rights are, as she says, universally acknowledged, while social and economic ones are not, isn’t this because powerful nations are sometimes victims of aggression but are unlikely to be candidates for humanitarian aid? It is a fairly general rule: what the powerful need is defined as justice or the national interest, while what the powerless need—collective bargaining, minimum wage, free public education, universal health care—is only grudgingly written into law, if at all. Pace Socrates, “justice” is, all too often, the advantage of the stronger.
The cosmopolitan tradition—most notably in Cicero, Seneca, Zeno, and Marcus Aurelius—bequeathed us another enduring problem, Nussbaum argues: the problem of moral priorities. Because every person deserves to be treated with the respect due his equal worth, how can we justify treating those near and dear to us with a special benevolence, as nearly all of us do?
A few rare human beings may be able to have intense love and concern that is truly cosmopolitan (compatible with due respect for all human life and due attention to the just claims of all) and to live their lives with an awareness of the equal worth and the equal needs of all.
The rest of us, used to giving the needs of our intimates far greater weight than the needs of strangers, are likely to find this austere and abstract moral landscape barren and frightening. Fortunately, later thinkers in the tradition—Smith, especially— humanized it somewhat.
The seventeenth-century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius brought the cosmopolitan tradition to the theory of international law and morality. Before the seventeenth century, relations between states were regulated by the jus gentium, or law of peoples. The scholastic moral and political theorists did not emphasize individual rights. As a present-day Thomist writes,
It is true that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of certain rights, but these rights are species of the virtue of justice. They are in no manner similar to how [Thomas] Hobbes, [John] Locke, or later modernity will use the term rights [emphasis original].
Grotius introduced into the discussion of war and interstate commerce the central cosmopolitan concepts of respect for autonomous human nature as the source of political rights and of “the right of a people to give itself laws.” He was the first theorist to define political rights as inherent in human nature, rather than as a grant from God or a consequence of the individual’s corporate status, and to assert their validity even against the state. For this, Nussbaum observes, his writings “may justly be said to mark the dawning of the Enlightenment.”
Grotius’ humanism comes out in his doctrine of property ownership, which follows such church fathers as St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas in holding that “in the case of extreme need … the poor person actually owns the [rich person’s] property by right, and the holder does not.” Rich nations too are morally obliged to distribute their wealth to other nations in dire need.
His theory of humanitarian intervention was particularly influential. Before Grotius, there was not a well-developed or widely accepted conception of human rights, understood as abstract and universal rights belonging to all citizens, not flowing from rank, order, or any other corporate status, and not bestowed by the state but indeed immune from encroachment by the state. Grotius held that grave violations of the jus naturale, through enslavement or deprivation of religious freedom, for example, whether by sovereigns or freelancers—“pirates, general robbers, and enemies of the human race”—could trigger armed intervention by other states. This was perhaps the first conceptualization of humanitarian intervention, so central to the modern human rights movement.
The chapter on Adam Smith is the book’s longest and most rewarding. For one thing, it is a pleasure to read—one has to take on faith Nussbaum’s praise of the prose of Cicero and Grotius, while she liberally quotes Smith, who is a splendid prose stylist. More importantly, she persuasively reverses the conventional assessments of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The former is often assumed to be an unsentimental exposition of the superiority of free markets, as though Smith were an eighteenth-century Milton Friedman. The latter, because of its famous discussion of sympathy as one of the springs of moral action, has been taken to represent a kinder, gentler Smith. Matters are not so simple.
There are two conflicting strains in the Stoic tradition with which Smith strongly identifies. One of them emphasizes the equal, inalienable dignity of all persons, based on their capacities for reasoning and choice. Another strain prescribes self-command, a serene and austere acceptance of life’s accidents. It teaches that nothing external, but only our own weakness, can affect those capacities on which our dignity rests. Too much emphasis on the latter strain can lead to indifference toward the material deprivations that very often rule the lives of others—the bifurcation that is the chief failing of the cosmopolitan tradition.
The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s encyclopedic treatise on economic and social life in eighteenth-century Europe, has been famous since its publication for Smith’s advocacy of competition, free trade, the division of labor, and other fundamental features of capitalism. Less well known are his forceful defense of the rights of workingmen and his sharp criticism of the undue influence of employers over the legislature. He inveighs against mandatory apprenticeship, as well as parish registration, both of which restricted the freedom and mobility of young workers. He notes the hypocrisy involved in outlawing unions, as was common then and for a long while afterward:
The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combing to lower [wages], but many against combining to raise it.
And he ridicules the ignorance of legislatures who give manufacturers a favorable trade policy on the latter’s assurance that trade “enriches the country.”
But what is most striking, according to Nussbaum, is Smith’s insistence that fair wages, decent working conditions, collective bargaining, and an adequate system of public education are all owed to workers, as a matter of justice. Overwork, poverty, and hopelessness make a worker sick, shiftless, and stupid, no matter how virtuous he may be. He simply cannot achieve his human dignity under such conditions. This line of argument culminates in a long and famous passage:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging … His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society, this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
A fair chance at developing intellectual, social, and martial virtues is every worker’s right; in this sense, drudgery and overwork are unjust. Here the bifurcation—the neglect in the cosmopolitan tradition of the material conditions of spiritual well-being—is healed, and the tradition finds its noblest expression.
Curiously, Smith’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, contains virtually no echoes of this great insight. It expounds a classical Stoic, even Ciceronian, ethics, including a sharp demarcation between duties of justice and duties of beneficence and an affirmation of apatheia, the belief that nothing external, whether injury or lack, can affect a genuinely wise person. This seems in flat contradiction to the original and important insights of The Wealth of Nations about the ease with which harsh deprivations can extinguish a person’s dignity—insights largely foreign, Nussbaum contends, to the Stoic tradition. There is, she concludes, an unresolved tension between Smith’s humanity, so prominent in the one book, and the insensitivity that pervades the other.
Nussbaum is herself an influential theorist in the cosmopolitan tradition, and she concludes the book with a review of contemporary problems about which the tradition may have something helpful to say: pluralism, international law, foreign aid, immigration, and asylum. She sees only a moral function for international law, promulgating norms that nations may adopt or not. That may indeed be the best one can do today, though it is perhaps too much to say, as she does, that early proponents of international law were starry-eyed about its potential efficacy. In fact, the UN Charter, binding on its signatories, was well designed for keeping the peace and would have saved countless lives if the superpowers had only lived up to their obligations.
On foreign aid, Nussbaum shares the skepticism of economists William Easterly and Angus Deaton, who found that autocracy, corruption, paternalism, and ignorance of local conditions have made most foreign aid almost totally ineffective. And where it is effective, the result, allegedly, is dependency and lack of political initiative. This is doubtless often true, but I wish Nussbaum had also mentioned the many strong defenses of aid by Jeffrey Sachs and others.
The final problem, perhaps the knottiest and the most urgent, is immigration and asylum. The cosmopolitan tradition is particularly well adapted to address this problem, since its “basic insight is that respect for humanity requires us to furnish the basic wherewithal of human life, somehow, to those in desperate need.” If this can be done through humanitarian aid, with a minimum of disruption to both countries, it should be. But those who must leave, because of want or persecution, should be welcomed.
This is where things get knotty. How many of them should be welcomed? Not too many: it is reasonable to limit numbers “in accordance with skills and job opportunities” for the sake of economic stability, and to require that candidates for permanent residence understand and accept our political culture, that is, our constitution and laws. But not too few, either: we cannot try to “preserve national homogeneity” or “defend dominant national ethnic or religious traditions from the pluralism and challenge that immigration typically brings.” This is a little too general. Nussbaum’s argument might have been more persuasive if she had engaged with the defenders of homogeneity and national culture, who are not all xenophobes, or even acknowledged the existence of a controversy over whether immigrants lower wages, as many businessmen and aggrieved populists seem to believe.
Here and elsewhere in The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum is reluctant to descend from the philosophical plane to the empirical. In consequence, as a history of one strain of moral philosophy, the book is excellent; as a work of political theory or social criticism, less so. Perhaps these more local matters—historical, sociological, economic—seemed to her parochial rather than cosmopolitan.
- Martha Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 65. ↩
- Jerome Rodale, The Synonym Finder (Gordonsville: Rodale, 2016). ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 2. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 19. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 30. ↩
- “That,” she continues, “is the reason that Kant was so deeply influenced by this account.” She goes on to quote the Kant scholar Klaus Reich to the effect that a similar passage in De Officiis was the origin of Kant’s formula of universal law. Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 27. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 35. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 39. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 93. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 93–4. ↩
- Rafał Ovile, “4 Reasons Why Aquinas on Rights and Modern Individual Rights Are Very Different,” Gloria.tv, July 18, 2016. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 106. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 100. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 130. ↩
- Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Book II, chapter 20, section 40. ↩
- A major recent treatment of Smith, discussed by Nussbaum, is Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). See also “The Workingman’s Friend” in George Scialabba, For the Republic: Political Essays (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2013). ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 153–4. ↩
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book V, chapter 1. ↩
- E.g., Jeffrey Sachs, “The Case for Aid,” Foreign Policy, January 21, 2014. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 230. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 231. ↩
- Nussbaum, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, 231. ↩
Published on May 4, 2020 in Volume 5, Issue 2.
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