Hume, Smith, Rawls, Nietzsche and Heroic Virtues

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture, not just link to picture!

Image above is of the Panthéon in France, commemorating republican heroes.

In my last post, I discussed John Rawls on time, but with reference to ethics in David Hume and Adam Smith. One thing we get from David Hume and Adam Smith is an anti-heroic attitude to ethics. They respect the civic virtues suitable for a law governed society of property and cultivation of sensibility. In both his ethics and in his History of England, Hume refers very critically to Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the parliamentary armies in the Civil War between crown and parliament. Cromwell became ‘Lord Protector’ and the effective autocrat of England, Scotland and Ireland. Hume criticises his autocracy, but the criticism is also of the idea of a hero in general and a hero having a political role, and Hume criticises ‘heroic’ virtues like pride which he regards as asocial. Both Hume and Smith associated heroism with earlier peoples lacking in law and culture.

Rawls looks like the heir of Smith and Hume when he criticises Nietszsche in A Theory of Justice, § 50. ‘The Principle of Perfection’. He associates Nietzsche with an extreme and dangerous form of moral perfectionism. Moral perfectionism refers to the wish to follow the highest possible model of excellence in achievement. We might regard it as in contradiction with the spirit of democratic equality, though some democratic theorists now, Like Martha Nussbaum, see it as democratic, and in American history religious and ethical-philosophical (Transcendentalist) perfectionism has been linked with democratic ideas. Rawls chooses to emphasise the anti-democratic aspect and associate it with Nietzsche, who certainly does sometimes say that a society is justified by its greatest members.

Even taking perfectionism in an elitist way, as drawing attention to the example of the greatest individuals, how anti-democratic should we take that idea to be? The democracy of Ancient élites certainly emphasised heroism as an aristocratic attribute, but maybe that only refers to the aristocratic ‘democracy’ which needs to define the superiority of its members over the masses. Even so, aristocratic heroism in the stories of ancient aristocratic republican heroes like Cicero and Marcus Brutus (the leading writer against Julius Caesar and the leading assassin of Caesar), influenced 18th century democratic movements. Certainly Rousseau, a very egalitarian thinker admired antique heroes as much as believers in aristocratic constitutionalism. It was this kind of thing that Hume reacted against in his criticisms of Cromwell and elsewhere.

As we see above, France now and ever since 1791, has held remains of the official heroes of the nation in the Panthéon. This is a way of recognising an élite and the greatness of its members, exemplars for a democratic and republican people. The name itself refers to a Roman temple for the gods, so the Parisian building could be said to hold the gods of a secular republican nation. This is not something unique to French republicanism which is often contrasted with a supposedly less statist American republicanism. The United States has Mount Rushmore for four great presidents carved into a mountainside, the Lincoln Memorial for the emancipator-martyr Abraham Lincoln. Turning to Germany, on 20th July I put the case for remembering Claus von Stauffenberg as a hero. Returning to French style Republicanism, but in Turkey, Kemal Atatürk’s remains are housed in a mausoleum in the Anıtkabir complex, overlooking Ankara, Back in Britain, Oliver Cromwell is commemorated by an equestrina statue outside the Houses of Parliament, This not an anachronism as lazy commentators sometimes assume, it is recognition of the constructive role that Cromwell played in developing the British state, which did become a parliamentary within a few decades of his death. I discussed the liberal historian Macaulay on 6th July, and he certainly had that view of Cromwell though he was no advocate of Cromwell’s autocracy.

I believe that liberal and democratic thinking needs to deal with many of Nietzsche’s concerns, though we cannot say that Nietzsche is an advocate of liberal democracy, something I will return to in a later post. Whatever we might think about Nietzsche’s relation to liberal democracy, his references to a radical perfectionism are not in themselves against the spirit of democracy. Liberal democrats require exemplars, models, a personification of the ideal, they require heroes, A hero is not someone of the kind of modest virtues generally admired by Smith and Hume, but a society which is liberal and democratic, property owning and cultured, needs heroes. After all Smith and Hume are heroes for some, if people praise ‘modest’ virtues in Smith and Hume, they still praise exceptional greatness in such virtues, and heroic struggle with opposition to their ideas. Hume had himself apotheosised in the mausoleum, which I provide a picture of in my post of 12th July.

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