Adam Smith: Republicanism and Military Virtue

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Yesterday I looked at how Smith links the progress of commercial society, with all its virtues of education, culture, politeness etc., to the rise of guns used by professional armies. Reading on to An Inquiry into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations V.i.e, antique republican military virtues make a return in Adam Smith’s account of modern education. Smith thinks everyone should be educated to some degree, and this should be legally required, but with a multiplicity of providers. He’s very critical of the provision of education by schools and universities, which he argues is arranged to suit teachers not students. He prefers a more personal relationship between students and teachers, based on the availability of different instructors who have passed a public examination but are not employees of the state.

Smith’s model for this is education in Ancient Greece and Rome, particularly with regard to gymnastic and military instruction, both required for all citizens in the ancient republics, and linked with each other because as Smith has already pointed out, ancient warfare rests more on physical strength than war with guns.

At this point Smith is full of admiration for the military courage and capacities of the citizens of ancient republics. He compares this unfavourably with the spirit of modern militias (that is locally raised units of non-professional soldiers who are part-time outside a state of war). Smith has just explained approvingly how military spirit diminishes, and becomes more specialised, as societies move to commerce, prosperity and liberty.

There was an ambiguity in that I didn’t mention which is that Smith suggests the army chief and head of state should be the same, and that the army generals should be those associated with the head if states. This seems to justify early modern monarchical absolutism, which does rest on the idea that the king is the military chief in a very strong sense, and that his aristocracy provides the generals. It might just mean a return to ancient republicanism where military chiefs might be the main elected state official (e.g. Pericles in Athens), and holding a military post was a political honour.

The passage I’m currently considering pushes in the direction of ancient republicanism. Smith belongs with Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (which he often invokes), Wilhelm von Humboldt (in Limits of State Action) and Benjamin Constant in an ambiguity about ancient and modern virtues and liberties. In their different ways, all these ‘Classical Liberals’ are admiring of the freedom and virtue of ancient republics, driven by the struggle for life against nature, the struggle for the city in war, absolute respect for law, and the institutions and traditions of the city. Smith, for example, is very admiring of the importance the Romans gave to the keeping of oaths (Nietzsche suggests in Genealogy of Morals that human history is about breeding an animal that can keep promises). Smith, Montesquiue, Humboldt and Constant also regard the modern world as better than the ancient world in its individual freedoms and the growth of commerce, which reduces military spirit, respect for ancient customs, and love of the state. There are many deep ambiguities in all of them on these issues.

The one way we should definitely not approach this question, is to think the Classical Liberals can be defined as people who were only concerned with ‘negative’ or ‘modern’ liberties, that is of freedom from external constraints rather than freedom which comes from participation in a community, its politics, and civic values, including courage in war and willingness to die for the common good.

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