Kierkegaard on the Limits of the State II: Religion to Politics

The last post looked at Kierkegaard’s highly critical views of the state church in Denmark to establish his negative view of the idea of a Christian nation or a state led church. Carrying on from the points more addressed to Christianity to those points more addressed to the nature of the state, Kierkegaard is strongly condemnatory of the employment of 1 000 clerics by the state.  I can’t see any basis for that figure which is presumably at least as much used for its symbolic convenience as for its reference to the actual number of priests funded by Danish tax payers. The claim is made, going beyond church issues alone, that 1000 poets employed by the state would not be good for poetry. The comparison between poets and priests is particularly signifiant for Kierkegaard who was strongly concerned with the relation between the aesthetic and the religious. The decision to compare priests and poets is suggestive of an assumption that while religion might be higher than aesthetics, it is not the abolition of the aesthetic, and the religious point of view is always confronted with the kind of subjectivity that appears in poetry, and is necessary to poetry. There is a general suggestion that the state has a killing effect on areas in which it becomes involved. This applies most directly to the poetic and religious as what has the most individualising appeal. The importance of individuation runs throughout Kierkegaard. To some vey significant degree, Kierkegaard’s arguments for Christianity include the idea that this is the only, or certainly best, way of becoming an individual in the strongest sense, though it only does by placing extreme demands on individuality.

These considerations on the negative effects of the state being present in poetry and religion, might still leave a lot of possibilities for a large and interventionist state. There is little in Kierkegaard to suggest that he thought in that way though. He gave large amounts to charity, and though he did not demand an end to any state role in maintaining the income of the poorest, he does not demand more such activity from the state either. He does compare the church with law courts, without any suggestion that the state should withdraw from the provision of a criminal justice system, or any aspect of administrative and civil law covered by state courts at that time. There seems to be an implicit distinction between what belongs to the state and what belongs to civil society, particularly with regard to the interaction of subjective individuality within civil society.

State sponsorship of Christianity produces the wrong kind of Christianity,  which is not that of the development of individuality, and that is the implicit fear about a generally extended role for the state. The argument is not then oriented to the growth of commercial life, or even the security of individual rights, which classical liberalism  argued would be enhanced by an appropriately limited state. However, the idea of a general strengthening of personality and growth of culture (the ideas of growth and culture are of course closely linked in basis), was part of such arguments in Humboldt, Hume and Smith. Kierkegaard can be seen as radicalising those arguments, so that the growth of the most inner driven aspects of cultural expression, of the forms of communication most obviously caught in a tension between subjectivity and communication, is what is enhanced by the limitation of the state. We might looks for some precedent in Kant’s discuss ion of the sublime and the beautiful as part of subjective reflective judgement.

Ideas of state form are not very important to Kierkegaard, or not in any direct way, but we can see some engagement with that question. Kierkegaard’s default seems to be preference for a strong monarchy, even an absolute monarchy, but he does at times acknowledge that the relations between ruler and ruled need to change, suggesting a recognition of consent, and evolution in how that consent is given, as necessary to political life. Eve n revolution sometimes gets a favourable thought as a way in which individuals try to find the kind of absolute political unity, provided by absolute monarchy. Not that Kierkegaard ever advocated any form of government unlimited by law and custom. Monarchy he sees as something to be separate from religion, removing a pillar of the Danish monarchy, and of monarchy in general.  He has an attachment to Copenhagen as a world in itself, which is often just part of the background, as in his repeated use of the tension between the duty to go to church, and to visit the Deer Park, then as now a major feature of the city. Sometimes a deep sense of belonging to Copenhagen as the kind of community where the individual can belong emerges. Looking for an implicit political theory in Kierkegaard, we can see a limited monarchy and strong communities at more local level, presumably incorporating forms of city or local self government.

Kierkegaard on the Limits of the State I: Religious Background

This is based on a reading of polemical  texts from the end of Kierkegaard’s life (he died on the 11th November 1855) collected in the Princeton University Press volume The Moment and Late Writings (1998). This is from work in progress on Kierkegaard and political community, but won’t necessarily appear later in anything like its present for. I have found it necessary to write at least two posts, this one deals with some of Kierkegaard’s attitudes towards Christianity and why he got into debate with leaders of the Danish state church. The second will look at how those criticisms of Bishops, and of the state church clergy, have political aspects.

Kierkegaard’s position on the relation between state and church is a strong attack on state involvement in religion, and a remarkably radical attack when we consider that e belonged to a Lutheran tradition in Denmark, and elsewhere, which assumed that state authority would be in charge of the church. Similar remarks apply to the relationship between nation and religion, while remembering that the nation is not the state in Kierkegaard’s discussion. He is much more concerned with religion than with politics, but a lot of politics comes up with regard to national identity, state power and the nature of individuality. Kierkegaard partly expresses his views on religion, and connected political themes, through an attack on the head of the Danish church (beneath the monarch), Jacob Mynster and his successor Hans Martensen. Kierkegaard had some personal contact with Bishop Mynster and Mynster had been a minister to Kierkegaard’s father. Mynster was also a kindly mild mannered individual and Kierkegaard avoided public criticism before his death in 1854. Martensen was a prominent philosopher-theologian of the time, with a European reputation, and possessed of a much more aggressive personality.

A conflict began between Kierkegaard and Martensen with regard to Mynster, who Martensen described on his death a witness to truth. Kierkegaard condemned and ridiculed such a description, which he thought could only be properly applied to those who suffered, invited suffering and embraced it, in order to explain Christian truth, but most significantly to show that Christianity is about the truth of something higher than worldly life by despising it. Kierkegaard believed that Mynster while deserving of respect as a person had made no attempt at all to witness truth other than the words used in preaching. Martensen accused Kierkegaard of trying to reserve the term ‘witness to truth’ for martyrs who had died, probably through torture, for refusing to renounce Christianity. Kierkegaard’s clarification was that witnessing did not require martyrdom, but it did require renunciation of worldly comfort. Despite his own intellectual claims, Martensen could not respond to Kierkegaard except in rather personal and dismissive terms, which did not show any comprehension of the depth of Kierkegaard’s thought.  The personal aspects of this are intensified if we remember that Kierkegaard’s older brother Michael was a Minister in the state church, and that Kierkegaard attacked the whole idea of a state clergy.

Kierkegaard himself was qualified to be a minister and sometimes preached in church, writing sermons which shows his intellectual and literary gifts, though in manner aimed at the general church congregation. He lived as an independent scholar on his inheritance, which was apparently running out at the time of his death. He lived in firmly middle class style, which might make you wonder about his attack on any idea that Mynster was a ‘witness to truth’. Of course Kierkegaard  made no claim to be a witness of this kind, but it is likely that he believed that he was closer to such a state than Mynster of Martensen. Both Mybster and Martensen married, and Martensen remarried after becoming widowed, though he had argued in print that the ideal for a Christian is to be married only once, even if the marriage is ended by the death of the other person. This kind of failure to live up to even one’s own words on the life of a Christian, was deplorable for Kierkegaard. He had renounced the possibility of marriage to his fiancée, though he had the deepest of feelings for her, and though he lived as a scholar rather than as preacher bereft of worldly goods, it was a life of scholarly asceticism. Though Kierkegaard was sociable away from him, his home life was completely private, and he spent most of his time at home, writing obsessively and constantly, with little concern for routine or comforts. Writing was a religious practice for Kierkegaard, and though many of the texts, particularly those best known to later philosophers claim to be written from the point of view of someone lacking Christian faith, they all added up to a complete life time project of explaining and encouraging Christianity, using a vast array of voices, styles, genres and argument, to convince readers of the value and truth of Christianity, and to feel some sense in their passions of the passions which move a Christian.

Adam Smith on Colonialism and Republicanism, Antique and Modern. Paris Talk III (Final Part)

We should think of Smith’s work on colonialism and empire as including relations between England, Scotland and Ireland, and relations between the Anglo parts of Ireland and Scotland, and the rest. This is largely an implicit issue,  though he does have a lot to say about the injustice of not allowing equal trade terms to Ireland with Great Britain. Smith is silent on what he thinks about the Jacobite Uprising and the means used to put it down. It seems reasonable to assume that Smith preferred the Hanoverian cause to the Jacobite cause, the latter at least symbolically linked to a return to the more absolutist model of monarchy preceding the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Did he approve of the harsh measures used to crush the social basis of Jacobitism after Culloden? That seems at odds with his general emphasis on justice in the state and sympathy in ethics, but maybe he did see some violence against savages/barbarians as necessary to the emergence and preservation of civil and commercial society. He was deeply aware of the fate of ancient states based on some measure of liberty and commercial life, and their defeat by more barbaric peoples, as in the domination of the Greece of free republics by the Macedonian monarchy or the defeat of the Roman Empire in the west by barbarians. He sometimes seems deeply pessimistic about the survival chances of liberty and commercial society in the modern world, for example having a rather exaggerated view of the triumphs of Louis XIV, the model of absolutist monarchy, over the republican and commercial Dutch Republic. He also shows great pessimism about the prospect of republics progressing in liberty for all, suggesting that it is a republic of the greatest liberty for its citizens that is most unlikely to extend rights to non-citizens. He fears that slavery will never be abolished, partly because the freest republics, like the American colonies will be unwilling to emancipate slaves. Their system of liberty is embedded in the political economy of slavery, so how is it possible to hope the citizens benefitting from that system will take it apart? He looks at the Roman Republic in the same light, though oddly does not refer to the amelioration in the conditions of slaves during the Empire. Sometimes Smith seems caught up in a pessimistic acceptance of a Ferguson or Vico style of cyclical history in which savagery or barbarism (the divine and heroic ages in Vico) will keep returning, which may also reflect a fear that ethical and civil progress means a loss of natural strength.

The American colonies appear to be a model for the future, as a repetition of the Greek colonial system, if Britain grants the colonies independence as Smith hopes. However, that proposed birth of perfected liberty in American republics incorporates both a the slavery which Smith fears persists the more republican liberty exists, and the liberty in the American wilderness which cannot be incorporated into republican or any ‘natural’ system of of liberty. Colonisation of the New World produces a model of pure political absolutism and economic robbery in the Spanish Americas, and a model of liberty so pure it collapses in the British Americas. That fear that American liberty could be torn between despotism over salves and extreme disaggregation of individuals in the wilderness might explain some of Smith’s silence about the dark side of monarchical-republican liberty in Britain, as if that was the best that could be hope for, rather than the experiment in pure liberty that Smith hopes for and fears in the Americas.

Smith hopes for an end to colonialism, though as with other hopes, in a manner tinged with pessimism. He argues that Britain would benefit from giving up the colonies, so saving itself the expense of providing external security and the broader economic costs of distorted trade. Despite the historical precedents he identifies in the Ancient Greek model of relationship, between parental republic and descendent republics, he seems to despair of the possibility of a voluntary termination of colonialism. The advantages of free trade and friendship based on voluntary association between states may never outweigh the narrow self-interests behind mercantilism. The unspoken issue, is should the crown and the real source of power in the semi-republican oligarchy, not only give up overseas colonies, but also Ireland  and Scotland, or maybe just the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles and the Gaelic parts of Ireland along with the Welsh speaking parts of Wales? Smith envisages a European ‘Empire’, by which he means a free trading confederacy, maybe with some shared form of representative government. The trade element would bring great economic benefits, and some kind of shared representative government is Smith’s ideal model for overseas colonies. The lack of the representative principle in antiquity made republican government impossible in the imperial stage of the Roman Republic and the fully Imperial stage of the Roman state. The political and moral decline of the Roman Republic, after the imperial expansion associated with victory over the Carthaginian republic, was an issue in the late republic, in Renaissance republicanism and in the European Enlightenment thought of Montesquieu and Rousseau. This is presumably in the background of Smith’s thoughts about modern empire. The two approaches to modern empire, dissolving it or establishing a confederation through representative government is never fully presented as an option, though it is mentioned as what the Romans lacked. The implications for the three core kingdoms of the British monarchy (England, Scotland and Ireland) are not fully explored, or at least the issue of coercion in the interests of crown and mercantilist oligarchy is not dealt with perhaps because in some respects Smith believed in the justice of a coercive civilising state, an impression confirmed by his doubts about pure republicanism.

Adam Smith on Colonialism and Republicanism, Antique and Modern. Paris Talk II

The completely anti-republican nature of the negative models of colonialism is matched by the purity of the republican forms of the positive forms of republicanism, which are Greek and British in north America. The British in North America model even presents a kind of liberty beyond republican liberty. Smith refers to the solitary freedom of the settler in the vast open spaces of North America. This is a liberty unconstrained by government and laws, republican or otherwise. Forms of liberty outside republicanism as understood by Greeks and Romans was understood by them and referred to with reference to barbarians, or even in philosophical limit situations like the god or animal Aristotle thinks of outside the republic (polis). Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers themselves had ways of thinking about this with reference to the savage and barbarian stages of human history, which contain a kind of liberty of natural force not found in civilisation and which threatens civilisation. We can find this discussion in Hume as well as in Smith, and most richly in Ferguson’s History of Civil Society.

We can see these analyses at the background of Tocqueville’s understanding of the United States in Democracy in America, where the liberty of the ‘Indians’ is an important counterpoint to the growth of commercial and political liberty amongst whites, particularly in the non-slave states. The bondage of African-Americans in the slave states providing another counterpoint round despotic social relations, and the possibility of unlimited force erupting between whites and blacks in a race war.

In Smith, in an area of tension he shares with other Enlightenment thinkers, the isolated liberty of an individual in the wilderness, has an intensity of natural liberty lacking in the natural liberty Smith discerns in civilised commercial states and which he wishes to improve. The idea of natural liberty itself leads Smith into concerns about what can go wrong with trying to make natural liberty too  systematic and perfect. The idea of the isolated settler in the wilderness of North America presents another extreme aspect of liberty, where it disappears in the sense that Smith and others generally use it, of the liberty obtaining in a community under law.

The way that Tocqueville used the Enlightenment historical stages to analyse the America of the 1830s, should itself remind us of the way that Smith, Hume and Ferguson were referring to distinctions within Britain and Ireland. The formation of their thought coincides with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, which largely ended with the victory of Hanoverian forces at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Charles Edward Stuart drew on support from clans in the Gaelic speaking islands and mountains of Scotland, where different laws, customs and authority structures prevailed in comparison to the Scots speaking lowlands. The Hanoverian victory in defence of the settlement of 1688 did not end of all those differences, which traditional landowners in the Highlands using a feudal style of authority over peasants well into the 19th century, but a major state offensive took place against the self-governing Gaelic communities on the north and west of the Highland line. Crown authority became complete beyond the line, with suppression of distinctive language, dress and custom to create subjects of the crown rather than of Highland chiefs. Before and after the crushing of the 1745 Uprising, social conditions in the Scottish islands and mountains could be defined as barbaric or even savage in relation to the Enlightenment centres of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, or Smith’s home town, the commercial centre of Kirkcaldy. A similar way of thinking could be applied to the Gaelic speaking rural parts of Ireland in relation to Dublin, the English speaking aristocracy, and the Presbyterians of Ulster, who made their own contribution to Scottish Enlightenment through Frances Hutcheson. These are crude distinctions, and Edmund Burke for one would not fit clearly into the category of Protestant upper class cosmopolitan remote from Catholic peasant culture. Many other qualifications can and should be made to distinctions between civilised English speaking moderate Protestant Enlightenment Britain and Ireland, and the ‘barbarian’ or ‘savage’ opposites. Nevertheless, there is some reality to them, enough to push Smith and others in the direction of a savage-barbarian-civil and commercial society understanding of history, where the civil and commercial communities are perpetually at risk from being overwhelmed by the natural strength of the less civil and commercial communities.

(to be continued)

Adam Smith on Colonialism and Republicanism, Antique and Modern. Paris Talk I

First of several posts of the parts of a paper presented at the conference Scotland, Europe and Empire in the Age of Adam Smith and Beyond on 4th July 2013, in the Guizot Ampitheatre of the University of Paris IV: Paris-Sorbonne. The conference was hosted by the Centre Roland Mousnier. It was organised by the Eighteenth Century Scottish Studies Society and the International Adam Smith Society.

Smith’s account of colonialism is in some dimensions an account of republicanism, differentiating between Greek, Roman, and modern models. The Greek model is one of overseas colonies that are independent of the original republic though tied to it by family type relations. The Roman model is one of the extension of the territory of the original republic, so that it is a case of that republic expanding in size rather than founding new republics in a loose family. In both cases, colonialism is a way of dealing with population that appears excessive in relation to the resources of the home republic. The modern model, or that aspect which Smith draws attention to, is the overseas commercial empire where colonies are largely founded to further mercantilist schemes which aim, if misguidedly, for the economic benefits of the home state. Modern colonialism is often undertaken by states of a monarchical character rather than a republican character, but the issues of a republic, and associated concerns with liberty and government by consent of the people arise, even in the most monarchical colonising powers. Smith does not present a clear commitment to republicanism as a principle of government, and certainly does not deny the legitimacy of monarchical governments, or deny the possibility of progress in liberty and prosperity under a monarchy. Nevertheless, there is a preference for republicanism, if more as an underlying assumption than an explicitly argued claim. The preference for republicanism emerges most clearly in his account of modern colonialism, since  it is here that the destructive effects of monarchy and of the political power of economic elites (what was classically known as oligarchy) are most clear to the people so governed.

The account of colonialism in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is itself part of an account of mercantilism, which is the product of monarchical and oligarchic distortions of government, which try to reserve economic benefits for the politically privileged parts of the community. Mercantilism in international commerce and colonialism itself has levels of injustice combined with economically self-destructive action. The worst is the Spanish (and Portuguese) colonisation of South and Central America, a form of direct grasping of economic resources by the crown in the colonising country, with economically destructive effects all round except for the crown and those closest to it. The monarchical colonisation of what is now known as Latin America.

The best is the British colonisation of north America, which has allowed the formation of self-governing republics with no hereditary aristocracy, as Smith emphasises with considerable republican enthusiasm (though as we shall see there is a critical aspect in his attitude), and a relatively good deal with regard to trade rights, compared with the inhabitants of India under the domination of the East India Company. Smith certainly deplores the restrictions on trade that Britain imposed on its American colonies, but notes that the terms were more favourable to the colonies exempting them from tariffs imposed on goods imported into Britain from outside the Empire. Danish colonial activities in the Americas are held up as a counter example of the bad that results from restricting the imports and exports of colonies. Smith does not say so, but was presumably aware that Denmark was an absolutist monarchy at that time, and so has a point to make in comparing a republican leaning monarchy as in Britain with a more pure example of monarchy. .

Somewhere the absolutist and republican models of colonialism, there are the regulated companies and the joint stock companies. Regulated companies, like one for trade with ‘Turkey’ (the Ottoman lands) are recognised by the state, have monopolistic power and are dominated by the self-interest of individual traders in the company who are rarely concerned with the good of the company as a whole, which is essentially an aggregate of individual interests licensed by the state. Joint stock companies (not really understood as what we largely think of as joint stock companies now) pool the risks and benefits for individual traders and so are dominated by the common economic good of the enterprise. These work more like states than the regulated companies, and in Smith’s time the East India Company was administering a large part of India, as a kind of junior partner state, or sub-state, of the British state, a situation which prevailed until the mid 19th century. The joint stock company is a more effective economic unit than the regulated company, but is in that case all the more complicit with the injustices and economic disadvantages of mercantilist colonialism. The joint stock companies subject colonised peoples to an alien government which is not concerned with their interests, but with the interests of investors in the home country.