FNS 09: War and Liberty; Aristocracy and Liberalism

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

In my first post (three posts ago) on the Friedrich Nietzsche Society 2009 conference, I mentioned a point I made in the discussion after Brian Leiter’s presentation. I suppose this might be making a big deal out of a question, but I was dealing with some things I find important and have been working on for some time.

My point was in response to two claims from Leiter

Nietzsche links fighting in war with liberty, and no other philosopher has done so. Therefore Nietzsche cannot be linked with political liberalism.

Nietzsche attributes different moral worth to different kinds of individuals. Therefore Nietzsche cannot be linked with political liberalism.

My counter claims

Kant refers to war fought according to the laws of humanity as sublime in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The experience of the sublime is way, for Kant, in which we encounter out transcendental self which stands outside natural determinism. This is our free self. This itself connect with remarks in the Metaphysics of Morals about the positive freedom, with reference to a will to perfection in following moral law which goes above mere minimal obedience, and again refers to our freedom in the most perfectionist way of rising above mere impulse and determinism. This clearly connects with Kant’s view of politics as a kind of perfectionist liberal republicanism, that is citizens rise to the highest levels of human personality in respect for law, as the basis for freedom in a state based on political participation. It also feeds into discussions about the liberty of the moderns and ancients in Benjamin Constant, and Wilhelm von Humbldt’s discussion of positive and negative welfare, two great figures of liberalism. Humbold also linked war with liberty saying that power of the state was less dangerous to liberty in the Ancient Greek states because constant war enhanced independence and strength of character. This is in Humboldt’s great contribution to political philosophy, The Limits of State Action.

Various major liberal thinkers have not been purists with regard to moral equality between humans. Before Alexis de Tocqueville they mostly assumed that only the propertied classes should have political rights. Tocqueville accepted the inevitability, and desirability, of democracy but with reservations and thought it would require a new kind of aristocracy in the legal profession and political leaders. John Stuart Mill thought the educated should have more political rights and that backward peoples should have no political rights until educated to the necessary level. Mill even suggests that some people are just lacking in moral character, suggesting that universal education would not make everyone equal. In politics, William Ewart Gladstone, the great British Liberal Prime Minister, and symbol of democracy and liberty throughout Europe, explicitly believed in aristocracy in the political system rather than pure democracy. As Tocqueville pointed out, representative government under law tends to produce its own aristocracy in any case. These liberal thinkers were picking up, though also revising, ancient republicanism in Aristotle, Cicero, Tactitus etc, which was rooted in the belief that liberty required an aristocracy proud of its rights and national independence. This continued into early modern republicanism, and then fed into Classical Liberalism.

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.