Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Nussbaum on Kant’s Intellectual Debt to Roman Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius, Immanuel Kant, Cicero, Seneca
In Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant offers a profound defense of cosmopolitan values. The word “cosmopolitan” occurs frequently in this essay and in Kant’s other political writings. Martha C. Nussbaum, in her essay, “Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism,” notes that although Kant’s cosmopolitanism is overtly based on a tradition which belongs to the eighteenth-century, the tradition itself and Kant’s own approach to it is saturated with ideas of Greek and especially Roman Stoicism.

Here’s an excerpt from Nussbaum’s essay:
We may also recognize Stoic ideas as formative in the Second Critique, whose famous conclusion concerning the mind’s awe before the starry sky above and the moral law within closely echoes the imagery of Seneca’s Letter 41, expressing awe before the divinity of reason within us. We see a particularly important reference to Stoic ideas of world citizenship in the Anthropologie, where Kant—apparently following Marcus [Aurelius], or at least writing in the spirit of Marcus—insists that we owe it to other human beings to try to understand their ways of thinking, since only that attitude is consistent with seeing oneself as a “citizen of the world” (Anthropologie, 2). And we can see these core notions of humanity and world citizenship as formative in the political writings as well, above all in the Perpetual Peace.  
As do Marcus and Cicero, Kant stresses that the community of all human beings in reason entails a common participation in law (ius), and, by our very rational existence, a common participation in a virtual polity, a cosmopolis that has an implicit structure of claims and obligations regardless of whether or not there is an actual political organization in place to promote and vindicate these. When he refers to “the idea of a cosmopolitan law,” and assets that this law is “a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international law” (Perpetual Peace 108), he is following very closely the lines of analysis traced by Cicero and Marcus. So too when he insists on the organic interconnectedness of all our actions: “The peoples of the earth have thus entered in varying degrees into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of laws in one part of the world is felt everywhere” (Perpetual Peace 107-8). 
When we reach the detail of Kant’s political proposals, the debt to Cicero’s De Officiis is, as in the Groundwork, intimate and striking. Kant’s discussion of the relationship between morality and politics in the first Appendix follows closely Cicero’s discussions of the relation between morality and expediency. Both thinkers insist on the supreme importance of justice in the conduct of political life, giving similar reasons for their denial that morality should ever be weighed against expediency. There are close parallels between the two thinkers’ discussion of the hospitality right and between their extremely stringent accounts of proper moral conduct during wartime, and especially justice to the enemy… 
Nussbaum is of the view that Kant, under the influence of Stoic ideas, has developed a political theory which can lead to peace. She writes: “Kant, more influentially than any other Enlightenment thinker, defended a politics based upon reason rather than patriotism or group sentiment, a politics that was truly universal rather than communitarian, a politics that was active, reformist and optimistic, rather than given to contemplating the horrors, or waiting for the call of Being.” But she asserts that that Kant’s cosmopolitan ideas cannot triumph in USA, because the country is indifferent to cosmopolitan goals. She says that Kant (and Cicero and Marcus Aurelius) would be disappointed at the political culture of modern America.

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