Martha Nussbaum respects the Cynic-Stoic tradition—but she’s ready to correct it

Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. (Wikimedia)

In their chart-topping 1985 hit “We Built This City,” Starship imagines the human community as a town founded on a principle of harmonious love. “We built this city!” the band sings. “We built this city—on rock ’n’ roll!” This life-giving citadel replaces a sin-filled world, where “knee deep in hoopla, sinking in your fight/ we got too many runaways eating up the night.” Fortunately, the song prophesies, we all have rock ’n’ roll inside us.

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Idealby Martha Nussbaum

Belknap Press, 320p $27.95

In her brilliant new book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Martha Nussbaum argues for an even more thrilling vision: the whole biosphere conceived and treated as a “cosmic city,” in which humans carefully do their part to ensure that the capabilities of all creatures can be activated as much as possible. In this aspirational community, each individual is afforded the resources she or he needs for flourishing by the commons. The individual is owed this grant, in Nussbaum’s view, not because of her ability for moral reasoning, as in Stoic ethics, but because of her sentience—the very fact of her ability to flourish. 

In abandoning the Stoic privileging of the moral intellect for a concept of rights flowing from sentience, Nussbaum is able to make the case her own conscience dictates: an argument for full inclusion in the community of rights for nonhuman animals and mentally disabled humans. The rights of the mentally disabled and of animals are neglected by the Stoic moral view, Nussbaum submits, because animals and many mentally disabled humans cannot engage in formal moral reasoning. “The gates of the cosmic city,” Nussbaum writes, “must be open to all.”

Nussbaum’s core concern is determining precisely what features are required, at a minimum, for a truly just social order at the local and international levels.

Nussbaum is widely regarded as one of the most important modern English-language philosophers and is currently serving as the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. The Cosmopolitan Tradition proves that her reputation is well deserved. It enriches liberal political theory with a vision at once spiritual, practical and deeply reverent toward the sweep of the philosophical tradition, from ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance and Enlightenment. 

The book will be of interest to Catholic readers for several reasons, not least among them the longstanding Catholic interest in Nussbaum’s core concern: determining precisely what features are required, at a minimum, for a truly just social order at the local and international levels. Nussbaum is a Reform Jew. True to the best in her own faith tradition, she argues for a “rationalist” public ethics in which people of all religions and of none can feel genuinely respected. “Among the Christian faiths, Roman Catholicism has a profound rationalist aspect, and typically values secular moral philosophy very highly,” Nussbaum writes. “Respecting one’s fellow citizens means respecting their choice to live their lives in their own way, by their own doctrines, so long as they do not invade the basic rights of others.” 

The book’s central argument is that the ancient Cynic-Stoic ideal of a “cosmic city”—a global community of universal human concern—is in need of deep rethinking and expansion. Diogenes the Cynic was apparently the first philosopher to call himself “cosmopolitan,” or a “citizen of the world.” The word represented a powerful rejection of the still-common idea that the wise person ought to see rank, local geographic area and gender as markers of her true community and identity. Nussbaum is inspired by Diogenes’s bold anticlassism. But she also argues that there have been flaws in the cosmopolitan vision from the start.

Nussbaum takes pains in her refutation of (and building on) the Stoics, because the Stoics did much to found the cosmopolitan vision after Diogenes. (Christians who accept the much-debated view that the letters of Paul are shaped by a critical engagement with Stoicism will find much to relish in Nussbaum’s richly nuanced discussion.) The “flaws” in the Stoics’ philosophical work must be corrected, Nussbaum argues, in order to neutralize the serious stumbling blocks they put in our way to global justice. One such trap is the Stoics’ neglect of the need for material aid, including redistribution of wealth. Simultaneously, Nussbaum argues against much foreign aid policy as currently organized because of that system’s widespread corruption. She prefers democratic international development, permitting nations to amass their own wealth for distribution pursuant to their own citizens’ plans and values. 

To see the Catholic moral tradition deployed to such profound effect by a non-Catholic philosopher gives hope that a true “overlapping consensus” can be developed about the things that matter most.

Another flaw that Nussbaum corrects in Stoic cosmopolitanism is the tradition’s deep-seated mistrust of emotion, and thus of humans’ normal instincts. Nussbaum argues that the Stoic view of emotion amounts to a shallow and dehumanizing psychology. While not a focus of The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum’s philosophy of emotion has been a key concern of her career. In Upheavals of Thought (2003), Nussbaum affirms the Stoic argument that emotion is a form of cognitive appraisal, while rejecting the related Stoic position that passion-based choices are necessarily irrational. In so doing, Nussbaum makes room for what she herself passionately recommends: decision-making based on generosity.

From a Catholic perspective, it is worth noting that Nussbaum is in step here with St. Thomas Aquinas, amplifying Aquinas’s own core view of emotion (without mentioning Aquinas). “Passions are not called ‘diseases’ or ‘disturbances’ of the soul,” Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae, “save when they are not controlled by reason.” Aquinas is explicitly refuting the Stoics with an argument that passion is, at least in many cases, a fruit of the Spirit. A few lines before, Aquinas quotes from Augustine’s City of God to clarify the nature of reason, “controller” of the heart: “All these emotions are right in those whose love is rightly placed.”

Nussbaum goes even further than Thomas in defending emotion: For her, passions are not merely controlled by reason, but often are reason, and thus indistinguishable from right judgment itself—emotional generosity being a key example. Nussbaum and Thomas agree that the Stoic language of “disease” in relation to passion misses a beautiful truth. This expansion of the ideas of the Angelic Doctor is only implicit (Nussbaum does not refer to Aquinas), but it is important as an example of the fruitful conversation to which she invites the theologically inclined reader.

A theologian Nussbaum does explicitly cite, and in a fascinating way, is Jacques Maritain. Drawing particularly on Maritain’s The Rights of Man and Natural Law (1943), Nussbaum proposes that “the reason for not including your own religious ideas in a political doctrine that involves other people who don’t share your religion is not skepticism or frivolity, it is respect.” When Jacques Maritain “proposes ‘dignity’ as a way of capturing, in secular ethical terms, what he as a Christian would mean by ‘soul,’ he was expressing the core values of the Cynic-Stoic tradition.” 

To see the Catholic moral tradition deployed to such profound effect by a non-Catholic philosopher gives hope that a true “overlapping consensus” can be developed about the things that matter most. Nussbaum thus inspires her readers to honor the spiritual music, or dignity, in all creatures—so that we too might help throw open the city’s gates.

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Todd Witherell
9 months ago

An excellent piece. Well done! I have not read the book yet, but this review makes me want to go get it. The entire biosphere as a cosmic city filled with spiritual music, dignity for all creatures, and the spirit of rock n' roll. Yes, indeed!

arthur mccaffrey
8 months 3 weeks ago

a wee bit too much boasting about how Nussbaum is actually promoting a Catholic moral tradition . I hope I can read The Cosmopolitan Tradition and enjoy it on its own terms.


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