Cropsey became the primary Straussian interpreter of Smith. In 1963, he was the co-editor with Strauss of History of Political Philosophy, for which Cropsey wrote the chapter on Smith. In 1976, he wrote another paper on Smith for the bicentennial of the publication of The Wealth of Nations. In 2001, a revised version of Polity and Economy was published by St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, Indiana), which reprinted the original book and added the two later papers as two new chapters.
As a graduate student studying with Cropsey in the 1970s, I wondered about his interpretation of Smith. But it is only in recent years, that I have begun to understand Cropsey's handling of Smith and how it fits into the Straussian story of the "crisis of liberalism." I have become increasingly skeptical about the Straussian denigration of classical liberalism; and as I compare what Cropsey says about Smith with my own reading of Smith, I find Smithian liberalism far more defensible than Cropsey and the Straussians are willing to admit. A big part of my thinking is that I have come to see an intellectual tradition of biological naturalism in moral and political philosophy that links Aristotle, Smith, and Darwin in a way that is ignored by the Straussians.
The revised version of Polity and Economy falls into two parts that contradict one another. In the first part--the original book of 1957 and the book chapter of 1963--Cropsey presents an Aristotelian attack on Smith for proposing commerce as a poor substitute for virtue and excellence. In the second part--the paper composed in 1976--Cropsey presents a Kantian attack on Smith for failing to see the incoherence of "natural liberty" and the need for a Kantian realm of freedom that transcends the realm of nature. I will take up each of these two parts and indicate the dubious character of the reasoning in each.
THE ARISTOTELIAN ATTACK ON SMITH'S COMMERCIAL SOCIETY
Early in The Wealth of Nations, Smith identifies his position as a defense of a "commercial society."
"When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man's wants which the produce of his own labour can supply. He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society" (37).Cropsey identifies this "commercial society" as the system of "liberal commerce" or "liberal capitalism," and he identifies the primary alternative as the system of "authoritative virtue" (PE, xi). According to Cropsey, the system of liberal commerce is Hobbesian in being based on the desire for self-preservation as the defining feature of human nature in contrast to the Aristotelian principle that human beings are by nature political animals. For Aristotle, the end of political life is to promote moral and intellectual virtue; but for Smith, commerce takes the place of virtue.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explicitly rejects Hobbes's teaching (315-18); and he affirms that he agrees with Aristotle's moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics (269-73). Remarkably, Cropsey is completely silent about this in his book. Presumably, Cropsey must have thought that Smith was mistaken about this, but Cropsey never explains this. Later in his book, Cropsey does contradict his claim about Smith as a Hobbesian by acknowledging that Smith actually departed from the Hobbesian reduction of human nature to self-preservation and affirmed the natural sociality of human beings (PE, 124, 128, 147).
Cropsey says that dying for noble causes shows that human desires go beyond self-preservation. "If the end were living well or nobly, nothing would be easier to imagine than a conflict between the requirements of preservation and the requirements of man's end. The death in battle of every courageous soldier, and the self-sacrifice of all those who have died for high causes, testify to this fact of human life" (PE, 116). Oddly, Cropsey is silent about the fact that Smith says the same thing--that heroism in war shows how a sense of duty and honor overcomes the desire for self-preservation (TMS, 116, 138-39, 191-92).
If Cropsey is right that Smith's "liberal commerce" rejects "authoritative virtue," then we must wonder, what exactly is meant by "authoritative virtue"? Cropsey says that "Smith rejects fear of the prince as the principle of virtuous society," because this threatens liberty, security, and justice (PE 42). "Before Smith's epoch," Cropsey explains, "it was a settled principle of political life and philosophy that fear of the prince and fear of power invisible were alike indispensable to common life" (PE, 100). Cropsey's only evidence for this "settled principle" is a quotation from Tudor statesman Sir William Paget: "Society is a realm doth consist and is maintained by means of religion and law, and these two or one wanting, farewell all just society, government, justice." Smith's rejection of this "settled principle" was his "rejection of the virtuous society" and his affirmation of commerce as a substitute for virtue (PE, 110).
Is it true that Aristotle believed that "fear of the prince and fear of power invisible" were the only way to make virtue authoritative? It is true that at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests that for many people swayed by irrational passions, the coercive force of law might be the only way to habituate them to virtue. But he also indicates that except for Sparta, almost no other political community has paid attention to the instilling of virtue through legal coercion, and consequently most moral education is left up to parents in shaping the character of their children and to the unwritten customs of a community (1179b20-1180b10).
In Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a comprehensive account of the social and political formation of the virtues through "friendship" (philia), which for Aristotle is a general term for all kinds of social bonding in which human beings show some care for one another. Aristotle's "friendship" coincides with what Hume and Smith called "sympathy"--any kind of "fellow feeling" among human beings. Darwin adopted this idea of and made "sympathy" one of the fundamental themes in his evolutionary account of moral and political order. More recently, biologists and psychologists have used the word "empathy" in a way that largely corresponds to what Hume, Smith, and Darwin would call "sympathy," or what Aristotle would call "friendship." All agree with Aristotle that the various forms of friendly feeling or social bonding that unite human beings as individuals, as fellow citizens, and as members of the same species are originally rooted in the natural affection of parental care for offspring (NE, 1155a1-33, 1159a27-37, 1160b23-62a29). "In the household, are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of polity, and of justice" (Eudemian Ethics, 1242b1-2).
Smith's commercial liberalism coincides most closely with Aristotle's teaching about friendship and philosophy in Books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, which is one section of Aristotle's writing that shows his propensity to liberalism, while also showing many references to his biology. The liberal character of Aristotle's social anthropology here becomes clear as soon as one notices how Aristotle presents social order as arising spontaneously in the natural and voluntary associations of society (see, for example, 1159b25-1160a30).
Smith follows in this tradition of Aristotelian liberalism by arguing for a biological emergence of social order from the natural instincts of human beings as social animals (TMS, 28, 77-78, 86-87, 142, 219-34; Lectures on Jurisprudence, 141-43, 163-67). While legal coercion is required to enforce the negative rights of justice to be free from unfair injury, the other moral duties are enforced through social praise and blame and the spontaneous order of civil society (TMS, 85-86; LJ, 7-9).
Smith also follows Aristotle in looking to the friendship of philosophers as the peak of human happiness that embraces all of the moral and intellectual virtues. The life of a Platonic or Aristotelian philosopher "necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues" (TMS, 216). The friendship of such philosophers is the highest form of friendship that is possible only among men of the highest virtue (TMS, 224-25). Remarkably, Cropsey does not see how this contradicts his claim that The Theory of Moral Sentiments "contains literally nothing on the subject of intellectual virtue" (PE, 50). Similarly, Cropsey says nothing about how Smith in The Wealth of Nations stresses the importance of philosophy as produced by the division of labor in the most civilized societies, in which one sees "philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is, not to do any thing, but to observe every thing" (WN, 21).
The Theory of Moral Sentiments is full of observations about friendship (see, for example, 16-17, 22-23, 32-33, 38-43, 120-25, 129, 150, 174, 219-26, 256, 328). Surprisingly, Cropsey is completely silent about this. His only reference to friendship in his book is his identification of Hume as Smith's "senior friend and compatriot" (PE, 120). And yet Cropsey says nothing about the prominence that Smith gave to his friendship with Hume, particularly in his famous letter to William Strahan describing the magnanimity and cheerfulness of Hume in facing his own death while conversing with his friends. In this published letter, Smith dramatically imitated the last sentence of Plato's Phaedo by declaring that Hume had approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit" (Correspondence, 221). Thus, Smith showed how the opulence and liberty of a commercial society would provide philosophers like Hume and himself with the intellectual commerce, the individual liberty, and the leisured independence necessary for living a philosophic life with their friends. Cropsey ignores all of this because it contradicts his argument that there is no place for the intellectual virtues of philosophy in Smith's commercial society.
The intellectual friendship of Smith and Hume arose in a dense social network of friends who met regularly in social clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Smith was a leading member of the Philosophical Society and the Select Society of Edinburgh that meet weekly for discussions of ideas in philosophy, science, and the other liberal arts. Smith was also an active member of the Political Economy Club of Glasgow and the Oyster Club of Edinburgh. These clubs brought together university teachers, clergymen, lawyers, judges, and merchants. These same people came together for public lecture series. Smith gained his first public notoriety from his long series of public lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence from 1748 to 1751 that he delivered in Edinburgh at the invitation of Henry Home, Lord Kames, a prominent judge who was influential in shaping the intellectual life of Edinburgh. This intellectual commerce in Scotland was also manifested in the publication of journals like the Edinburgh Review (1755-56) and many books. Because of this intellectual activity, Edinburgh became known as the "Athens of the North." Cropsey says nothing about this.
According to Cropsey, Smith's commercial society denies the importance not only of intellectual virtue but also moral virtue. Cropsey does recognize that Smith relies on social approbation and disapprobation to enforce moral norms. Moreover, in small communities, such as religious groups, "the citizens' conduct is regulated by their constant mutual surveillance" (PE, 95). But, apparently, Cropsey believes that this cannot enforce "authoritative virtue," which depends upon the coercive force of law working through "the fear of the prince and fear of power invisible."
Here we see the fundamental issue in the debate over commercial liberalism. A commercial liberal like Smith separates the coercive force of government as directed to securing liberty from the natural and voluntary associations of society as directed to securing virtue. But for Cropsey, virtue can only be secured through the coercive force of a Spartan government.
In his original book on Smith, Cropsey argued that Smith's commercial society was designed to secure freedom but not virtue. In his book chapter of 1963, however, Cropsey changed his mind and argued that Smith wanted to secure both freedom and virtue:
"When it is borne in mind that Smith's teaching aims at the articulation of morality and preservation, and that the practical fruits of his doctrine are intended to be gathered by emancipating men, under mild government, to seek their happiness freely according to their individual desires, the accomplishment as a whole demands great respect. The reconciliation of the private good and the common good by the medium not of coercion but of freedom, on a basis of moral duty, had perhaps never been seen before" (PE, 129).Apparently, however, Cropsey thinks this liberal combination of freedom and virtue is impossible. He also thinks it is incoherent in its assumption that freedom within nature is possible, which is his Kantian criticism of Smith.
THE KANTIAN ATTACK ON SMITH'S NATURAL LIBERTY
In his Wealth of Nations, Smith identifies his position as "the system of natural liberty" (687). In 1976, Cropsey lectured on "The Invisible Hand: Moral and Political Considerations," which became the last chapter of his revised book on Smith. Here he criticized Smith for failing to recognize Immanuel Kant's insight that "natural liberty" is an incoherent idea, because nature and freedom are contradictory, and therefore freedom of the will must belong to a realm of freedom that transcends the realm of nature. Smith does not see this because he assumes, along with Hume, that moral freedom is part of human nature, and that human nature is part of nature as a whole. Consequently, for Smith and Hume, the science of moral and political philosophy is a natural science. According to Cropsey, this is wrong, because it fails to recognize Kant's point that for freedom of the will to be possible, it must be "outside the causal chain of natural necessity" (PE, 155). The moral freedom of human beings must be "outside nature" (PE, 156).
If our moral choices are expressions of our natural desires, then those choices are not truly free choices because they are determined by our desires. To be free, our moral reason must be able to grasp moral truth as a cosmic truth about the universe that does not depend on our natural human desires.
By embracing this Kantian dualistic metaphysics of morals, Cropsey moves from Aristotle to Kant. For Aristotle, "thought by itself moves nothing." Deliberate choice (proairesis) must combine reason and desire: it is either rational desire or desiring reason (NE, 1139a35-39b7). Children and other animals are capable of voluntary action. But only mature human adults have the cognitive capacity for deliberate choice. For Aristotle, being morally responsible is not being free of one's natural desires. Rather, to be responsible, one must organize and manage one's desires through habituation and reflection to conform to some conception of a whole life well lived. To do this, one must act deliberately in the present in the light of one's past experiences and future expectations. One must do this to attain happiness, which is the ultimate end of all human action. If "free will" means acting as an uncaused cause, acting outside the natural order of the world, then Aristotle has no conception of "free will" as understood by Kant. In all of this, Aristotle would agree with Hume, Smith, and Darwin (see my Darwinian Natural Right, 69-87).
There are lots of problems with Kant's metaphysical morality. One of them is that he identifies nature in a reductionistic way as mere mechanism, as what Cropsey calls "the motion of lifeless matter according to mere laws of physics" (PE, 165). If this is nature, then there surely cannot be any freedom within nature. But if nature includes the emergent evolution of life with higher levels of organization that cannot be fully reduced to the laws of physics, then living nature can show the freedom of animal voluntary movement and of human deliberate choice (as indicated in Aristotle's The Movement of Animals).
That Smith does not understand the "nature" in "natural liberty" as a deterministic mechanism of absolute necessity should be clear from the fact that he believes that "natural liberty" has been generally violated by the policies of Europe. In some cases, the "natural order of things" has been "entirely inverted." Even Smith himself recommends certain governmental regulations of banking, although this would be a "manifest violation of natural liberty" (WN, 116, 157, 324, 376-80, 530). If "natural liberty" can be violated by human institutions, then human nature cannot be understood as a deterministic mechanism governed by the laws of physics. Smith admits that far from being a necessity of nature, his "system of natural liberty" is actually utopian, because it contradicts the natural selfishness of merchants and manufacturers who use their power to promote policies that restrict competition (WN, 157-58, 266-67, 471, 584, 647-48).
Another problem is that Kant's metaphysical dualism is implausible. To most of us, the idea of a realm of noumenal freedom transcending the realm of phenomenal nature is hard to believe as anything other than an imaginary creation. Even Cropsey suggests this: "Superfluously to raise the question of man's bondage to nature has effects that go beyond the theoretical. It either prepares the way for despair: there is no escape from the absolutely comprehensive and equally tyrannical grip of the natural All; or it compels men to find, which probably means invent, an enclave inside or a platform outside nature in the form of a state of the consciousness or the will, by which in spirit man will elevate himself to freedom in a sense most elusive" (PE, 165-66). So is the Kantian realm of freedom an invention? Earlier in his book, Cropsey claims that "Smith understood science to be human invention, as distinct from discovery," and Cropsey sees this as a good ground for criticizing Smith (PE, 51).
Perhaps because of this thought that Kantian dualistic metaphysics is a mere invention of Kant's imagination, Cropsey later, in the 1980s, turned away from Kant to Heidegger. This Heideggerian turn is evident in his Heideggerian interpretation of Plato in his book Plato's World. Embracing Heidegger's idea that the being of human being understood as Dasein is defined as "care" (Sorge), Cropsey read Plato as teaching that human beings care about their existence within an uncaring world of nature and without any divinity to care for them.
This Heideggerian turn in Cropsey's thought shows a problem in the Straussian story of political philosophy. On the one hand, Strauss and the Straussians have generally argued that the ancient conception of natural right is based on a cosmic teleology of nature that is denied by modern liberalism. On the other hand, they have also intimated--as their secret teaching?--that the ancient political philosophers did not really believe in a cosmic teleology as anything other than a noble lie.
Although Smith sometimes invokes a cosmic teleology guided by the "Author of Nature," there are lots of reasons to believe that this is a rhetorical gesture to escape the charge of infidelity, and that his moral and political philosophy is grounded in an immanent teleology of human nature rather than a cosmic teleology of Divine design.
Many of my points here have been elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.