Monday, August 22, 2016

The Philosophic Life in Smith's Commercial Society: Strauss, Cropsey, and McCloskey

Although Joseph Cropsey and Deirdre McCloskey contradict one another in their interpretations of Adam Smith, they apparently agree that there is no place for the intellectual virtues of philosophy in Smith's commercial society.  Cropsey argues that for Smith commerce is a substitute for virtue, and in particular Smith says "literally nothing on the subject of intellectual virtue" (Polity and Economy, 50), which shows how Smith turns away from Aristotelian virtue to Hobbesian hedonism.  On the contrary, McCloskey argues that Smith rejected Hobbesian hedonism and affirmed Aristotelian virtue ethics.  And yet McCloskey is silent about whether Smith's virtues include the intellectual virtues of philosophy.

The issue here is more than just a scholarly disagreement over the interpretation of Smith.  It's the question of whether there is any place for the philosophic life in a modern commercial bourgeois society.  As a student and colleague of Leo Strauss, Cropsey embraced Strauss's claim that while the Ancients (particularly Plato and Aristotle) saw the supremacy of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life for those few human beings capable of it, the Moderns (including Smith) promote the low hedonism of a liberal society devoted to comfortable self-preservation that does not allow for the human excellence of the philosophic life.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Cropsey completely ignores Smith's argument that the contemplative life of the philosophic few flourishes only in commercial societies (see, for example, The Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund, 782-84).  McCloskey does not include the intellectual virtues of philosophy in her list of virtues, although she does speak about the arts and sciences as belonging to the virtues of transcendence that can be expressed in a bourgeois society.  Neither Cropsey nor McCloskey give any attention to Smith's emphasis on the importance of philosophic friendship in a commercial society.

Cropsey's interpretation of Smith seems hardly plausible if one notices that Smith defends the "wise and virtuous man" as the standard of moral and intellectual perfection as manifested in the life of philosophic friends (TMS, VI.i.14, 216; VI.ii.I.18, 224-25; VI.iii.23-25, 247-48).  He observes that the division of labor in a commercial society allows for the intellectual commerce of philosophers "whose trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe everything" (WN, I.i.9, 21). Smith presents the life of David Hume as showing how a commercial society provides the conditions for the philosophic life--a life that in Hume's case approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit" (Letter to Strahan, Nov. 9, 1776, CAS, 221).

This language echoes the end of Plato's Phaedo. Describing the death of Socrates, Phaedo observes: "Such was the end of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whome we have known, the best and wisest and most just man" (118a).  Thus, Smith is suggesting that Hume showed how a Socratic life of philosophic inquiry is possible in a modern commercial society, just as Socrates lived his philosophic life in the commercial society of Athens.  (I have elaborated these points in a previous post.)

Smith follows Aristotle in looking to philosophical friendship 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.  It is the best head joined to the best heart. It is the most perfect wisdom combined with the most perfect virtue" (TMS, VI.i.15, 216).  The friendship of such philosophers is the highest form of friendship that is possible only among people of the highest virtue (TMS, VI.ii.I.18, 224-25).

McCloskey's account of Smith's virtue ethics is silent, however, about philosophic virtue.  Although she puts Smith in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, she says nothing about the Aristotelian and Thomistic argument that the contemplative life of intellectual virtue is higher than the practical life of moral virtue.  As far as I have noticed, McCloskey mentions the intellectual virtues only once in her trilogy of books on the Bourgeois Era, and this comes only through her quoting from Thomas Aquinas: "The intellectual and moral virtues perfect the human intellect and appetite in proportion to human nature, but the theological virtues do so supernaturally" (quoted at The Bourgeois Virtues, 151).  She does not refer to Aquinas's argument in agreement with Aristotle that the intellectual virtues of the contemplative life are more excellent than the moral virtues of the active life (see Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 182. a. 1).

McCloskey does seem to suggest an opening for the philosophic life in a commercial society insofar as a liberal bourgeois regime allows a free marketplace of ideas as part of the "open society" (BE, 562-63).  Strauss and the Straussians would seem to say that this is impossible, because any stable society must be a "closed society" based on common opinions that are protected from philosophic questioning.  That's why philosophers must write esoterically to protect society from philosophy and to protect philosophers from social attack. 

And yet, as I have indicated in earlier posts here, here, here, here, and here, Straussians like Arthur Melzer suggest that since 1800 esoteric writing has been rendered largely unnecessary in modern liberal societies, where pluralist toleration allows for a freedom of discussion.  If so, then it would seem that the Straussians have to agree with McCloskey that the Bourgeois Era has successfully brought an open society in which the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life can flourish without persecution, which vindicates the truth of modern liberal enlightenment.

No comments: