The Restless Cosmopolitan
April 5, 2020                    

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal by Martha Nussbaum. Harvard University Press, 309 pages, $27.95.



Reviewed by George Scialabba



Martha Nussbaum begins The Cosmopolitan Tradition with a very famous (though possibly apocryphal) anecdote. Diogenes the Cynic, scorning convention, slept in a tub, wore rags, ate scraps, copulated and masturbated in public, and spoke his mind pungently and uninhibitedly. This ur-hippie behavior did not lack for admirers, even in high places. One day as he lounged in his tub, sunning himself, he was visited by Alexander of Macedon, then in the process of conquering the world. Looming over the philosopher, he said: "I am great Alexander. Ask anything of me." Without looking up, Diogenes replied: "Would you please stop blocking the sun?"

Alexander was reportedly amused, and many subsequent generations have been mightily impressed. But was it really such a clever thing to say - or better, since it was certainly clever, was it wise or generous? Why not "free your slaves" or "give land to the poor" or "humble the rich" or "leave the rest of the world alone"? With so many obvious better choices, it begins to seem morally obtuse of Diogenes to have, in effect, flipped Alexander the bird. Maybe he was, like some subsequent countercultural radicals, a bit of a poseur.

It is, of course, easy to second-guess at a distance of twenty-four centuries. And as Nussbaum shows, there was a core of principle to Diogenes' answer. He thought all that mattered, or should matter, to human beings are our most important capacities: moral reasoning and free choice. These are what make us human, what confer on us that inner dignity that is the human essence. Only what diminishes those capacities - emotional attachments, ambitions, vanity, pleasure-seeking - are evil. Hunger, pain, imprisonment, even enslavement do not, or need not, rob us of our inner dignity; nor can wealth, power, or fame enhance it. Alexander the Great had nothing to offer someone who believed all this.

Diogenes stands at the beginning of the cosmopolitan tradition. But why "cosmopolitan"? Nowadays the word means "urbane, sophisticated, worldly, cultivated, at home everywhere."[1] Dorothy Parker was cosmopolitan; so was Hannah Arendt. Diogenes the Dog ("cynic" comes from the Greek word for "dog") was presumably not cosmopolitan in this sense. But when asked where he came from, he allegedly replied: "Kosmopolites": "I'm a citizen of the cosmos," or "My homeland is the universe." The Greeks were not at all cosmopolitan in this sense: they were fiercely attached to their city-states; and within most of those, an aristocracy was fiercely attached to its privileges. Diogenes was announcing a new basis of political allegiance: not geography or class but "the equal, and unconditional, worth of all human beings, grounded in moral choice-capacity."[2]

The Greek Cynic philosophers were numerous but mainly important for giving rise to Stoicism, which greatly influenced the (in turn) enormously influential Cicero, as well as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. All took their inspiration from the Cynic/Stoic ideal of inner self-sufficiency, resting on virtuous behavior and self-command. This was a large step forward for moral philosophy. But Nussbaum identifies a serious problem with the cosmopolitan tradition, which she calls "the bifurcation" and to which she recurs throughout the book. The Cynics taught that if someone were fully in possession of her own soul, then no external deprivation or assault could harm her. Material welfare seemed of secondary rather than primary importance, and even liberty was not necessarily more favorable to self-command than bondage. But if the accidents of life - money, status, and power - cannot erode a person's inner dignity, why care about poverty, inequality, illiteracy, even slavery? For centuries philosophers in the cosmopolitan tradition accepted this inference (with occasional glimmers of humanity and common sense breaking in). The bifurcation was largely, if not quite completely, overcome much later, during the Scottish Enlightenment, but it is a large part of the story Nussbaum has to tell.

Nussbaum makes large claims for Cicero. The work she concentrates on, De Officiis (Of Duties), is "perhaps the most influential book in the Western tradition of political philosophy"[3] and "the foundation for much of modern international law, including both the law of war and human rights law."[4] For Cicero, justice is based on "an idea of respect for humanity, of treating a human being like an end rather than a means"[5] - the latter would mean violating that person's dignity. Such violations include, in Nussbaum's reckoning, physical assault, sexual assault, cruel punishments, torture, and takings of property. Duties of justice "are fully universal and impose strict, exceptionless obligations."[6] By contrast, duties of material aid are weak, full of exceptions and qualifications. Cicero assures us that we need not draw too deeply on our own material resources to aid others. Clear priority goes to family and close friends, who have some right to depend on us. The republic deserves our strong support, but strangers and foreigners are mostly out of luck. The reason is that the foreigner should be "great and lofty in soul, despising human things," and should "seek nothing but what is morally good and appropriate, nor should he yield to any human being or any disturbance of mind or [ill] fortune."[7] (Though why these admonitions should not apply equally to our family and friends Cicero does not explain.) This disjunction between the two kinds of duties is the legacy of Stoicism, the "bifurcation" at full strength.

The Stoic tradition lasted many centuries and still commands respect. But to a modern person, there is something very wrong with [CICERO'S] the above conclusion. Nussbaum spells it out:


People have long held that there are certain things that are so bad, so deforming of humanity, that we must go to great lengths to prevent them. Thus, with Cicero and Seneca, they hold that torture is an insult to humanity; and we now go further, rejecting slavery [as well]. But to deny people material aid seems to such people not in the same category at all. They do not feel that people are torturing or raping others when they deny them the things that they need in order to live - presumably because they do not think these goods are in the same class. Humanity can shine out in a poor dwelling, and it can appear that human dignity has not been offended by the poverty itself. Poverty is just an external: it doesn't cut to the core of humanity.


   But of course it does. First of all, certain living conditions are an  offense to humanity whether the person is inwardly altered by them or not. And, second, there is a considerable likelihood that the person will be affected by them. The human being is not like a block or a rock, but a body of flesh and blood that is made each day by its living conditions. Hope, desire, expectation, will - all these things are shaped by material surroundings. People can wonderfully rise above their conditions, but that does not mean that the conditions themselves are not important, shaping what they are able to do and to be. [8]



This is entirely persuasive - we are made and unmade each day, as she eloquently says, by circumstances, very much including material ones. In recognizing this, surely we correct an [A PHILOSOPHICAL] error on the Stoics' part. Still, I cannot help adding a slightly skeptical observation. The bifurcation Nussbaum identifies is indeed important and recurs throughout history. But is it based on a philosophical mistake, as she believes? Or are the duties of justice universal and strongly binding because even the rich and powerful are sometimes in need of justice, if only against other rich and powerful people; while the duties of material aid are not universal and are only weakly binding because only the poor and powerless need material aid? So also with the law of nations: if "civil and political" rights are, as she says, universally acknowledged, while "social and economic" ones are not, is this not because powerful nations are sometimes victims of aggression but are unlikely to be candidates for humanitarian aid? It's a fairly general rule: what the powerful need is defined as "justice" or "the national interest," while what the powerless need - collective bargaining, minimum wage, free public education, universal health care - is only grudgingly written into law, if at all. Pace Socrates, "justice" is, all too often, the advantage of the stronger.

The cosmopolitan tradition - most notably in Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius - bequeathed us another enduring problem, Nussbaum argues: the problem of moral priorities, or of how to apportion our beneficence. Because every person deserves to be treated with the respect due her "infinite and equal worth,"[9] how can we justify treating those near and dear to us with a special benevolence, as nearly all of us do? We can't justify it, of course; we simply can't do otherwise. "A few rare human beings may be able to have intense love and concern that is truly cosmopolitan (compatible with due respect for all human life and due attention to the just claims of all) and to live their lives with an awareness of the equal worth and the equal needs of all."[10] The rest of us are bound to find this austere and abstract moral landscape "a barren and frightening world."[11] Fortunately, later thinkers in the tradition - Adam Smith, especially - humanized it somewhat.

Another skeptical observation: the "infinite and equal worth of every human being" is one of those edifying and resonant phrases to which nearly everyone nods automatic assent. But do we - can we - really believe in it? The "equal" part is, as Nussbaum concedes, a practical and even a theoretical impossibility: it is no more possible for everyone to matter equally to us than it is for all objects in our visual field to appear at the same distance or (as long as our taste buds are intact) for all foods to taste the same. Our biological endowment sharply delimits our affections no less than our perceptions. And as for everyone's presumed "infinite" worth, Freud, who had some claim to know, famously wrote late in life to a close friend: "In the depths of my heart I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless."[12] A little jaundiced, perhaps, but a useful counterpoint to unworldly Stoic metaphysics.


The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) brought the cosmopolitan tradition to the theory of international law and morality. Before the 17th century, relations between states were regulated only by a rudimentary ius gentium, or law of peoples. There were few nation-states, and relations - mainly war and trade - were of the simplest. Individual rights within states were just beginning to be theorized by Hobbes, Bodin, and others. Grotius introduced into the discussion of war and interstate commerce the central cosmopolitan concepts of respect for humanity and concern for sociability, or civilized fellowship. These dictate both individual rights, which we have come to call human rights, and social rights, the rights of association and affiliation that may be very important to our identity. That Grotius was the first theorist to define these rights and assert their validity even against the sovereign was a great achievement; his writings, Nussbaum observes, "may justly be said to mark the dawning of the Enlightenment."[13] (It is true that nearly every other page of his magnum opus, On the Law of War and Peace, contains an appeal to the authority of Holy Scripture, which was not exactly the Enlightenment's style; but then, most other pages contain an appeal to one or another eminent classical author, which very much was. And besides, Grotius was an Arminian, the philosophes' favorite kind of Christian.)

Grotius' humanism comes out in his doctrine of property ownership, which follows the Church Fathers in holding that "in cases of extreme need ... the poor person actually owns the [rich person's] property by right, and the holder does not."[14] Rich nations too are morally obliged to distribute their wealth to other nations in dire need. He also has very modern views about migration and exile. Many of the ideas in Law of War and Peace were new to European thought, which explains the extraordinary esteem in which Grotius was held by Leibniz, Hume, and Kant, among others.

His theory of humanitarian intervention was particularly influential. In antiquity there was not a well-developed or widely accepted conception of human rights, though the mythological figures Hercules and Theseus were celebrated for various heroic exploits on behalf of victims of notorious injustices. In the Middle Ages, worldly rulers were liable to be chastised, morally and militarily, by the Church in case of scandalous immorality or inhuman cruelty, though the Church rarely exercised this right, which was in any case abrogated after the Protestant Reformation. Grotius held that grave violations of the ius naturale by sovereigns (e.g., enslavement or deprivation of religious freedom) or by freelancers ("pirates, general robbers, and enemies of the human race"[15]) could trigger "punishment," by which he clearly meant armed intervention. It was a bold innovation, which Nussbaum credits with a large part in the creation of the modern human rights movement.


The chapter on Adam Smith is the book's longest and most rewarding. For one thing, it is a pleasure to read - one has to take on faith Nussbaum's praise of Cicero's and Grotius' prose, while Smith, whom she liberally quotes, is a splendid prose stylist. More important, she persuasively reverses the conventional assessments of The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments. The former is often assumed to be an unsentimental exposition of the superiority of free markets, as though Smith were an eighteenth-century Milton Friedman; while the latter, because of its famous discussion of "sympathy" as one of the springs of moral action, has been taken to represent a kinder, gentler Smith. Matters are not so simple.[16]

As we've seen, there are two sometimes conflicting strains in the Stoic tradition, with which Smith strongly identifies. One of them emphasizes the equal, inalienable dignity of all persons, based on our capacities for reasoning and choice. Another strain prescribes self-command, a serene and austere ("stoical") acceptance of life's accidents, teaching that nothing external, but only our own weakness, can affect those capacities on which our dignity rests. Too much emphasis on the latter strain can lead to indifference toward the material deprivations that very often rule the lives of others - the "bifurcation" that is the chief failing of the cosmopolitan tradition.

         The Wealth of Nations, Smith's encyclopedic treatise on economic and social life in 18th-century Europe, has been famous since its publication for Smith's advocacy of competition, free trade, the division of labor, and other fundamental features of capitalism. Less well known are his forceful defense of the rights of workingmen and his sharp criticism of the undue influence of employers over the legislature. He inveighs against mandatory apprenticeship, as well as parish registration, both of which restricted the freedom and mobility of young workers. He notes the hypocrisy involved in outlawing unions, as was common then and for a long while afterward: "The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes or at least does not prohibit their combination, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combing to lower [wages], but many against combining to raise it."[17] And he ridicules the ignorance of legislatures who give manufacturers a favorable trade policy on the latter's assurance that trade "enriches the country."

But what is most striking, according to Nussbaum, is Smith's insistence that fair wages, decent working conditions, collective bargaining, and an adequate system of public education are all owed to workers, as a matter of justice. Overwork, poverty, and hopelessness make a worker sick, shiftless, and stupid, no matter how virtuous he may be. He simply cannot achieve his human dignity under such conditions. This line of argument culminates in a long and famous passage:


The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging ... His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society, this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.[18]



Here the bifurcation is healed, and the cosmopolitan tradition finds its noblest expression.

Curiously, Smith's other great work, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, contains virtually no echoes of this great insight. It expounds a classical Stoic, even Ciceronian, ethics, including a sharp demarcation between duties of justice and duties of beneficence and an affirmation of apatheia, the belief that nothing external, whether injury or lack, can affect a genuinely wise person. This seems in flat contradiction to original and important insights of Wealth of Nations about the ease with which harsh deprivations can extinguish a person's dignity. There is, Nussbaum concludes, an unresolved tension between Smith's "humanity," so prominent in the one book and the "macho stoicism" that pervades the other. It is almost (she stops just short of conjecturing) as though Smith wrote Wealth of Nations with the feminine part of his mind and Theory of Moral Sentiments with the masculine.


Nussbaum is herself a theorist in the cosmopolitan tradition, and the book concludes with a review of contemporary problems that the tradition may have something helpful to say about: pluralism, international law, foreign aid, and immigration/asylum. She sees only a moral function for international law, promulgating norms that nations may adopt or not. That may indeed be the best one can do today, though it is perhaps too much to say, as she does, that early proponents of international law were "starry-eyed" about its potential efficacy. In fact, the UN Charter, binding on its signatories, was well designed for keeping the peace and would have saved countless lives if the great powers - and above all, the superpowers - had abandoned their geopolitical follies and lived up to their obligations. Why was it unrealistic to have expected nations that had just survived the most catastrophic war in history to behave with a minimum of rationality and decency in order to avoid another one?

On foreign aid, Nussbaum shares the skepticism of economists William Easterly and Angus Deaton, who found that autocracy, corruption, paternalism, and ignorance of local conditions have made most foreign aid almost totally ineffective. And where it is effective, the result, allegedly, is dependency and lack of political initiative. This is doubtless often true, but I wish Nussbaum had also mentioned the many strong defenses of aid by Jeffrey Sachs[19] and others, or had alerted us to the existence of passages like this:


[G]et the poorest people in the world such obvious goods as the vaccines, the antibiotics, the food supplements, the improved seeds, the fertilizer, the roads, the boreholes, the water pipes, the textbooks, and the nurses. This is not making the poor dependent on handouts; it is giving the poorest people the health, nutrition, education, and other inputs that raise the payoff to their own efforts to better their lives.



And this:



Health campaigns, known as "vertical health programs," have been effective in saving millions of lives. Other vertical initiatives include the successful campaign to eliminate smallpox throughout the world; the campaign against river blindness jointly mounted by the World Bank, the Carter Center, WHO, and Merck; and the ongoing-- but as yet incomplete-- attempt to eliminate polio.



The first passage is by William Easterly; the second by Angus Deaton.[20]

The final problem, perhaps the knottiest and the most urgent, is immigration and asylum. The cosmopolitan tradition is particularly well adapted to address this problem, since its "basic insight is that respect for humanity requires us to furnish the basic wherewithal of human life, somehow, to those in desperate need."[21] If this can be done through humanitarian aid, with a minimum of disruption to both countries, it should be. But those who must leave, because of want or persecution, should be welcomed - in principle.

This is where things get knotty. How many of them should be welcomed? Not too many: it is reasonable to limit numbers "in accordance with skills and job opportunities,"[22] for the sake of economic stability, and to require that candidates for permanent residence understand and accept our political culture, i.e., our constitution and laws. But not too few, either: we can't try to "preserve national homogeneity" or "defend dominant national ethnic or religious traditions from the pluralism and challenge that immigration typically brings."[23] This is a little too general. Nussbaum's argument might have been more persuasive if she had engaged with the defenders of homogeneity and national culture, who are not all xenophobes, or even acknowledged the existence of a controversy over whether immigrants lower wages, as the many businessmen who support unrestricted immigration seem to believe.

Here and elsewhere in The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Nussbaum is reluctant to descend from the philosophical plane to the empirical. In consequence, as a history of one strain of moral philosophy, the book is excellent; as a work of political theory or social criticism, less so. Perhaps these more local matters - historical, sociological, economic - seemed to her parochial rather than cosmopolitan.




George Scialabba ( is an essayist and book critic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His most recent book is How To Be Depressed.












[1] J. I. Rodale, The Synonym Finder.                 

[2] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 2.

[3] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 19.

[4] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 30.

[5] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 27.

[6] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p.30. In this section Nussbaum makes a - tiny and insignificant - error. She says that, according to Cicero, "it is wrong to poison even the foulest of tyrants." (p. 30-31) But in De Officiis, III, 32, Cicero writes about tyrants: "[I]t is not opposed to Nature to rob, if one can, a man whom it is morally right to kill; -- nay, all that pestilent and abominable race should be exterminated from human society." Well said.

[7] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 35.

[8] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 39.

[9] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 91.

[10] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 93.

[11] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 94.

[12] Freud, Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1939.

[13] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 100.

[14] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 130.

[15] Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Book II, chapter 20, section 40.

[16] A major recent treatment of Smith, discussed by Nussbaum, is Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment, Harvard University Press, 2002. See also "The Workingman's Friend" in George Scialabba, For the Republic, Pressed Wafer, 2013.

[17] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, pp. 154-5.

[18] The Wealth of Nations, Book V, ch. 1.

[19] Eg., Jeffrey Sachs, "The Case for Aid," Foreign Policy, January 21, 2014.

[20] Both quotes appear in The GiveWell Blog, Nov. 6, 2015:

[21] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 230.

[22] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 231.

[23] The Cosmopolitan Tradition, p. 231.