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True Stoicism

by John Caiazza

Martha Nussbaum's appeal to a Stoic inspired cosmopolitanism seeks to transcend the terms of the conflict between multi-culturalism and patriotism. I am concerned with the political and ethical questions which her appeal avoids, rather than transcends. Further, her reference to the ancient Stoic philosophy, although promising, fails to make full use of Stoic ethical-political insights.

I believe that Nussbaum is really on the side of the multiculturalists in the debate, and that her appeal to cosmopolitanism is an attempt to evade what she sees as the irrational force of patriotism and xenophobia. That is, if we accept Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism, we are supposed to invest our patriotic emotions in the universal city of the Stoics rather than in our own nation. However, such a move does nothing to moderate the demands of the multiculturalists, whose political efforts are, as Arthur Schlesinger has documented, destroying the national unum in favor of the pluribus.

The call to multiculturalism disguises a political agenda, a fact demonstrated by the evasiveness of the case for multiculturalism, as if non-Western cultures are not patriarchal, hierarchical, religious, tribal and tradition-bound. Adding the tenets of what are essentially pre-modern cultures to those of Western culture would make it less protective of individual rights. What is at issue is the agenda of left-wing social reform, including women's equality, abortion, affirmative action and ethnic separatism, brought about covertly under the cover of multiculturalism. This is the agenda that I suspect Professor Nussbaum wants to promote, and her appeal to the cosmopolitanism of the Stoics does not do what a real attempt to moderate the conflict between multiculturalism and patriotism would do -- take off the sharp edges of each side and promote a common ground. Only one side would lose its edge in her call to a patriotism transformed into a universalism, namely that of patriotism.

Nussbaum's appeal to the Stoics is nonetheless hopeful, if, that is, we do not ignore a central teaching of the Stoic philosophy, namely the natural law. In conformity with their teleological theory of both physical and human nature, the Stoics taught that transcending the positive laws of each nation - the jus civile -- is the jus naturale, which imposes on all mankind a system of mutual obligation. Stoicism recognizes the universality of human nature, that it is essentially the same in all climes, conditions and under all governments. Nussbaum adverts to this aspect, but only when discussing what America owes to the world, not what each of us owes to each other, to our families and states, and to the universal moral law.

The ethics of Stoicism are severe, imposing a stern requirement of personal duty. Is Professor Nussbaum willing to recognize the universal moral requirements which impose such a high standard of personal ethical behavior on all human beings? The call to duty, to devotion to parents, to protecting the young and weak and the aged, the requirement of charity and courtesy to the stranger, the recognition of God and providential design are aspects of Stoic ethics, and all to be found in virtually every culture in the world. If multiculturalism could be extended to recognize these commonalities in all cultures which imply a universal moral law, then the basis for an accommodation between Stoic cosmopolitanism and patriotism is at hand, but not otherwise.

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