“I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms,” wrote Wallace Stevens in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The Stoic writers to whom Martha Nussbaum refers have given us some of the most sublime and inspiring passages I have ever read — passages whose loftiness is tempered by a toughmindedness of style and substance that militates against sentimentality. Seneca’s prose, writes Phillip Lopate, “is thorny . . . and it leaves a sort of dry almond taste from all those chewy aphorisms.” Thus my first response to Martha Nussbaum’s “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism” is the desire to agree with her (and through her with my beloved Stoics) that the vision of the kosmou politês is not only noble, but lucid and inescapable.
Not that Nussbaum is the first educator to conceive of such a project. Some schools are trying to teach children to think globally, and have been committed to such a goal for some time. The bumper stickers that read THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY did not appear yesterday. Schools, however, are more complex than slogans. When Nussbaum writes that “Our nation is appallingly ignorant of the rest of the world. I think that this means that it is also, in many critical ways, ignorant of itself,” what, in practical terms, does one proceed to study first? I would not chauvinistically argue against studying “about India and Bolivia and Nigeria and Norway and their histories, problems, and comparative successes.” I would merely caution that syllabi, like canons, are not infinitely expandable. Something has to go — and although Nussbaum does concede that global thinking can be lonely and difficult, I doubt if she fully faces the practical, rather than emotional, challenges that accompany it — the challenges and agonizing choices.
The passage from Stevens continues, as if with a sigh, “But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know” — lines that speak to me in a voice of chastened self-knowledge about something like the impossibility of transcendence. And with these lines I arrive at my second and truer response to “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” which is to be wary of its idealism, its curiously unStoic lack of toughmindedness. Nussbaum has noble tidings and hopeful proposals for us. But however attractive these are, they depend on a remarkably benign and optimistic view of human nature. Or is it just a blurry view? Here is one example of what I mean.
The stance of the kosmou politês, Nussbaum writes, “recognizes in persons what is especially fundamental about them, most worthy of respect and acknowledgment, namely their aspirations to justice and goodness and their capacities for reasoning in this connection.” The sentence is ambiguous. Are those “aspirations to justice and goodness” “worthy of respect and acknowledgment”? Assuredly. Are such aspirations “fundamental” in the sense of being universal? (And if Nussbaum doesn’t mean that, what does she mean?) I do not know how various Stoic thinkers would have answered the question of the universality of aspirations to justice. But I believe that if Nussbaum is, as she appears to be, assuming such universality, then she is assuming a great deal. Speculations about the intrinsic goodness of human nature are dialectical, dynamic, unstable; they change according to the character, circumstances, and experience of those who engage in them. A brief passage in Primo Levi’s The Reawakening dramatizes such discontinuities. Two Auschwitz survivors, thrown together amidst the chaos immediately following the Liberation, are confounded by their differences in outlook. Levi writes: “His life had been one of war, and he considered anyone who refused this iron universe of his to be despicable and blind. The Lager had happened to both of us; I had felt it as a monstrous upheaval, a loathsome anomaly in my history and in the history of the world; he, as sad confirmation of things well known.”
At the same time as I was pondering Nussbaum’s essay, I happened across two pieces of writing that address similar issues — of education, ethics, policies, above all action in the world in the present and the next century. How should we live? How can we coexist? How can we protect the planet? What should we do? The questions are not easy to formulate; and I sense behind them an anguish (maybe mere fin-de-siècle angst, maybe not) which, though strikingly absent from Nussbaum’s piece, permeates the words of Albert Gore speaking at Harvard’s 1994 Commencement, and of Alex DeWaal, writing in the 1 July 1994 number of the Times Literary Supplement.
Neither Gore nor DeWaal advocates the narrow, self-congratulatory patriotism that Nussbaum criticizes in Richard Rorty and Sheldon Hackney. Equally striking, Gore and DeWaal both see the world as a fearful place. Gore, if I understand him rightly, would actually dissuade us from dwelling on the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda, because too much chaos and bloodshed merely feed cynicism and choke off the precious resource of hope:
Make no mistake. Just as repeated injuries to our national esteem jeopardize our ability to solve the problems that confront us, so at the global level the convergence of too much chaos and horror in the world, of too many Bosnias and Rwandas, can seriously damage the ability of our global civilization to get a grip on the essential task of righting itself and regaining a measure of control over our destiny as a species.
Averting our eyes from carnage may seem a counsel of despair; but DeWaal, an expert on African affairs, expresses the disconcerting opinion that even those who intervene in those affairs are in a sense averting their eyes. Of recent events in Rwanda, he writes:
. . . At times, those guiding the international diplomacy seemed to be closing their eyes and wishing the extremists away.
Before April 6, Rwanda had one of the most vigorous human-rights movements in Africa. Six independent human-rights organizations cooperated in exposing abuses by government and rebel forces. They also invited an International Commission of Inquiry. . . . The Commission visited Rwanda in 1993 and compiled a comprehensive and courageous report, documenting violations and naming those responsible.
Democracy implied justice. The individuals named were promised an amnesty, but knew that their actions were under scrutiny. Their strategy to escape justice was to kill all those who had collaborated in human-rights investigations. They killed most of them. It is a shocking reminder of just how high the stakes are in the human-rights business.
I would not wish to conclude from this that all human beings are irredeemably evil. But the wide-angled gaze of the citizen of the world, the outward-rippling concentric circles stretching from the self to all the rest of humanity — however noble these may be, they are attended by grave questions. How much can we see? How much should we see? What good does our seeing across national boundaries do if we do nothing to intervene? What good does it do if our interventions appear to worsen the situation? What do we do about Bosnia, Rwanda? What about Somalia?
I am not a politician, and these are not questions to which I have very good answers. But they do not seem to be questions Nussbaum is even prepared to ask. The author of the distinguished study of Greek tragedy The Fragility of Goodness seems, at least in this essay, to have a vision of a remarkably unfragile goodness.
A final point: though I am far less learned than Nussbaum in the literature of Stoicism, I do not always concur with her depictions of the Stoics. I read Marcus Aurelius, for example, as a beleagured man often desperately uncomfortable in his role as ruler, grappling to make the best of nearly impossible circumstances, daily exhorting himself to expect selfishness, ignorance, and boorishness from his fellow men (and to be surprised if one day these qualities fail to make an appearance). And Seneca, though a less beleagured figure, still has few illusions about the world of power, and impatiently advises us to commit suicide when we’ve had enough. Nussbaum has less saturnine views. But then who wouldn’t rather be a professor of philosophy than a Roman emperor, much less Nero’s tutor?