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The evolution of state virtue: From Plato to Adam Smith

Published on 20 March 2016
Updated on 27 June 2024

This question might be slightly puzzling to the contemporary diplomat, who firmly believes that states should be moral entities founded on transcendental human rights. I came across this question while reading The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph by Albert O. Hirschman (I recommend the book to those involved in political science and international relations; it is short, clear, and insightful; what I write here owes much to it, though the oversimplifications are mine).

Plato was the first in the West to ask this question in his Republic (Book IV, sections 427e to 433e).1 He outlines the four virtues of a state:

  • Wisdom
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Justice

Plato being Plato, he fudged the question as to why or how a social construct – the state – might be endowed with virtues, and how the virtues should operate within it. He argued that the virtues would be embedded in the all-knowing ‘perfect guardians’. Virtues, in Plato’s view, were the prerogative of the elite governing the state.2

Statue of Plato, Academy of Athens, Greece..jpg
Statue of Plato, Academy of Athens, Greece (Open University).

Plato’s personal union between ‘guardian’ and state bedevilled the question of state virtue for the next 1,500 years (both Cicero (De Officiis) and Ambrose make virtue a duty and prerogative of the elite; Christianity reinforces the issue by introducing eschatology; no longer is the ‘guardian’ trained in virtues, he is personally accountable to God for his behaviour).3 The Renaissance, and, in particular, Machiavelli, reopened the issue, arguing consequentialism (Petrarch and Leonardo Bruni already generated an approach to politics that was already remarkably secular in character; see The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson). The state’s ‘virtues’ were the means allowing it to survive among rivals. True, Machiavelli was still wedded to the ‘prince’. His ‘prince’ or ‘guardian’, however, now had two objectives. Qua leader, his goal was to secure the survival of the state in this world. Qua person, he had to secure his salvation in the world beyond. It was schizophrenic. No wonder many despised Machiavelli (Christianity introduced eschatological time; according to this view, our actions should not be judged by the consequences in this life, but in eternity. In so doing, time and timing are eliminated as irrelevant).4

Machiavelli’s outlook was primarily international relations: The Middle Ages were a period of chronic wars of the states against the states (or, if one prefers, went through a phase of state formation). The Renaissance inaugurated the age of civil – mostly religious, but also economic – wars. It lasted over 100 years. It was the age of unbridled passions.

Under the onslaught of the passions, the meaning of ‘state virtue’ began to change. Next to ways of stopping the great and sudden, arbitrary actions (grand geste) of the sovereign, political scientists now sought ways and rules for securing the sustained integrity of the (Republican) state against the public passions that might tear it apart.

This inquiry arose from the recognition that ‘moralising philosophy and religious precept could no longer be trusted with restraining the destructive passions of men’ (henceforth, page citations refer to Hirschman’s book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought). Also, rationality, with its one-on-one approach, was found to be impotent in the face of the immoderate passions of the sovereign or the diffused passions of the populace.

How is this goal to be achieved?

Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these, it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?

To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. A government may be so constituted as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits.

Book XI, Chapter 3 of The Spirit of the Laws by Baron de Montesquieu

And it is fortunate for men to be in a situation in which, though their passions may prompt them to be wicked, they have nevertheless an interest in not being so.

Book XXI, Chapter 20 of The Spirit of the Laws by Baron de Montesquieu

I shall ever repeat it, that mankind is governed not by extremes, but by principles of moderation.

Book XXII, Chapter 22 of The Spirit of the Laws by Baron de Montesquieu

The insight emerged that, if we cannot eliminate the passions, we might be able to temper or moderate them. But how?

The role of virtue was rediscovered. Virtue was not so much a moral compass (as in Christian theology) but a deliberative process in the situation (see my previous blog post). Spacing and pacing a passion in time – delaying gratification – may be a better way forward (all living beings know how to delay gratification. One only has to see the care and skill with which a lion stalks its prey; in fact, one could argue it is all about delaying the inevitable entropy). Revenge is a dish best served cold. In so doing, however, we transform the passion into an interest over time. Virtue is mostly about acting in the situation and in time (Hirschman does not specifically highlight the aspect of time. Yet, the very term ‘interest’ speaks for the role of time).

Personal virtue might be useful in tempering the great and sudden, arbitrary actions (grand geste) of the sovereign. But what about a republic, which was then emerging as the ‘ideal’ form of government (see The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson)? How to reach most citizens and temper their passions? The deliberative habit had to be both universal and strong enough to pit itself against unbridled popular passion.

In searching for ways to pit passion against passion, Western political thought embraced the idea of giving free rein and encouragement to private economic initiatives and acquisitive pursuits. The pervasive character of commerce not only lowered the people’s public passions, but also reined in the ruler by confronting him with the economic consequences of any arbitrariness (Hirschman makes here the very interesting point that capitalism was not the unintended consequence of Protestantism, as Weber argues). Greed is relentless but slow (the interest rates in those days were of the order of 1%).

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.
Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito (Wikimedia).

The spirit of commerce brings with it the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, order, and regularity.

Book V, Chapter 7 of The Spirit of the Laws by Baron de Montesquieu

Hirschman’s novel claim is ‘that the diffusion of capitalist forms owed much to an equally desperate search for avoiding society’s ruin, permanently threatening at the time because of precarious arrangements for internal and external order.’

Political scientists soon recognised that pitting commerce against political passions was far from innocent. For one, with wealth comes inequality. Wealth allows the few holders to indulge their passions to the hilt: wealth may revive passions in the longer run. It is significant that the issue of state-sponsored redistribution of wealth arose at that time. It represented a clear break with the received wisdom that redistribution was bad for the state. This heuristic was grounded in the experience of the Roman Republic, which tore itself apart over the agrarian laws. A different, redistributive justification was found in Jewish law (see The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson).

At the same time, the division of labour inherent in capitalism tends to blunt the civic virtues of the populace. As Tocqueville argued: ‘The taste for material enjoyments … develops more rapidly than the enlightenments and habits of liberty.’ Adam Smith argued that wealth would ruin the aristocracy. At a deeper level, commerce favoured an ‘arm’s length’ disposition which undermined the paradigm of trust on which society had rested until then (a disposition or ‘Einstellung’ is our brains’ tendency to stick with a familiar idea, to the point where this can literally blind us to superior solutions; see The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life by Paul Seabright). This corresponds to the transition from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society), as analysed by Ferdinand Tönnies. Following Hirschman, this disposition prejudges the choice between ‘exit, voice, loyalty’ away from loyalty and towards exit (see Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States by Albert O. Hirschman).

The relationship between economic interests and passions at the outset was perceived to be unstable and not self-correcting. The conclusion was that a sustainable society needed both economic and political checks and balances to stay the course.3 ‘States need virtue’ meant that a paramount task of the state was to manage the balance between interests and passions through an explicit and complex self-adjusting system.

Portrait of the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) by an unknown artist,
Portrait of the political economist and philosopher Adam Smith (Wikimedia).

And then, something happened. Adam Smith arrived. ‘He abandoned the distinction between the interests and the passions in making his case for the unfettered pursuit of private gain: he chose to stress the economic benefits that this pursuit would bring rather than the political dangers and disasters that it would avert.’ Efficiency became its own reward and worth pursuing in any case. By foregrounding efficiency, Adam Smith unwittingly justified replacing trust with arm’s-length relations. He justified a momentous change in disposition without a thought to its hidden social consequences.

Adam Smith was the discoverer of the ‘unexpected social consequences’ – the invisible hand. Extrapolating from efficiency, he argued that unexpected social consequences were benign. In so doing, however, he broke the instrumental link between commerce and the control of passions. Smith ‘affirms that economics can go it alone: within wide limits of tolerance, political progress is not needed as a prerequisite for, nor is it likely to be a consequence of, economic advance, at least, the highest councils of government’. He also saw no need for the political process to mediate the tension between the general interest of improved overall efficiency and the particular, i.e. the consequences of its negative effects on groups of people.

It is ironic that the discoverer of the unintended social consequences might have fallen victim to his brainchild. He failed to foresee that changing the disposition from one of trust to one of arm’s-length would, in the long haul, undermine the social fabric which enabled capitalism in the first place.

We are witnessing the long-term consequences today (just as we did in the 19th century when labour and capital struggled outside the political process). Anger is trust denied. Worldwide anger is on the rise – inchoate, hardly articulated, hence destructive. What seems tragic to me is that society seems to have lost its capacity to deal with social anger by creating appropriate social institutions. At best, it pits rationality against emotions. Rationality, however, has no traction.

To answer the original question: Should states have virtue? Yes, states should have virtue to cope with the anger that accompanies, in any case, a society built of ‘arm’s length’ rather than trusting relations, but also one in which rapid economic development changes the relative positions of members of the society. Inequality stalks the land. It might not help that we are tackling the issue as long-term growth might be declining (see The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon).

  1. In the Sinic civilisations, of course, virtue is the foundational concept – as set out in the term ‘harmony’. I may add, in passing, that Plato’s ‘temperance’ is akin to ‘harmony’. Here is the relevant quote: ‘Because temperance is unlike courage and wisdom, each of which resides in a part only, the one making the state wise and the other valiant; not so temperance, which extends to the whole, and runs through all the notes of the scale, and produces a harmony of the weaker and the stronger and the middle class, whether you suppose them to be stronger or weaker in wisdom or power or numbers or wealth, or anything else. Most truly then may we deem temperance to be the agreement of the naturally superior and inferior, as to the right to rule of either, both in states and individuals.’
  2. Here is Plato’s take with regard to state wisdom:

– And good counsel is clearly a kind of knowledge, for not by ignorance, but by knowledge, do men counsel well?

– Clearly.

– And the kinds of knowledge in a state are many and diverse?

– Of course.

– There is the knowledge of the carpenter; but is that the sort of knowledge which gives a city the title of wise and good in counsel?

– Certainly not; that would only give a city the reputation of skill in carpentry.

– Then a city is not to be called wise because possessing a knowledge which counsels for the best about wooden implements?

– Certainly not.

  1. An exemplary quote from John Millar (1735–1891): ‘The spirit of liberty appears, in commercial countries, to depend chiefly on two circumstances: first, the conditions of the people relative to the distribution of property, and the means of subsistence: secondly, the condition with which the several members of the society are enabled to associate and to act in concert with one another.’

The post was first published on DeeDip.

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