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Adam Smith's Dilemma and the Algonquian Model of Political Virtue

The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For a more detailed treatment of the paper’s topics, see Brent Ranalli’s essay “Pin- and Pencil-Making in the Twenty-First Century” at The Fortnightly Review. For additional details about upcoming Telos conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Adam Smith is usually remembered as a champion of commerce. But as a moral philosopher he understood that even as commerce inculcates the virtues of industry, frugality, and temperance, it also inculcates vices such as avarice, envy, and short-sighted self-centeredness. Smith recognized that good government requires virtues such as honor, moral rectitude, patriotism, magnanimity, and a far-sighted perspective, to which the commercial vices are fairly opposed.

Smith considered this a problem in his own day, as Great Britain was threatening to become a nation of shopkeepers, ruled by classes trained not in statesmanship but in commerce, governed not by codes of honor but by self-interest. The problem has resonance today as well.

I wish to show that two other modern thinkers, Henry David Thoreau and Immanuel Kant, can each be seen as a champion of a solution to the problem identified by Smith. One solution is to rely on the heroic efforts of a few—in Smith’s words, the “small party” of “the wise and the virtuous”[1]—to rescue a commerce-dominated society from its own vices. The other is to inculcate political virtues in the population at large via universal education.

Further, I wish to show that directly or indirectly, both Thoreau and Kant found inspiration in the Native societies of the eastern woodlands of North America.

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Although Thoreau enjoyed a reputation as a curmudgeon, he was at root motivated by a desire to be of service to his community.

The mass of men serve the State, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. . . . Others . . . serve the State chiefly with their heads. . . . A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part.[2]

It was in this highest sense, as a reformer, that Thoreau wished to perform the role Smith assigned to the “small party” of the “wise and virtuous”: to cultivate his conscience and by means of that moral compass hold himself and the entire society up to a higher standard than that to which it held itself (e.g., on issues such as slavery and militarism).

Kant famously defined Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”[3] The mature individual is the one who claims what is already his or hers by right, the privilege and responsibility of self-government as a member of a polity. This is a path open to all, regardless of social station or occupation. In this formulation Kant lays the philosophical groundwork for the universal (adult) franchise that has now permeated almost every society on the globe.

Kant can be seen as deputizing every individual as a member of a ruling class. This he does by fiat, on philosophical grounds. As a practical matter, the question remains of how individuals of every rank and station can be made fit to self-govern, to acquire the knowledge and judgment necessary to intelligently direct the affairs of a nation in the few waking hours that aren’t devoted to making a living. The answer, of course, was public or universal education.

Kant was engaged in controversies over educational schemes in Prussia. When a progressive school was opened in 1774 in Dessau, Kant supported the school by raising money, praising it in print, and soliciting students. Against critics who thought it inhumane to awaken higher faculties in individuals who would spend their lives as laborers and farmers and artisans and bureaucrats, Kant insisted that the children of laborers and artisans attending this school would grow up to make full use of their faculties in later life.[4] They would, in fact, lead a double life as adults. In private life these individuals would be like oxen, yoked to their white-collar or blue-collar occupations. In public life, they would be free and intelligent men (and women), competent to critique and seek to improve their society and government.

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Though championing different solutions to Smith’s dilemma, Kant and Thoreau both found models of their ideal of political virtue in the Native tribes of Eastern North America.

Kant obviously had no personal experience with Native Americans, but his optimism about the capacity of every person for self-government has a genealogy that can be traced back to popular reports of the “natural man” of North America.

Kant’s optimism about the capacity of every person from self-government flowed from his core belief in the inherent dignity of all persons, and this in turn, he testifies, was impressed on him by his reading of the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

There was a time when I thought that [intellectual attainment] alone could constitute the honor of mankind, and I despised the rabble who knows nothing. Rousseau set me right. This blind prejudice vanishes; I learn to respect human nature.[5]

Rousseau’s own inspiration for his doctrine of the inherent dignity of all persons, in turn, came in no small part from explorers’ and missionaries’ reports of the blessings and virtues of the “state of nature” found on the North American continent. The Baron de Lahontan, for example, who lived with the Huron Indians, quoted one of his hosts as saying: “We [Hurons] are born free and united brothers, each as much a great lord as the other, while you [Frenchmen] are all the slaves of one sole man. . . . I am the master of my body, I dispose of myself, I do what I wish, I am the first and last of my Nation . . . subject only to the great Spirit.”[6]

The dignity, freedom, and autonomy of native peoples that so impressed early European explorers of North America, spun into theories of “natural man” by the philosophes, formed a crucial element of Kant’s social philosophy and the entire Enlightenment project.

The importance of Native models for Thoreau was more direct. Thoreau read extensively on Native history and customs and sought out opportunities to meet and learn from living Indians. Many of his contemporaries considered him to be an exemplar of “Indian virtues.” Usually this was meant with respect to his woodcraft and knowledge plants and animals, but Thoreau also found inspiration from Native Americans in his views of citizenship.

The most obvious of the “Indian virtues” relevant to civic life was courage, both moral and physical. Thoreau recounts admiringly in The Maine Woods, for example, the story of his Penobscot guide Joseph Polis rallying young men of his tribe to don war paint and face down another faction of the tribe that had intended to tear down the village school. Thoreau aspired to the same sort of moral heroism in the ways he threw his own small weight at the problems of the day, like serving in the underground railroad, spending a night in jail to protest the Mexican War, and defending the reputation of abolitionist John Brown in the court of public opinion.

No less important to Thoreau was the Indian virtue of independence, an independence that shaded into leisure. Nathaniel Hawthorne recalled that Thoreau “seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men—an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood.”[7] Thoreau himself asks, rhetorically: “Who would [not] choose rather the simple grandeur of savage life for the solid leisure it affords?”[8]

Thoreau’s choice to cultivate leisure and forego any “systematic effort for a livelihood” was intimately connected to his ambition to serve as a citizen-statesman. A conventional trade or profession, he understood, by imposing commercial and servile habits of mind, could corrupt his character and cloud his conscience. Furthermore, a conventional occupation would hinder his freedom to act. If he had had a job to show up for in the morning or a cow that required milking, he might not have allowed himself to be arrested and put in jail for nonpayment of taxes. If he had had to worry about offending an employer, he might not have spoken out publicly in defense of the disgraced abolitionist John Brown.

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To the extent that we still face a deficit of political virtue, as Adam Smith suggested, the solutions championed by Kant and Thoreau—broad-based education for citizenship, and moral leadership by those with a vocation for service—both still hold unrealized potential. Nor are they mutually exclusive.


1. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments I.iii.3; cf. Jerry Z. Muller, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours (Princeton, 1995).

2. Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” in Reform Papers, ed. Thomas F. Glick (Princeton, 1974), p. 66.

3. Immanuel Kant, Beanwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (Stuhr, 1845).

4. Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), p. 228.

5. As quoted in Kuehn, Kant, pp. 131–32.

6. As quoted in William Brandon, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500¬–1800 (Ohio University Press, 1986), p. 90.

7. As quoted in Walter Harding, Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries (Dover, 1989), p. 155.

8. Letter to Isaiah T. Williams, 1842, in Berg collection, quoted in Sherman Paul, The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (Russell & Russell, 1971), p. 22.

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