The Intellectual Revolution That Made the Modern Western World
A revolution in moral and social philosophy every bit as profound as the scientific revolution in cosmology, physics, chemistry, and biology took place over the last five centuries, but it has never had a convenient name. It gave rise to social science and ideological politics, and if it did not also create the hard sciences, it nonetheless assigned them their place and shape in the modern world. Those sciences concerned with matter would henceforth supply the metaphors or parables by which moral philosophy would be reformed. Politics and the new science of economics might be likened to clockwork or a self-balancing system like Newtonian physics: in this view, moral forces no less than physical forces are impersonal and self-arranging, and the task of human intelligence is simply to understand them as they are, then harness them.
Nameless though the revolution in moral philosophy might be, it has a cast of protagonists as familiar as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Darwin in the natural sciences. Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, and the Founding Fathers of the United States are among the lead players, all of whom are discussed in David Wootton’s latest book, though not all in as much detail as the reader might wish. Wootton prefers a thematic approach to a personal or chronological one: his chapters bear titles like “Happiness: Words and Concepts,” “Utility: In Place of Virtue,” and “The Market: Poverty and Famines.”
In Wootton’s own words, his book is “a series of sketches illuminating this intellectual and cultural revolution,” which can be summed up as “the replacement of Aristotelian ethics and Christian morality by a new type of decision making which may be termed instrumental reasoning or cost-benefit analysis.” The three “P’s” of Wootton’s title are the new outlook’s characteristic concerns—power, pleasure, and profit are the goods in light of which individual and society alike are to be understood. They are to be obtained by the application of precise knowledge (not just old-fashioned maxims or rules of thumb) to every aspect of life: there is a technique and an “-ology” for everything. Which is lucky for us, since power, pleasure, and profit are three things of which we can never have enough, and our selfish pursuit of them is actually good for everyone. Competition turns out to be an exalted form of cooperation, and your self-interest is the key to other people’s wellbeing.
Wootton, an esteemed intellectual historian at the University of York, gives two cheers for all this. A curious feature of Power, Pleasure, and Profit is that whenever Wootton examines these ideas and the thinkers behind them in detail, he finds a certain moral shabbiness—for example, in Adam Smith’s aversion to charity as a remedy for famine. Yet when he offers a wider summary, it reveals a benign overall picture—as if the tale Wootton tells is itself an example of how short-sighted and morally imperfect actions give rise to better outcomes than could ever have been planned. Smith may have been a cold doctrinaire, but his ideas nonetheless led to great prosperity. Would a warmer man have perceived the logical system of economics so clearly?
Yet Wootton rarely plumbs such questions. He prefers to stick to an analysis of language and metaphor, and he excels in his more narrow investigations. This is both a strength and a weakness of Power, Pleasure, and Profit, whose chapters are reworked from earlier talks and papers—“The book began as a series of six Carlyle Lectures given at the University of Oxford” in 2014, Wootton acknowledges. The volume is something less than a unified whole, even if it’s not just a collection of essays, either. Each chapter on its own is interesting, sometimes fascinating and insightful. But the book never delivers on the promise of its subtitle, Insatiable Appetites From Machiavelli to Madison.
The chapter on Machiavelli, for example, is by Wootton’s own admission actually about “one particular aspect of Machiavelli’s legacy, his role in Elizabethan discussions of how best to maintain control of Ireland.” As an account of how Edmund Spenser and Richard Beacon, two literary men who also wielded administrative power, applied what they took to be Machiavelli’s teachings to the challenges of English rule over Ireland, it’s good enough. But for purposes of developing the book’s themes a chapter on Machiavelli himself would have been better, especially because Machiavelli’s relationship to later, more liberal thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith is not something a reader can take for granted.
The case can be made for a direct influence of Machiavelli on Francis Bacon, the father, as the story is usually told, of the scientific method. Thomas Hobbes was Bacon’s secretary for a time, and from Hobbes a genealogy extending to John Locke and liberalism can be drawn by way of concepts like the “state of nature” and “social contract.” But Wootton does not fully fill in the family tree, though what he does say is suggestive. Within a competitive commercial society, he observes, individuals are “free to behave like Machiavellian rulers, to pursue their own interests convinced that everyone else would be doing exactly the same.” From this there is no going back to the virtue ethics of an earlier order—“market societies have their own logic, and that logic, first described by Hobbes, is the logic of endless pursuit.”
Wootton’s elaboration on this point calls to mind Leo Strauss’s description of Locke’s political and economic philosophy as “the joyless quest for joy.” As Wootton writes:
Happiness, it may be argued, is different from pleasure, because being happy involves being contented with what you have. To be constantly in pursuit of something you can never catch up with is, it would seem, a form of madness. Perhaps so, but we have built this madness into the very structure of our lives, for every society aims at economic growth, and consequently every society encourages the endless accumulation of wealth, which everyone recognizes is simply a means—so that the presumption would seem to be that the good things that one can buy with money obey the same logic of unending accumulation or limitless pursuit that wealth itself obeys.
For Locke, in Wootton’s telling, “happiness consists first and foremost in being free of pain,” including psychological pain or “unease.” And so to motivate people to the highest achievements, they must be conditioned to feel ill at ease: “In order to be happy as individuals we need society,” Wootton writes, “and in order for society to flourish, we must constantly devise new ways of making ourselves uneasy and anxious.”
However much one might delight in power, pleasure, or profit, the hunger for more always gnaws. “The Christian never escapes sin,” Wootton writes, while “maximizers, whether it is power, pleasure, or profit they pursue, can never escape a sense that they could have done better. Even Warren Buffett must occasionally lie awake at night thinking not of the successful deals he has made but the deals that he failed to make and the deals that went wrong.”
The link between the Christian’s aspiration for an otherworldly eternity and the infinite goods to be sought in this world by utility-maximizing modern man is unfortunately another question that Wootton leaves largely unexplored. He notes that the hedonistic but restrained classical philosophy of Epicurus, transmitted down to modern times by the survival of Lucretius’s didactic poem De Rerum Natura, was an influence on both Hobbes and Machiavelli. (And Wootton adds new support for the still disputed case for Machiavelli’s “Lucretianism.”) But Epicureans conceived of the highest good and supreme pleasure as peace of mind—the taming of appetite. When the Epicurean’s hedonism, materialism, and evolutionary view of politics combine with a secularized Christian psychology, however, the way may be paved for much of what is new in the thought of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and their successors. Yearning for the infinite and seeking it through a struggle involving guilt that spurs one to heroic effort is a story familiar from Christianity long before the advent of Locke or capitalism. The spirit that built the cathedrals of Christendom for the glory of God might build a new world when its attentions are turned to man’s estate instead.
The Constitution may be America’s finest architectural achievement in that sense. But while the architect himself makes the cover of Wootton’s book, he graces few pages within: James Madison is only a bit player in a chapter on “three paradigmatic machines” that “eighteenth-century political theorists had…in mind when they tried to analyze politics: the clock, the Newtonian solar system, and the market mechanism.” Wootton is more interested in the metaphorical machinery than in the men responsible for it, but his account is still illuminating. He traces a development of thought from conceiving of a constitutional order as delicate clockwork, fine-tuned by a designer; to seeing it as more like a Newtonian system in which “every part interacted with every other part, and which would therefore respond flexibly to change over time, making it potentially exceptionally resilient”; to finally considering it as a machine with a feedback mechanism that allows for self-correction as well as balance, an understanding that also comes to be applied to the free market.
Wootton illustrates the last of those metaphorical mechanisms with passages drawn from the mid-18th-century writer Edward Spelman, who “published the first systematic defense of political parties to appear in English” and employed the logic of market-like feedback mechanisms in doing so. Beyond that, Spelman turns out to have had an insight into a feature of party politics that has frustrated many an American conservative in recent decades. Why is there such a persistent mismatch between the Republican activist base and GOP leadership? As Wootton summarizes Spelman’s lesson, there is a natural divide between “the motives of a party’s supporters, who want to see certain policies adopted, and its leaders, who want power. …There thus exists an inherent tension between a party’s leaders and its followers, for the leaders have an incentive to sacrifice their principles to attain power, while the followers, who will never be rulers, have an interest in seeing the powers of government restrained.”
If Power, Pleasure, and Profit disappoints in its treatment of major figures like Machiavelli and Madison, it proves its value in bringing to light overlooked thinkers such as Spelman. Wootton’s book is not an altogether exemplary guide to the intellectual forest, but he provides an engaging account of individually interesting trees.
Adam Smith is the marquee name who receives the most space in Wootton’s pages. He is central to the chapter on famine, where he comes in for much criticism. But Wootton is more appreciative in a chapter titled “Profit: The Invisible Hand,” in which he argues that for Smith “the most important effect of commerce and manufactures is…not wealth or population increase but liberty and security; and liberty and security make possible a happy life, rather than a life blighted by fear and violence, and a virtuous life, rather than a life spent scrambling for subsistence and survival.” In this way, “invisible hand processes are not just some peculiar epicycle within Smith’s elaborate system; they are the providential mechanism which reconciles wealth and virtue.”
There was a time in the life of the West when broadly Aristotelian physics and cosmology were part of a complete whole along with broadly Aristotelian metaphysics, ethics, and politics: natural philosophy and moral philosophy were mutually supportive. At the end of the long line of thought that leads from Machiavelli to the Enlightenment, culminating in Adam Smith, a new whole has not re-emerged. But there is a tangle of ideas that creates a distinct social order, Wootton contends:
Enlightenment values, free markets, and political liberty are intertwined and interdependent. We have constructed a society based on competition between enterprises (the free market) and between individuals (the career open to the talents, meritocracy), within a framework of limited government, and the arguments in favor of such a society go back to Adam Smith and his contemporaries. No psychologist now studies Locke as an introduction to psychology; few moral philosophers now describe themselves as utilitarians; but The Wealth of Nations is still the founding text of economic theory, and the American Constitution still provides a model that others follow. As long as free markets and limited government continue, Enlightenment values are going to be constantly brought back to life to explain the advantages and to justify the continuance of these institutions. We thus have a striking paradox: Enlightenment values fostered capitalism and political liberty; now it is capitalism and political liberty which sustain Enlightenment values.
Yet this is Wootton at his weakest and most Whiggish, and skepticism is in order. Democracy, if not “political liberty,” has taken root in many places in the 21st century without bringing with it “Enlightenment values.” The same is true of capitalism. Wootton does specify, just before the passage above, that he is talking specifically about the West—but the fact that modernity outside of the West has such different ethical, religious, and social dimensions, while still having much in common with our experience of politics and economics, should raise some doubts. Wootton is hopeful that the institutions that have arisen from the Enlightenment will keep its spirit alive. Yet the evidence from around the globe, and even within our own country, lends itself as well to the hypothesis that the Enlightenment will be devoured by its offspring. The philosophy of insatiable appetites changed the Christian-Aristotelian moral order into the modern world, but now that the change is just about complete, what purpose does its catalyst serve?
The Enlightenment may well be the end of an old story rather than the beginning of a new one. But be that as it may, David Wootton’s book is valuable as a wide-ranging, if not always tightly focused, investigation into the philosophical revolution that made the modern Western world. Read it critically, and you will profit—along the way, it’s mostly a pleasure.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and editor-at-large of The American Conservative.