The Roman Libertarians: An Ancient Philosophy of Freedom

By Jones, Harold B. | Journal of Private Enterprise, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Roman Libertarians: An Ancient Philosophy of Freedom


Jones, Harold B., Journal of Private Enterprise


Abstract

Almost every idea has an ancient ancestry, and Smith's "invisible hand" is traceable to Roman Stoicism. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith refers constantly to Stoic philosophy, which taught that there is a law more fundamental than any government decree. This logos, as they called it, directed events toward the restoration of equilibrium. Marcus Aurelius observed that every entity has an assigned place and must be given the freedom to play its part in creating the good of the whole. Smith continued this theme in his argument that individuals make the maximum contribution to the good of society by attending to their own interests.

JEL Code: B11

Keywords: Stoicism; Logos; Natural law; Marcus Aurelius; Christian Stoicism

I. Introduction

Are libertarian ideas the creation of modern minds, or do they have a long history? Accused of plagiaizing Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard replied that very littile of what the Randians claimed as their own creation was actually new. Most of their concepts, he observed, were easily traceable to medieval Scholasticism (Raimondo, 2000). He was right with regard to not only the specific fact but also the more general principle it represents. Every system of thought has an ancient ancestry. "Madmen in authority," Keynes famously observed, "who hear voices in the air, are distiUing their fren2y from some academic scribbler of a few years back" (quoted in Iippmann, 1943, p.45). The Unes may with a few revisions be appUed as much to the "academic scribbler" as to "madmen in authority." Even the best minds are, if not "distiliing their frenzy," at least borrowing from the ideas of earlier thinkers. Rand herself recognized her debt to Aristotle, and if Jones (2006) is right, she may have owed Immanuel Kant more than she cared to admit.

Adam Smith always recognized a debt to Francois Quesnay, to whom The Wealth of Nations (henceforward: WN) would have been dedicated if Quesnay had not died before the book went to the publisher (Heilbroner, 1953). Before the discovery of Smith's Glasgow lectures on jurisprudence, it was in fact believed that the theory worked out in WN could be traced direcdy to Quesnay (Buchan, 2006). By the time he got to the lectures on jurisprudence, furthermore, Smith had published a book in which he offered his receipt for ideas that had come to him from distant antiquity.

"Look at the plants, sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy with their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world order." These lines come from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (1964, p.77). Their place in the history of economic thought is suggested by the fact that, seventeen years before WN, Smith included a long summary of Marcus Aurelius' ideas in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith, 2002, pp. 339-41; hereafter, TMS) referring at one point to these very lines. The notion of an invisible hand may have been something Smith stumbled across in his study of Marcus Aurelius. If so, libertarian ideals, far from something to which Rand or any other recent thinker can claim a copyright, have a place among the most longstanding elements of Western thought.

II. The Early Stoics

Marcus Aurelius (121-180) was the last and most famous (Hill, 2004) proponent of a philosophy known as Stoicism. Many of this philosophy's themes were pre-Socratic, but it stepped onto the world stage as a separate school late in the fourth century BC in the teaching of a man named Zeno. Zeno's father was a merchant in purple whose business took him as far as Tyre and Sidon in one direction and as far as Athens in the other (Arnold, 1958). Coming as it did from the son of a widely traveled entrepreneur, Zeno's philosophy was free from the an ti- commercial and ethnocentric biases of Plato and Aristotie.

Libertarian tendencies are evident in Zeno's orientation and points of emphasis. Plato and Aristotie addressed themselves to the aristocracy and to young men looking forward to positions of authority (Arnold, 1958). …

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