Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship

Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship

Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship

Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship

Synopsis

Although America's founders may have been inspired by the political thought of ancient Greece and Rome, the United States is more often characterized by its devotion to the pursuit of commerce. Some have even said that a modern commercial republic such as the United States unavoidably lowers its moral horizon to little more than a concern with securing peace and prosperity so that commerce can flourish. Michael Chan reconsiders this view of America through close readings of Aristotle and Alexander Hamilton, showing that America at its founding was neither as modern nor as low as we have been led to believe. He challenges the virtue/commerce divide that dominates modern thought by demonstrating that the prevailing views of Aristotle and Hamilton on commerce reflect misleading half-truths. Chan first examines Aristotle's views of economics as presented in the Politics, arguing that Aristotle was not as hostile to commerce as is commonly believed. He points out the philosopher's belief in the value of commercial acquisition in the interest of supplying citizens with the "equipment of virtue," citing Aristotle's praise of commercial Carthage over agrarian but much-esteemed Sparta. Chan then turns to a detailed account of the political economy of Hamilton, a proponent of an advanced industrial republic modeled on Great Britain. While many take Hamilton's advocacy of public credit, a national bank, and manufacturing as evidence of his rejection of classical republican thought in favor of modernity, Chan contends that Hamilton embraced a classically inspired economic statesmanship that transcended a concern with merely securing peace and prosperity. Leading the reader through the complexities of Hamilton's thought, Chan shows that he intended commerce to pursue the wider classical goals of forming the character of citizens, establishing harmony and justice, and pursuing national greatness. Rather than attempting to brand Hamilton an Aristotelian, Chan seeks to incorporate into the study of Hamilton's political economy what Aristotle himself regarded as the statesman's characteristic virtue, prudence. By reflecting on Hamilton in the context of Aristotle's own reflections on commerce, Chan casts him in a new light that cuts across the ongoing debate about liberal versus classical republican elements of the American founding. His cogent analysis also raises important questions regarding the American system as it is being challenged by conflicting worldviews. Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship makes a significant contribution to our understanding of both Hamiltonian thought and the moral worthiness of democratic capitalism.

Excerpt

Following the end of the Cold War and the consignment of Marxism to the ash heap of history’s failed ideologies, Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the liberal commercial republic as history’s final regime, as the one that is free from any “fundamental internal contradictions” and that satisfies humanity’s “deepest and most fundamental longings” for liberty and equality. A decade later, however, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America demonstrated that religious zealots were unwilling to see history end without a fight, or more precisely, a jihad. And it was no coincidence that the terrorists chose to strike the twin towers of the World Trade Center for they symbolized the economic power that underpins America’s military might, influence, liberty, and glory in the world. In other words, their destruction was not merely an attack on the American economy, but on the whole way of life that flows from it.

While the means that the terrorists employed to express their hostility to the modern commercial republic were undeniably barbaric, the hostility itself is not without a certain amount of religious foundation. After all, the bulk of the world’s great religions do not extol the unbridled pursuit of wealth and worldly goods—quite the contrary—and religion is not alone in having reservations against a life mainly devoted to producing and consuming. For example, environmentalists (especially of the “deep ecology” variety) worry about the long-term effects that industry and technology have on both the earth’s ecosystem and

1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, xi–xii.

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