Monday, July 16, 2012


I finished yesterday Jerry Muller's, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought. It has been on my shelf for several years; I should have read it sooner. It is interesting and worth looking at.  He offers several insights I had not seen, showed that several ideas I have used are older than I realized, and provided an interesting balance of intellecutals who were supporting capitalism, opposing capitalism, and were ambivalent to capitalism.

His openning chapter, which provides the historical backdrop to his work, discusses the general hostility toward trade and money-making within two old traditions in European thought--the Christian tradition and the tradition of civic republicanism.  In the latter, Plato, Aristotole and most ancient philosophers disparaged commerce.  The goal of society was to enable free men to live a good life, which included heavy civic involvement and the military defense of the city-state. Merchants were often permitted in the cities due to necessity, but usually could not be citizens.  Muller claims that the Church softened its stance a little as a result of a more dynamic economy in the Late Middle Ages (1100-1300). 

Another important feature of intellectual life prior to modernity was the idea that the state should aid its members to achieve a shared good life.  There would be a purpose to society that all agreed upon, or at least the leaders agreed upon.  Again, virtue might be seen as a key part of it.  But the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries induced some to reject the idea of a shared goal.  Muller writes, "The great historical fact that served as the moral backdrop for thinking about capitalism was not the factory or the mill, but war--not war with the foreign invader, but internal war, civil war, between men with rival views of ultimate salvation, men who were so sure of their view of salvation that they were prepared to shed the blood of their fellow man in order to save his soul."  It was against this backdrop that some began a search for a way to live together without an overarching shared goal, but one that allowed people to pursue their own goals. Muller continued, "As long as religious factions saw the state as a proper tool for the enforcement of faith, religiously based civil war was a possibility. And as long as the state legiimated itself as guiding its citizens to a single, unified purpose and vision of the good life, the state would be prey to religious civil war."  Muller notes, "These seventeenth-century thinkers envisioned the future as one in which the state would restrict its claims to realize a shared vision of the good life. Much of modern politics has been a revold against this rejection of the good life as the pupose of politics."

Muller has chapters, or parts of chapters on, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Justus Moeser, Edmund Burke, Hegel, Marx, Matthew Arnold, Weber, Simmel, Sombart, Lukacs, Freyer, Schumpeter, Keynes, Marcuse, and Hayek.  I have used Hayek's idea that we live in two worlds at the same time--the communal or familial world and the great society and we operate differently in these two world.  I had not realized how much of this thought is found in Hegel.  One unifying thought among all the intellecutals discussed by Muller is that they accepted the idea that capitalism was extremely productive at increasing wealth; but not all thought this was a good thing, or at least thought that other costs associated with capitalism were too great.

I also was not as aware as I should have been on the historical linkage between anticapitalism and antisemitism. Jews had moved into commerce and banking in Europe, often because other sources of employment were not open to them. Then, when they were relatively rich, were villified as the plunderers of the people.  Hayek, who was not Jewish, tended to almost consider himself a Jew because his intellectual milleau in Austria were primarily Jews, and he identified with them as in some sense an outsider to the society. He sought a society where being a Jew would not matter, which he thought more likely in the great society than in the parts of society that were more communal.

Muller also offers some interesting quotes from Keynes.  Muller writes, "He [Keynes] disparaged this elevation of the future over the present as an attempt 'to secure a spurious and delusive immortality.'"  It sounds like his "in the long run we're all dead" line was not just a rhetorical flourish. Keynes focused on the short run and disparaged the long run and saving in general. Keynes linked deferred gratification with the quest for immortality as well as usury and the Jews. Muller quotes Keynes again, "'Perhaps it is not an accident that the race which did most to bring the promise of immortality into the heart and essence of our religions has also done the most for the principle of compound interest and partuclarly loves this most purposive of human institutions."  Muller cites volume 2 of the three volume biography on Keynes by Robert Skidelsky for Keynes' views on Jews.

In some of my work on why so many thelogians don't like markets, I have noted that for many, especially those in Radical Orthodoxy, the history of an idea is important. Muller has helped with this. But what Muller also does and the theologians tend not to do, is also related the history of ideas to history--the things going on in the lives of people that provide a backdrop to the ideas.  I am more convinced of how important this task is.  Muller has done a good job, in my view.

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