Our Unlikely Hero

Our Unlikely Hero

So…we’re going to start today by making two somewhat controversial statements.  First, Baruch Spinoza was one of the most significant but least acknowledged influences on the American Founding Fathers.  And second, despite his role as one of the earliest and most prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment (which, as regular readers can attest, we rather dislike) we have grown considerably, over the years, in our appreciation for Spinoza.

There are numerous reasons that both of the above are true (or at least true, in our opinion, in the case of the first statement).

We’ll try to avoid getting too far into the weeds on this today, but the first and perhaps most important reason is that, in many ways, Spinoza presaged Adam Smith and many of the American Founders in his beliefs about the nature of man and the necessity of placing VOLUNTARY limits on that nature.

In his Ethics, Spinoza developed what he called the Conatus Principle, summed up simply as “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in being.”  Although they are not exactly the same, the Conatus Principle very much resembles the economic dictum Smith famously describes in The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  Man (or all things, according to Spinoza) seeks his own interests first and foremost.

Despite this predisposition toward self-preservation/self-interest, men, nevertheless manage to live together and, under proper conditions, to thrive – physically, mentally, socially, and economically.  The reason man is able to do so, of course, is that he is able in his rational wisdom, to control his passions and to behave in a manner that enables mutually beneficial arrangements.

As a Jew in a world dominated by Christians and Christian thought, Spinoza was, understandably, extremely concerned with security, safety, and the freedom to thrive in society.  Like Hobbes, Spinoza saw man in the state of nature as unrestrained and subject only to his passions.  Also like Hobbes, Spinoza saw the formation of society (the social contract, more or less) as a necessary covenantal pledge between men and a sovereign to control their passions for the betterment of the whole. Unlike Hobbes, however, Spinoza saw this covenant in strictly extra-religious terms and sought specifically to secularize the covenant and remove any need for an appeal to religion from the validity of social and political unions.

To that end, Spinoza vigorously promoted the separation of Church and State and advocated for a social contract heavily reliant on secular pledges of restraint, pledges not dependent on higher (God-given) morality but that could only be met through the practice and application of virtue.  In short, Spinoza’s social contract is one of obedience, responsibility, and duty – all of which are the visible effects of the application of virtue.  In this way, he argued, man, society, and the sovereign are all able to promote and defend the Conatus Principle most effectively.

Now, note how well this vision of society comports with that of Adam Smith, himself a believer in the importance of virtues: “upon the tolerable observance of these duties [of justice, of truth, of chastity, of fidelity],” Smith wrote, “depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important rules of conduct.”

As Smith and his fellow Scot Adam Ferguson understood, the “spontaneous order” that characterizes both capitalism and self-government is impossible to create and maintain without specific preconditions, including the practice and application of virtues.  Prudence, courage, and trustworthiness are among the virtues that enable the self-interest that drives man to seek power and wealth to be tempered and to become that which Tocqueville described as “self-interest rightly understood.”  They are also, Spinoza would add, the virtues that enable men to live together, to their mutual benefit, pursuing the Conatus Principle while nevertheless actively endeavoring NOT to destroy their fellow men and loot their belongings.

According to these three, then, these virtues (and others) are the preconditions for society, self-government, and the commercial economy.  Without them, nothing good happens.

Regular readers will note that we are fond of quoting John Adams in his “Letter to the Massachusetts Militia,” writing that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  But this is hardly the only example of our Founders embracing the type of virtue-ethics social covenant advocated by Spinoza.

In the Constitution of Massachusetts, for example, Adams and his fellow drafters remind themselves and their fellow citizens that “piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government” (Article XVIII), and that “the preservation of their rights and liberties” are contingent upon “virtue (being) diffused generally among the body of the people” (Chapter V).

In his April 16, 1776 “Letter to Mercy Otis Warren,” Adams wrote of republican government that “when its Principles are pure, [it] is admirable indeed. It is productive of every Thing, which is great and excellent among Men. But its Principles are as easily destroyed, as human Nature is corrupted.”  He continued:

Such a Government is only to be supported by pure Religion, or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a possitive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is “the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour.”  In his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson warned his fellow Americans that a “decay of virtue,” would inevitably threaten their liberty.  Washington said that “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and that “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.”  Madison wrote that “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”  Samuel Adams stated that “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.  He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”  In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin listed the positive characteristics – that is, the virtues – that comprise the constitution of the ideal republican citizen:

    1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.
    2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
    3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
    4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
    5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e. waste nothing.
    6. Industry: Lose no time — be always employed in something useful — cut off all unnecessary actions.
    7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocent and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
    8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
    9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
    10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
    11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
    12. Chastity
    13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

There is direct evidence of familiarity with Spinoza in the cases of only a handful of the Founders:  John Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin.  Nevertheless, the ideas Spinoza articulated are clearly reflected in the founding principles – just as they are in the moral sentiments of Adam Smith.  Indeed, concerning the latter, what is the “Invisible Hand” if not the collective wisdom accumulated by the societal practice of virtue?

Today, of course, we Americans are trapped in a war between competing values-derived moral codes, belief systems about which various factions of the ruling class are confidently self-righteous but which are not backed by any semblance of behavioral norms (virtues) that would guarantee their just and fair application.  The FBI knows who the real terrorists are, and it need not practice patience or prudence in accumulating evidence against them.  Attorneys for the nation’s largest civil rights law firm are so convinced of the morality of their cause and the evil of their opponents that they need not exercise any wisdom, moderation, or honesty.  The mainstream media knows inarguably that “democracy” is “at stake” in the outcome of so many news events that they feel unembarrassed about affecting those outcomes without employing any humility, industry, or sincerity.

And on and on it goes.

If Spinoza was correct that the self-sacrifice of virtue is what makes society possible; and if Adam Smith was right that the Invisible Hand of virtue is what turns “self-interest” into “Enlightened self-interest” and thus enables a functional commercial economy; and if the Founders were right that there can be no liberty without virtue, then we suspect that we are reaching a point of denouement in the Great American Experiment.

And we are not especially optimistic about what comes next.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.