Timon of Athens: Generous or Intemperate?

It is tempting to view the eponymous main character of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as a good man gone bad. Shakespeare seemingly presents Timon as a generous man who finds that others are not as generous as he when he, his resources exhausted from his spree of giving, finds himself in a time of need. As a result of the hardhearted behavior of his ostensible friends, from perspective, Timon turns his philanthropy into misanthropy, retreating into the wildness to nurse his newfound hatred of mankind. It is possible, however, to see the play, rather than as a movement from love to hatred or generosity to miserliness, instead as a commentary on two different but related types of intemperance.

Immediately upon entering the stage in the first scene of the play, Timon’s first actions are to begin giving away money to those around him. He hears that someone he knows has been imprisoned because of a debt he owes and, without another question, offer the money to pay for his release and to continue supporting him even after he has been released. “‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after,” claims Timon. Timon then turns to offer more money to help his servant marry the woman with whom he desires to build a household.

Each of these cases appears to be an act of charity performed by Timon out of kindness. Each of them is also, however, an example of intemperate dealings in money. The man whom Timon helps to pay his way out of prison is clearly a man who has not well managed his wealth and so cannot be expected to deal honestly with Timon’s money either. Similarly, the servant Lucilius to whom Timon provides the money to marry is almost certain to end up in debt once again by marrying a woman and beginning a family it is clearly beyond his means to support.

Timon’s intemperance continues into the second scene of the play as he hosts a sumptuous banquet for the men of Athens. The exorbitance of Timon’s banquet is proclaimed by the god Cupid himself, who announces to Timon that “the five best senses / Acknowledge thee their patron; and come freely / To gratulate thy plenteous bosom.”

It is this intemperance, rather than any sort of generosity, that presents a contrast with the sort of person Timon becomes in the second half of the play. After he is denied help by his friends once he himself falls into financial need, Timon leaves civilization behind, going to live a cave. There, he discovers a large reserve of gold which he provides to Alcibiades and two prostitutes with him to help them bring on the destruction of the city of Athens, proclaiming “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.”

Just as Timon’s seemingly generous behavior early in the play was an example of excess, so now is Timon’s reaction to having been slighted by those he believed were his friends. He turns from a philanthropism that lacked temperance to a misanthropism equally lacking in temperance. What has not changed, however, is that deeper aspect of Timon’s personality that has motivated both his love and his hatred, namely, his intemperance.

The Good of Poverty in Aristophanes’s “Wealth”

In his “Plutus,” or “Wealth,” the Greek playwright Aristophanes presents the possibility of catastrophic consequences resulting from actions otherwise expected to be universally beneficial. In so writing, Aristophanes raises questions not only about the specific subject of the play, wealth, but also wider questions about relationship of want to need.

The play begins with Chremylus and his slave Cario in a chance encounter with the eponymous god of wealth. Discovering that wealth is a blind dotard, they determine to bring him to the temple of the god Asclepius for healing. Chremylus describes this plan as an “honest and god-fearing plan, a plan which is good and full of virtue, a plan which will serve the whole of humanity!” He explains, “If the god of Wealth regains his eyesight, he won’t be wandering aimlessly and blindly about like he does now and he’ll be able to see who’s honest and who’s not and so he’ll go to the good folk and shun all the godless crooks and all the bastards. The result? Everyone will become good and god-fearing … and rich!”

Chremylus and Cairo have concocted a scheme which they believe will result in the establishment of a utopia. Wealth, freed of his blindness and able to move about with  youthful freedom and swiftness, can now bring his gifts to all good people.. As a result, good people will be rewarded for their goodness. All people, then, desiring to partake of the bounties of Wealth, will become good.

After his healing at the temple, Wealth begins to fulfill this plan, going about to reward the good for their goodness. The result of this munificence, however, is not entirely what was expected. Rather than creating a utopian society, the abundance of wealth begins to cause the destruction of society.

Chremylus had desired that “that the good folk, the god-fearing folk, the folk who do an honest day’s work” would be those to benefit from his plan because, he says, they “should be the ones who deserve to be rich, not the dishonest, godless crooks!” Visited by the goddess Poverty, Chremylus is warned, however, that should his plan come to fruition no one will be “do[ing] an honest day’s work.” “If Wealth were to get his sight back and if he spread himself around to everyone,” Poverty warns, “who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?” All of the workmen, including the “smiths and . . . the ship builders, . . . the tailors, the cartwheel makers, the cobblers, the brick makers, the launderers, the tanners” and those who “till the soil with the ploughs and then reap” will choose instead to “sit around idly all day, doing nothing and caring about nothing.” Without the threat of poverty, no one will exert themselves or risk their health to do work. “It is I who forces them to do all that work,” says Poverty. “Yes, me, Poverty, whom they all want to avoid and earn themselves a livelihood, it is I who’ll be making them do all that work for you!”

Once Chremylus goes through with his plan, he finds that more dire consequences follow as a result of his actions. Just after returning from the healing of Wealth, he encounters an old woman whose young lover has left her because he no longer relied upon her for her wealth. Within this single broken relationship is encapsulated the two primary relationships that uphold and perpetuate any society, the love relationship between man and woman and the relationship of respect and dependence between the young and the old. With wealth gone, there is no need for anyone to depend upon another for sustenance. The result is that lovers separate from each other and the young, no longer in need of the inheritance passed on by the old, no longer respect the elderly.

The final calamity to result from the new profusion of wealth is revealed to Chremylus by the god Hermes, who comes to inform him that Zeus is “angry [with him] because from the moment you gave Wealth his sight back, we gods received nothing from you mortals! Not a single sacrifice, not a whiff of incense, not a single leaf of bay, not a single barley cake, not one victim, nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Because there are no more wants among men, piety has abated. Men no longer rely upon, and so no longer worship, the gods.

Through his effort toward creating a utopia, Chremylus has caused the dissolution of the primary institutions necessary to the continued stability of society: work, family, and religion. Through his exploration of these unexpected consequences of Chemylus’s attempt to eradicate poverty, Aristophanes also points to the often wide chasm between human want and human need, between what people believe is best and what is really best.

Aristotle and John Locke on Property

In his treatment “Of Property” in the fifth chapter of his Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke evinces the various ways in which he has been significant influenced by the thought of Aristotle on the subjects of wealth and property ownership. He also, however, departs from and makes meaningful additions to the theories of Aristotle on key points, thereby forging a theory of his own from the foundation provided by Aristotle.

Both Aristotle and Locke begin their exploration of the origins of property with the notion of an original human family which held all property in common. Aristotle asserts that “the first community . . . which is the family . . . originally had all things in common.” Locke, adding to this the biblical names of Adam and Noah as the forefathers of the collective human family, similarly states that God granted the entire world to “Adam, and to Noah, and his sons,” from which “it is very clear, that God . . . has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.”

From this original collective ownership of the earth, both Aristotle and Locke explain, there was a departure in favor of private ownership, from which, in turn, resulted the development of exchange and, later still, the use of money. It is in the reasons they provide for this departure from a primitive collectivism that Aristotle and Locke begin to depart from each other in their respective theories. Aristotle puts forward the notion that the development of private ownership out of the early collective economy of the primeval human family was the result of the growth of the population. “Later, when the family divided into parts,” says Aristotle, “the parts shared in many things, and different parts in different things.” The division of property among private owners, then, is the result of the limitation of one’s purview to those things that are of direct concern to one.

Locke, however, offers a theory that, while not in conflict with Aristotle’s ideas, provides an alternative explanation for the development of private property out of early common ownership. Locke sees this development as a natural extension of the private ownership each person naturally possesses over his or her own body. “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,” says Locke, “yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.” Because of this natural ownership over one’s own body, it is also the case that anything one uses one’s body to produce is also one’s own. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his,” according to Locke.

While Locke’s theory of the origin of private property does not stand in opposition to the theory of Aristotle on the same subject, and the two are even potentially complementary, there is a clear difference in their perspectives on this point. After this brief departure from another another, however, Locke returns again to an agreement with Aristotle in his theories of the origins of exchange and money, adding to Aristotle while relying upon Aristotle’s earlier assessments.

Commenting on the origins of an exchange economy, Aristotle states that “the art of exchange extends . . . arises at first from what is natural, from the circumstance that some have too little, others too much” of certain goods. As a result, an individual exchanges that which he has too much of for that which he has too little of with another individual who finds himself in the inverse situation. The use of money developed, continues Aristotle, because the “various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like.”

While holding to a nearly identical theory regarding the development of an exchange economy and the use of money, Locke adds to Aristotle’s idea the observation that those goods which are necessary to life are generally perishable goods. “And thus came in the use of money,” writes Locke, “some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.”

While departing slightly in some places and proposing slightly divergent alternative theories in others, Locke largely relies upon Aristotle’s account regarding the origins of private property, the exchange economy, and the use of money. Given the clear reliance of Locke upon Aristotle’s ideas, it is perhaps useful to view Locke’s writing on the subject as a commentary upon the earlier work of Aristotle upon the same.

“Productive and Unproductive Labour” in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations

In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”

The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.

Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”

The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.

It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.

It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.

Responses to Darwinism in the Gilded Age

Just as the Copernican Revolution several centuries earlier had displaced the earth and its inhabitants from the center of the universe, so the Darwinism of the nineteenth century unseated man from the throne he had claimed for himself. With the earth removed from the center of the universe by Copernicus and man removed from the zenith of the created order by Darwin, the old understanding of human beings and their place in the cosmos was overthrown. The task taken up by thinkers of the generation after Darwin was to understand the implications of Darwin’s theory for humanity and to formulate a cohesive philosophy capable of imbuing human life with meaning while taking the new scientific discoveries into account. In the words of historian Ruth C. Crocker, as in European thought, “American intellectual life in the Gilded Age is often viewed primarily in terms of a response to Darwinism.”1

Perhaps the most ubiquitous element of this response was a newfound impetus for the idea of progress. Westerners, particularly Americans, had made the idea of progress a central aspect of their self-understanding since the Enlightenment. In fact, Darwin himself was one of the inheritors of this idea and his theories in large part presuppose and depend upon it. In short, “the idea of evolution gets some of its moral, social, and even cosmic significance from its implication that the general motion in the world of living things, perhaps in the universe, is a progress from lower to higher forms.”2 All of the various Gilded Age responses to Darwin’s ideas, no matter how much they may differ from each other on their particulars, share in this belief in and focus upon progress. In their beliefs about what constituted progress and precisely what man and the cosmos were progressing toward, however, the various responses differed radically from one another.

European responses to Darwinism were often attempts at a synthesis with Hegelianism, another philosophy, very popular and influential throughout Europe, which placed a strong emphasis on the idea of progress. According to historian Richard Tarnas, “metaphysically inclined scientists such as Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to conjoin the scientific picture of evolution with philosophies similar to Hegel.”3 These philosophies tended to see the process of evolution as oriented toward a divinely-directed goal and a point of unity between God, the cosmos, and man in the future. American responses, however, as well as later European responses, tended in the opposite direction of denying the possibility of formulating any “metaphysical system claiming the existence of a universal order accessible to human awareness” and emphasizing the disunity, and even enmity, between human beings and between all creatures.

The philosophy of pragmatism, the product of the thought of American philosophers and psychologists William James and John Dewey, which “question[ed] whether there was such a thing as universal truth,” is one example of the former type of response to Darwinism.4 According to James, Dewey, and the other pragmatists, ideas and beliefs were similar to the biological components of a species. There were none that were true in an absolute sense, or at least discernible as such as by biological beings such as humans, but some were “true” in a contingent sense in that they had demonstrated value for the current state of the species. This idea cast all ideas, as well as the very concept of and search for truth, into question.

Social Darwinism is perhaps the greatest example of the latter type of American response to Darwinism in its emphasis on the competition between individual men as well as between races and social classes. One of the most extreme proponents of a philosophy of pure Social Darwinism was the sociologist William Graham Sumner. Sumner spent a large portion of his career defending the thesis that social policy should adhere to the concept of survival of the fittest. To this end, Sumner attacked any program which attempted to aid the poor through charity or to redistribute wealth as contrary to nature and detrimental to the future of humanity. He believed that “feeding the hungry and unemployed” impeded the progress of human evolution and that “unfit people” should be allowed “to die, or at least not reproduce.”5 Although Sumner was one of the most outspoken and extreme advocates of Social Darwinism, the philosophy itself was popular throughout the American elite and was used by such figures as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie to justify their tenacious pursuit of financial success to the detriment of others.

The various reactions to and extensions of Darwinism during the Gilded Age, including in the European attempts at a synthesis between Darwin and Hegel, as well as in American pragmatism and Social Darwinism, all demonstrate the disorienting effect Darwinism had on Western thought at the close of the 19th century. For some, as with the pragmatists, this displacement in ideas was impetus to abandon the very search for truth. For many, such as the Social Darwinists, this displacement prompted a kind of conservative synthesis, in which older ideas were combined with Darwinism in order to present a firmer ideological basis for the status quo. For all, Darwinism forever changed the nature of Western thought.


1 Ruth C. Rocker, “Cultural and Intellectual Life in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 219.

2 Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 437.

3Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 383. 

4 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 144.

5 Edwards, 144.



Calhoun, Charles W. The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Editor. The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 3: The Great Ideas: II. Chicago: William Benton, 1952.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

The Cold War and Modern Identity

Although the 20th century was a period great trials and tribulations throughout the world, including the two world wars, the anti-colonialist movements throughout Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, and the many massacres and genocides, such as the Turkish massacre of Armenians and the Holocaust carried out in Nazi-occupied Europe, if a single defining event must be pinpointed, the defining feature of the 20th century must undoubtedly be said to be the Cold War. The Cold War, which lasted for nearly half of the 20th century, saw first Europe and then most of the rest of the world divided into two camps, communist and authoritarian on one side and capitalist and democratic on the other. The split between these two groups of powers, the former headed by the Soviet Union and the latter led by the United States, was viewed by both sides as an apocalyptic struggle of good versus evil, liberty versus oppression, and democracy versus tyranny. Both sides of the Cold War, the communistic and authoritarian as well as the capitalistic and democratic, have deep roots in the history of Western civilization; the Cold War, then, represented a kind of coming of age and decision point in Western culture, in which sets of principles which had been at tension with one another nearly since the inception of Western thought finally reached a point at which one idea must triumph over the other. Although, of course, the capitalist and democratic ideas won out over the communist and authoritarian, as with nearly any conflict of such a clearly Hegelian nature, the conflict produced a kind of synthesis in which the representatives of capitalism also absorbed portions of communism and the representatives of democracy also absorbed or made peace with elements of authoritarianism. In the end, the Cold War was not so much a victory for either side as an exercise in Hegelian dialectic, in which the final result was, while dominated by one side, a synthesis of both sides.

Although the birth of communism is most readily associated with the labor movements of the 19th century and especially with the thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the famous, or perhaps infamous, Manifesto of the Communist Party, as even they point out in the Manifesto, the roots of communism are much deeper in history, and extend to the very origins of Western thought in both of its earliest contributors, Greek philosophy and Jewish religion.1 The similarities between Marx’s ideas and the communal utopia expounded upon by Plato in his Republic are glaring and have been noted by many commentators in the past. Desmond Lee, a scholar in classics and ancient philosophy, for instance, has drawn attention to Plato’s injunction that “both private property and the family are to be abolished” in Plato’s utopia.2 The abolition of private property is, of course, a cornerstone of Marxist philosophy. Although the attempt would later be abandoned, especially during and following World War II, during its earlier, more idealistic phase, the leadership of the Soviet Union, in hopes of creating a communist utopia, also made “a sustained effort … to undermine the family,” which included “establish[ing] collective kitchens and day care centers.”3 According to Nicholas V. Riasanovksy and Mark D. Steinberg, both professors of Russian history, “some Bolshevik leaders even spoke of ‘free love,’” a practice and principle which also bears a similarity to the counsel of Plato.4

In regards to the Jewish antecedents of communist thought, the prolific 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell, among many others, has pointed out that the “soteriology” and “eschatology” of Marxism are essentially biblical in character; Russell even provides a handy “dictionary” to Marx’s ideas:

Yahweh=Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah=Marx
The Elect=The Proletariat
The Church=The Communist Party
The Second Coming=The Revolution
Hell=Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium=The Communist Commonwealth5

Marxist communism in both the form developed by Marx himself and in its later develops in the Soviet Union represents a combination of these and other similar elements in Western thought.

Similarly, democracy and capitalism in their modern liberal forms, which largely emerged from the thought of the Enlightenment, also have deep roots in Western thought. In the first book of history by the West’s first historian, The History of Herodotus, the wars between the Persians and the Greeks in the 5th century BCE are identified as struggles between “freedom” and “slavery” and consistently portrayed in such terms and ideas throughout.6 The Greek polis of Athens is, of course, generally identified as the world’s first democracy and even Sparta, with its characteristically militaristic and authoritarian society, has traditionally been granted a measure of respect as in some sense embodying the first fundaments of later Western democratic ideals, as, for instance, in its insistence on multiple rulers who must reach unanimous agreement in matters of policy so that no one individual can hold absolute power or unilateral decision-making authority.

Just as with communism, democracy and capitalism also had their antecedents in Jewish thought. Historian Thomas Cahill, for instance, has pointed out that “capitalism, communism, and democracy” are all in some sense

children of the Bible, … modeled on biblical faith and demanding of their adherents that they always hold in their hearts a belief in the future and keep before their eyes the vision of a better tomorrow, whether that tomorrow contains a larger gross domestic product or a workers’ paradise. … Democracy … grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny. There is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without the intervention of the Jews.7

While democracy, capitalism, and communism, as well as the measure of authoritarianism which the latter implies, all have roots in the very earliest origins of Western thought and have existed alongside each other in that thought as well as in practice since their inception, they have clearly existed in tension and in competition. With the onset of the Cold War, this tension took on new proportions and finally demanded a resolution.

The American poet Walt Whitman once poignantly wrote that it was on the United States that the “Earth’s résumé entire floats” and, addressing the United States itself, added “the antecedent nations sink or swim with thee.”8 In other words, the United States, in the view of Whitman, acts as the heir and representative of the entirety of the tradition of Western civilization. While there may be those who would debate Whitman’s point, there is undoubtedly a great measure of truth to it. The United States, more than any other nation, enshrined the democratic principles of Western thought in its founding documents and principles. No nation embodies Enlightenment thought on politics and economics, as well as in other areas, more than the United States. The principles of the equality of all men before the law, of popular participation in government and the insistence that the state possess the consent of the governed, of the freedom of the individual human conscience, and other similar principles which are essentially unique to Western thought all entered into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, two documents which might, not inaccurately, be referred to as American scripture.

In 1917, with the Bolshevik Revolution and the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union, an, in a sense, equal-and-opposite of the United States was established. If the United States can be considered the representative of the democratic and capitalist principles of Western thought, the Soviet Union can be seen as the embodiment of the authoritarian and communist principles. The Soviet government nearly immediately set about trying to build an ostensibly more egalitarian society, “a new realm of freedom and equality, free of conflict.”9

This age-old dream of such a utopia was alluring even to those who lived in the capitalist democracies and republics of the United States and Western Europe. This is particularly true of Marxism’s claim that “the proletarian revolution marks the end of … [the] historic process.”10 David Gress, a historian whose work has focused on Western identity, has pointed out that this view of communism as replacing and surpassing, perhaps in some sense fulfilling, capitalist democracies drew the admiration of Western intellectuals for the Soviet Union. Following World War II and the collapse of European fascism as well as the witness of worldwide atrocities, the conscience of the West was piqued. According to Gress, “what they needed was the secularized religious impulse that impelled political and intellectual leaders to continue the search for the perfect society, for the revolutionary transformation of all existing conditions, for the place and the moment of the leap into the kingdom of freedom.”11 It was this that allowed the Soviet Union to attain the “moral high ground of anticapitalism” both in the minds of its own leaders as well as in the minds of many Westerners.12

Although the two had been rather cordial allies during World War II and had defeated Nazi Germany with its fascist ideals through their combined efforts, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to a wide split from one another. Almost immediately after their mutual victory over Germany, the two sides of the ideological split retreated from each other and entrenched themselves into their ideological camps. As early as 5 March 1946, less than a full year after the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied powers, Winston Churchill, who had served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the majority of World War II, referred to this ideological split, using the phrase “iron curtain,” which would later become popular parlance in describing the situation of the Cold War:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.13

On the other side of that “iron curtain,” of course, were the United States and its democratic and capitalistic allies in Europe, including Churchill’s own United Kingdom. A line had been drawn in the proverbial sand. In the words of Louis J. Halle, a political scientist who worked in the U.S. State Department during the Cold War:

In ideological terms, the Cold War presented itself as a worldwide contest between liberal democracy and Communism. Each side looked forward to the eventual supremacy of its system all over the earth. The official Communist goal was the liberation of mankind from capitalist oppression. Ideologically minded Westerners interpreted this as signifying that Moscow was trying to impose its own authoritarian system on a world it meant to rule. Americans, for their part, had traditionally looked forward to the liberation of mankind from the oppression of autocracy, and to the consequent establishment of their own liberal system throughout the world. To the ideologists in Moscow this meant that “the imperialist ruling circles” in America were trying to enslave all mankind under the yoke of Wall Street.14

This ideological split and the consequent perceptions on either side of it would lead to one of the world’s most protracted and widespread conflicts, which played itself out on nearly every continent of the world in wars both “hot” and “cold.”

The Cold War would, of course, end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This collapse is popularly viewed as the final triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism over communism and authoritarianism. Some commentators, such as Francis Fukuyama, a former deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff, have even went as far as declaring the end of the Cold War to be “the end of history,” in an ironic use of the same Hegelian ideas Marx made use of in declaring communism to be the final result of the historical dialectic.15

The truth of the situation, however, is that, in a far more Hegelian fashion, the result of the dialectic of the two antitheses was a synthesis. The United States, even while expounding on the virtues of democracy, supported autocratic regimes throughout the world, such as that of Shah Mohammad Pahlavi in Persia, on the condition that they opposed communism. While it could be argued that such support was hypocritical, it may also, more positively, be portrayed as an acknowledgement of the value of authoritarian rule in some cultural contexts. In addition, throughout the Cold War, the United States and, to an arguably greater extent, its European allies adopted a number of reforms which reflected the social ideals of communism, including protection for workers’ rights, social welfare systems, universalized healthcare, and others. In the end, these concessions to communism are a large part of what brought down the Soviet Union; in granting that the communists had a point in regards to their criticisms of wealth and poverty in the Western world and the exploitation of the laboring class, the capitalistic democratic nations regained the moral high ground and won the war of ideas. The West became the synthesis, rendering the antithesis obsolete.

Notes 1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 50: Marx (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 419.

2 Desmond Lee, “Translator’s Introduction” in Plato, The Republic (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), xliv.

3 Nicholas V. Riasanovksy and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia, Eighth Edition (New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2011), 595.

4 Ibid.

5 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 364.

6 Herodotus, The History, Book IX, 45, in Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 6: Herodotus and Thucydides (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 298.

7 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 249.

8 Walt Whitman, “Thou Mother With Thy Equal Brood,” 4, Leaves of Grass (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 564.

9 Riasanovksy and Steinberg, History of Russia, 482.

10 Ibid., 481.

11 David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 404.

12 Ibid.

13 Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace,” http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/1946/s460305a_e.htm (accessed 30 December 2012).

14 Louis J. Halle, “The Cold War as History,” in Kevin Reilly, Readings in World Civilizations, Volume 2: The Development of the Modern World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 265.

15 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” in Marc A. Genest, ed., Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, Second Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2004), 393.

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The Great Reforms of the 19th Century

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia came to a crossroads in its history. Under the influence of ideas largely emanating from Western Europe, Russians began to question certain aspects of their traditional way of life and government. Of especial concern was the status of the serfs, a group of people who made up the vast majority of the population of the Russian Empire but possessed a status little above that of slaves. Throughout his reign in the years 1855 to 1881, Czar Alexander II implemented a number of reforms in government which drastically altered Russian society in order to bring it in line with the new views of what a just society should look like.

The first and by far the most drastic of the great reforms implemented by Alexander II was the emancipation of the serfs. In the years leading up to and beginning Alexander’s reign, an insurrectionist spirit had begun to foment among the lower classes in Russia. Discontented with their situation, serfs had launched a large and increasing number of small rebellions since the the turn of the nineteenth century. Early in his reign, Alexander II announced his intentions to emancipate the serfs to his advisers, confiding in them that it was “better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait till it begins to abolish itself from below.”1

After a prolonged deliberation on the proper means by which to go about this emancipation, Alexander II finally issued the the decree abolishing the institution of serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861. As a result of his decree, which at least one historian has referred to as “the greatest legislative act in history,” “some 52 million peasants, over 20 million of them serfs of private land owners,” were freed.2 Along with their freedom, however, came a great deal of debt and further disappointment. In an attempt to pacify the landlords, Alexander II had limited the amount of land the serfs took with them and had legislated the necessity of repaying the landlords for this land. As a result, “overpopulation and underemployment” were rampant “among former serfs, who, at least after a period of transition, were no longer obliged to work for the landlord and at the same time had less land to cultivate for themselves.”3

As Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg point out, “the emancipation of the serfs made other fundamental changes much more feasible.”4 Such sweeping legislation, no matter how haphazard and incomplete it might have been, could not help but act as a gateway to further reform in Russian society. Other reforms, particularly in Russian government, followed swiftly.

Perhaps the most important of these reforms in government in Russia was the implementation of the zemstvo system in local government. Local government in Russia had been ineffective and overly bureaucratic for centuries. Since the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762 to 1796, local government in Russia had been conducted with the participation of aristocratic landowners in the governed areas. With the establishment of his new system of local government, Alexander II sought to both update the system, making it an overall better functioning government, and also to allow for a measure of democracy by incorporating the participation of the newly-emancipated serfs.

To this end, the zemstvo system included representation from the peasant and urban classes in addition to the old landowning class. The range of government programs and services governed at the local level also increased under the zemstvo to include things such as “education, medicine, veterinary service, insurance, roads, the establishment of food reserves for emergency, and many others.”5

Although the zemstvo system had a number of drawbacks, it was largely a positive development for Russians and functioned very effectively until it was abolished following the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917. For example, “in effect, Russia obtained a kind of socialized medicine through the zemstvo long before other countries, with medical and surgical treatment available free of charge.”6 Such free universal access to quality healthcare is an accomplishment that would not be achieved in most of Western Europe until the twentieth century and has still not been achieved in some places in the Western world.7

In addition to the reform of local government, “at the end of 1864, the year that saw the beginning of the zemstvo administration, another major change was enacted into law: the reform of the legal system.”8 In order to put an end to the corrupt and antiquated practices and approaches rampant in the Russian legal system, Alexander II decreed a number of reforms. Perhaps the most significant of these reforms was the separation of the courts from the system of administration; Alexander II made the law courts a separate branch of government from the rest of the bureaucracy.

Two other particulars of Alexander II’s reform of the judiciary also stand out as of special importance among the many reforms thereof. The first is his simplifying of the system. Whereas there had formerly been a culture of secrecy and twenty-one different ways of conducting various kinds of court cases, Alexander II ordered that proceedings be done openly and that there be only two ways of conducting court. The other especially significant reform of the judiciary was the introduction of the right to trial by jury “for serious criminal offenses, while justices of the peace were established to deal with minor civil and criminal cases.”9 Finally, and by far most importantly, “all Russians were to be equal before the law and receive the same treatment.”10

The last of the great reforms of Alexander II was “a reorganization of the military service in 1874.”11 In the spirit of democratization that ran throughout the other reforms, the military was also remodeled in the interests of equality for all people. For example, “the obligation to serve was extended from the lower classes alone to all Russians.”12 In addition to widening the pool of conscripts, the minimum length of required service was also drastically reduced from 25 years, essentially a life sentence, to a mere six. A number of benefits also accrued to those were drafted, such as the guarantee of a basic education.

Czar Alexander II’s reforms of Russian society and government were sweeping and changed the face of Russia permanently throughout the course of his reign. Largely implemented in the hopes of quelling rebellion and appeasing the new and ever-growing groups of radicals and revolutionaries in Russia, Alexander II’s reforms went a great measure toward making Russia a more modern and certainly more democratic nation. As time would soon tell, however, his reforms were not implemented nearly soon enough nor were they, at least for a significant segment of the population and especially of the intelligentsia, nearly far-reaching enough. The opening of the twentieth century, and particularly the year 1917, would spell the end of Alexander II’s reforms and of the entirety of the old way of life, and would see the implementation of much broader and much deeper changes.

1 Czar Alexander II (1855). Quoted in Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 361.

2 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 368.

3 Ibid., 369.

4 Ibid., 370.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 371.

8 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 371.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 372.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. 

Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.