Marx and originality

I am finally all caught up in the Great Books of the Western World reading project! My goal now is to stay on time with the reading and post twice each month with updates. Thank you for your patience to all who have been following this project. The first year is now nearly complete and it has been tremendously fruitful so far. I am looking forward to the rest of this year’s readings, none of which I have read in the past, and beginning a 2016 that, I hope, will be at least as fruitful as this year has been.

Marx, whose Communist Manifesto is our most recent read for the project, is another thinker who, along with Smith and others, I have had the opportunity to spend a great amount of time with during my PhD seminar on Wealth as a Great Idea this semester. Our readings for the seminar were all from the much longer and more in depth Das Kapital, so it was a delight to read this Manifesto, which is essentially a simplified and abbreviated treatment of Marx’s philosophy. So far as I can tell, Marx’s point in the Manifesto was to present his philosophy to a popular audience in a way that any fairly educated person could understand. If this was indeed his goal, as it seems to me to have been, I think he did a great deal to accomplish it, though I think he might have spared us some of the rhetoric.

Like Smith, I believe Marx is another great economic thinker who is frequently misunderstood and so unappreciated. When reading and interpreting Marx, we tend to view him through the lens of the atrocities committed in his name in the 20th century. While it is beyond the scope of this blog post to offer an assessment of whether those atrocities were the inevitable result of Marx’s philosophy, I am willing to aver that Marx himself would not have approved of a Stalin, a Mao, or Pol Pot, nor probably even of a Lenin. Ultimately, what motivates Marx’s philosophy, however different it may be from Smith’s, is identical to what motivated Adam Smith, namely, a concern for the suffering of the poor. If viewed in this light, I think it is possible to have an authentic appreciation for Marx and for his ideas, no matter how much one might disagree with him.

With that said, one of the things that strikes me most when reading Marx is his lack of originality. While Marx’s is a unique formulation of the ideas to which he subscribes, remarkably few of Marx’s ideas are original to him. The only idea that I am able to identify in Marx’s philosophy which is, as far as I know, unique to Marx is the idea of the alienation produced by industrial society. It is notable that I also find this idea the most interesting, compelling, and accurately descriptive in Marx’s works.

Adam Smith and economic freedom

As I finally catch up on the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I come now, somewhat out of order, to Smith. The introduction and first nine chapters of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations technically follow the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers in the Great Books of the Western World reading list, but I have been reading October’s readings side-by-side and finished Smith first. I have actually had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time reading, contemplating, and discussing Smith over the past few months as I have been engaged in a PhD seminar on “Wealth” as one of the great ideas.

One of the aspects of Smith’s thought that strikes me most each time I read him is what it is that is motivating him. One frequently hears the name of Smith abused in contemporary debates about economic systems. He is often referred to, by those who no doubt have never actually read his work but only seen him mentioned in textbooks, as the father of cold, hard laissez-faire capitalism. He seems most commonly to be seen as a sort of Ayn Rand figure who believed in the virtue of greed.

The reality, as we see in this selection from his most important work, however, is that Smith was motivated essentially by his compassion for the poor. Smith believed that through economic freedom a superabundance of goods and luxuries could be produced which would make a society richer in a general sense, thereby raising the standard of living for even the poorest members of that society. And while Smith may have erred in some of the details of his ideas, the wealth of those nations that have more or less followed his road map today is sufficient evidence in favor of the soundness of his thesis. With but few exceptions, even the poorest Americans and Western Europeans enjoy a lifestyle that far surpasses that of the poor in many other places in the world and that surpasses by a long shot nearly all of the poor anywhere in the world before the modern era. Smith is certainly a thinker with whom we should be more familiar and whose ideas deserve more respect and consideration than they currently receive.

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.