The Magazine

Hamilton's Virtue

How Aristotle's philosophy led to the American economy.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By MARK BLITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Aristotle and Hamilton

on Commerce and Statesmanship

by Michael D. Chan

Missouri, 236 pp., $44.95

Critics of America make endless complaints. Our liberty is selfish license that corrodes community. Our equality is a fraud that barely veils vast gaps between the undeserving rich and the undeservedly poor. Our silly arts seek a common denominator ever lower and more vulgar. Our faith is narrow-minded, irrational, priggish, and hypocritical. Our sciences threaten to destroy or degrade us. Our mad consumption leaves nothing for the future. What's more, we spread our corruption globally through imperial might wrapped in the delusion that it is liberal justice.

Hearing all this, one would think that American life is solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish, and our power soon to be thankfully short.

These concerns are excessive because they project the worst possibilities as if they were actual or inevitable, and not counteracted by better ones. Freedom is enterprise and responsibility, not only license. Equality is equality in rights whose exercise leads unsurprisingly to inequalities in wealth. Faith and reason can be generously allied. Outposts of beauty and intellect stand against our encroaching wilderness. Science properly guided is beneficial. Limiting or transforming tyrannies abroad serves foreign citizens as well as our own.

Although these criticisms of America are excessive, they are not altogether absurd. Most mirror old concerns, theoretical and practical. Democracy means vulgarity, and we are democratic. Abstraction corrodes habit and seeks general sway, and we are based on universal principles. Unchecked individual ends demand unlimited technological means, and our desires seem unbounded. Commerce may allow opportunity but, in time, it favors those already wealthy.

So, although the United States is a living answer to the excesses of these worries, we are successful only because our policies and principles take them seriously.

Michael Chan's practical purpose in Aristotle and Hamilton is to defend America by showing that we are not as bad as excessive criticism makes us seem. His vehicle is to show how Alexander Hamilton believed that American commerce and manufacturing would enhance not just prosperity but also our security, union, virtue, and a liberal public good that would support the arts and sciences and end slavery.

Chan also has two theoretical purposes. One is to recast the debate about the relative importance of liberal acquisitiveness and so-called republican virtue in the American founding. He shows, through Hamilton, that commerce and virtue need not contradict, and reminds us of the slave-owning self-interestedness often disguised by Virginians' republican blather.

His other, related, academic purpose is to narrow the gap between ancient and modern (post-Machiavellian) thinkers. He does this by showing that Aristotle was friendlier to commerce than he appears, and Hamilton friendlier to virtue. For each, the economic is subordinate to the properly political, and the properly political an arm or element of excellence.

The salutary effect of Chan's work is to increase or reaffirm one's admiration for his three protagonists--Aristotle, Hamilton, and the United States of America--by showing where each is consistent with the others. Hamilton's political sagacity is, in Chan's presentation, especially impressive, almost startlingly so. As best one can tell, he was correct about almost every important issue. The one exception is national expansion, where Hamilton's reasons for opposition were good (he feared that more land would mean a continuing agrarian economy) but manifestly not good enough.

The crux of Chan's discussion is virtue. That countries devoted to commercial acquisitiveness would diminish their citizens' characters was once the chief complaint against them. Today, despite a generation of discussion, the complaint (lodged in these terms) still seems slightly quaint. It enters the list with which I began mostly indirectly. Yet the problem of virtue is vital to whatever is reasonable in each of our current concerns.

Immorality is also a major fault that Islamic religious tyrants find with the West. Moreover, their view that we are soft and weak encourages their hopes or fantasies of fundamentalist Islamic reconquest and rebirth. So by exploring and challenging "the virtue-commerce antinomy," Chan exposes both the classical core and virulent contemporary expression of unease or distress with acquisitive liberal democracy.