The Magazine

Hamilton's Virtue

How Aristotle's philosophy led to the American economy.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By MARK BLITZ
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Chan makes clear how, in Hamilton's eyes, commerce and industry serve political, ethical, and intellectual ends greater than wealth alone, and are coherent with prudence and virtue. Chan's discussion is a highly intelligent contribution to the theoretical and practical issues he faces, and makes telling and sometimes novel use of The Federalist, Report on Manufactures, and Hamilton's other works.

To address these matters more completely, of course, we would need to consider additional questions. One is the problem of religion or religious toleration, especially important in light of Islamic opposition to the West. Hamilton's acquisitive, energetic, commercial, manufacturing republic is no friend to the dominance of a single religion, or the dominance of religion simply. It weakens communal rootedness and strengthens secular excitement and opportunity. This dilutes religious attachments, even beyond the effect of legal tolerance.

Is this attenuation something that liberal political Founders expected, desired, or ignored? Did they believe, say, that the kind of faith Tocqueville noticed would survive or grow, or would even this have surprised them? Aristotle's virtue seems largely secular, if not wholly so, not merely pre-Christian, and therefore friendly to pride and magnificence, but also secured without excessive reliance on the gods.

Is this secular emphasis also true of modern liberalism? To fully grasp the effect of commerce on virtue, especially today, we should, in addition to other questions, examine the link between virtue and piety, or morality and faithful obedience. How, in particular, did Hamilton see the effect of his economics on religion, and the effect of religion on morality? Chan touches on this question near the end, but does not explore it.

Also connected to this problem is how Hamilton would have demonstrated the rationality of natural rights. This is unclear in Chan's presentation. Belief in humans' natural equality provides a substantial foundation for freedom, property, and responsibility. But this equality is secured best as a natural truth, not a mere opinion. Only in its rational universalism is this belief a sufficient check on--and indication of superiority to--an obedient faith whose sway, however vast, cannot accord with reason.

Natural rights do not tell us all that reason can about natural excellence. Consent based on equal rights is always in some tension with intellectual virtue. The task of closing the gap between ancients and moderns is limited not just by differences of belief and circumstance, but by the variety of natural truths among which prudence must, in practice, steer. To explore this question you would need to pair Aristotle or Plato with someone other than Alexander Hamilton, who, as Chan informs us, did not pretend to be philosophic.

I was a member of Michael Chan's dissertation committee, a fact I reveal in the hope that kind (or moralistic) readers will now attribute my mistakes to accidental prejudice rather than incorrigible foolishness! The excellent book he has shaped from his thesis is a bulwark against the degrading of American principles. It is also a safeguard against complacent patriotism.

Mark Blitz, Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is most recently the author of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.