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How Marcus Aurelius Influenced Adam Smith (No, Really) – Article by Paul Meany

How Marcus Aurelius Influenced Adam Smith (No, Really) – Article by Paul Meany

The New Renaissance Hat
Paul Meany
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Adam Smith’s appreciation for the Stoic emperor’s writings is evident in his own work.

Ancient Roman bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna – Photograph by Gryffindor

Who Was Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was the last of the five good emperors of Rome. He was born in 121 AD, reluctantly became emperor in 161 AD, and reigned for 19 years until his death in 180 AD. His reign was punctuated by numerous wars during which he repelled Rome’s enemies in long campaigns. When not at the frontiers of the empire, he spent his time administering the law, focusing his attention particularly on the guardianship of orphans, the manumission of slaves, and choosing city councilors.

Lord Acton memorably stated, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” Lord Acton’s aphorism is, for the most part, true, but there was one exception to it in history: Marcus Aurelius. He famously had a keen interest in philosophy. Perpetually practicing self-control and moderation in all aspects of his life, he was the closest any person ever came to embodying Plato’s ideal of the “philosopher king.”

While on the front lines of his campaign against the German tribes, Marcus Aurelius wrote his own personal diary. This was originally titled Ta Eis Heauton, meaning To Himself in Greek. Subsequent translations of the text changed the title numerous times; we now know it as Meditations. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes his personal views on the Stoic philosophy.

He focuses heavily on the themes of finding one’s place in the cosmic balance of the universe, the importance of analyzing your actions, and being a good person. Asserting that one should be judged first and foremost on their actions, he decisively urged us to “waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Meditations is a masterpiece of Stoic philosophy, brimming with insightful, emotional and, most importantly, useful observations on morality and the human condition.

Who Was Adam Smith?

Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher who is renowned as one of the first modern economists. He was born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy and died in 1790. He is famous for his two seminal works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His work was massively influential on classical liberal thought as he was one of the first defenders of the free market.

In The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith articulated a persuasive case for the efficacy and morality of a free-market commercial society. Ludwig Von Mises, speaking about Smith’s works, wrote that they “presented the essence of the ideology of freedom, individualism, and prosperity, with admirable clarity and in an impeccable literary form.” Classical liberal economist Milton Friedman often wore a tie bearing a portrait of Adam Smith to formal events.

Adam Smith’s Readings of Marcus Aurelius

These two figures lived in vastly different times, under vastly different circumstances, so how did Marcus Aurelius ever influence Adam Smith? The answer lies in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.

Stoicism was one of the three major schools of Greek philosophy in the ancient world. It was founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC by a man named Zeno of Citium. The name “Stoic” was given to the followers of Zeno, who used to congregate to hear him teach at the Athenian Agora, under the colonnade known as the Stoa Poikile. Over time, Stoicism expanded and developed sophisticated views on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

While Stoicism posits numerous views on a huge variety of topics, its most interesting and relevant observations are on ethics. The Stoics were concerned with perfecting self-control which allowed for virtuous behavior. They believed that, through self-control, one could be free of negative emotions and passions which blinded objective judgment.

With a peaceful mind, the Stoics thought, people could live according to the universal reason of the world and practice a virtuous life. Marcus Aurelius described the ideal Stoic life in book three of Meditations, writing, “peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions to the laws of reason, and peace of mind under the visitations of a destiny you cannot control.”

Adam Smith was educated at the University of Glasgow where he studied under Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was a Scottish intellectual and a leading representative of the Christian Stoicism movement during the Scottish Enlightenment. He hosted private noontime classes on Stoicism which Adam Smith often attended. Smith’s preference for Marcus Aurelius was encouraged by Hutcheson, who published his own translation of Meditations.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith referred to Marcus Aurelius as “the mild, the humane, the benevolent Antoninus,” demonstrating his deep admiration for the Stoic emperor. Marcus Aurelius influenced Adam Smith in three main areas: the idea of an inner conscience; the importance of self-control; and in his famous analogy of the “Invisible Hand.”

Our Inner Conscience

Both Marcus Aurelius and Adam Smith believed that the key to understanding morality was through self-scrutiny and sympathy for others.

Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations in the form of a self-reflective dialogue with his inner self. He thought that moral conviction lay within “the very god that is seated in you, bringing your impulses under its control, scrutinizing your thoughts.’’ He interchangeably referred to this inner god as the soul or the helmsman and believed that it is a voice within you that attempts to sway you from immoral doings; we now call this a conscience.

Similarly, Smith emphasized the role of people’s innermost thoughts. A key aspect of Smith’s moral philosophy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the impartial spectator. Smith theorized that morality could be understood through the medium of sympathy. He thought that before people acted they ought to look for the approval of an impartial spectator.

“But though man has… been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.”

The Importance of Self-Control

The Stoics listed four “cardinal virtues” — wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance — for which they held great reverence. These were believed to be expressions and manifestations of a single indivisible virtue. Smith used slightly different names, but he endorsed the same set of virtues and the idea that they were all facets of one indivisible virtue.

Smith and Aurelius had a mutual appreciation for the virtue of self-control. They both believed in an impartial, self-scrutinizing conscience that guided morality: while Aurelius called it the God Within, Smith called it the Impartial Spectator.

Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” The primacy of self-control is intrinsic to the Stoic philosophy. In a similar vein of thought, Smith writes that “self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from all other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.” This respect for self-control was encouraged and cultivated by Smith’s Impartial Spectator and Marcus Aurelius’ Inner God.

The Invisible Hand

Marcus Aurelius argues that we must work together in common cooperation in order to improve humanity as a whole. He argues that we “were born to work together.” Aurelius stressed the vital nature of human cooperation.

“Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.”

In The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s defense of the free market is expressed through the analogy of the Invisible Hand. Smith argues that in a society of free exchange and free markets, people must sympathize with one another and understand how best to benefit their fellow man in order to better their own situation.

“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. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

The transaction will not occur unless the parties involved demonstrate their sympathy for the interests of others. In the analogy of the Invisible Hand, Smith argues that we must think of others before ourselves and consider how best to serve our fellow neighbor. This famous passage bears a striking resemblance to the previous passage by Marcus Aurelius who also argues for the importance of conscious cooperation among people for the common good.

We Are All Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

A Roman emperor seems like an unlikely intellectual influence for a classical liberal thinker such as Adam Smith. Upon closer inspection, however, Smith and Aurelius are like two peas in a pod: both men believed that the root of morality lies within the self-scrutiny of one’s conscience; both believe in the primacy of the virtue of self-control; and both believe in the importance of sympathy as a tool for cooperation and the betterment of civilized society.

No thinker is entirely alone in their pursuit of truth. All people discover truth by building upon the previous discoveries of others. This explains how an emperor came to influence so strongly an Enlightenment moral philosopher and economist more than a thousand years after he had passed away. I believe that the best expression of the development of such ideas was written by a medieval philosopher and bishop, John of Salisbury, who spoke of the wisdom of Bernard of Chartres:

“He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

We are all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants in the pursuit of the system of natural liberty and prosperity that Adam Smith sought during his lifetime.

Paul Meany is a student at Trinity College Dublin studying Ancient and Medieval History and Culture.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.

How the West Invented Individualism – Article by Roger McKinney

How the West Invented Individualism – Article by Roger McKinney

The New Renaissance Hat
Roger McKinney
April 1, 2015
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Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop, Belknap Press, 2014

I lived in Morocco a few decades ago and needed some furniture for our apartment. A college student I had befriended, Hamid, offered to take my cash and negotiate with the dealer for me while I drank coffee in a nearby qahwa because, as he said, the price of the furniture would triple if the merchant glimpsed an American within a block of his store.

I hesitated to take Hamid’s offer only because I didn’t want to put him to so much trouble, but he mistook my pause for distrust. So he assured me that he could not cheat me because I had eaten dinner with him and his family and therefore enjoyed a status similar to that of a family member.

No Moroccan can cheat a family member or anyone who has eaten at their table. I gave Hamid my cash and later returned home to find a nice selection of furniture at a good, Moroccan, price.

Later, I met the owner of a construction firm who enlightened me further on business ethics in Morocco. He told me he spent a large part of his time thwarting the efforts of suppliers, customers, and employees to cheat him. The cleverness that went into dreaming up new ways to cheat him surprised me. He confirmed what Hamid had told me: cheating others is not considered unethical at all but a sign of an astute businessman. But cheating family members is immoral.

Moroccan business ethics might be appalling to westerners, but ancient Greeks and Romans would have understood and applauded them according to Larry Siedentop in his latest book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.

In Siedentop’s words, the book is “… a story about the slow, uneven and difficult steps which have led to individual moral agency being publicly acknowledged and protected, with equality before the law and enforceable ‘basic’ rights.”

Like Moroccans, ancient Greeks and Romans cared little for non-family members. Those “… outside the family circle were not deemed to share any attributes with those within. No common humanity was acknowledged, an attitude confirmed by the practice of enslavement.”

The past is a foreign country but foreign countries are more foreign than politicians and economists in the West understand. The prize for the reader in Siedentop’s package is the understanding that the individualism at the core of classical liberalism is a new and rare gem.

When we fail to recognize its uniqueness, we project onto past and modern cultures our own values. Siedentop explains the failures of attempts at nation building by US politicians in the Middle East as well as the aborted efforts at economic development by mainstream economists without mentioning either.

Classical liberal individualism did not exist in the ancient world. Siedentop wrote, “Since the sixteenth century and the advent of the nation-state, people in the West have come to understand ‘society’ to mean an association of individuals.” For the ancient Romans and Greeks society consisted of a collection of extended families. The heads of the families, including family-based clans and tribes, held all the power and made all of the decisions. Only the heads of families could become citizens in the polis.

Antiquity had no notion of the powers of the government being limited by the rights of individuals, even for family heads. “Citizens belonged to the city, body and soul.” Women, children, slaves and non-citizens held no rights and lived only at the pleasure of the family head.

The ancients had no concept of the equality of man, either. Even for Plato and Aristotle, a natural hierarchy of humanity existed, much like the caste system of India. Some were born to rule, others to serve or fight. Submitting to the needs of the city as determined by the family heads was the only reason for existence and any person who failed to contribute to the cause could be legally killed — or worse — exiled. Politics and war became the noblest occupations while commerce was held in contempt.

Siedentop devotes just the first chapter to the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, but I think it’s the most important chapter because it forces the reader to face the stark contrast between that culture and the culture of the modern West. The story of the painfully slow gestation of individualism from its conception in early Christianity through the monastic movements, revolutions in church government, the creation of secular space, and finally its birth during the Reformation is rewarding, but the real value of the book lies in the understanding that this process took place only in the West and nowhere else in the world in history.

To grasp the impact of Siedentop’s thesis, readers need to place it alongside the works of Helmut Schoeck, Geert Hofstede, and Shalom H. Schwartz. Schoeck informs us that envy is the organizing principle of society and the enemy of individualism. Hofstede and Schwartz show that the distinguishing feature of the West today is the classical liberal individualism that the rest of the world not only does not share, but abhors. Within the West, the US stands out as an extreme outlier on individualism.

Of course, to round out the topic people need to read Hayek’s essay, “Individualism: True and False” to understand how socialists created a pseudo-individualism that is for the most part a resurrection of ancient Greek and Roman collectivism.

Classical liberal individualism does not exist in the modern world outside of the US and Europe, and it is dying here. The collectivist cultures of the rest of the world differ little from those of ancient Greece and Rome. If economists and politicians understood the uniqueness of classical liberalism, they would quit trying to pour new wine into old wine skins, which causes the old to explode. And they would mourn the rise of socialism.

Roger McKinney is an analyst for an HMO and teaches economics for a small private college.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

A Roman Coin from the 330s: The New Oldest Object in Mr. Stolyarov’s Possession

A Roman Coin from the 330s: The New Oldest Object in Mr. Stolyarov’s Possession

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 22, 2014
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At the March 1, 2014, Transhuman Visions 2.0 conference in Piedmont, CA (where Wendy and I gave a presentation on Death is Wrong), I was pleased to meet Neal VanDeRee of The Church of Perpetual Life, an organization promoting the desirability of living without end and inspired by the philosophy of the great Russian Cosmist thinker Nikolai Fedorov (or Fyodorov – a better Anglicization of the Russian “Фёдоров”).

 Mr. VanDeRee organized a drawing of attendees’ business cards, for which the prize was an ancient Roman coin from the 4th century CE. I was thrilled to win the drawing, and I received my coin in the mail today. Here are images (scans on top, photographs on bottom) of both the front (obverse) and back (reverse) sides of the coin.

Mr. Stolyarov's Roman coin from Siscia (330s CE)

Some further research enabled Wendy and me to form a reasonably good understanding regarding the origins of this coin. The “SIS” letters on the bottom indicate that the coin was minted in Siscia (today, Sisak in Croatia), which housed a mint for roman coins between 262 and 383 CE. (Wendy and I are not yet in agreement as to whether the first letter is “A” or “B”. Wendy thinks it is an “A”, while I see a “B” because of the elevated ridge on the bottom of the letter. What do you think?)

This particular coin is a commemorative coin for the city of Constantinople, with a left-facing image of a helmeted emperor (likely Constantine I – Roman emperor from 306 to 337) on the obverse side and a winged Victory goddess with a spear and shield on the reverse side. Here and here are images of two highly similar coins, which are identified on the Dirty Old Coins website as dating from 330-333 CE and 334-335 CE, respectively. Another highly similar coin is listed here on the Portable Antiquities Scheme site from the United Kingdom. That coin is dated to 334-335 CE. Based on our research, Wendy and I are reasonably confident that our coin, too, dates to the 330s CE, prior to Constantine’s death.

In Death is Wrong, I wrote about an 1893 Indian head penny which I found in the hallways of my high school in 2004, when I was gathering spare change found in the “state of nature” in order to donate to the Methuselah Mouse Prize. I am happy to still have this object – older than any living human being today – in my coin collection. This Roman coin from the 330s, though, is older by an order of magnitude. It has existed for approximately 1680 years already, and it is certainly the oldest object I own. May it continue to exist indefinitely, and may all of us humans continue to live indefinitely also!

Will Congress Endorse Obama’s War Plans? Does It Matter? – Article by Ron Paul

Will Congress Endorse Obama’s War Plans? Does It Matter? – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
September 1, 2013
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President Obama announced this weekend that he has decided to use military force against Syria and would seek authorization from Congress when it returned from its August break. Every Member ought to vote against this reckless and immoral use of the US military. But even if every single Member and Senator votes for another war, it will not make this terrible idea any better because some sort of nod is given to the Constitution along the way.  Besides, the president made it clear that Congressional authorization is superfluous, asserting falsely that he has the authority to act on his own with or without Congress. That Congress allows itself to be treated as window dressing by the imperial president is just astonishing.
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The President on Saturday claimed that the alleged chemical attack in Syria on August 21 presented “a serious danger to our national security.” I disagree with the idea that every conflict, every dictator, and every insurgency everywhere in the world is somehow critical to our national security. That is the thinking of an empire, not a republic. It is the kind of thinking that this president shares with his predecessor, and it is bankrupting us and destroying our liberties here at home.

According to recent media reports, the military does not have enough money to attack Syria and would have to go to Congress for a supplemental appropriation to carry out the strikes. It seems our empire is at the end of its financial rope. The limited strikes that the president has called for in Syria would cost the US in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey wrote to Congress last month that just the training of Syrian rebels and “limited” missile and air strikes would cost “in the billions” of dollars. We should clearly understand what another war will do to the US economy, not to mention the effects of additional unknown costs such as a spike in fuel costs as oil skyrockets.

I agree that any chemical attack, particularly one that kills civilians, is horrible and horrendous. All deaths in war and violence are terrible and should be condemned. But why are a few hundred killed by chemical attack any worse or more deserving of US bombs than the 100,000 already killed in the conflict? Why do these few hundred allegedly killed by Assad count any more than the estimated 1,000 Christians in Syria killed by US allies on the other side? Why is it any worse to be killed by poison gas than to have your head chopped off by the US allied radical Islamists, as has happened to a number of Christian priests and bishops in Syria?

For that matter, why are the few hundred civilians killed in Syria by a chemical weapon any worse than the 2000-3000 who have been killed by Obama’s drone strikes in Pakistan? Does it really make a difference whether a civilian is killed by poison gas or by drone missile or dull knife?

In “The Sociology of Imperialism,” Joseph Schumpeter wrote of the Roman Empire’s suicidal interventionism:

“There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive an interest – why, then it was the national honour that had been insulted.”

Sadly, this sounds like a summary of Obama’s speech over the weekend. We are rapidly headed for the same collapse as the Roman Empire if we continue down the president’s war path. What we desperately need is an overwhelming Congressional rejection of the president’s war authorization. Even a favorable vote, however, cannot change the fact that this is a self-destructive and immoral policy.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.