Recap: “Montesquieu and Moderation: A Liberal Art for the Commercial World,” with KICD Postdoc Constantine Vassiliou

The commerce v. virtue dilemma central to Kinder Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Constantine Vassiliou’s January 31 talk in Jesse 410 is (at least) as old as the Enlightenment and (at least) as immediately relevant as the subprime mortgage crisis of the 2000s. How, we continue to ask, can magnanimity be nourished within the context of commercial systems that invite impetuous, apathetic self-interest? How can we functionally manage the moral hazard of capitalist excess?

For Montesquieu, the leading actor in Prof. Vassiliou’s talk, the inherent dangers of commercial society crystalized in the figure of John Law, an 18th-century Scottish financier-rogue whose reckless scheme to convert France’s government debt into shares of the Mississippi Company created a speculative bubble that, once burst, cast the French economy into a catastrophic spiral. Disincentivized at every turn by profit to consider the intense public risk of choreographed inflation, Law became, for Montesquieu, the avatar for despotism.

Prof. Vassiliou explained how, like many other political philosophers of the era, after the Mississippi Bubble (as well as the South Sea Bubble in the U.K.) burst, Montesquieu took on the task of theorizing how virtue might be cultivated and a commitment to the common weal revitalized within commercial society. Some of his contemporaries, like David Hume and Adam Smith, believed that systems of commerce by nature contained tools—an impulse for improvement or the very act of exchange—that could be harnessed to accomplish these ends. Montesquieu agreed that commercial activity did not implicitly preclude virtuousness, though he likewise found that stoking fellow feeling and empathy still required some force that liberated individuals from commerce; in a liberal society, he reasoned, wealth could not serve as the loan measure of social standing. As Prof. Vassiliou’s current research lays out, that force, in general terms, was moderation for Montesquieu. In more concrete terms, he showed in his talk how Montesquieu conceived of moderation as being encouraged through a plurality of honors and, specifically, political honors. Somewhat counterintuitively, this involved adapting the conditions of aristocracy for the evolving commercial world. For example, Montesquieu saw venality—making political office purchasable—as a practice that would bring recognition to a broader range of citizens and, in doing so, create a new hierarchy of value in which public spiritedness surpassed wealth accumulation in importance.

In expanding the frame beyond Montesquieu, Prof. Vassiliou then considered some of the ways in which the concerns and solutions associated with the commerce v. virtue debate shifted for subsequent thinkers. Adam Ferguson, for example, unpacked the morally corrosive effects of bureaucratization and mechanization—how the former untethered public officeholders from a spirit of public service, while the latter created separation between the laborer and the production of useful goods. On the other side of the Atlantic, John Adams toyed with importing monarchic institutions into the American republic as a way to counterbalance the rise of an oligarchic wealthy elite, while Tocqueville presented the church and the town hall as spaces of similar function. These arguments, Prof. Vassiliou noted in closing, reverberate today in our discussions about technology, atomization, and a decline of sociability and the academy’s potential to use the study of history as a means of illuminating the shadow side of commercial culture and thereby promoting precisely the sense of fellow feeling so vital to Montesquieu’s vision.