Legislating Free Commercial Societies
This dissertation aims to understand the origins, effects, and limits of commerce in the modern world, taking Montesquieu as a guide in The Spirit of the Laws. It asks: To what extent is commerce natural, and how does commerce shape or constrain our understanding of happiness? I consider the extent to which commerce changes our nature, how it effects this change, and why it might fail to effect this change universally or permanently. Finally, I give an account of the best remedies or solutions for the problems we necessarily encounter in free commercial societies. We moderns are superior to the ancients, Montesquieu claims, on account of the knowledge we have gained concerning commerce. I argue that this epistemic superiority consists in knowledge concerning the best arrangement between the two sexes: “a kind of equality between the two sexes” that attaches men for the first time to “commerce with women.” Against standard readings that put forth political liberty or moderation as Montesquieu’s standard of the good in The Spirit of the Laws, I argue that Montesquieu also points to equality between the sexes as an alternative standard of the good. To show why and how his idea of sexual equality emerges with commerce, I begin by examining the natural origins of modern commerce. Modern commerce originates in the diversity of non-human nature, or a diversity of climates; so I begin by arguing that climate, Montesquieu’s new understanding of nature, is the natural basis of modern commerce. After elaborating on this new natural philosophy, I show how commerce, amidst this nonhuman natural diversity, paradoxically results in human uniformity or homogeneity: “everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores.” Commerce revolutionizes our mores by appealing to human flexibility and the ease of changing manners and mores rather than laws. Commerce does not result in a political universalism but a consensus concerning the most desirable sexual mores. Equality between the sexes is introduced by nature (as an accident of the physical environment), but a moral consensus only emerges through “history”: by comparing mores across time and place we see which mores are most desirable. However, neither reason nor passion is sufficient to secure these mores. Only by unleashing the imagination can we introduce equality between the sexes and attach men to “commerce with women” not by love itself, but by the “illusions” and “accessories” of love. The nature and history of commerce show, however, the limits of this human flexibility and this new standard. After all, why does sexual inequality persist, not least in despotisms and republics? On the one hand, humans are not only flexible and imaginative but also inflexible and attached to virtue in accord with “pure mores.” On the other hand, commerce is not, in fact, necessarily accompanied by gentle mores (and the luxury and vanity that accompany these mores): in contradistinction to “commerce of luxury,” “economic commerce” depends less on the imagination than on reason. These two alternatives (the life of virtue and that of economic commerce) not only show the limits of universalizing this new morality rooted in sexual equality but also clarify the challenges of reconciling the realms of domestic and political governance, or commerce at home with commerce abroad. Nonetheless, anyone unwilling or unable to retreat from the “worldliness” of modern commerce or insufficiently lucky to be born in a commercial republic should heed Montesquieu’s advice for how best to live rationally and freely in commercial societies. Thus I turn to his solutions for how to reconcile an openness to human diversity and strangers (as commerce consists of communication among diverse peoples) with a preservation of natural differences and “strength.” By conceiving of gentleness as a political virtue and cultivating a conventional form of jealousy, we can reconcile the demands of commerce with those of the virtue of humanity properly understood.