The Spirit of the Age

Mollie Hemingway:
[I]f Lew is right that our currency is supposed to express our values and capture the spirit of our age, a man as good as Hamilton has absolutely no business being on the currency. George Washington definitely doesn’t. Heck, we should replace them all.
She has some suggestions, but they're mostly for effect. Her basic point is made there -- and perhaps she's right. With quantitative easing, the money isn't worth anything anymore. We are just trading on the fact that international markets haven't worked out a solid alternative yet. The people aren't virtuous, as a republic needed them to be. Why shouldn't the paper reflect the people, or for that matter, why shouldn't the symbols on the face of the currency better reflect its true value?


Anonymous said...

Because hypocrisy is the tribute vice to virtue pays.

We should continue to require our talking heads to give lip service to the values they do not actually espouse, because the values themselves are sound.


Grim said...

A good point. Here's a counterargument, though: if we set them free to say what they really think, we might have more luck sorting out the ones who are on our side from the ones who will stab us in the back as soon as it's convenient.

Cass said...

OK, I'll bite.

How virtuous were slave owners? It's hard to think of a LESS virtuous thing than seriously believing you have the right to buy/sell a human being.

Or simply considering another human being not to BE human because their skin is the wrong color.

Were the vast majority of early Americans virtuous? It's easy to find plenty of historical accounts that suggest they weren't.

I really don't get the impulse to look at history (which is horrifying in many respects) through rose-colored glasses and - from a safe distance - declare previous generations to be "virtuous". Neither does it make much sense to condemn them wholesale for not living up to today's values, whatever they may be.

I'm pretty sure human nature hasn't changed much over the millennia, so I view the idea that we're more/less virtuous than previous generations with extreme suspicion. By some measures, we're more virtuous now.

By others, we're far less. Pick your standards and the assessment changes. But I don't think *people* have changed very much at all; just the pressures applied to us by society, driven by whatever the heck society cares about this decade.

Grim said...

How virtuous were slave owners?

Do you mean qua slave owners? About as virtuous as the society that built its industrial base out of the wealth it gained from the slave trade. Nor is it redeemed by the blood shed in the Civil War, which freed slaves only because it was destructive to the economy of its enemies, and because it provided a cheap and portable labor source to that new industry. Then it spent the next fifty years wielding the army it put together to conquer the South to destroy the Native Americans, except when it was destroying labor unions in order to prevent that new working class from getting decent treatment or fair wages.

Now, if you mean how virtuous they were taken as a whole, the Founders were better men than most. George Washington could have been king, if he had wanted. He disdained a crown, and laid down power voluntarily in the hope that it would be healthier for the nation he was trying to build. Hamilton's methods of paying war debts that were crippling, rather than trying to walk away from them, created small pools of capital throughout the new country and established a reputation for trustworthiness in the currency. Hamilton and Madison's Federalist Papers were a careful, decent struggle with human nature to try to see the right way forward. Jefferson is a model of education and intelligence, as well as the capacity to avoid ideological blindness.

Do we have leaders of their like today? Considered as a whole human being, is there any elected official as virtuous as they were?

Cass said...

Do we have leaders of their like today? Considered as a whole human being, is there any elected official as virtuous as they were?

That's the kind of question that can't possibly be answered in a blog comment, Grim. Virtuous by what standard? Do we know as much about the Founders as we do about modern politicians?

Considered as a whole human being, I'd say owning slaves (or fathering numerous children by one out of wedlock) isn't behavior I'd call "virtuous". In any respect.

Grim said...

Without defending slavery or adultery, it is surely possible to see that in sum they were more virtuous by the traditional standards: wisdom, moderation, courage, honesty, thoughtfulness, a love of education and an honorable willingness to sacrifice of themselves for the common good (as by pledging themselves to a mutual defense of 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor' at the immediate and personal risk of the first two).

I don't see the point of questioning the standards where virtue is concerned. Morality can sometimes be a matter of opinion, but virtue ethics is not. Virtues are defined by the world, not by the mind. It is better to be brave than cowardly because bravery works: a courageous sailor may survive the storm, whereas the cowardly will drown because fear prevents his doing his duty when he must. Moderation is better than over-indulgence because it protects health and sanity. Etc.

MikeD said...

I really don't get the impulse to look at history (which is horrifying in many respects) through rose-colored glasses and - from a safe distance - declare previous generations to be "virtuous". Neither does it make much sense to condemn them wholesale for not living up to today's values, whatever they may be.

Except where slavery is concerned? Were the biblical Israelites not virtuous because they owned slaves? King Solomon? Abraham? Slavery (for all its ills) is much more a facet of world history than most give credit for. And not just slavery as practiced in the American South. The Chinese practiced slavery, as did the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Arabs, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Romans, the Japanese, the Vikings, the Saxons, the Franks, the Zulus... pretty much every culture at every time has practiced slavery. Save for the modern era (and that only stretching back about 200 years at most). If the act of owning slaves is an evil enough sin that it prevents someone from being virtuous, then I guess no one outside of the modern era really has much claim to virtue then.

Grim said...

...Save for the modern era...

And High Medieval Western Europe, which disposed of the slave trade for Christian reasons. Indeed, that's the unifying factor in the two cases: both times it was Christian morality (as opposed to virtue ethics) that caused us to move against it as a civilization.

I think Modern race-based slavery was categorically worse than earlier forms, though, if only because it tended to work people to death. The eastern slave trade to Iran and the Arab world completely wiped out the millions they moved; the western route largely did, with death rates around 90% in Latin America. It was only in the American South that there was an exception to that, with a slave population that experienced natural increase rather than a need for constant replenishment because of mortality. The ancient Israelites, or the Spartans, had no desire to wipe out their slave populations (no more than did the Egyptians, when the Israelites were their slaves in turn).

Grim said...

Although at the very beginning, before racism developed to justify it, Modern slavery was not so horrible as it became. The Portuguese began trading slaves from West Africa during the Renaissance, especially to Italy.

"Within a few years the bloodline of the West African coast would mingle with that of the haute bourgeoisie of Christendom, be it the Fuggers, the Medici or the Sforza, all of whose family trees feature scions named 'El Moro' from the handsome mix of blood.... In this period there was little prejudice against the offspring of mixed-race marriages.... Leonardo da Vinci can be numbered among the many such successful mulatto children of this period, for he was the child of a master-craftsman named Piero and Caterina, who came into this Tuscan household as a foreign slave girl." (Barnaby Rogerson, The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Center of the World, 35.)

Wikipedia describes Caterina as a "peasant girl," but Rogerson seems to know his stuff.