Capitalism is a surprisingly recent invention. If we set the beginning of capitalism at the
publication of Adam Smiths book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it is only 242 years
old. That is only somewhere between nine and twelve generations ago. In contrast,
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., more than 2,000 years ago. The difference in
time between Caesars assassination and the founding of capitalism is an order of
Because of this distance in time, the ancients are different from us in many respects.
Their views of morality, politics, religion, and even the family differ from ours in
fundamental ways. For instance, all of their great moral and political thinkers advocated,
or at least tolerated, slavery. In most of the ancient Greek city-states, pederasty was
institutionalized, and women were treated horribly. Their scientific conception of the
world is different in most ways from our own, and their religions were polytheistic. The
list goes on.
There is a temptation to see the Romans in the way that Goethe claimed
Shakespeare represented themas Englishmen in togas. We should avoid this
temptation while also avoiding the opposite error of thinking that the ancients are so
different that there is nothing to learn from them. Wittgenstein, for instance, bragged
that he had never read Aristotle (or presumably any Greek philosophy). The idea, held
by many, is that because the ancients were wrong about virtually everything, there is
no sense in studying them today.
Reading and learning about radically different views from our own, though, can be
intellectually beneficial. Understanding different viewpoints can help us see the world in
new and different ways. Nietzsches study of classical drama and philosophy, for instance,
led him to his radical reevaluation of all values and rejection of contemporary
morality and philosophy. The American Founders were also crucially influenced by
Roman republican thought.
Into this debate about the importance or irrelevance of ancients to modern
problems comes George Bragues and his premodern case for capitalism. The idea of
a premodern defense of capitalism initially seems hopeless. Capitalism is a modern
invention, so it seems as if a premodern defense of capitalism would be about as plausible
and useful as a premodern defense of the Internet. This conclusion is too quick,
however. Braguess project is not to explain historically what the ancients thought about
capitalism. His goal is instead to deploy the insights of one ancient thinker, Marcus
Tullius Cicero, to provide a novel and, he argues, uniquely powerful defense of
The book is largely successful in this task. Applying Ciceros thought to modern
problems leads to real insightsBragues does provide a truly novel defense of capitalism.
Other thinkers, of course, have used ancient philosophy to defend capitalismand
liberalism. Ayn Rand, for instance, was famously fond of Aristotle, and Douglas
Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl have more recently developed an intricate defense of
liberalism and capitalism based on Aristotelian ethics (Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist
Basis for Non-perfectionist Politics [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,
2005]). Virtually all attempts to use classical thought to defend modern political or
economic systems, however, rely on Aristotle. Even Murray Rothbard and many of his
libertarian followers were heavily influenced by Scholastic thought, which, in turn, relies
heavily on Aristotle. I have bucked this trend somewhat in my own work by arguing that
Epicurean thought has much to offer the contemporary political theorist (Reconciling
Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16, no. 2 : 42336), but most attempts to use the ancients for modern goals rely
on the man the Scholastics called The Philosopher.
One of the most valuable aspects of Braguess book is that it shows the value and
importance of Ciceros thought in general and for political and social thought in
particular. Cicero is often dismissed as either a skeptic with nothing positive to say or as
a Stoic apologist. In any case, he is not generally considered to be a thinker of the first
Bragues argues that this view is mistaken. Cicero was a skeptic, but he was an
Academic rather than Pyrrhonian skeptic. The difference is that whereas the Pyrrhonian
skeptic argues that because it is impossible to establish any particular truth with certainty,
we should withhold judgment on the matter and pursue contemplation for its
own sake, the Academic skeptic argues that our lack of certainty on important matters
should lead us to be humble but nevertheless to make probability assessments of various
views and decide on the basis of where the preponderance of evidence lies. The Academic
skeptic embraces the active life of politics and commerce, even in the face of
considerable uncertainty. Academic skepticism of the sort that Cicero defends, combined
with other claims about natural law, a providential god, and a conception of the
good life as the pursuit of human excellence, lead to a powerful defense of capitalist
To bolster his claim, Bragues surveys various other justifications of capitalism,
including self-ownership views, utilitarianism, and social contract theories. All are found
wanting. He argues that we should instead adopt a largely Ciceronian conception of
justice. The explication of Ciceros theory of justice in chapter 3 alone is worth the price
of admission. It is a topic that has largely been ignored by political theorists, and Bragues
does us all a favor by digging through the Ciceronian corpus and setting out a coherent
theory of justice. His overview is excellent, and my only complaint is that I wanted
more. Although I suspect the Ciceronian theory of justice is not his main research
interest, I would welcome a book-length scholarly treatment of it that goes into more
detail than is possible in one chapter.
Yet, despite all the machinery of Academic skepticism, natural law, probabilistic
reasoning, a providential god, and focus on the importance of human excellence,
Bragues ends up defending a regime very similar to the one the Founding Fathers of the
United States devised: a mixed regime that does not suppress religion and is founded on
a respect for both property and virtue. The Founders were keen readers of Cicero as well
as of Polybius, so it is, perhaps, no surprise that there should be so much overlap
between their design and these thinkers advice.
The Founders were also, however, well versed in Scottish Enlightenment thinking
and classical political economy, and one thing that I left this book wondering about is
exactly what the premodern defense of capitalism buys us that we cant get from
a roughly Smithian or Humean defense. Hume and Smith share many of the Ciceronian
features that Bragues finds appealing. In epistemology, they share the skeptical,
probabilistic approach that Bragues claims is characteristic of Cicero. Similarly, they
defend conceptions of justice with an emphasis on property and argue in favor of mixed
regimes. They give a secular defense of these principles, but Smith provides a secular
version of Providence in the idea of the invisible hand. Both also defend certain forms of
excellence in the context of commercial society.
By comparing Braguess view with the defense of commercial society that we find
in Smith and Hume, we see the real distinctiveness of the Ciceronian defense of
capitalism. I do not think I am being uncharitable if I describe the Ciceronian approach
as having a politically esoteric element. It is not so much that this vision of society
requires that there be a god, natural law, or real differences in terms of human excellence.
Rather, what is important is that the society believes that justice is a natural
virtue that is intrinsically valuable and that this belief is backed up by faith in a providential
deity. It also need not be true that the rulers really are more excellent or virtuous
so long as they appear to be.
This feature of Braguess view has two major flaws as a defense of capitalism. The
first is that it seems to rely on deception in the form of various noble lies about the
nature of justice, god, society, and so on. Many philosophers, most notably Plato but
also many utilitarians, have defended views that require the true basis of the social order
to be hidden or deceptive, but this requirement is an unappealing feature of a society of
free men and women who see each other as moral equals. A capitalist system does not, in
principle, need to treat its citizens as moral equals, but a liberal one surely does. The
second problem is that a society that requires such specific views about Providence,
natural law, and so on is likely to be unstable in the face of public disagreement about
those values. This is just another way of saying that even if Bragues has shown that his
premodern defense of capitalism is possible and perhaps even necessary, he hasnt shown
that it is likely to be stable.
This creates a dilemma. Either the Ciceronian defense of capitalism is the only
plausible defense of capitalism (as Bragues sometimes seems to suggest), or it is only one
of many plausible defenses of capitalism. The first horn, combined with the likelihood
that such a system would be unstable in the face of reasonable disagreement about the
principle pillars of such a system, leads to the conclusion that capitalism is inherently
unstable. The second horn leads to the conclusion that Bragues has provided only one
but not the only plausible defense of capitalism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with accepting the second horn of the
dilemma. Bragues seems to be making the stronger claim in chapter 1, where he
argues that his Ciceronian defense of capitalism is uniquely situated to provide the
basis of a commercial society, but he doesnt actually need to make this claim.
Indeed, that kind of claim is very un-Ciceronian. Remember, Cicero was a skeptic
who dealt in probabilities, not in certainty. Bragues, on the last page of the book,
seems to agree.
Ultimately, this book is a valuable and novel contribution. Braguess theory is
different from both most modern and Aristotelian-inspired defenses of capitalism. In
writing this book, he has done us a service by detailing the Ciceronian theory of justice
and in showing how it can cohere, perhaps unexpectedly, with capitalism. He also shows
that we still have much to learn from the ancients, especially from Cicero.