The Historical Context of Books

The vast majority of books do not outlive the particular time and place in which they were written. I am not speaking of the actual physical book, which may survive for decades or even centuries after the death of its author; I am speaking of the book’s contents. The number of books that are able to transcend the particular time and place in which they were written, to say something meaningful to those who live in another time or place, is exceedingly small. Future generations of readers are busy reading the books that are written by living authors, and so a book from the past must have some singular merit or value if it is able to continue to attract readers to its musty and yellowed pages.

In writing the biography of an individual, in order to understand his or her beliefs, thoughts, utterances, writings, and other productions, one would not ignore the historical context in which the person lived, since this context is important in helping us to understand the person’s beliefs, actions, decisions, and personality. And yet, in the case of books, this is often done, for readers often attempt to understand the statements, arguments, and theories that are presented in a book, and their applicability to their own lives and times, without considering the particular time and place in which its author lived. Whether we do so consciously or not, we usually apply the statements contained in the book to our time and place, or to our particular experiences, without considering the particular circumstances of the author’s life, and how they differ from the circumstances of the present age in which we live.

No book is written in a vacuum: every book is written in a particular historical, societal, national or regional, religious or irreligious, and intellectual context by an individual who grew up in and was shaped and influenced by that context. Even with those few books that are able to transcend the times in which their authors lived, they almost invariably reveal the historical context in which they were written, whether in their writing style, arguments, conclusions, concerns, limitations, or defects. A common example is that people were much more prejudiced in the past that they are today, and so one often comes across denigrating comments about certain groups of people in the pages of old books.[1] Thus, we must be wary, especially in the humanities, of taking statements that were made in a particular historical context and applying them to a very different context, such as the one in which we live, without considering whether the differences between the two contexts do not render the statements invalid or no longer applicable to our very different historical period.

Scientific statements and theories are valid independently of the particular circumstances in which their originators lived. But this is much less true of statements about human affairs, which are often dependent on, or their validity limited to, the particular society in which the writer lived and wrote. The philosophical search for universal truths in the realm of human affairs has misled many writers, by making them believe that their assertions were or are true of all people in all times, places, and cultures. The occasionally preposterous claims that were believed to be true, of all human beings in all times and places, by intelligent writers in past ages should teach us to be wary of making such claims ourselves. For example, Thomas Hobbes, who is considered to be an important political theorist, was in favour of a strong central authority, specifically absolute monarchy, because of the times in which he lived, which were characterized by calamity and civil strife.

[…]in Leviathan [his main political work], Hobbes makes his stance clear: An absolute monarchy is the best type of government and the only type that can provide peace for all.

Hobbes believed that factionalism within society, such as rival governments, differing philosophies, or the struggle between church and state, only leads to civil war. Therefore, to maintain peace for all, everyone in a society must agree to have one authoritative figure that controls the government, makes the laws, and is in charge of the church.[2]

Although he may have believed otherwise, Hobbes’ ideal form of government was nothing more than a remedy that was meant to solve the pressing political and social problems of his day, based on the knowledge and models which he had available to him. In no sense is it globally valid, that is, in all times and places, including unto the present age. This example clearly shows how much Hobbes’ views about the best kind of government were determined by the political instability that was prevalent during his lifetime and the fact that he lived under a monarchy – in other words, by the particular circumstances, or the historical context, in which he lived.

There is a common tendency to separate highly regarded classical works like Adam Smith’s An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws from the historical contexts in which they were written. This inevitably leads to problems, especially when the two societies – the one in which the book was written and the one in which we, the readers, live – are very different from each other. I have considered the many serious defects of The Spirit of Laws in several other essays. In this essay, I wish to consider The Wealth of Nations, in particular the famous and much-quoted passage in which its author discussed what he considered to be the legitimate functions of government. It is on this brief passage that the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism have founded their entire economic and political philosophy, including their views on the legitimate functions of all governments in the world, in all times and places.

All systems, either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his own industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which, no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interests of the society. According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works, and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual, or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.[3]

Those who quote this passage as justification for their beliefs regarding the legitimate functions of government overlook a rather obvious and important difference: when Adam Smith wrote this passage, the country in which he lived, namely Great Britain, was ruled by a monarch who was neither elected by the people, nor felt himself to be accountable for his actions to the people, nor governed for the sake of the people. This means that Smith’s conception of government was very different from our conception of government – a fact that is, or should be, clear from his use of the word “sovereign”, which referred to the hereditary monarch who was the supreme head of the country in which he lived. In other words, what Smith meant by the word “government” is not the same as what we mean when we use this word today. Thus, we must take this important difference into consideration when we consider the applicability, to the very different times in which we live, of his views about the proper functions of government – something that pretty nearly every person who has used this quote as a justification for strictly limited government functions has failed to do.

I will call those who commit this error “economic fundamentalists.” Just as religious fundamentalists quote the Bible or some other sacred work in the belief that it contains eternal and unchanging truths about God, the world we live in, and human affairs, economic fundamentalists quote this passage from Smith’s Wealth of Nations without considering whether his arguments and assertions are still valid for the very different times in which we presently live.[4]

Generally speaking, in Smith’s day, when the government or sovereign taxed people, it was not in order to provide them with services and other benefits, as is presently done by governments in modern democracies. Rather, it was to accomplish what could be called national aims, such as defending the nation, waging war, and maintaining the prestige and ceremony of the Crown. In no sense was the monarch or sovereign the servant of the people, as is true today of the representatives who are elected by citizens in all successful democracies. During its long existence, although the power of the British monarchy was increasingly checked, first by a group of powerful nobles, which group later formed the basis for the British House of Lords, and later by an elected House of Commons, it was still true in Smith’s time that the people were the servants or subordinates of their sovereign.

In almost all countries, the revenue of the sovereign is drawn from that of the people.[5]

Over and above the expenses necessary for enabling the sovereign to perform his several duties, a certain expense is requisite for the support of his dignity. This expense varies, both with the different periods of improvement, and with the different forms of government.[6]

War, and the preparation for war, are the two circumstances which, in modern times, occasion the greater part of the necessary expense of all great states.[7]

Although the last statement was true in Smith’s day, it is no longer true today, a fact that illustrates how different his conception of government was from the conception that we have of it today. Given the undemocratic nature of government in Smith’s time, specifically the unelected monarch who was the political head of state, it is easy to understand why Smith would have wanted to limit both its powers and functions. The following passages show that he had a decidedly negative opinion of rulers in general, and that he wasn’t able to conceive that one day humanity would devise a system of government to remedy the evils that were often committed by rulers in the past:

All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.[8]

The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am afraid, the nature of human affairs can scarce admit of a remedy[…][9]

Though it provided some, the government of Smith’s day by no means provided all, of the services that democratic governments provide for their citizens today. It was only gradually, over the course of several centuries, as the power of the monarchy waned and, concomitantly, the power of the people increased, that the conception of government changed from an individual or group of individuals who governed primarily for their own benefit to its present form of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – that is, from an institution that oppressed the people or ruled them for its narrow and frequently selfish aims and interests, it was transformed into a benevolent institution that governed for the good and benefit of all people.

Adam Smith was born in 1723 and died in 1790. The dates for the first Industrial Revolution in England are 1760 to 1840, meaning that the start of this important societal change roughly bisected Smith’s life. However, during his lifetime, these changes were not as evident and profound as they became in the nineteenth century. Although he was alive when the Industrial Revolution began in England, the social and economic world in which he was born and grew up in Scotland, and about which he theorized, was largely an agrarian world in which the majority of people lived in relatively small villages and towns, where the people knew each other well, unlike in later ages, when this ceased to be true. It was only in the following century that the massive displacements of people from rural to urban areas, which resulted from the industrialization of many professions, along with the large factories where things were produced, became a common trend. In a society where the members all know each other, it is less likely that some of them will do things that harm others because they can see the harmful effects of their actions; however, in a large populous society where it is impossible for the members to know everyone else, it can easily happen that some of the members do things that cause harm to others because they do not observe the harmful effects which their actions have on these people, whom frequently they don’t know and don’t care about.[10] Hence, Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand was derived from his observations of economic activity in societies where, for the most part, the members knew and trusted each other; consequently, it does not apply to societies where the members do not know each other, as the many ignorant free-market zealots have assumed. In other words, far from benefitting others, it can easily happen that, by pursuing one’s narrow self-interests, one can cause harm, and sometimes considerable harm, to other people.

Of course, this does not mean that, because of these differences, Smith’s discussion of government has no applicability to our times. But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t take his assertions about the legitimate functions of government out of the particular historical context in which they were written, namely, the society of Great Britain in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and apply them uncritically to our very different circumstances, as is done by laissez-faire capitalists and other economic fundamentalists, who have imitated the contempt for government policies and governmental interference in the market that is prevalent in Smith’s work.

Many of Smith’s beliefs were determined by the standards of the society in which he lived. An example is when he argued against public education for women, since this was the standard practice in his day, when women, at least those of the middle and upper classes, were educated privately at home.

There are no public institutions for the education of women, and there is accordingly nothing useless, absurd, or fantastical, in the common course of their education. They are taught what their parents or guardians judge it necessary or useful for them to learn, and they are taught nothing else. Every part of their education tends evidently to some useful purpose; either to improve the natural attractions of their person, or to form their mind to reserve, to modesty, to chastity, and to economy; to render them both likely to become the mistresses of a family, and to behave properly when they have become such. In every part of her life, a woman feels some conveniency or advantage from every part of her education. It seldom happens that a man, in any part of his life, derives any conveniency or advantage from some of the most laborious and troublesome parts of his education.[11]

Today, Smith’s views on the education of women, or lack thereof, would be regarded as highly sexist and condescending.

There is another famous passage from Smith’s landmark work that is also frequently quoted without regard for the historical context, or in this particular case, the personal beliefs, of its author.

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.[12]

Before Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he first wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was published in 1759, seventeen years before the publication of his more famous work. Unlike most people today, Smith was of the opinion that The Theory of Moral Sentiments was more important than The Wealth of Nations. Because the beliefs about human society, and the great importance of sympathizing with our fellow human creatures, that were expressed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments were constantly present to Smith, and because, I suspect, he believed that these two books would be read together by those who were interested in his ideas, this led him to believe that it was not necessary to recapitulate what he had written in his first book in his later, more famous work. In other words, for Smith, these two works were complementary, rather than being two unrelated books about his views on human societies and how they operate, or how they should operate. But Smith’s opinion about the relative merits of his two works has not been shared by subsequent generations of readers, most of whom, if they read his books at all, read The Wealth of Nations but neglect to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Consequently, because the moral framework in which Smith expected that his statement about self-interest would be understood no longer exists in the brains of his readers as it did in his own, this statement was later taken completely out of context and interpreted to mean either that all people, at all times, and in all situations, only consider their own self-interest, or that they should only consider their own self-interest – neither of which meanings was intended by Smith.

To give another example of the importance of considering the historical context of books, the Biblical exhortation to “go forth and multiply” was uttered or written at a time when human beings were not very numerous. It is impossible to know exactly how many humans there were at the time in the world, but it was certainly much less than a billion, and perhaps even less than one hundred million. Hence, following this exhortation made sense at the time, since survival was much more precarious then than it is now, when disease, famine, injury, war, and predation regularly took their toll on human populations everywhere. But now, when the human species has learned to counteract these natural checks on the growth of all living species, human overpopulation has become a very serious and alarming problem. Hence, to continue to believe that we should all “go forth and multiply” is nothing short of suicidal and, in my opinion, morally reprehensible, since our unchecked human multiplication is making it increasingly difficult or impossible for a great many other species to “go forth and multiply” in their turn, as they were able to do before our recent disastrous period of planetary dominance. Again, in this case, we can clearly see the folly of taking a statement that was made in a particular social, historical, and demographic context and applying it indiscriminately to all future times and contexts.

Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944. At the time and during the following decades, the apparent success of fascism and communism in countries like Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union in solving the perennial problems of unemployment and economic prosperity, together with these countries’ military aggressiveness, made their totalitarian systems, in addition to being considered as possible alternatives to capitalism, very real threats to democratic countries. The Road to Serfdom was addressed primarily to the many intellectuals who were convinced by the arguments presented by communists and socialists in favour of a government-controlled, planned, and directed economy. Hayek correctly pointed out that communism and socialism would fail because no single individual or group of individuals can possibly know everything that is known by the many different participants in a free-market economy; and those who direct a planned economy, by destroying the price mechanism which results from the interactions of supply and demand in a free market, will not know where and in what quantities resources should be allocated in order for them to be used most efficiently, a result that is generally – but not always – achieved by the free market.

Hayek’s thesis, which was decidedly unpopular when his book was published, was vindicated many years later by the rapid collapse of communism starting in 1989, after decades of stifling conformity, brutality, monotony, and widespread shortages of many basic necessities. But it does not follow, as many of his readers have incorrectly concluded, from the fact that, since communism and socialism are wrong, capitalism – and in particular laissez-faire capitalism – is right. Human and worldly affairs are not so simple that they can be correctly represented by the simple logical statement, If A is false, then its opposite, not A, must be true: if communism is wrong, then its opposite, which is laissez-faire capitalism, must be right. In human affairs, it can happen that both A and not A are false – an outcome that is not allowed in logic – because they are extreme and uncompromising positions that fail to take into consideration the realities of human nature and behaviour, in particular our flawed, frequently selfish, imitative, scornful, inconsistent, emotional, irrational, and imperfect nature. It has now become necessary to do to Hayek what he did to the communists and socialists, by showing that many of his ideas, arguments, assertions, assumptions, and beliefs, as well as his grandiose social, political, and economic philosophy based on the supposedly inviolable principle of liberty, are false.

The American habit or tradition of continually discussing and debating the intentions of those individuals whom they are pleased to honour with the august title of the Founding Fathers of their Great and Glorious Revolutionary Republic, which was Founded in Freedom and Shall Continue in Freedom for as long as the Human Race Exists on the Earth, is another example of the importance of considering the historical context of books, or, in this case, the historical context of certain legal documents. It is curious the number of Americans who have claimed that their Founding Fathers said this or that, as if they were like Moses, who gave the Hebrew people their laws in ancient times. All sorts of things have been attributed to them, which can easily be done since they are all long dead and cannot rise from their graves to repudiate these claims. It would be one thing if they had gotten things right. But the truth, which most Americans fail to realize, is that their Founding Fathers screwed things up by basing their novel system of government on the recommendations of a theorizing fool named Montesquieu. And even if they had gotten things right for the particular time in which they lived, the radical changes which have taken place in the United States since the country’s founding have rendered a number of aspects of their cherished Constitution obsolete. But because of their excessive adulation for this legal document, Americans are unable to modify it in order to reduce the harm it causes, so that it better reflects the times in which they live.[13]

The complexities and features of a particular culture cannot be conceived by someone who has no familiarity with it. In the case of those who lived in the past, this means that they were hardly likely to have conceived what societies would be like today. Indeed, it would have been truly astonishing had they been able to do so. But it is certainly not their fault if we, the living, misapply the assertions and theories which past writers and thinkers advanced in their books to our age, without taking into consideration the differences between the particular characteristics of their society and ours.

There are two mistakes that are made in regard to the historical context of books: one is to overlook the differences in time, while the second is to overlook the differences in place, that exist between two or more different societies. In both instances, people make the mistake of assuming that truth in human affairs is universal by overlooking the differences that existed in the past or exist presently between different cultures and societies. It is generally true that, the more one society differs from another, the less validity the comments and generalizations made by the members of one society about the workings of society have to the operations of the other society. Although the truth of this statement might seem obvious, it has often been overlooked because of the philosophical tendency to assume that truth is timeless and universal – that is, that truth is not dependent on the particular social and historical context in which these statements or generalizations are made. And it is still being overlooked by the many economists who blithely assume that their theories apply to all societies, including those that are very different from the ones they have studied, namely, Western industrialized countries during the past few centuries, and on which their theories of economic behaviour are based.

The thesis that I am advancing in this essay should not be taken as a blanket generalization that applies to every generalization that has ever been made about human beings. Rather, it should be taken as a warning against the common tendency to take statements that were made in a certain historical, social, economic, or political situation and apply them indiscriminately, without considering the particular situation in which we or other people live; in other words, the tendency to assume that these statements are globally valid, when their validity is much more limited. Even important writers and thinkers have not been able to transcend the limits of the particular time and place in which they lived. And when they do try to transcend these limits, they may come up with horrific – because they are highly impractical and unrealistic – visions of society called utopias.

Life is for the living. This truism does not mean that those who lived in the past have nothing to say to the living, or that each generation must fashion anew the society in which its members live, while casting off the mores, customs, thoughts, beliefs, faiths, and values of prior generations, just as a snake sheds its skin repeatedly throughout its life. After all, there is a cultural, linguistic, and behavioural continuity in all societies. But what it does mean is that we should be careful in attempting to apply the beliefs and theories that were held or advanced in past ages to the present age, especially when, due to numerous cumulative changes, the past and the present no longer resemble each other very much.

[1] Many people righteously condemn these prejudiced, sexist, or racist attitudes, not realizing that if they had lived in those times, they would most likely have espoused the same prejudiced, sexist, or racist attitudes which they so readily condemn.

[2] Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, An Essential Primer on the History of Thought by Paul Kleinman, “Thomas Hobbes”. Adams Media, Avon, Massachusetts, 2013.

[3] The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, book 4, chapter 9. Harriman House, Petersfield, Hampshire, 2007.

[4] Interestingly, Smith declared elsewhere in The Wealth of Nations that the education of its citizens is another of the legitimate functions of government, a point that economic fundamentalists like Milton Friedman, who was vehemently opposed to public education, overlook:

After the public institutions and public works necessary for the defence of the society, and for the administration of justice, both of which have already been mentioned, the other works and institutions of this kind are chiefly for facilitating the commerce of the society, and those for promoting the instruction of the people. The institutions for instruction are of two kinds: those for the education of the youth, and those for the instruction of people of all ages. (book 5, chapter 1, part 3)

[5] The Wealth of Nations, book 4, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid, book 5, chapter 1, part 4.

[7] Ibid, book 5, chapter 2, part 1.

[8] Ibid, book 3, chapter 4.

[9] Ibid, book 4, chapter 3.

[10] For a further discussion of these differences, see “The Breakdown of the Social Bond: The Important Difference Between Small, Stable Communities and Large, Anonymous Cities” and “The Destruction of Community.”

[11] The Wealth of Nations, book 5, chapter 1, part 3, article 2.

[12] Ibid, book 1, chapter 2.

[13] I have discussed these matters in several other essays, which are mostly contained in an earlier work.