Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship, by Michael D. Chan.
What does America's commercial republic have to offer other than material prosperity? This is the central question of Michael Chan's intelligent, insightful book. Militarists, fascists, religious extremists, not to mention many philosophers of the Left and the Right have answered: absolutely nothing. Chan has a different answer. He believes justice, liberality, and nobility amounting to more than the so-called "bourgeois virtues" can go hand in hand with commercial republicanism. To make his case he looks at Alexander Hamilton's political and economic statesmanship in light of Aristotle's treatment of commerce. Increasingly, scholars have come to realize that Aristotle was more sympathetic to democracy than was once assumed. Chan urges a similar rethinking concerning commerce. He provides considerable evidence—for example, Aristotle's preference for Carthage over Sparta—to show that the philosopher's suspicions of commerce ought not be exaggerated. Chan draws particular attention to the institution of slavery, pervasive in the ancient world, arguing that on Aristotle's own terms it is seldom justified. This discussion carries over into his treatment of Hamilton who, as the author shows, not only opposed slavery in principle but was active in trying to end it, by advocating reform at the state level and by pursuing a national economic policy that would marginalize slave labor. This is one of many instances, all ably detailed by Chan, where Hamilton acted nobly for a noble cause. Although Chan never quite bridges the gap between Aristotle's recognition of commerce as a necessity and Hamilton's advocacy of commerce as a matter of natural right, his book ought to prompt us to start thinking about commercial republicanism in new ways.
Utah State University
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This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books