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The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

by Scott L. Montgomery, Daniel Chirot
The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

by Scott L. Montgomery, Daniel Chirot


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How four revolutionary ideas from the Enlightenment shaped today's world

This panoramic book tells the story of how revolutionary ideas from the Enlightenment about freedom, equality, evolution, and democracy have reverberated through modern history and shaped the world as we know it today.

A testament to the enduring power of ideas, The Shape of the New offers unforgettable portraits of Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx—heirs of the Enlightenment who embodied its highest ideals about progress—and shows how their thoughts, over time and in the hands of their followers and opponents, transformed the very nature of our beliefs, institutions, economies, and politics. Yet these ideas also hold contradictions. They have been used in the service of brutal systems such as slavery and colonialism, been appropriated and twisted by monsters like Stalin and Hitler, and provoked reactions against the Enlightenment's legacy by Islamic Salafists and the Christian Religious Right.

The Shape of the New argues that it is impossible to understand the ideological and political conflicts of our own time without familiarizing ourselves with the history and internal tensions of these world-changing ideas. With passion and conviction, it exhorts us to recognize the central importance of these ideas as historical forces and pillars of the Western humanistic tradition. It makes the case that to read the works of the great thinkers is to gain invaluable insights into the ideas that have shaped how we think and what we believe.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691173191
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Daniel Chirot is professor of Russian and Eurasian studies at the University of Washington.

Read an Excerpt

The Shape of the New

Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

By Scott L. Montgomery, Daniel Chirot


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8425-4


Adam Smith

The Science of Man, Morality, and Money

It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people. ... Let them look well after their own expence, and they may safely trust private people with theirs.


Man does not live by GNP alone.


Adam Smith is known worldwide as the founder of modern economics. However, though he knew French well, he seems never to have uttered or written the phrase "laissez-faire." Like "free enterprise," "entrepreneur," and even "capitalism," it is a term that does not appear in any of his writings, which amount to over a million words. Born in 1723, Smith died in July 1790, four years before the firm of Boulton and Watt produced the first advanced steam engine. Smith thought, lectured, and wrote, that is, before the full advent of the Industrial Revolution, a development of which he knew neither the reality nor the name. Important as this may be, it has never counted against his reputation. Erudite, eccentric, generous but intensely private, living at a time when wood and animals still powered the globe, this eighteenth-century Scotsman nonetheless composed a book destined to explain a modern world of machines, corporations, and global markets running on oil and electricity, powering unimaginable industrial, military, and financial might that would alter the human prospect forever.

Smith himself was not wealthy and was no apologist for the rich. The man who lived quietly in the small town of Kirkcaldy, where Wealth of Nations was composed, who breathed the wet sea air from the Firth of Forth and often absentmindedly strolled its mist-laden shores, became a key and in some part radical figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, arguing as much on behalf of working-class laborers as manufacturers and free trade. To be sure it was Adam Smith who wrote that the object of every country's economy is to increase the riches and power of that country. No less did he claim that in a law-abiding state, those who seek to maximize their own gain serve the benefit of all, being "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention" (Smith 1776 in Cohen and Fermon 1996, 326). Here is the true Adam Smith, economists have often said. But "invisible hand" appears only once in a book of over eight hundred pages, and only three times in all of his writing, leading at least one scholar to suggest it may have been nothing more than a sarcastic phrase (Rothschild 2001, 117). This does create a problem for economists who have made it the center of his thought. It was this same Adam Smith, after all, not his presumed opposite, Karl Marx, who wrote that when "regulation is in support of the workman, it is always just and equitable" (Smith 1776, 143). It was Smith, too, whom Thomas Malthus charged with confusing the wealth of a state with the happiness of its lower classes.

This complex thinker is not the Adam Smith so many have come to believe in. Indeed, anyone with knowledge of Smith's reputation who reads An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations today with a clear eye will be struck by the subtlety of his thought and by the gap between what has been most often said about Smith and what he actually said. They may also find it surprising that he has a sense of humor, dry as gin. "By nature, a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound," he tells us (1776, 18). The literature dealing with his thought would by now fill a well-endowed public library, and this includes much excellent historiography that takes this literature as subject of inquiry, critique, and correction (Winch 1978; Jones and Skinner 1992; Rothschild 2001; Milgate and Stimson 2009).

It is the real Smith that deserves our interest. As economists who have studied him carefully know, the varied strands of his thinking remain even today the basis of most schools in the field, even those that seem to oppose each other.

He wrote only two books, but the range of his mind revealed in these works was vast, his interests spacious, his thought many-layered. This helps explain the complexities of Wealth of Nations in particular. Like all great works, it has many levels and is more wide-ranging, diverse, and bewildering than any one group of ideas. In addition to the division of labor and trade, it takes up matters of education, colonialism, the nature of sovereignty, civil society, natural resources, and a great deal more. It endorses certain trade restrictions and taxes on transportation, it favors universal schooling for the poor, and it expresses a healthy distrust of merchants at all times. But it is also a plea for the right of individuals to make their own decisions about how to conduct their lives, and it is in favor of eliminating the many restrictions on trade that were then current in Britain and even more on the European continent. Allowing markets to operate freely was part of this, if not the only part. In other words, the Adam Smith of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment can be interpreted by the fervid apostles of total free market thinking that some economists have favored only if they look at one side of his writing, ignoring much else that he stood for. One thing, perhaps, we can say for certain: as a man in some anxiety about his future legacy, who on his deathbed had close friends burn his remaining manuscripts, Smith would have been pained to see what some have made of him but perhaps pleased that he remains so important and the source of study.

There are other ironies to contemplate. Smith's real goal was to map out human nature, yet his own life remains largely an outline. To biographers, he "lacks visibility"; he left no journal, autobiography, or other record of his detailed existence (Phillipson 2010). We are fairly sure that he visited many workplaces and markets, discussed the things he saw, and wrote down what he learned. But there is no documentation of this. To those who would ask for more, Smith offers only negative advice: "The character of a man is never very striking ... [but] a dull and lifeless thing, taken merely by itself" (Smith 1976–87, vol. 4, 132). Though he lectured about trade and wage labor, about law and politics, about military matters and industrial production, Smith partook little in any of these areas himself. He was highly conscientious, doing much administrative work while teaching at Glasgow, and was no less involved in his work as customs commissioner. But he was no public figure; he even shunned debates about his books. Intensely private, Smith was physically small and unattractive, internally directed. He never married and never seems to have had extended amorous experiences of any kind. He was, instead, a teacher who lived with his mother for many years in the same seaside town of 2,300 where he was born.

Yet, from a certain perspective, the lack of drama can only be called appropriate. Nearly everything Smith had to say he girded with his own keen observation and his brilliant, intense powers of deduction, sharpened by a deep scholarship of and sympathy for Greek and Roman antiquity. He seems to have had a remarkable memory that he plied with unending study, without limits as to subject or depth. Intellectual commerce with so many domains of learning no doubt helped fuel his lifelong ambition to unlock the principles of human nature. But in seeking this, Smith remained cerebral above all. He preferred observation to participation, contemplation to exploit, scholarship to leadership. We perceive that his life was mainly a vehicle for his thought.

The World of Adam Smith

Adam Smith was born on June 5, 1723, just a few months after the death of his father. Sickly and infirm as a child, he "required all the tender solicitude of his surviving parent" to continue in life, as Dugald Stewart, Smith's first biographer, puts it (Stewart 1858, 5). Never spoiled by such attentions, and prevented by physical frailty from ever engaging in the normal pursuits of active boys, he was nonetheless much-loved by his schoolmates "on account of his temper, which, though warm, was to an uncommon degree friendly and generous" (Stewart 1800, 6). He spent much time alone, often talking to himself, developing the absent-mindedness for which he would one day be famous. There is a story Stewart tells that baby Smith was stolen one night by a troop of Roma and that an uncle raced out into the darkness to recover him. Whether the tale be true or not, it is amusing to think of how poor a Gypsy the father of economics would have made.

His parents were comfortably middle class. His mother, Margaret Douglas, came from a family of landowners; his father, Adam, was a lawyer with connections to Scottish political circles. Adam senior came of age in an uncertain period for Scotland, whose fate as a nation was undecided until the 1707 Treaty of Union that created the kingdom of Great Britain. The elder Smith profited considerably in the new era, however, gaining significant positions in the administration, ending up as Controller of Customs at Kirkcaldy. He died of unknown causes when his wife was three months pregnant with their son, whom she named Adam. The father's success left the family well-off, and Margaret was able to live comfortably in Kirkcaldy near friends and relatives for many years, greatly indulging her gifted son and developing a special bond that would trump — indeed take the place of — all other female companionship.

What were the outlines of his career? Adam the son left home at fourteen to attend the University of Glasgow but returned for his vacations, both as a student and later as a professor. He did his studies here and at the University of Oxford, where his reading was broad, deep, and incessant. He afterward launched himself in entrepreneurial fashion by giving a series of public lectures at Edinburgh on rhetoric, literature, and jurisprudence. These gained him a following and led to a post at his alma mater in Glasgow, where he remained for thirteen years, teaching topics related to moral theory, history, Greek and Latin authors, and, eventually, political economy. He then left university life, first to become tutor for a young aristocrat, the Duke of Buccleuh, on a Grand Tour of Europe, and then, after moving back with his mother and publishing Wealth of Nations, to accept appointment as Commissioner of Customs, a position he held until his death.

From humanist professor, to tutor for the wealthy, to tax collector — such was the angular trajectory of Adam Smith's professional life. He was certainly open to opportunities for advancement but did not seem particularly concerned to acquire riches. He joined the world of commerce only at the very end, well after Wealth of Nations was published.

Tutoring the young duke gave him the chance to visit France and talk with the most important thinkers on economic matters of the day and Switzerland, for a brief and disappointing meeting with his intellectual idol, Voltaire. His first book, published in 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was based on his lectures at Glasgow. It established a reputation for him but was followed by very little over the next twenty-five years. Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776 and became, in time, the source of the worldwide fame he now enjoys but of which he saw only a little in his own lifetime. There are a few other essays on the history of science and jurisprudence, plus a meager correspondence, little else. Well-known in his own time as a moral philosopher, not a scientist or economist, Smith was hardly prolific. Today's university tenure committees might well view him with a skeptical or unkind eye.

Smith, in fact, strikes us as neither a heroic figure nor a tragic one. His life had few outward signs of excitement, and his ending speaks only softly of pathos. It was in his Kirkcaldy home where he composed the major part of Wealth of Nations and where, alongside his aging mother, he himself grew prematurely old, worn down by long hours of work, a frail constitution, and hypochondria. His mother's death at ninety proved to be devastating. Indeed, it marked a true loss of vigor and the beginning of his own end, which came only six years later after a protracted invalidism. By the age of sixty-seven, the man whose ideas would shift the axis of the modern world's understanding of trade and economic well-being was spent. He would not live to complete even half of the grand project to which his intellectual life had been devoted. As he never married and had no sons or daughters, no legacy existed for him except his writings. His life seems to have been a source of curiosity to others. He was said to speak to himself on his walks and to have fallen into a tanner's pit while engaged in a lecture to a friend. Alexander Carlyle, a conservative church leader in Scotland, recounts that Smith's voice "was harsh and in enunciation thick, approaching to stammering. His conversation was not colloquial, but like lecturing. ... He was the most absent man in company that I ever saw, moving his lips, and talking to himself, and smiling. ... If you awaked him from his reverie and made him attend to the subject of conversation, he immediately began a harangue, and never stopped till he told you all he knew about it, with the utmost philosophical ingenuity" (Carlyle 1860, 279).

If Carlyle can be trusted, it would appear that Adam Smith found society a difficult proposition, though an infinite subject of intellectual interest. This brings us back to his grand project. What was this project, whose ambition was so vast? It was nothing less than a complete and "genuine Science of Man based on the observation of human nature and human history; a science which would not only explain the principles of social and political organization ... but [those] of government and legislation that ought to be followed by enlightened rulers" (Phillipson 2010, 2). It was thus a project that went even beyond the goals of the great French Encyclopédie, which sought to collect all knowledge in the sciences, arts, and professions as the foundation of Enlightenment progress (Des sciences, des arts et des métiers 1751–72). Smith was after more: the elemental natural laws of human behavior and social existence.

The World as Adam Smith Knew It

Smith was a member of a small but special group of thinkers born in the last decades of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Scotland at the time remained one of the poorest, most backward nations in all of western Europe. Yet from its soil issued the likes of Francis Hutcheson, James Steuart, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, James Watt, James Hutton, Joseph Black, and Smith himself. This group added to Western thought in nearly every major domain of knowledge, from politics and economics to science and belles lettres. Each man pursued, in varied fashion, an embrace of reason and individual autonomy. All believed in the power of a scientific frame of mind to penetrate both the material and mental realms (Oz-Salzberger 2003).

Much of the outlook of these Scottish thinkers was both intellectual and practical. They sought to delineate what was important to know and how it could be applied toward daily life. It was an outlook that received impetus from the Treaty of Union with England passed in 1707, which, by midcentury, had altered Scotland from an agrarian realm of fields and clans to a center of trade and traders. Progress in this setting meant buying and selling no less than learning and discovering. It was to define a paradigm of political, moral, and social guidance for the new Scotland that this group of intellectuals, inventors, and scientists labored (Merikoski 2002; Berry 1997; Haakonssen 1996).

The preceding century, meanwhile, had seen enormous turmoil in England, beginning with the Civil War (1642–51) and ending with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Catholic France under Louis XIV and his successors, the most powerful nation in Europe, acted as the great threat to Protestant nations. Confrontation with Britain eventually erupted into what some historians have characterized as the first true world conflict, the Seven Years' War, fought round the globe, particularly in the New World (where it was called French and Indian War, 1756–63) and in India. British victory in this great struggle seemed to guarantee advantage, despite subsequent defeat in the American Revolution (1776–81). India became the key possession of England's imperial domain, while the Royal Navy secured a dominion over the seas that would last until the middle of the twentieth century.

Political events did not retard the coming of a market transformation impacting all of western Europe. This commercial revolution involved an expansion powered by colonialism, the growth not only of trading empires, such as the Hudson's Bay and East India companies, but also of joint stock enterprises modeled on those originated by the Dutch, launching many new overseas ventures and flooding Europe with new goods and raw materials. If, in Shakespeare's day, people in Britain relied on local farms and artisans for their necessaries and luxuries, a century and a half later they were buying tobacco from America, nails from Germany, wine from France, linen from Belfast, spices and silks from India, and sugar from the West Indies. Britain was now a major exporting nation, too, taking in raw materials from its colonies and turning them into expensive manufactured goods. Merchants and retailers, storekeepers and company managers were now rising members of society. This transformation was fully in evidence by the years 1740 to 1780, when Adam Smith was at the height of his powers (Mokyr 2010).


Excerpted from The Shape of the New by Scott L. Montgomery, Daniel Chirot. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Paperback Edition ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Ideas as Historical Forces 1


1 Adam Smith: The Science of Man, Morality, and Money 19

2 Karl Marx: The Tragic Consequences of a Brilliant Theory 81

3 Charles Darwin: Struggle and Selection in the Realm of Ideas 148

4 Making Democracy: The Jefferson-Hamilton Debates 215


5 Counter-Enlightenment: From Antimodernism to Fascism 281

6 Christian Fundamentalism: The Politics of God in America 336

7 Purifying Islam: The Muslim Reaction against the Western Enlightenment 379

Conclusion: The Power of Ideas and the Importance of the Humanities 418

Bibliography 439

Index 473

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This is a wonderful book. Montgomery and Chirot combine double-barreled scholarship, lucid prose, and considerable wisdom to offer us a fascinating excursion into the history of ideas. For anyone who wants to understand today's emerging conflicts—and what it will take for Enlightenment liberalism again to prevail—The Shape of the New is essential reading."—Jeffrey Gedmin, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

"The Shape of the New is an ambitious book and a joy to read. The scholarship is brilliant. In contextualizing the great ideas of modern history, Montgomery and Chirot provide a holistic framework with which to understand the processes of social change and ideological conflict."—Paul Froese, coauthor of America's Four Gods: What We Say about God—and What That Says about Us

"This fantastic book offers an impressively learned and evenhanded treatment of the Enlightenment's key ideas and the reactions to them over the past two centuries. I guarantee that anyone who reads it will be a lot smarter, more cultured, and a far more intellectually interesting dinner companion."—Zoltan Barany, author of The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas

"This important book demonstrates the power of Enlightenment ideas, how they have shaped the world we live in, and how they have created systems of both action and reaction through time. It should be widely read by students, educators, and others who think that there is no need to teach classical thinkers or that their era is over."—Karen Barkey, author of Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective

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