Commercial society as we know it today first arose in the eighteenth century, and was characterized by such momentous developments as a turn from feudalism to meritocracy, from country to city life, relative political stability under an advanced rule of law, increasing specialization in the labor market, and a corresponding steep growth of material prosperity. Despite these apparent great virtues, intellectuals of the time were highly divided on the question of commercial society’s drawbacks. ‘Politeness’ was a buzzword in the fierce debate that was held on the newly arisen society’s moral (de)merits.

Thinkers who wholeheartedly embraced the advent of commercial society, such as Voltaire (1694-1778) and Hume (1711–1776), lauded politeness as the characteristic disposition of the new citizens of the world – the expansive men of letters and business. In a poem, Voltaire for example wrote: ‘Politeness is to the spirit – What grace is to the face: – Of the goodness of the heart she is the sweet image; – And it’s the goodness that we cherish.’1 Politesse pointed to outer and inner refinement, and a spirit of humanity that made the typical modern citizen deal honestly and kindly with others, including total strangers.

Because modern commerce had such a strong international dimension, no effective businessman could do without at least a bit of polite refinement. Hence, Hume, Voltaire, and a kindred (though somewhat more ambivalent) spirit like Adam Smith (1723-1790), saw the private, basically self-interested pursuits of the commercial citizen as instrumental to moral progress. In their commercial transactions, people of different nations were compelled to open themselves up to neighboring cultures, and thus to move beyond parochial prejudice. This new cosmopolitan moral culture was thought to contrast positively with the fierce group spirit of savages and the citizens of small ancient republics (Sparta being the classic, most extreme example).

Real sentiments of humanity

For eighteenth-century critics of commercial society, by contrast, modern politeness, and its strong appreciation by many of their fellow intellectuals, was indicative of a new culture of corrupted morality. In this commercial culture, the free way of life that was the hard-won result of our ancestors’ efforts had become a matter of complacent indulgence. Civic republican thinkers like Rousseau (1712-1778) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) associated politeness with effeminacy and a corresponding decline of the traditional manly virtues and public-spiritedness that characterized the existence of less advanced peoples, for whom – due to the absence of a well-entrenched rule of law – liberty was never a matter of course. Accordingly, the defense and exercise of liberty had to be integral aspects of their everyday lives.

From the perspective of Rousseau and Ferguson, politeness in its typical modern guise did not just point to moral and spiritual enfeeblement, but often also served as a deliberate cover for underlying vice and egoism. Being polite often comes down to putting on a socially desirable mask in order to further one’s self-interested social and commercial pursuits.

However, the presence of actual kindness in politely acting men of ambition is by no means self-evident. The inherent link that Voltaire perceives between politeness and goodness of heart does simply not exist according to his critics. Ferguson sighs: ‘what persuasion can turn the grimace of politeness into real sentiments of humanity and candor?’2 While Ferguson was not altogether dismissive of the socially constructive potential of polite interaction, he saw this potential as being undermined in modern commercial society, in which the essential underpinning of a virtuous, candid character was ever less common.

Moral cosmopolitanism

It being linked to corruptions of various kinds, as Ferguson and Rousseau claimed, politeness could by no means do the cosmopolitan moral work that Voltaire, Hume, and Smith wanted it to do. Real candor and humanity were, Rousseau and Ferguson supposed, much more dependably found in primitive people. But these people lived their lives in small communities, and the humanity they were likely to show towards strangers wouldn’t have gone beyond the help of someone in acute distress, or mutual respect on an otherwise violent battlefield. Hence, moral cosmopolitanism wasn’t to be found in this primitive world, either.

Furthermore, the very supposition of an emerging moral cosmopolitanism, thanks to commerce, was grounded on the mistaken idea that liberty had been comfortably safeguarded in individual countries. In reality, so Rousseau and Ferguson thought, moral enfeeblement and the focus on private pursuits were threatening the freedom and stability of Europe’s commercial nations. This foreboded a cycle of disrupting revolutions and despotisms rather than a slow march to universal peace.

As Rousseau and Ferguson see it, a sensible politics must start with making the public spirit of citizens trump, or at least substantially complement their widespread focus on private gains. Whatever degree of moral cosmopolitanism feasible must be preceded by love for one’s country and its laws. Rousseau chastises ‘those supposed Cosmopolitans who, justifying their love of the patrie by means of their love of the human race, boast of loving everyone in order to have the right to love no one.’3

Enduring relevance

It is easy to deprecate Rousseau and Ferguson as old-fashioned moralists. Although in a way, of course, they were, this does not remove the sting from their verdict. Their analysis of the mechanisms of commercial society, on which their moral objections are grounded, is just too penetrating for that.

As a testimony to its enduring relevance, one could point to the poignant parallel between their critique of their contemporaries’ cosmopolitanism and present-day critiques4 of complacent (neo)liberal elites who preach a happy cosmopolitan world order grounded in free trade. Fundamental problems as regards the flourishing of individual nations and their ordinary citizens are off the radar of such elites, so the criticism goes.5

Rousseau and Ferguson asked challenging questions about the conditions of political liberty, and the difficulty of, and potential limits to establishing a sincere, meaningful cosmopolitan moral culture. These questions still demand our attention.

For a classic analysis of eighteenth-century debate on virtue and commerce in a republican context, see chapter 14 of John Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1975.

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Rudmer Bijlsma
Rudmer Bijlsma


  1. Stances, xxix, my translation
  2. An Essay on the History of Civil Society, sect. 1.6
  3. Geneva Manuscript, ch. 2, translation: J. Bush, R. Masters, and C. Kelly
  4. E.g. Noam Chomsky: For a multi-perspective volume on neoliberalism and its (de)merits see D. Cahill, M. Cooper, M. Konings, D. Primrose (eds), The Sage Handbook of Neoliberalism, London: Sage, 2018.
  5. Hillary Clinton’s defeat has often been attributed to her elitist neoliberal agenda that neglected the problems and worries of ordinary Americans. Her remark on Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ is a case in point. E.g. see