the battle and the market: geneology of unintended consequences, two

The battle and the market

“Might one, then … bring on the Romans once more as witnesses in behalf of Fortune, on the ground that they assigned more to Fortune than to Virtue? At least, it was only recently and after many years that Scipio Numantinus built a shrine of Virtue in Rome; elater Marcellus23 built what is called the Temple of Virtue and Honour;24 and Aemilius Scaurus,25 who lived in the time of the Cimbrian Wars, built the shrine of Mens so﷓called, which might be considered a Temple of Reason. For at this time rhetoric, sophistry, and argumentation had already found their way into the City; and people were beginning to magnify such pursuits. But even to this day they have no shrine of Wisdom or Prudence or Magnanimity or Constancy or Moderation. But of Fortune there are splendid and ancient shrines, all but coeval with the first foundations of the City.” – Plutarch, On the Fortune of the Romans

In an essay exploring the concept of Fortuna in the Latin world, Nicole Hequet-Noti demonstrates the parallel between the growth of the cult of the goddess and the growth of the military aspect of Rome. In other words, as Rome became a great generator of battles, it also became a great worshipper of that mysterious quality associated with being lucky. As Hecquet-Noti puts it, paraphrasing Cicero’s praise of Sylla: ‘That gift, originally exterior to man, is incorporated in order to become an immanent force in this man, a good properly belonging to him, conferring a particular force superior to that of others…” 18

This double development should be remembered when considering the place of Fortune in Plutarch’s Moralia and biographical writings – an unconsidered source for what became articulated, in the Enlightenment, as the programmatic concept of unintended consequences, except that somewhere in this line of transmission – which might be thought of as the modern moment, co-ordinate with the de-legitimation of glory as the reason of the State - the market is substituted for the battle.

Plutarch’s moralia and his history seem have been divided among different sorts of scholars, who commonly don’t take the time to connect the two text types systematically. What Plutarch meant by his parallel lives, though, was more than just the telling of a history through the lives of great men. Rather, biography here serves as a sort of laboratory in which, through different situations, we see the sentiments or virtues – which are, abstractly, atomic and unified – express themselves differently. This is the doxic force of tyche, of chance.

Now of course in the synthesis of luck and reason that ‘builds’ the market system (as well as the war system), virtue – Plutarchian practical reason – is not wholly powerless before luck. But luck has on its side sheer incident; and sheer incident is hard to treat neutrally. Sheer incident is the screen upon which we project the uncanny, in the Freudian sense. Plutarch tells a story to illustrate how the force of fortune can impose upon virtue – a lesson that is surely underneath the discovery of ‘unintended consequences’ in the Enlightenment:

” Caesar's son, who was the first to be styled Augustus, and who ruled for fifty-four years, ewhen he was sending forth his grandson to war, did he not pray to the goddess to bestow upon the young man the courage of Scipio, the popularity of Pompey, and his own Fortune,38 thus recording Fortune as the creator of himself, quite as though he were inscribing the artist's name on a great monument?a For it was Fortune that imposed him upon Cicero, Lepidus, Pansa, Hirtius, and Mark Antony, and by their displays of valour, their deeds, victories, fleets, wars, armies, raised him on high to be the first of Roman citizens; and she cast down these men, through whom he had mounted, and left him to rule alone. p343It was, in fact, for him that Cicero governed the State, that Lepidus commanded armies, that Pansa conquered, that Hirtius fell, that Antony played the wanton. fFor I reckon even Cleopatra as a part of Caesar's Fortune, on whom, as on a reef, even so great a commander as Antony was wrecked and crushed that Caesar might rule alone. The tale39 is told of Caesar and Antony that, when there was much familiarity and intimacy between them, they often devoted their leisure to a game of ball or dice or even to fights of pet birds, such as quails or cocks; and Antony always retired from the field defeated. It is further related40 that one of his friends, who prided himself on his knowledge of divination, was often wont to speak freely to him and admonish him, 320"Sir, what business have you with this youth? Avoid him! Your repute is greater, you are older, you govern more men, you have fought in wars, you excel in experience; but your Guardian Spirit fears this man's Spirit. Your Fortune is mighty by herself, but abases herself before his. Unless you keep far away from him, your Fortune will depart and go over to him!”
The uncanny has a collective effect that we should not underestimate. Marx’s idea that the political economists had endowed things with a power that they did not have – that, in other words, by avoiding examining human power, political economists were the blind promoters of ideology – plucks out this uncanny moment that binds Roman Fortune and the Invisible Hand of the Scots. Plutarch’s trope concerning Augustus is at least distantly echoed in Smith’s famous passage about the Invisible Hand:
“As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
In the Plutarch passage, the work of virtue in those who went before Augustus resulted – in spite of themselves – in adding to Augustus’ glory. The movement, here, is from the virtuous to the fortunate. In Smith, it is an opposite movement – the fortunate make their fortune, in spite of their concentration on selfish gainseeking ends, only by making the larger fortune of others, i.e. the nation itself.