Unit 3:

Property, Commerce & the Romantic Critique


Guide for Teachers and Students

What is the relationship between freedom and property? Like the problems of race and slavery that have continuously challenged the practice of American democracy, private property and questions of its distribution, its proper use, and its limits involve Americans' deepest considerations of justice. Our understanding of virtue and right behavior informs our opinion of the habits required for building wealth. Is it even right or good to pursue private wealth? Are there limits to what is proper or decorous in the pursuit of wealth? How is wealth best employed and distributed? And, finally, what kinds of lives are led by wage-earners and those who control capital in a social and political system that supports private property?

The texts in this unit all indicate that individuals and peoples who seek to amass wealth have characteristic good qualities, such as industriousness and creativity, as well as characteristic flaws, such as selfishness. The entrepreneurial spirit, bustle and busy-ness associated with business are part of the character of the American republic. Yet, Americans' pursuit of wealth and affluence has occasioned significant censure. Critics of private property seemingly yearn for a simpler way of life, where motives are more pure and people more honest and connected with one another. Can the American system of capitalism and private property answer the critics' charges of spiritual and political emptiness, or is it the case that these critics are right -- that virtue and the good life cannot coexist with such a powerful, individualistic drive to amass private wealth?

To examine these questions in greater detail, this unit includes excerpts from the Second Treatise on Government by John Locke and the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. These authors are early champions of the practice of liberal capitalism. Locke's and Smith's ideas were supremely influential in developing the practice of free market economies, and their associated liberal political orders, in particular the American republic.

This unit also considers critics of the commercial republic Locke and Smith promoted. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, describes a simple and peaceful natural condition before political societies came into existence. Henry David Thoreau gives his homegrown take on the American character in Walden and expresses his determination to live simply and deliberately --independent of conventional expectations. Finally, we look at Karl Marx and his momentous Communist Manifesto. These thinkers take aim at the excessive individualism, inequality and harshness of capitalism as well as the soul-stifling assault on beauty and community that seem to come with the acquisitive habits of self-interested Lockean individuals.

The concerns of these writers are reflected in four films: Other People's Money, Instinct, Dead Poets Society, and High Noon. Together these texts and films help us better understand private property and the virtues associated with commerce and capitalism, as well as the romantic critique of the modern commercial society.


John Locke (1632-1704) is the earliest of the authors included in this unit. As noted in unit four, John Locke's Second Treatise on Government (1690) is one of the first and most important statements of liberal political theory. It contains a theory of rights. According to that theory, rights rest in the individual and derive from a pre-political state of nature. Notable among these "natural rights" for Locke is the right to property, which he understands as an extension of the individual originating in his labor. Although Locke says that the earth has been given to human beings in common, it is an individual's labor which creates property over which that individual has an exclusive claim. Labor turns what is natural into something that is useful and valuable to human beings (property). Acquiring property is for Locke a fundamental right derived from the individual's right to preserve himself and from the effort he makes to do so (his labor).

Thus, for Locke, inequality is introduced justly among men through their natural differences in industry and the useful convention of money. While men are naturally possessed of equal rights, the inequality of property also has a foundation in the law of nature.

Locke presents natural man as morally good. Natural man's primary virtue is his self-interested industriousness. In fact, all his actions are self-interested. Consequently, some classical virtues such as generosity, munificence and courage cease to be counted by Locke among man's highest virtues, while other traditional virtues such as temperance become wholly instrumental to man's industriousness.


Excerpts from Adam Smith's (1723-1790) Wealth of Nations (1776) are included next. Smith, like Locke, understood man to be inclined to self-interest and material prosperity and bound to self-preservation. He shows, however, that self-interest is far from an anti-social or asocial passion. When men pursue their self-interest in the context of the economic market, Smith argues that they serve the good of society as a whole. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith examines the causes of national prosperity and demonstrates the tendency of the free market to produce wealth. Furthermore he shows that the tendency of mercantilist or protectionist policies common to his time is to limit the accumulation of wealth.

Like Locke, he notes how even the poorest members of industrialized societies are fed and clothed better than the wealthy among more primitive societies. And, he shows how the division of labor, or specialization of tasks in manufacturing, contributes to the wealth of a nation as a whole, and to the improved standard of living of all its members. The practice of specialization comes, according to Smith, from the wholly self-interested behavior among men to trade goods and services.

Men are enormously dependent upon one another -- upon large numbers of other men in fact -- for their welfare. No individual, however, can expect the benevolence of the numerous artisans and laborers required to supply him the goods necessary to his welfare. As Smith notes, "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."

Inequality, according to Smith, comes not from differences in natural industriousness of individuals, but rather from the division of labor.

Although he is known for identifying the invisible hand of the market and the tendency of self-interested behavior to produce public goods as well as private, Smith argues that men make moral judgments and act according to them. He sought in another work, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, to explain the foundation of moral behavior.


Rousseau (1712-1778) is a crucial forerunner of a European artistic and intellectual movement, known as the Romanticism. Rousseau's reply to the state of nature theorists (Locke as well as Thomas Hobbes) who preceded him is the first and most influential of the romantic critiques of property and commerce. That reply is best seen in his 1758 work, On the Origin and Foundation of Inequality of Mankind. Rousseau, like the Romanticism he inspired, emphasizes man's natural simplicity, emotion and imagination over tradition and reason.

While industriousness and rationality are the virtues of Locke's man in the state of nature, and so too of his citizens in civil society, Rousseau emphasizes the sentiment of natural man and makes that sentiment the cornerstone of his just society. He seeks the natural grounds for good government, understood as one where citizens experience organic and emotional connections to others, not as individuals possessing equivalent natural rights, but as other feeling beings like themselves.

The rights that animated Locke's theory are far less important to Rousseau than what we might today call the "authenticity" of the individual -- man and woman unconstrained by society and its conventions, and leading a more natural life. Thus Rousseau turns attention to natural man, but not so much to secure his natural rights in society, but to emancipate him from the artificial constraints of society and, in his 1762 work, The Social Contract, to point him toward a society that is itself more natural and emancipating than the commercial society envisioned by Locke.

In Rousseau's thought, the private, self-interested acquisitiveness of Lockean man in the state of nature is supplanted by a natural compassion, "an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow-creature suffer" and a kind of infinite perfectibility, or malleability, which both makes him susceptible to the enslaving conventions of social life and is the basis of a romantic expansion of feeling and sentiment.


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was one of the famous New England Transcendentalists. He was also a proponent of civil disobedience and an apologist for the insurrectionist and abolitionist John Brown. In his Walden, Thoreau famously speaks of living "deliberately" and "simply".

Thoreau's romantic account of living at Walden Pond with only the simplest necessities of food, clothes and shelter has become an iconic piece of the American landscape. While Thoreau speaks of his sojourn to the woods, it is important to note that the twenty-eight dollars he spent to build his shelter was not an insignificant sum at the time. Nor was he far from civilization: he was situated a mile from town, on the way to the train. Even his shelter, he notes, was built with the help of other men and with borrowed tools.

Yet, Thoreau at Walden lived Spartan-like, with no luxuries, only the essentials necessary for subsistence. He was not engaged in improving his condition or accumulating wealth for a more comfortable life in the future. He saw such enterprises as undertaken by men leading "lives of quiet desperation." Most men lead such lives, having become tools of their tools, and are forced to work to maintain more than they need. They have forgotten, Thoreau says, even how to play.

At Walden, Thoreau attempted to "rout all that was not life", and "reduce [life] to its lowest terms." But he sought at Walden not simply the low, but the sublime and the transcendent. He notes, "In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident." And thus at Walden Thoreau worked on the food of the soul: he read the great books of ancient times. His time, freed from attention to improving his material condition, was spent upon improving his mind, in an activity of the leisured class. Only from such a perspective can Thoreau consider his neighbors, John Field and his wife, at once "hard-working" and "shiftless" (lazy).

While Thoreau celebrates the immortal and transcendent, he notes that Americans are not only busy with business and the news of the day, they are consequently "intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients." Yet he advises humans to attend to their "own business" -- by which he means the business of living life deliberately, not seeking a conventionally successful life. "Why," Thoreau asks, "should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?" And, it is here he advises, famously, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."


Karl Marx (1818-1883) looks at history and discovers it to be a long tale of class antagonisms. In his 1847 The Communist Manifesto he argues that the epoch of the industrial age is the tale of the bourgeoisie (middle class) and the proletariat (wage earners) where the entire political power of the modern state is "but a committee for managing the common affairs" of one class, the middle class. Having overthrown the old feudal, patriarchal order, the bourgeoisie has, according to Marx, "left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'." Acquisitive, Lockean, middle class citizens have "drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation."

Marx notes that the reverence and honor previously due to fathers, priests, poets, and men of science has been undone by the constant revolution in the modes of production that characterize the bourgeois epoch. Marx acknowledges that the result has yielded greater wonders than Egyptian pyramids and Roman aqueducts. Yet, he laments:

All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

Marx also describes the force of globalization accompanying the dominance of the bourgeoisie. Because the forces of capital are always seeking new markets and increased profits, national seclusion, self-sufficiency and one-sidedness give way to interdependence and the world thus becomes more cosmopolitan, more homogenous, and more bourgeois.

In proportion as the bourgeoisie is developed, the proletariat, the modern working class, expands. The proletariat is a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital for the bourgeoisie. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity. And, like every other article of commerce, they are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition and to all the fluctuations of the market.

Consequently, Marx believes that capitalism will eventually crumble, undone by forces within itself, and that the subsequent development of communism is inevitable. Marx's forecast of the coming of communism is a theory of history which he thought might replace all prior philosophic understanding. He complains that "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it." For Marx societies are born and die as they move or impede the development of human productive power. History moves through a series of modes of production, culminating in the establishment of communism. Communism was not, for Marx, a pre-determined moral ideal, but an actual material inevitability, to which capitalism is a necessary precursor.

Other People's Money

Other People's Money (1991) illustrates the tension between the Lockean virtues of industriousness and acquisitiveness and virtue understood as care for one's fellows. It also demonstrates the power of capital over the working class and reminds us of Marx's account of how subject this class is to the whims of capital.

Other People's Money is about Lawrence Garfield, a self-proclaimed lover of money, whose only friend seemingly is his computer, Carmen. Seeing an opportunity to make money for himself, Garfield threatens to cut off the livelihood of workers at the New England Power and Cable Plant in order to liquidate the company's assets and turn a profit for shareholders in the company -- including him. Garfield's foil in the movie is the upright owner of New England Power and Cable, Mr. Jorgensen. "Jorgy", who piloted his company through the Great Depression, reveres the down-home Harry Truman. He holds fast to fiscally conservative practices, and he feels an obligation to the workers in his charge.

Enter the lovely and smart stepdaughter of Jorgy, Kate Sullivan, who seems to view her stepfather's ideas as outdated. Jorgy reluctantly calls upon Kate, a lawyer, to help him save his company from Garfield. When Garfield meets Kate, he is enthralled. We see another side to him as he progressively becomes more and more taken with Kate. He awkwardly proposes marriage to her on the eve of the shareholders' vote, for fear that he will not see her again once the company is liquidated and the "game" is won.

Garfield's fears come true; he wins the vote, but loses Kate. We see him, as we did in the first scene, alone again with his only companion, Carmen, consoling himself that he loves not Kate, but money. Garfield's victory is hollow, but Jorgy's position is not the film's answer: his simple virtues fail. He does not save his company, and the workers who relied on him are not served, in the end, by his refusal to fight Garfield at his own game.

To some extent, Other People's Money demonstrates the emptiness and ultimately unsatisfactory nature of Garfield's pursuit of wealth, at the same time that Garfield is able to triumph over the simple and good folk represented by Jorgy and his wife Bea. But Kate put the question best: after one makes as much money as he can -- then what?

Other People's Money doesn't end there. In the final scene, Kate's ingenuity and hard work carry the day. She finds that the factory can be given new life if redirected to an emerging technology. Kate shows that she is superior to both Garfield and Jorgy because she possesses the strengths of both men. Although she has a kindness and moral compass that make her the equal of Jorgy, she has a fierceness and business acumen that makes her a match for Garfield. As Garfield seems to understand, Kate could make him happy, keep him on his toes, and improve him. She, not money, is a worthy object of his love. And, they will make more money through her plan than Garfield would have made by simply liquidating the company. The Lockean virtues of acquisitiveness and industriousness play a large role in Kate's moral excellence.


In Instinct (1999), an anthropologist and primatologist, Ethan Powell, who has lived among gorillas gives a "true history" of the world. It begins, much like Rousseau's account of the state of nature, with an account of man subsisting among other animals -- taking from nature only what he has need for at the moment. And Powell's history progresses, as Rousseau's does, to a time when man becomes a "taker". He begins to take more than he needs from his environment and upset his natural harmony with nature and its other creatures. Finally, with this true freedom lost, man becomes dependent upon his illusion of control over nature and a slave to the opinions other men hold of him. Notably, both Locke and Smith also subscribe to this account of primitive man -- man in nature is essentially good and takes from nature only what he needs. Yet, for Locke and Smith the beginning of man's cultivation of the earth, his acquisition of property, and his practice of trading and employing money in commerce is not a fall from the kind of Eden described by Rousseau and Powell, but rather progress toward a more civilized and better life.

Powell's relationship with the gorillas in nature also reflects Rousseau's account of primitive man. Powell describes the gorillas as accepting him, and feeling a kind of compassion and primitive filial connection not only to one another but to him as well. When some men attack the gorillas with whom Powell is living, Powell becomes enraged, killing two of the men and injuring three others.

Arrested and extradited from Africa back to the U.S., Powell continues to be violent and refuses to speak to anyone, including his daughter. Instinct presents the relationship of Powell and a psychiatrist, Dr. Theo Caulder, after Caulder has been sent to do an evaluation of him. Caulder, who is ambitious and very attentive to pleasing the right people, is driven to take Powell's case for it promises to win him fame and success. In getting to know Powell, Caulder comes to understand himself better, and to see how he was playing a kind of game -- the game of public esteem and vanity described by Powell and Rousseau.

Instinct also shows Powell opening up to Caulder and in fact learning from him. As Rousseau notes, the game of public esteem comes into being through the development of language, and it is speech that Powell initially rejects along with civilization. The film does not simply endorse Powell's -- and Rousseau's -- complaint against society, however, but shows Powell learning from Caulder about the desirability of connections with other human beings. Powell calls Caulder his friend at the close of the film, and indeed understands Caulder as having given him not only friendship, but his "daughter back". The film thus suggests that the pleasures of friendship and love can be enjoyed even amidst the "game" of public esteem and "taking" associated with life in modern society. Perhaps such love can only be expressed by men with speech.

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society echoes the romantic criticisms of Rousseau and Thoreau. It is the story of a number of high school age boys at Welton preparatory academy, who come under the influence of their newly-hired English teacher, Mr. Keating. Keating is a self-described Romantic who encourages them, as he says, to be free thinkers and to live life, as Thoreau professes, deliberately. The boys respond to Keating in a variety of ways. The story most closely follows Todd Anderson and his roommate, Neil Perry.

Perhaps the scene most illustrative of Keating's teaching is set in a courtyard at Welton, where Keating has taken his English class to demonstrate his lessons in individualism and free thinking. He has a few boys walk in a circle. Soon those boys begin walking in a rhythm, and eventually marching in unison. The other boys, watching, begin clapping with the marching steps.

Keating explains that he asked the boys to walk "to illustrate the point of conformity: the difficulty in maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others." He elaborates:

Now, those of you -- I see the look in your eyes like, 'I would've walked differently.' Well, ask yourselves why you were clapping? Now, we all have a great need for acceptance. But you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, 'That's baaaaad.' Robert Frost said, 'Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.'

Keating's appeals to individualism and the romance of going one's own way down an untrodden path are reminiscent of Rousseau's understanding of freedom and his praise of the natural sentiment of the present over reason, which seeks the means of preservation and calculates how to serve interests.

Neil Perry is most transported by Mr. Keating and his advice. Inspired by Keating's encouragement to seize the day -- Carpe Diem -- he decides to defy and deceive his father in order to pursue his passion for acting. Neil's father, rigid in his demands upon Neil, insists on removing him from Welton and Keating's influence and enrolling him in a military academy. Neil commits suicide in response to his feelings of desperation. Dead Poets Society ends with the boys as individuals, and Welton as a community, coming to terms with Neil's death, and Keating's influence on them all. It prompts the viewer to ask about the defects in Keating's emphasis on the present -- his importuning the boys to 'seize the day' -- and how that advice, and the sense of urgency it carries with it, may have contributed to Neil's sense of desperation. The film makes it easy to see the appeal of Keating's encouragement to free thinking, and the defects of Neil's cold and strict father, and of Welton's rigid, humorless headmaster. But the complexity of Dead Poets Society is indicated by he observations of Keating's colleague, Latin teacher Mr. McAllister, who concerns himself with the boys' long-term happiness rather than their individual expression, and in fact in Keating himself, who lives a rather conventional life as a teacher managing with equanimity although he has separated from the woman he loves to do the teaching he loves. Keating, it would seem, contrary to his advice to "seize the day" lives contented with the limitations of the present as much as in a hoped for future.

High Noon

High Noon demonstrates the tension between the comfortable and decent lives human beings seek for themselves and their families and the courage and service that are necessary for their preservation. Marshal Will Kane is responsible for making Hadleyville's streets safe for women and children, but at the beginning of High Noon he is resigning his badge, for he is marrying a Quaker who renounces violence.

As the newlyweds prepare to leave together, the town receives word that murderer Frank Miller is returning on the noon train, his sentence commuted. Miller has vowed revenge on Kane, who sent him away, and three of Miller's gang are awaiting his arrival on the train. The rule of law is only recently established in Hadleyville, and the new marshal has not yet arrived in town.

High Noon is the story of Kane's decision to stay to face Miller and his men, and the townspeople's responses to his pleas for help in dealing with the outlaws. One by one the people fail to meet the challenge of helping Kane in protecting their town and its laws. Kane's mentor and the town's former marshal, for example, refuses to help, for he is disillusioned with serving "a dirty little village," when "deep down, the people just don't care." For him the community that he served is not worth the risks he took in its defense, and he can find no other compensation for his life. Kane's friend Herb volunteers for the job of deputy, for he is a good citizen when his property and comfort are at stake. But he did not bargain on his being the only one with Kane standing up to the gunslingers. Both calculations are in keeping with Lockean self-interest, and thus in Herb, we see both the virtues and failures of a Lockean citizen.

The failures are even more apparent in the townspeople in general. The turning point in the film -- when Kane realizes that he will stand alone -- occurs in Church, where Kane asks the congregation for help. These church-going men and women have an interest in law and order but it is here that Kane is painfully abandoned. His good friend, Jonas, whom we met at Will and Amy's wedding, discourages the people from helping Kane. If Kane is not in town when Miller arrives, Jonas claims, there will be "no trouble," since the conflict between the murderer and the lawman is merely "personal." More important, a shoot-out is not in the town's interest, for the people up north who are "thinking about sending money down here to put up stores and build factories" will be deterred if they read of shooting and killing in the streets.

In abandoning his friend to odds that forebode his likely death, Jonas shows a naiveté about the nature of Frank Miller and his men and a gross short-sightedness about the town's interest. Before the outlaws can be certain of Kane's presence in town, they run riot in anticipation of a fight and begin breaking storefront windows. They threaten the town's peace and prosperity as a whole, but Kane is left alone to face them. Even Kane's new wife cannot support his use of force, and plans to leave on the noon train.

Why, then does Kane stay, when everyone and everything seem to urge him to go? As the film's theme song says, "If I'm a man, I must be brave." The words suggest that men such as Kane chose virtue for its own sake. When he is "torn betwixt love and duty," as the song says, his duty is not only to the town or to his office as marshal, but to himself, to act according to his view of how a man should act. High Noon criticizes a society based on self-interest not on the romantic ground that such a social order corrupts our natural goodness but on the ground that it undermines classical virtue, which is both noble in itself and necessary for society's survival. Kane is aware of this, and is not seeking, as Amy supposes, to be a hero. But, only by being a hero will the quiet life he wants with Amy be possible. Amy comes to see this as well, for instead of catching the train she returns to town, and even chooses to shoot one of Miller's men in the back rather than let him go after her husband. She musters the courage to fight for Kane, and for their future life together. She comes to understand, better than Jonas, the burden of a common defense of right, a defense without which our liberties are lost.

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