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David Wootton, Power, Pleasure and Profit. Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison

Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 2018, 386 pages
Catherine Marshall
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Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 2018, 386 pages. ISBN:9780674976672

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1David Wootton’s latest book is an attempt to show how “Power, Pleasure and Profit” – each related in turn to Machiavelli, Hobbes and Smith’s works – have shaped our modern world because they are “three goods which can be pursued without limits” (p. 241). Based on a series of six Carlyle Lectures entitled “Power and Pleasure, 1513-1776”, given at the University of Oxford in 2014, the book attempts a major reinterpretation of the ideas of the thinkers of the period from 1500 to 1800.

2David Wootton’s re-reading of Hobbes and Smith in particular, is both exceptional and goes against mainstream academic interpretations. He brings out new questionings related to the 17th and 18th centuries but also about what comes after, in the 19th century.

3Unsurprisingly for those who know Professor Wootton – he is Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York and has taught in many universities in Britain and in Canada – it is elegantly written, entertaining (on such a subject, it is a feat) and raises a number of questions about what he calls the “Enlightenment paradigm” (p. 12) that we, as Western men and women, are still leaving in it.

4The other very enjoyable aspect of this book is the clarity with which difficult points are made using extensive erudite endnotes (found at the end, the 90 pages do not get in the way of the flow of ideas). Essentially, this is a scholarly work on a grand scale with none of the boring bits.

5This said, there are three ways in which David Wootton’s book would be interesting for the readers of this journal : first, the “Enlightenment paradigm” itself, as a definition of the Western world which is problematic in its own right; second, the methodology used throughout the book to showcase this subject in a new way and, third, the way in which this book engages with the conflicting commitments of our Western world. One could summarize it as the scholarly journey of a passionate intellectual historian.

6Firstly, the “Enlightenment paradigm” starts with Machiavelli, but is mostly based on the assumption that Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith’s canonical works need to be “juxtaposed next to unknown texts” (p.251), to bring their meanings out in a new context. This is how Hobbes becomes a great believer in a certain type of equality – in the sense that all men are equals in their desire for pleasures – and how Smith, by rigidly sticking to his system of defence of free-trade, ends up being inhuman regarding his treatment of famines especially, in The Wealth of Nations (1776).

7Hobbes is perceived, contrary to the scholarly consensus of the past few years, as an “exponent of a though egoism” (p. 100) for whom even laughter is a display of power. Read in such a light, Hobbes is no longer the landmark figure, after Machiavelli, of the modern way of understanding power, politics and morality – a landmark in the sense that modern thinkers had lowered the ideal of the virtue of the Ancients for living a Good Life. What comes out here, plainly, is how Hobbes focuses on pleasure – what we are seeking as modern human beings – as a “subjective value”. Modernity means to choose between different values and this is the first problem: one could choose to kill endangered animals in one’s pastime and this would have as much value as another person’s devotion to charity work for example. This opens the door for thinking about the principle of utility, which will come a century later. There is no longer one form of the Good Life, the way the Ancients understood such an expression. There is also a rejection of Christian morality. What is left in our modern world is what Professor Wootton calls " a cost benefit analysis. “Insofar, as our own moral, political, and economic theories derive from the Enlightenment tradition”, he writes, “we all live in a Hobbesian world” (p. 75).

8If Hobbes is the exponent of “tough egoism”, Locke becomes “a watered down Hobbesian” (p. 113). Locke is no longer one of the main inspirers of the American Declaration of Independence, he also becomes one of a number of thinkers at the time to come up with the notion of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness” (p. 219). Therefore, he fades away, unable to be the central figure of the problem at stake: that is, how to render this “tough egoism” compatible with some form of modern morality.

9This is the second important aspect of the book: the study of Smith as the major writer after Machiavelli and Hobbes. David Wootton refutes the conclusions of Ryan Patrick Henley’s seminal book on Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (2009), in which the market morality problem had been solved by showing the coherence of Smith’s thought between The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). Chapter 8, entitled “The Market: Poverty and Famines”, is an unforgettable challenge to the contemporary scholarly work on Smith. The analysis of the question of famines - the “starvation in the midst of plenty” (p. 187) – and the passage on the Good Samaritan in Smith is a masterful rehabilitation of the market morality problem. David Wootton, by unearthing other lesser known primary sources, also points out to a number of problematic aspects in Smith, such as why he never discusses the role of charity. The refutation of Henley’s ideas is perhaps too strong as Smith was deliberately trying to paint an attractive picture of commercial society and there is a coherence in Smith that many scholars in the last 20 years have demonstrated, but no Smith researcher can now ignore this chapter.

10But more to the point, it is an endless modern quest that Professor Wootton describes: one which never stops, in which we never have enough and in which we are never content. The fragility of commercial societies is exposed but, perhaps more interestingly, the fragility of our Western political systems too because they are based or even depend, as the author explains, on commercial prosperity (p. 136). In the end, the quest for more does not make us happy and the book depicts an aspect of the shallow world we are living in.

11If we decided to be thrifty – not for Christian reasons any longer – but to protect the planet, like a number of people are doing today by refusing our consumer society, one wonders if this modern “Enlightenment paradigm” would not come to an end. David Wootton is unsure whether there is a way to escape the Weberian “Iron cage” of the Enlightenment paradigm (p. 13) or if “we are beginning to emerge from it” (p. 13). He briefly gives a hint at the end of the book about Artificial Intelligence and genetic modifications (p. 247) but it is a very optimistic and confident belief in the improvement of science. One could be forgiven for being more circumspect about what AI can do to our political systems (Cambridge Analytica has opened a dark world that nobody really wanted to look at) and genetic modifications point far too much to the conclusions of a number of dystopian books published in the 20th century.

12Regarding the methodology used, one cannot help being struck by the following assertion “Historians of ideas are under an obligation to identify muddled thinking” (p. 188). Indeed, and not only does David Wootton say so but he also explains how this is to be done through constant didactic explanations in the book and especially in a formidable Appendix – even 5 appendixes – which make wonderful reading for anybody interested in intellectual history.

13In the first Appendix, one can read that “A book which seeks to provide new perspectives on well-worn topics as the present one does, cannot confine itself to the established canon; it must provide a new approach to classic texts, but in order to do this it needs to place those texts in new contexts. It must juxtapose canonical texts with hitherto obscure texts” (p.251). As explained above, the book is a constant coming and going between pivotal works and unknown primary sources which puts the emergence of ideas in a new context.

14At the beginning of the book, for example, David Wootton takes great care in explaining how aware he is that using a word like “paradigm” is at odds with “much of contemporary history” because it could be a “teleological” account of the Enlightenment (p. 13). Nevertheless, the author faces future criticism to show that categories of thought are brought by new words and how the various Enlightenment(s) did bring out new words to think the modern age. There are many instances in the book in which he focuses on those new words – competition, the language of bookkeeping, equality or prudence to quote a few. Gradually, he builds up on their contents to give new readings of the works he has chosen. One criticism is that his research is far too Anglo-British to really embrace the meaning of the different Enlightenments but this would have ended in a different book altogether.

15Interestingly, Professor Wotton does not avoid tackling even more problematic words for any historian such as “Influence” (p.46), for example, to which he assigns a new virginity by defining it as “sustained repurposing” (p. 53) from one author to another. He also shows (p. 19) how what is often more interesting to find in a text is what is not there. Here, one cannot help noticing that one needs to be tremendously well-read to have the ability to spot what is missing.

16Lastly on this methodological question, his use of digitization (and the constant use of Early English Books Online and Eighteenth century collection online especially) is a reminder of how new technologies have transformed the work of academics. If old-fashioned research is not dead, a good intellectual historian cannot avoid using such tools today.

17The third interesting aspect of the book is the way in which it reveals a side previously unseen of Professor Wootton’s work. He has published widely on the intellectual and cultural history of England, France and Italy in the period 1500-1800. This cultural and intellectual background has been used like a tool-box for the present book. From his early work on topics relating to the history of early modern unbelief, his studies on early modern political theory and the role played by metaphors of machinery, his analysis of the Levellers as an example of true egalitarianism to his books on the history of science, all this wealth of knowledge is put to good use to make up a well-researched description of the “Enlightenment paradigm”.

18The passages in the book on how 18th century political theorists had “three paradigmatic machines in mind when they tried to analyse politics: the clock, the Newtonian solar system and the market mechanisms” (p. 152) to the “circulation” of ideas or money like the circulation blood (p.162), pushes one to think with the vocabulary of the history of science adapted to politics, economics and morality.

19However, David Wootton’s continuous engagement throughout the years with the intellectual origins of modernity in what was essentially a defence of the Enlightenment project, has grown into something different in this book. His defence of the “Enlightenment paradigm” is riddled with moments of doubts which makes one wonder whether he has faith in it. There are many passages in the book which argue that human beings are not “profit maximizers” and that seeking endless pleasures does bring out “conflicting commitments” in our lives (pp. 246-48).

20Drawing on his work in the last 30 years, one feels David Wootton’s desire to keep the positive values of the Enlightenment – the rule of law, freedom of religion, free speech, especially – but at the same time an urgency to imagine/create a new virtue for the modern age.

21The author is also very aware that there is a “Tinker bell effect” (p. 238) of this “Enlightenment paradigm” (fully described pp. 242-4) in the sense that if we stop to believe in those Enlightenment values, they will end.

22This book is really part of, what one would call in France, Professor Wootton’s “oeuvre intellectuelle”. He seems to be struggling with what he ends up uncovering and even Emilie du Chatelet’s possibility of “Reconciling oneself to the limited possibilities of one’s station to life?” (p. 133) does not inspire one to lead one’s life the way Ancient virtue did. There is a form of resigned nostalgia in his graceful prose for what a good life was for the Ancients and one cannot help thinking that this book is an act to retrieve something forever lost, higher than men.

23Following David Wootton’s methodology in seeking what is not there in the book, one feels the presence of what a real life well-led would be like and it is not in the “Enlightenment paradigm” that modern commercial men can find it.

24For Straussians, this book will be an impossible read, for global historians the Brito-centric take will be frustrating but for all intellectual historians, there is a wealth of knowledge, a coherence and a grace which forces one to question the ways in which the past can be understood. For all these reasons, and especially for pushing the reader to think the contradictions of the Western world anew, Professor Wootton’s book is a must read.

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Catherine Marshall, « David Wootton, Power, Pleasure and Profit. Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison », Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2019, consulté le 23 août 2019. URL :

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Catherine Marshall

Université de Cergy-Pontoise

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