wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Samuel Gregg

The Commercial Society

In the pre-commercial world, the type of behavior commonly regarded as civil was normally linked with lifestyles often associated with the nobility. Reflecting upon this, Tocqueville ventured that, 'Among an aristocratic people each caste has its own opinions, feelings, rights, mores, and whole separate existence. Hence its members are not at all like members of all the other castes. They have not at all the same way of thinking or feeling, and they hardly manage to think of themselves as forming part of the same humanity.' This did not mean that the different groups, Tocqueville hastened to add, did not provide each other with mutual support or were invariably rude to each other. A certain degree of brutishness, however, was often assumed to be an aspect of the life of those who were not aristocrats.

In commercial society, civility is no longer associated with an inherited social caste. The civilizing project effectively moves away from a small group and embraces increasing numbers of people as levels of wealth rise across society. In commercial society, many people have for the first time the possibility of having sufficient means to be generous, to learn to defer immediate gratification, to follow lives marked by graciousness, and to abstain from rude or coarse behavior. It is precisely, as Smith remarked, because every person 'becomes in some measure a merchant' in commercial society that commerce leads increasing numbers of people to acquire habits of order and economy. In his lectures on jurisprudence. Smith commented that 'When the greater part of people are merchants, they always bring probity and punctuality into fashion, and these therefore are the principal virtues of a commercial nation.' People experience a sense of what Tocqueville called 'real sympathy' with others in commercial society precisely because the set social roles of pre-commercial society have broken down. They may not be ready to sacrifice themselves quickly for each other, but people are careful with each other. 'It makes no difference,' Tocqueville wrote, 'if strangers or enemies are in question.' The capacity to behave in a civilized fashion is regarded as something of which all people are capable. The idea of self-improvement thus looms powerfully throughout commercial society's understanding of civility. As the growth of commercial society breaks down structures of caste and inherited hierarchy, more people become capable—and understand themselves of being capable—not only of searching for knowledge, but also, Tocqueville envisaged, of receiving and assimilating knowledge.

The spread of this desire for education in commercial society and the subsequent growth of access to education has in turn powerful civilizing effects. The importance of sound education begins to be recognized throughout all sectors of society, especially by those who perceive a certain utility in education for successful commercial enterprises. Examples include the development of skills such as accounting, not to mention the acquisition of languages. Moreover, the spread of high expectations for oneself and others in commercial society begins to undermine social, economic, and political practices that slowly became understood as unjust, unreasonable, and unworthy of civilized people. The idea that one group is endowed with more political power than others by virtue of hereditary privilege, for example, becomes viewed as unacceptable. So too do barriers to free exchange.

Another feature of civility in commercial society is the quality of self-restraint. 'Self-command,' Smith wrote, 'is not only itself a great virtue but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.' The emphasis upon self-control flows, in part, from the realization that self-improvement in commercial orders requires much delayed gratification. To exercise initiate in any field, but especially in commerce, is not simply to select an object to pursue. It means staying firm in our choices despite the obstacles, temptations, and adversities encountered as we pursue certain objectives, and obeying an order that we impose on ourselves and therefore to discipline our passions.