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In 1780, François de Barbé Marbois, a French diplomat, sent a series of questions to each of the 13 states. His goal: To compile a report, to be sent back to Paris, on the economic life of the new country. In Virginia, the questions were forwarded to the state’s governor, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s answers were eventually published as Notes on the State of Virginia. Among its most famous passages is Jefferson’s paean to agriculture:
In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman. Is it best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one half should be called off from that to exercise manufactures and handicraft arts for the other? Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistance, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our work-shops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.
The clash between the Jeffersonian vision and the Hamiltonian vision—growth through manufacturing, trade, and modern finance—played out over many years, often bitterly. President Washington took both rivals into his cabinet; ultimately Hamilton prevailed. But the war did not end there, and its battles resonate down to this day. We see it in the maps illustrating the 2000 election, Red America vs. Blue America. We see it in recent Ricochet conversations about elitism and leadership. Hamilton was the elitist; Jefferson, the populist.
But elitism vs. populism does not quite capture the difference. Jefferson, for all his promotion of agriculture, was only a gentleman farmer. He read, wrote, invented, played the violin, enjoyed fine wine, and partied—often well beyond his means. He did not get his hands dirty. He was among the elite of the elite, as were most of the Virginians who formed the backbone of the Anti-Federalists. In fact, every part of the federal government, with the lone exception of the House of Representatives, was established as an elite institution. Senators were chosen by state legislatures. Justices and cabinet members were nominated by the president. The president was chosen by an Electoral College, whose elite members were chosen, again, by the states. Even the democratically elected Congressmen were elected by a voting base that was limited, in nearly all cases, to landowning elites.
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In his masterwork The Jewish Century, Yuri Slezkine divides society into two groups, which he calls Apollonians and Mercurians. Apollonians live on the land, and are the country’s producers of food, commodities, goods, and military might. Mercurians are intermediaries who smooth the functions of society through their wits—merchants and traders, bankers, lawyers, doctors, thinkers and writers, entertainers.
Apollonians and Mercurians approach the world in different ways, and it leads to natural tension and even distrust. For Apollonians, the prime values are valor and straightforwardness, and cleverness is something to be suspicious of. Cleverness is a tool people use to take advantage of you. For Mercurians, in contrast, cleverness is to be admired, and one is suspicious of straightforwardness; it is too often a sign of false oversimplification, naivete, or just plain dullness. To Mercurians, an Apollonian lack of nuance can also lead to misplaced blame when things go wrong—and Apollonian scapegoating of Mercurians, or even violence toward them, is an all-too-common occurrence.
As Slezkine emphasizes, Apollonians and Mercurians need each other more than they care to admit. Just try to imagine a society without money, for example, or one without farmers. A healthy society values both Apollonian honor and Mercurian intelligence.
The Apollonian-Mercurian dichotomy can be useful for explaining many social phenomena. For example, Ryan M asks: Why are cities liberal? Well, I would argue that conservative or liberal tendencies have a lot to do with whether you think people’s fates are determined more through effort or luck. Thus producers (whose success comes from sustained effort) generally have conservative tendencies, while intermediaries (who see a lot of outcomes attributable to luck) tend to be more liberal. Also, the Apollonian lifestyle prizes stability, whereas Mercurian life thrives on change and innovation. So cities—which attract more Mercurian occupations because of network advantages and transportation infrastructure—tend to skew liberal.
For Slezkine, all this is merely preliminary to his main thesis. That thesis has two parts: (a) The Modern age (in the Paul Johnson sense) is a Mercurian age; and (b) (Ashkenazi) Jews, as the paradigmatic Mercurians, have been among both the biggest beneficiaries of, and the biggest contributors to, modernity. I’d like to consider the first part of that thesis.
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Consider Jefferson’s passage above. It is written not in praise of populism, but pure Apollonianism. (That’s why I quoted it at length.) Jefferson was an elitist—an Apollonian elitist. In the early Republic, elites came from both sides of the Slezkine dichotomy. The country was led by elites then as well as now, but it was more balanced between Apollonian and Mercurian elites—perhaps represented by Virginia vs. Massachusetts (or Philadelphia) as the two centers of power.
Industrialism changed that somewhat, but not much. Producers share a certain mentality regardless of the product. Industrial producers became the new Apollonians. Carnegie was famous for doing deals with a handshake—that’s Apollonian trust. The values that H. Ross Perot pushed in the rust belt, among the factory-worker Reagan Democrats, were commonsense Apollonian values—set against those tricky Mercurians in elite centers like Washington, DC.
Modernity changed that. As Slezkine shows, the skills that are required to succeed in the modern age are Mercurian skills: Abstract reasoning, word manipulation, negotiation, storytelling. Lawyers can get rich, as can software developers. CEOs today are not the industrial giants of Ayn Rand’s imagination—innovators who garner the respect of their employees because they know every aspect of production through-and-through. Rather, today’s successful corporate leaders are managers who excel at people skills, and must know their way around a financial statement. Even today’s generals are steeped in Mercurian values. Our society aims to send all our children to college, to learn to become Mercurians, but not trade school or ag school. The only Apollonian professor of any note is Victor Davis Hanson.
Our federal government reflects this shift in values too. Elected offices are more populist than ever. (In what previous generation would a Bill Clinton or Michelle Bachmann or Joe Biden have risen so far?) But the government is run day-to-day by the bureaucracy and the professional congressional staffs—Mercurians all—and the People’s House is full of millionaire lawyers. Aside from Carter, the peanut farmer, and perhaps W., the rancher, we haven’t had an Apollonian president since Eisenhower. We are missing our Apollonian elites. We are missing our producer-leaders.
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One theory regarding the fall of Rome is that the centralization of power in cities killed the productive countryside. First, from a social standpoint, the centralization of power in the hands of Mercurian elites undermined the large landowners—the Apollonian elites—who had theretofore helped maintain social cohesion. And then, from an economic standpoint, the high taxation and the direction of the fruits of production to the cities made it less and less desirable to be a rural producer, while making it more and more desirable to be an urban consumer. Ultimately, the Romans ran out of other people’s money.
I read the other day that Mitt Romney’s “47%” has now grown to 49%. Is there any way back? Frankly, I’m pessimistic. But I do know this: If we are to restore growth and dynamism to our country, it will be by restoring a more healthy balance of values. Mercurian values are essential, but insufficient on their own. We face a crisis of missing Apollonian values … and missing Apollonian elites.Published in