zaterdag 15 augustus 2009


The idea, borrowed from Adam Smith, seemed to be so comfortable. Namely, that if only everybody takes good care of himself, society as a whole will also flourish. And that this is so thanks to the mysterious mechanism of the market – Smiths’ ‘Invisible Hand’ – which warrants the harmony between private and public interests. In other words, do not feel inhibited in your aspiration to self-enrichment because you are fully morally justified, it's almost social work! So let the adrenalin flow, that is being generated by the concern for your private interests.

But, says the French philosopher Jean-Claude Milner, there is no invisible hand and that awareness has been firmly drummed into our heads again by the financial crisis. It showed us clear enough how the hunt for personal gain is not necessarily running harmoniously parallel with the intrests of society. Rather, society was about to collapse for a moment and we still do not know what we will end up with. So, the idea of an easy harmony through the invisible hand is actually a piece of self-deception. If you are honest about it there is something fishy to that source of adrenalin.

But where to get your adrenalin from then?

The Dutch columnist Johan Schaberg recently wondered whether business does not know any other motives for action beyond greed. He notes, based on interviews with other Cor Herkströter (Shell) and Frits Goldschmeding (Randstad), somewhat reassured, that money, options and bonuses with these executives don’t play a significant role as motives. But, he wonders, why do they tell this only at the end of their career? And why did they in their working lives uncritically do what the entire stock market quotated business community does: rely heavily on bonuses?

Schaberg finds more convincing examples of engagement of business with public interests further back in the past. In the thirties a number of left-liberal Rotterdam businessmen united in the Woodbroker House. There they spoke about their own responsibility towards society and they studied leftist ideological models that could bring improvement.

But in the thirties, before the bankruptcy of communism and the problems of the welfare state became apparent, faith in such models was easier to bring up than it is today. Schaberg therefore somewhat sadly notes that this kind of social involvement is hardly around in the current generations. And that this is dangerous because a society does not remain healthy just like that.

So, is there nothing to believe in anymore?
I am afraid that the great ideological narratives lost much of their stimulating power indeed, and to them I reckon the Invisible Hand and the idealism of the thirties. If there is something I believe in, it is that sometimes, now and then, one person is really dedicated to another, and not just in romantic love. Something small indeed, but yet something which can make our ordinary life exciting for a while and which can give color to our work. That creates its own adrenalin. The condition for this to happen is of course that a normal life is possible. Thus, that there are good societal institutions: democracy, good governance and fair justice.

The problem is now, says Milner, that capitalism does not seem to care any longer about those societal institutions. Perhaps because the efforts to carefully maintain them are too prosaic and generate too little adrenalin. The feverish capitalism only wants big shots of adrenalin. It does not bother any longer about the question of where the rules come from. If only there are rules, then the most aggressive will manage to wrench money out of it. According to Milner that’s a really dangerous situaton indeed. He therefore believes that we cannot enough cherish our constitutional achievements. Let us spend our thinking power also on that and not just on earning money.

dinsdag 11 augustus 2009


It is fairly common in the Western tradition to consider the vita activa and the vita contemplativa as two ultimate, opposing poles of the human world. In this scheme vita activa stands for the outgoing movement of man who enters the world for exploitation and conquest and vita contemplativa for the inward movement of the one who contemplates the world in his mind.

But the question is whether those two poles are really that far away from one another. Are they not two sides of the same coin indeed? This coin, then, is called: order or fascination for order.

Take for example the role played by the Benedictine monks over the centuries in Western Europe. With them the experience of order (vita contemplativa) and establishing order (vita activa) appear to lie in one line. And in saying so I am not primarily referring to the requirement of the Rule of Benedict that the monks should divide their time over prayer, study and manual work. Because by this work seems to be meant above all craft or agricultural work, which fits neatly within an ordered whole. It reinforces contemplation rather than that it imposes order onto the world.

No, by saying so I refer to a phenomenon that you may experience when you, being a Dutch tourist, travel to southern France and back again. You can observe then, that the Benedictine civilizators in those different regions were active in completely different fields.

In southern France, the focus was on agricultural and craft work indeed, and on the copying of sacred books. Work, thus, with a rather strong contemplative character.

In the Netherlands, on the contrary, the monks for a large part were concerned with the struggle against the water. The Benedictines of Egmond for example built dikes and conquered land from the sea. That seems to me to belong pre-eminently to the category of ‘conquering order out of chaos’, and thereby to the vita activa.

But all those monks in southern France and in Holland belonged to the same congregation with the same rule. Guarding and nurturing order, on which the focus was in the Christian heartland France, could therefore seamlessly shift to the establishing of order in the peripheral regions. It is not for nothing that modern managementauthors discovered the Benedictine practices as a model for management: the fascination for order penetrates deep into the earthly world and has exploitative power there.

Thus, in Christianity vita activa and vita contemplativa are not the pair of ultimate opposites that they are often considered to be. There is a connecting element between the two. Namely, the idea that there is a deeper, indeed objective, holy order in the world. That order manifests itself in the depth of study and prayer, but is also reflected in the orderliness of dry and safe plots of land. Anyway, order of the last kind is a condition for the contemplation of the order on a deeper level and thus the vita activa is related to the vita contemplativa.

If vita activa and vita contemplativa are no longer the prototypical pair of opposing poles, because they are both motivated by the motive of order, there would arise a new field of poles. Then the ultimate opposition would rather come to be found between what is within order and what breaks order because it is outside.

See also Things and People