The way of the will

June 2014

What, and where, is the will? We readily speak of western thought, western finance – but to what are we referring? Western thought can be understood as occurring west of Asia, that is to say, from Aristotle onwards. Both the man and his times. But western finance suggests something else – coming from the West, not going to it.

Much as the Spanish plunder of gold in the Americas wrenched the gaze of Europe from the Orient to the Occident. When trade switched from the Danube to the Rhein. Later to the mouth of the Rhein – that is, to Holland. With Amsterdam then becoming left behind by London.

Financially seen, beyond London lies New York, Chicago and San Francisco. But there the West ends. Geographically it continues, but we do not normally include Japan, for example, in our idea of ‘the West’, and certainly not China, then Russia. At best we include Hawaii, that far-flung United State that still bears the Union Jack on its flag. Though seldom specified as such, to westerners at least the West spans from Greece to California, with its modern-day substance being the Anglo-Saxon culture of England and the US. (Canada rarely figures in financial discussions; nor do the other parts of the United Kingdom, notwithstanding that many Scottish sons left a strong mark on ‘western’ finance.)

What is the difference between the West of Aristotle and the West of today, the West of finance? The main difference is twofold: part thought, part will. In Ancient Samothrace, were Aristotle once lived, the main achievement was independent thinking, becoming free of the gods. The statue of Nike adorned a stone ship that 'floated’ in a large tank of water – a sign not of naval victory, but of victory over the tethering earth. Beginning to come free of the senses; thinking for oneself. 

Nowadays, in many ways the fruit or culmination of Aristotle’s time, it is in finance that we think for ourselves – or should do so. Finance in the sense that capital’s true import is to facilitate human capacities, human destiny. To put air beneath our fledgling wings as we take to the skies of our lives, whence come the impulses and intuitions that inform what Aristotle called our 'fine actions’.

Finance is for modern man what thinking was for the Ancient Greek. Of course, none of this makes sense or is indeed perceptible to us if we see capital as a thing in itself, something to be possessed or preserved. Its secrets only reveal themselves when capital is understood as a mirror or reflector of human capacities, and of the human condition more generally.

As economic historian, Niall Ferguson, aptly put it when discussing his book, The Ascent of Money: “…it should now be obvious ... just how far our financial system has ascended since its distant origins among the moneylenders of Mesopotamia ... I remain convinced that, until we fully understand the origin of financial species, we shall never understand the fundamental truth about money: that ... financial markets are like the mirror of mankind, revealing every hour of every working day the way we value ourselves and the resources of the world around us. It is not the fault of the mirror if it reflects our blemishes as clearly as our beauty.”

Finance, however, has another dimension. It reveals independence of will. This is the new kid on the block of history. “Laissez-faire, laissez-passer” is the cry of all those who would be free to do as they please, who sing the praises of ‘free will’, but not the refrain of responsibility. Or who regard responsibility as a subset of free will, rather than as a response to it – albeit a response born of the very person who now thinks himself free.

If free will means anything, therefore, it means free of the will of the gods, or of other human beings. Of kings and despots, ideologues and gurus, but also passions and instincts. (We have a long way to go in other words!) But free will arises only to be followed by anarchy if we do not learn to cohere it. We are free in our thinking, though even here we need to be careful what and how we think. But we are not free in our economic dealings. At least, if we do not take account of one another in that realm, we will infuse economic life with the inefficiency of egoism and self-serving behaviour. Self-centredness believes it can produce for itself, when the true nature of production and the division of labour is the exact opposite: true economics and even true efficiency derives from meeting others’ needs. After all, where is the efficiency of allowing someone to go bankrupt, rather than partner them in their journey? Or of ‘bargain-basementing’ an entire nation in order to secure a gain on the foreign exchange market? Or of bidding down the price of everything until no one can earn a living from what he does, but only from the money he has invested or is lucky enough to inherit or win?

‘Where there is a will there is a way.’ But the way of the will is not only about asserting oneself; it is as much about listening, seeking. Seekers are not blind and unknowing. They are discoverers, people who have forgotten that they know where they are heading. The will is not without information about itself, but that information is found in the doing, in reflecting on one’s actions.

The will calls to be cohered with other wills, but not subjugated to them. Still less to some will of the mass, majority or state. Or even ‘the market’.

The West is where the mysterious nature of the will is realised. The will is there to be discovered… and then mastered.