a nation of shopkeepers

Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations (1776) wrote,

To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.

(I take this, by the way, as a comment on the difference between economic capitalism and political capitalism Wealth of Nations is famously an attack on mercantilism, after all — but I haven’t read the surrounding context.)

Napoleon, who was apparently familiar with Smith’s work, is reported as later using a French version to dismiss England’s preparedness for war against France:

L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.

Napoleon was wrong to equate commerce with weakness, as he would soon learn, but he was hardly the first great leader to make exactly this mistake.

We find this same sentiment expressed thousands of years earlier. Herodotus put it in the mouths of Cyrus the Great and his consiglieri, (ex-)King Croesus (both of whom I introduce to this blog here).

When the Spartans warn Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, not to mess with the greeks, he replies,

“I have never yet feared any men who have a place in the center of the city set aside for meeting together, swearing false oaths, and cheating one another…” Cyrus thus insulted the Hellenes because of their custom of setting up agoras in their cities for the purpose of buying and selling, which is unknown among the Persians, who do not use markets and, indeed, have no such place as an agora in any of their cities.

(The Landmark Herodotus, 1.153)

These are the Spartans, remember, the people who supposedly devoted their whole life and culture to warfare. I guess Cyrus hadn’t seen 300.

Later, when the conquered Lydians (formerly under King Croesus) rebel against their Persian overlords, Cyrus turns to Croesus, whom he has made his chief advisor, and says,

“It seems as though these Lydians will never cease to cause trouble for themselves and for others. Perhaps it might be best for me to reduce them to complete slavery, for now I feel like someone who has killed the father but spared the children.”

Croesus, trying to spare his former subjects from exile and slavery, answers,

“Sire, what you said makes sense, but do not be so overcome by your anger that you may destroy an ancient city, whose people were guiltless before and are guiltless even now, despite the present situation. For what happened before was my doing, and I bear the guilt for it on my own head. But right now, it is Paktyes [the leader of the Lydian rebellion] who does you wrong; he is the man you left in charge of Sardis. You should make him pay the penalty and pardon the rest of the Lydians.”

And here’s where we get to Napoleon’s equation. Cyrus continues,

“You could prevent them from being rebellious or a threat to you in the future by ordering the following steps: prohibit them from possessing weapons of war, order them to wear tunics under their cloaks and soft boots, instruct them to play the lyre and the harp, and tell them to educate their sons to be shopkeepers. If you do this, you will soon see that they will become women instead of men and thus will then pose no danger or threat to you of any future rebellion.”

Croesus gave this advice to Cyrus because he realized that these conditions would be better for the Lydians than those which they would face if they were enslaved and sold. He knew that if he did not put forth a compelling case, he would not be able to persuade Cyrus to change his mind, and he was worried that even if the Lydians did manage to emerge unharmed from their present danger, they might someday rebel from the Persians again and then they would certainly be destroyed.

(The Landmark Herodotus, 1.155–6)


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