Doux Commerce in the City of God

I just put up an essay at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) that readers of this blog might find interesting. It’s a response to some of Hugh Nibley’s writings on Zion and commerce. Nibley was famously critical of the mercantile ethic, arguing that trade and capitalism were fundamentally hostile to the ideal of Zion. This essay takes a more optimistic view of commerce, drawing on the ideas eighteenth-century thinkers like Montesquieu, who saw in the rise of markets a fundamentally pro-social force with the potential to limit violence and conflict. I’ll let readers judge the ultimate merits of my mash-up between Joseph Smith and Adam Smith, but hopefully it’s worth taking a look at it. Along the way, I offer a critical reading of some nineteenth-century Zion building that may interest Mormon history nerds, particularly those enamored of Leonard Arrington’s work. Enjoy! Here’s the abstract and a link to the article:

Doux Commerce in the City of God: Trade and the Mormon Ideal of Zion

Nathan B. Oman
William & Mary Law School

November 7, 2014

William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-289

This essay is a reflection on the relationship between religion and commerce in the Mormon tradition. Drawing on the social criticism of the prominent Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, it asks if commercial activity is consistent with the good life in a just society, what Mormons call Zion. Nibley gave a largely negative answer to this question, and this essay argues that he was mistaken, attempting reconciliation between religious notions of a righteous society and the largely secular doux commerce tradition of the eighteenth century. While the relationship between religious ideas of Zion and Enlightenment defenses of the market is uneasy, I argue that each tradition has much to teach the other.

6 comments for “Doux Commerce in the City of God

  1. Too bad Hugh isn’t alive to defend his ideas. Neither straw-men nor dead-men offer much of a rebuttal, do they? Those who propagate our materialism and our malls sure will appreciate your efforts, though!

  2. Um… I think your paper does not restate Nibley’s position correctly. For example:

    From Page 17-18 – Whatever the merits of Nibley’s criticism of conspicuous consumption, his monastic attitude toward material goods – poverty and study as a higher way – breaks with the teachings of Brigham Young and other latter-day prophets.

    You obviously don’t know how much Nibley agreed with Brigham Young. Although aspects of Nibley’s personal life could be said to be monastic – e.g. eating wheat from his pockets – I don’t think he ever argued that the Saints would be poor. The idea is that the wealth of the world be shared equitably and all can be comfortable.

    Nibley condemned a modern-day attitude towards/obsession with wealth clearly portrayed in the Book of Mormon. He never claimed we were all supposed be poor to achieve Zion. We just aren’t supposed to be rich at the expense of others.

    You set up a faux “Nibley argument against trade” which is not clearly enunciated, pronounce Nibley to be a kind of Grinch-like monk that only wants poverty and denounce anti-materialism as a “Non-Mormon” trait despite clear scriptural condemnation on the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor.

    Sorry, I think you miss the main point of Nibley’s critiques.

  3. Nate used to be interesting to read. Alas, he rose sufficiently in prominence to be in the talent pool for consideration on 47 East South Temple, and now writes so as to curry favor with keepers of the keys.

    The siren song of title and prestige is powerful.

    If only we could have tied him to the mast while we rowed away from the rocks, wax in our ears with hearts set for home, we might have preserved a voice of intellect and insight,

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