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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May 2019 > Sweet civility

Sweet civility

A pugnacious attack on liberalism misses the point, argues Deirdre McCloskey
Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison by David Wootton (Harvard, £25.95)

In England between 1658 and 1832 the theory about what motivated people changed. Was this a good thing? The intellectual historian David Wootton shows that the theory did change. But he very much doubts it was a good thing.

Historically speaking, “Pleasure and profit were often coupled together,” Wootton notes in his astonishingly learned book, but never until 1658 and the publication of William Percey’s The Compleat Swimmer “were they claimed to be the only motivations, to the exclusion of all others, such as honour, virtue, and piety. [It was] a new account of what it is to be a human being.”

Wootton’s main subjects, among hundreds of minor ones marshalled over three centuries by this most brilliant and pugnacious of historians, are Machiavelli for power, Hobbes for pleasure and Adam Smith for profit. Then for “utility” Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the deviser of a crude version of pleasure and profit, sans honour.

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InProspect's May issue: Tom Clark explores how British politics has ended up in crisis and suggests that a proper constitution could have avoided the current chaos and may well be necessary now to avoid the same problems in the future. Elsewhere in the issue: Kevin Maguire profiles Labour deputy leader Tom Watson who says that “if needs must” he would join a government of national unity. Max Rashbrooke examines Jacinda Ardern’s government in New Zealand and the ways the country is being transformed, ultimately suggesting that it could be an example for Britain to follow. Also, Stefanie Marsh follows the work of a donor detective who is helping children conceived by anonymous sperm donation to find their biological parents and Francesca Wade shows how Virginia Woolf is inspiring a new generation of women writers.