by Nick Gier
The pure conservative is fighting against the progress of the universe.
—Alfred North Whitehead
The Buddha (the “Awakened One”) was woke. Jesus was woke. The Greek and Roman philosophers were woke. Medieval Islamic philosophers were woke. Influenced by them, St. Thomas Aquinas became woke.
The Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers awakened Europe. Adam Smith, founder of free market economics, was woke. Our founders, children of the Enlightenment, were woke. M. K. Gandhi was woke and so was Martin Luther King. More and more corporations are waking up.
So what’s wrong with being woke? For one thing, it was, for some, a dangerous occupation. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK died for their beliefs, but we are indebted to them for establishing the moral and political principles of world civilization.
Jesus more woke than the Buddha
The Buddha and Jesus were woke because they dared to include people that earlier had been ostracized. The Buddha condemned the caste system (sadly still present in India), and small minds criticized Jesus for embracing all people regardless of social status. For him the sin of Sodom was brutal inhospitality (Matt. 10: 5-15), not homosexuality.
Being woke is a relative term. Jesus was more awake than the Buddha because he embraced women. (The Buddha strongly resisted the ordination of women.) Even the Apostle Paul (the “early” one) gives equal status to several women, including Priscilla, Julia, and Phoebe (who is given the title “deacon”).
In my extensive reading in ancient philosophy, only Jesus and Laozi could be called proto-feminists. It is a sad fact that sexism has a much longer history than racism, and both continue today as humankind’s major scourges. For more see bit.ly/3QtqcS5.
Greeks, Stoics, Muslims, and Aquinas
The Greeks gave us democracy (almost as limited in franchise as our founders) and the principle of reasoned discourse. The Roman Stoics envisioned a world in which all humans are equal citizens (“cosmopolitans”) living by law, reason, and virtue. Sounds very much like a woke United Nations, doesn’t it?
Many people don’t know that Muslim scholars were the first to translate Greek philosophy and science and, apart from China, they created the most enlightened and advanced culture in the medieval world. It is sad to see that far too many Christians and Muslims have reverted to their own versions of unwoke fundamentalism.
Were it not for Latin translations of the Arabic translation of the Greeks, we would not have had St. Thomas Aquinas’s brilliant synthesis of reason and revelation. In his works he called on the authority of the Islamic thinker Averroes and elevated him to the title “The Philosopher.”
Enlightenment and Renaissance
With the discovery of more Greek texts in Constantinople, the Renaissance was a rebirth of Greek “wokeness,” and Enlightenment political philosophy dissolved the oppressive distinction between the peasants (the servi) and the free nobles (the liberi) and the elimination of the divine right of kings. Those who are still asleep are still seduced by autocrats such as Donald Trump and allow them to undermine democratic ideals.
Under this revolutionary political philosophy—we call it classical liberalism—all people are noble born liberi, who, in the framework of free, reasoned debate (what happened to that in the U.S.?), can choose their leaders in democratic elections. “Liberal” arts education (even most Christians believe in this) was established to prepare youth for life in a free society.
The Founders: Men and Women
From the English philosopher John Locke our founding thinkers took the balance of political powers and the separation of church and state. America was one of the first secular societies in modern history, against which the “unwoke” religious right still rails.
I use the phrase “founding thinkers” because there were woke women behind the men. My favorite is Abigail Adams who begged her spouse not to put “such unlimited power into the hands of husbands,” and she added that unchecked power was also used in the “most iniquitous scheme of slavery,” and the enslaved “have as good a right to freedom as we have.”
Adam Smith and Woke Corporations
Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) taught ethics at the University of Edinburgh. Against an inefficient and antiquated mercantilism, a woke Smith promoted free trade and free markets.
Indisputably, these have raised living standards dramatically, but they have led to great economic iniquities. In many instances, unrestrained markets have caused ruptures in many countries’ social fabric, especially those that are still developing.
As opposed to his libertarian descendants, Smith believed that governments should build and maintain roads, bridges, and canals. He also believed in public education (with state licensed teachers), state funded hospitals, and a state-run postal system.
Smith also believed that there was more to life than just making money. For him a poor person with wisdom and virtue is far better than a rich man with neither. Admiring the rich, and aspiring to be like them, while despising and neglecting the poor is, according to Smith, “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
Smith was suspicious of corporations and their tendency to grow, form monopolies, and eliminate competition. He believed that governments should have the right to intervene and restore market equilibrium for the common good.
The Rise of Social Democracy
I’ve always maintained that just as the Second Amendment provided for a well-regulated militia to prevent the vigilantism that we see today, I contend that an amendment should have been proposed for a well-regulated economy to forestall robber baronism.
Calling his program “practical” Christianity and what others would later call the “Social Gospel,” an enlightened German emperor Otto von Bismarck, cleverly outflanking the socialists, established the first welfare state in the 1880s. It provided for medical care and sick leave, disability insurance, and old-age pensions.
Even though Bismarck initially banned the German Social Democrats, they made these programs part of their political platform, and they started winning elections and continued to do so until the present day. They were out of action only when they were banned during Nazi rule.
The conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) traded places with the Social Democrats for 70 years, but they never touched the welfare state in any significant way. When former German CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel left office after 16 years and turned over the government to the Social Democrats, she hailed the success of the “social market” economy.
Workers and Women on Boards
Germany was the first country to put workers on corporate boards, which today’s libertarian would certainly call “woke.” This policy has established labor peace in Germany, and has reduced economic inequality in the country. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill that would have required a modest 20% representation, but the bill went nowhere.
In 2002, Norway mandated that corporate boards must have at least 40% women. Many businessmen feared that it would have a negative effect on earnings, but an in-depth study in the Harvard Business Review concluded that it did not.
In 2018, “woke” California passed a law similar to Norway’s, and the Nasdaq stock exchange has put one toe in the water with a mandate that at least one woman had to be on the boards of any company listed.
Friedman, Welch, and Reagan
In the 1950s and 60s most companies had a social conscience—proud of their union workers and their social contributions. CEO salaries were 20 times that of their employees, and now it is 300 to 1. The major players in this transformation were Milton Friedman, Jack Welsh, and the Regan administration, whose actions led to a steep decline in union membership.
A recent biography of Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, tells of his ruthless attack on workers’ rights. His policy of “rank and yank,” copied by many other business leaders, meant an automatic 10% reduction in force each year. He was the first to relocate business offshore, which led to the decline in American manufacturing.
Friedman was adamant that the only goal of a company is profits for its shareholders. Forsaking profits, over 1,000 businesses have now either left or curtailed operations in Russia because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Even McDonalds and Walmart are Woke
In a statement about why it is leaving Russia, McDonalds maintained that staying was “inconsistent with its values.” These companies are embracing Adam Smith’s maxim that there is more than just making money.
Many CEOs have now offered to pay travel expenses for pregnant women seeking abortions. Even Walmart has gone woke as it now refuses to sell ammunition for handguns and assault rifles. It has also incorporated critical race theory in its employee training programs.
In Adam Smith’s time there was no separation between the social or physical sciences. Even with the current division of disciplines, he would still regard economics as an integral part of moral philosophy. He would, therefore, praise those CEOs who value virtue and profits equally.
We should acknowledge that the Declaration of Independence is an incredibly woke document. It is a philosophical statement about all people, not just citizens. Martin Luther King saw it as a promissory note for Blacks, and I’m sure he would have included women, who gained the franchise 56 long years after.
Our founding documents assume that no person is illegal. Under international law and the Refugee Act of 1980, any person can apply for asylum in the U.S. Because of these woke thinkers, every person has an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy and religion at the University of Idaho for 31 years. His favorite courses were ethics, honors western civilization, ancient and medieval philosophy, and Asian religion. Read his articles at http://nfgier.com. Email him at ngier006gmail.com for sources and discussion.