7 Influential Ideas from the Enlightenment — Understanding Now

It can be hard to imagine how ideas that emerged over two hundred years ago still have so much relevance today, but the Age of Enlightenment was a time that gave the Western world many of the values it looks up to today. During the 17th and 18th centuries, academics, scientists and philosophers were coming […]

7 Influential Ideas from the Enlightenment — Understanding Now

The Baron of Mauá (Barão de Mauá; 1813-1889): Brazil’s first self-made man

Jo Pires-O`Brien

The many new industrialists of the Gilded Age in America gave rise to the narrative that anyone can obtain financial success if they work hard enough. Although the idea of the self-made man is normally associated to the United States, Brazil had its own self-made man: Barão de Mauá, whose name at birth was Irineu Evangelista de Sousa (1813-1889).  He received the title of baron for building Brazil’s first railroad, a stretch of 14.5 Km (later stretched to 15.6 Km) connecting the centre of Rio de Janeiro to Fragoso, on the hillside of Serra da Estrela, Petrópolis, where was the Summer house of the Emperor. He continued to be known as Barão de Mauá even after being made a viscount at a later time.

Just as the early industrial entrepreneurs in the United States were envied by the old upper-class,  Mauá too became the object of much envy and was seen by old money as an arriviste or nouveau riche, and in addition to that, he was an abolitionist. It took nearly a century for Mauá to be recognized in Brazil as a brilliant entrepreneur and a self-made man. In the United States, the era of rapid economic growth from the 1870s to about 1900 became known as the Gilded Age. The same era in Brazil is known as the Age of Mauá.

Mauá could have accomplished much more for himself and for Brazil. However, he was a stranger in the nest. Mauá`s idea that money was a fair reward for hard work and enterprise was anathema to Brazil’s landed gentry. Brazil was agricultural economy relied on slave labour, and Mauá was an abolitionist.  There was a lot of court intrigue against him, not just by the old money but also by the politicians who had the Emperor`s ear. The latter could have given Mauá the support he deserved but chose to do nothing. In spite of being spurned by Brazilian society, Mauá was a respected name among the British bankers. Mauá was a giant among minions. His tremendous potential was unfulfilled, and the greatest loser was Brazilian society.

Chronology of Barão de Mauá

1813 (28 December): Irineu Evangelista de Sousa is born, in the village of Arroio Grande, Jaguarão, Rio Grande do Sul, near the border with Uruguay.

1819: His father, João Evangelista de Ávila e Sousa, a rancher, is killed by cattle thieves.

1820: Irineu learns to read and write, taught by his mother, Mariana de Jesus Batista de Carvalho, from whom he receives his first lessons in arithmetic.

1821: His widowed mother, Mariana de Jesus Batista de Carvalho, remarries, to João Jesus e Silva, who does not wish to maintain a relationship with the children from her previous marriage, and Irineu is placed with his uncle Manoel José de Carvalho.

1822: After his mother`s marriage, Irineu, then aged 9, goes on a trip to Rio de Janeiro with another uncle, José Batista de Carvalho, a ship’s capitain.

1824: He works as a salesman in a haberdashery owned by a Portuguese man called Antônio Pereira de Almeida.

1828: At age 15, he starts to work book-keeper for the same shop.

1829: Due to the bankruptcy of Antônio Pereira de Almeida and the closing of the haberdashery,  Irineu goes to work at Carruthers & Cia, an importer company owned by a Richard Carruthers, a Scot.

1836: He becomes the manager of Carruthers & Cia.

1837: He becomes a partner of Carruthers & Cia after Richard Carruthers returns to England.

1839: Irineu’s sister, Guilhermina, who lived in Rio Grande do Sul, comes to Rio to live with him,  brining her daughter Maria Joaquina de Sousa, known as ‘May’.

1840: Irineu travels to England for the first time, on business, and there he becames acquainted with the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution and with the capitalist system.

1841: Irineu marries his niece `May`, and the couple has eleven children (who survived birth).

1844: Carruthers & Cia faces financial difficulties due to an increase in the importation duty imposed by a piece of legislation called `Lei Alves Branco’.

1845: Irineu liquidates the company Carruthers & Cia.

1846: He starts the Ponta da Areia Foundry and Shipyards company, to manufacture boilers and ships, considered to be Brazil`s most important industry.

1849–1850: With ships built at Ponta da Areia, he started the tag boat company called `Companhia de Rebocadores Barra do Rio Grande`.

1850: He provided the pipes for the waterworks of Rio de Janeiro, which used the water from the  Maracanã river.

1851: He founded the Gas Lighting Company of Rio de Janeiro, whose control he maintained until 1855. He founded Brazil’s second bank.

1852: He founded the following companies: Amazonas Steam Navigation (based on a 30 year exploration contract), the Fluminense Transport Company and the Petrópolis Railway Company (Brazil`s first railway, from Porto Estrela, in Guia de Pacobaíba, Magé, until Petrópolis).

1853: Becomes one of the major investors of the Recife & São Francisco Railway Co. and the Bahia & São Francisco Railway Co.

1854 (25 March): The first gas lamps are lit in Rio de Janeiro.

1854 (30 Abril): In the presence of Dom Pedro II, Brazil`s emperror, and various authorities,  he inaugurated the first part of the Petrópolis Railway, a stretch of 14.5 km between the Port of Mauá, on the bay of Guanabara, and the Fragoso station, at the foot of Serra da Estrela (Petrópolis), in the Province of  Rio de Janeiro. Dom Pedro II gives him the title of Barão de Mauá.

1855–1856: He enters politics and becomes a supply ‘Deputado’ (Representative). He established a worker’s  agriculture colony (commune) on the Province of Amazonas, and started negotiations with investors to build a railway from Santos to Jundiaí, in the Province of São Paulo.

1855: (30 April) Together with 182 investors he created the a Mauá, MacGregor & Cia, a finance institution, which had representations in several Brazilian capital cities, as well as in London, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

1856: He invested in the Tijuca railway, which went bankrupt in 1868.

1857: He was elected ‘deputado’ (Representative). The industrial plant at Ponta da Areia sis destroyed by arson.

1858: He inaugurated the Dom Pedro II Railway (later renamed ‘Central do Brasil`).

1860 (3 December): He introduced a legislation (Tarifa Silva Ferraz) that reduced the importation duty  on machinery, tools and ironworks.

1861 (6 May): He purchased two ranches (Caguassu and Capuava) from Capitain João José Barbosa Ortiz and his sisters Escolástica Joaquina e Catharina Maria, for 22,500 contos de réis. The properties, in Pilar, in the pParish of São Bernardo, externded from Santo André until Rio Grande da Serra. The properties main house was demolished in 1974, for the building of a viaduct on the road between Petrópolis and Rio de Janeiro.

1862: He obtained a concession to exploit the transport by trams in Rio de Janeiro. The rights of this company were transferred to the American company Botanical Garden’s Railroad (1866), which inaugurated the first line,  between Jardim Botânico and Botafogo (1868).

1863: He sold his shares in the São Paulo Railway (later called Santos-Jundiaí Railway).

1867 (1 January): He founded the Bank Mauá & Cia., that succeeded the finance company Mauá, MacGregor & Cia.

1867 (4 de abril): He inaugurated the Santos-Jundiaí Railway. This also marks the beginning of the downfall of Mauá’s enterprises.

1871: He invested in the Paraná Railway.

1872: He initiated two agricultural colonies on the Provincia of Rio de Janeiro. He inaugurated the  arrival of the transatlantic cable in Brazil.

1874: He organized the Rio de Janeiro Watter Supply Company, which operated until 1877.

1874 (26 de June): He was awarded the title of Viscount by Brazil`s Emperor Dom Pedro II.

1875: He applied to the Commerce Tribunal for a three year moratorium on his debts.

1877: He closed down the Ponta da Areia Welding and Shipyard company.

1878: He published the article `O meio circulante do Brasil`(Brazil’s circulating environment). He closed down the Mauá Bank.

1879: He wrote and published the book `Exposição aos credores e ao público’ (An explanation to creditors and the public), explaing the reasons of his moratorium and the financial difficulties that brought down his major enterprises. This included a brief autobiography.

1882: The Petrópolis Railway inaugurated its new extension to the city of Petrópolis.

1883: He travelled to London in na attempt to find a solution to his financial problems.

1884 (26 November): At age 70, after having paid his creditors, he received his letter of rehabilitation as a businessman, and starts to work as a commodities broker, especially coffee. He moved from Rio to Petrópolis.

1889 (21 October): He died in Petrópolis, in the Province of Rio de Janeiro, a few days before the Proclamation of the Republic.

The Industrial Revolution and the new American entrepreneurs

Jo Pires-O`Brien

The Industrial Revolution is normally perceived as the period of fast and concomitant technological developments in the spinning and weaving and in the steam engine, which instigated the process of change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. However, this was just the First Industrial Revolution, which took place in Britain in the 18th century. The technological developments continued in Britain, giving rise to the  Watt steam engine, the locomotive, the telegraph, the dynamite, photography, the typewriter, the electric generator, and the modern factory. They gave rise to the Second Industrial Revolution, that lasted from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century, in Britain, continental Europe, North America, and Japan.

The Industrial Revolution brought huge changes to society, which began with the coexistence of two conflicting morality. One side of this moral conflict is depicted by the desire for things to remain as before, while the other side is depicted by the questioning of authority and bigoted social norms.

In the United States, the new moneyed class that emerged with the Second Industrial Revolution, became the object of envy of the old moneyed class, especially from those whose wealth was in decline.  An illustration of this envy is the use of the derogatory term ‘buccaneers’ to describe the new moneyed class of industrialists. As I showed in another post, the image of the self-made man as the embodiment of America appeared at a later time, thanks to writers such as Edith Wharton (1862-1937).

The evolution of the self-made man in America

Jo Pires-O`Brien

No country in the world has as many self-made men as the United States of America. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), John Jacob Astor III (1822-1890), John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), Edward L. Doheny (1856-1935), Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) are examples of the successful American entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in the last part of the nineteenth century, in new emerging industries such as railroads, steel, oil refining, and electricity as well as in the old industries such as finance and real estate.  However, as the writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937) suggested in her book The House of Mirth, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and in 1993 was made into the movie ‘The Age of Innocence’,  directed by Martin Scorcese, American society at the time of  the Guilded Age did not see men such as Vanderbilt,  Astor III,  Rockefeller, Doheny, and Carnegie as self made men but as pretentious nouveau riche. Perhaps as a way to enhance their social standing, many such nouveau riche developed the habit of marrying their daughters to members of the British aristocracy, as Wharton described in The Bucchaneers, her last book, which was finished posthumously by Marion Mainwaring (1922-2015), the title being the derogatory term used to depict the successful new entrepreneurs of America’s the Gilded Age. As Wharton showed In these and other books, social hypocrisy did not discriminate between old and new money, as both were committed to marriages of interest rather than love. Thanks to Wharton and other writers the social critics,  the image of the self-made man evolved to become the embodiment of America.

Thomas Sowell and the intellectuals out of their depth

“One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.”  Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy

The above quotation summarizes the points that Thomas Sowell (1930 -), an American economist, social theorist, and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, makes in his 1995 book The vision of the Anointed. Sowell calls ‘anointed’ or ‘self-anointed’, the kind of public intellectual who believe that they are entitled to tell others what to do, and he refers to their unconstrained vision of the world as ‘the vision of the anointed’. He describes ‘the vision of the anointed’ as the unconstrained vision of the world that they normally embrace, which relies heavily on the belief that human nature is essentially good and that there is an ideal solution to every problem, rejecting all forms of compromise but being highly accommodating to collateral damage. Those with an unconstrained vision prefer centralized processes and are impatient with large institutions and systemic processes that constrain human action.

Historically, an intellectual was an individual who made a living out of their ideas. Examples of this type of intellectuals are the French philosophes of the 18th century. However, at the second half of the 20th century, emerged a different type of intellectual who earned their living in some occupation but who chose to puts themselves forward as promoters of various causes such as finding ‘solutions’ to problems. In his book, Sowell criticises the ‘anointed intellectual’, the type who like to project themselves as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society.

According to Sowell there are a number of things that propel intellectuals for the role of the anointed intellectual, such as being well educated, especially when one has attended ivy league universities or teach in a prestigious university. Normally they promote themselves the ones who has the ‘solutions’ to problems or as rescuers of people treated unfairly by ‘society’. What is in it for them is that they portrayed in a better light than others who stay in their fields of expertise. They are articulated and persuasive, and have no qualm in giving their opinion on matters outside their area of expertise. One example is the linguist Noam In Chomsky, who gain notoriety in the field of political science.

Sowell also explains the alternative of the unconstrained vision of the world. It is basically a constrained vision, or tragic vision; it understands the need for solid empirical evidence and time-tested structures and processes over intervention and personal experience; ultimately, it is a down to earth vision that recognizes the fact that most problems have no solutions, but only trade offs. The latter is defined as a give and take between things: more of one requires less of the other, and vice-versa. relies heavily on belief that human nature is essentially unchanging and that man is naturally inherently self-interested, regardless of the best intentions. Those with a constrained vision prefer the systematic processes of the rule of law and experience of tradition; they also believe that compromise is essential because there are no ideal solutions, only trade-offs.

As Sowell points out in The vision of the anointed, the ‘anointed intellectual’, the type who like to project themselves as surrogate decision-makers for the rest of society, not only fail to solve the particular problem but create a new one. He cites as an example, those higher education establishments which opted to follow the vision of the anointed, and which ended up lowering their standards and creating a culture of victimization.

The problems of poverty, crime, war and injustice

One of the hobby horses of the anointed intellectual is income inequality, which is usually attributed to discrimination. However, Sowell has pointed out that there are many contributing factors to income inequalities.

Sowell is equally critical of multiculturalism, especially its false premises. To him, some groups’ culture are good in some things but not so good at other things. Over time, a group’s culture can go up and down in relation to other group’s culture.

The young tend to have enthusiasm for new things and as such tends to embrace the unrestrained vision of the world. The old, due to their greater experience, are less enthusiastic and more incredulous and tend to embrace the restricted vision of the world. Below are some quotations from Sowell’s book.

“Some have even referred to the perennial invasion of civilization by barbarism namely the newborn type, whom families and institutions must civilize, because they enter the world no different from babies born in the days of cavemen.”

“People with opposing visions of the world do not simply happen to reach different conclusions about the young and the old. On these and innumerable other issues, the conclusions reached by each are entailed as corollaries of their underlying assumptions about knowledge and wisdom. The education of the young has long been a battleground between adherents of the two visions of the nature of human beings and the nature of knowledge and wisdom. William Godwin’s notion”

“From ancient times to the present, and highly disparate societies around the world, there have been the most carried systems of thought – both secular and religious – seeking to determine how best the wise and virtuous can influence or direct the masses, in order to create or maintain a happier, more viable or more worthy society. In this context, it was a revolutionary departure when, in eighteenth century France, the `Physiocrats` arose to proclaim that, at least for the economy, the best that the reigning authorities could do would be to leave it alone – laissez-faire being the term they coined. To those with this vision, whether in France or elsewhere, for the authorities to impose economic policies would be to give ‘a most unnecessary attention,’ in Adam Smith’s words, to a spontaneous system of interactions that would go better without government intervention – nor perfectly, just better.”

“Reliance on systemic processes, whether in the economy, the law, or other areas, is based on the constrained vision – of the severe limitations on any given individual’s knowledge and insight, however knowledgeable or brilliant that individual might be, compared to other individuals. Systemic processes which tap vastly more knowledge and experience from vastly more people, often including traditions evolved from the experiences of successive generations, are deemed more reliable than the intellect of the intellectuals.”

“By contrast, the vision of the left is one of surrogate decision-making by those presumed to have not only superior knowledge but sufficient knowledge, whether those surrogates are political leaders, experts, judges or others. This is the vision that is common to varying degrees on the political left, whether radical or moderate, communist or fascist, and common also to totalitarians. A commonality of purpose in society is central to collective decision-making, whether expressed in town-meeting democracy or totalitarian dictatorship or other variations in between. One of the differences between the commonality of purposes in democratic systems of government and in totalitarian systems of government is in the range of decisions reserved for individual decision-making outside the purview of government.”

Edith Wharton 2. The woman of letters

Jo Pires-O`Brien

The name of  Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is one of the most prominent in American literature, as her many novels, short stories, plays, and non-fiction are known for how well they capture people and society. Wharton published her first two books, Mrs. Manstey’s View and The Fullness of Life, in 1893; her first literary success was a non-fiction work on design and architecture entitled The Decoration of Houses (1897), co-authored with Ogden Codman, Jr., the architect who designed The Mount. However, she is best admired for her portrayals of the lives and morals of the Gilded Age or Belle Époque, as in her 12th novel The House of Mirth,  which was made into the 1993 movie ‘The Age of Innocence’,  directed by Martin Scorcese and starred by Michelle Pfeifer, Winona Ryder and Daniel Day Lewis.

Wharton born in New York during the period of the Civil War, in a well to do and highly educated family. The youngest of a family of three, her parents were George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. She had two older brothers, Frederick and Henry, and her name at birth was Edith Newbold Jones. At age four she went with her family to France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, when she was educated by tutors and governesses.  She suffered from typhoid fever in 1871, while the family was at a spa in the Black Forest, and in the following year the family returned to the United States. During her stay in Europe, young Edith revealed her intelligence and strong wit, learning to speak French, German, and Italian, and questioning the standards of fashion and etiquette of her time, especially those expected of young girls. She wanted more education than she received, so she read from her father’s library and from the libraries of her father’s friends. At age eleven she attempted to write her first novel but turned to poetry due to her mother’s disapproval. In 1881, when Edith was 19 years old, she returned to Europe with her family, but returned in the following year to the United States due to the death of her father from a stroke. After the death of her husband, Edith’s mother decided to move to Paris, where he stayed until her death in 1991. In April 1885, at age 23, Edith married Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who shared her love of travel. The couple set up house at Pencraig Cottage in Newport, Rhode Island. Later in 1902, the couple moved to their new house The Mount, in a plot of 113 acres in Lennox, Western Massachusetts, designed by the American architect Ogden Codman, Jr. (1863-1951). Edith and Teddy Wharton lived there for some ten years until their divorce in 1911, when the house was sold. Today, The Mount is a museum and cultural centre, welcoming over 50,000 visitors per year.  Edith Wharton had many accomplished friends, among whom the writer Henry James (1843-1916), whom she met in 1887, both of whom had the habit of surrounding themselves with other writers and creatives. It is thought that this exposure helped Wharton to develop her own linguistic style that challenged the Victorian language constructs of her time. Since her circle of friends included many who were not straight, she understood that the hypocritical social rules oppressed them too as well as women.

(See my post The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton)