- Raving at Usurers: Anti-Finance and the Ethics of Uncertainty in England, 1690–1750 by Dwight Codr
Dwight Codr’s defense of anti-financial writing in the eighteenth century provides a welcome intervention in the New Economic Criticism, and its embrace of the period’s faith in the “uncalculated, unscripted, [and] unanticipated” (4) rescues it from the modern, predictive economics that simply did not apply to the 1600s or much of the 1700s. Codr begins by focusing on how the rhetoric of anti-usury (too often assumed dead by the 1690s) remained lively throughout the Financial Revolution and served as a critique of “systems of power and meaning that aim[ed] at certainties” (3). He argues persuasively that scholarship has ignored a contemporary “ethics of uncertainty” (2) that valued anxiety and risk-taking because they forced people to commit themselves not to selfishness but to divine forces beyond their control.
A chapter on David Jones’s 1692 reactionary sermon against usury—defined as the avoidance of risk—grounds the book by elaborating on how ethical and spiritual life infused economic life at a time of financial upheaval. Jones represents a tradition that saw financial security as ungodly for the way in which it secured profits against risk-taking, which by contrast indicated one’s willingness to submit to the decree of providence. Profits could not be expected without breaking the “fair distribution of risk” that made commercial activity consonant with an “ethic of Christian charity” (84). Only economic activity that exposed one to loss could be squared with the providentialism that governed the period’s ethics by equalizing opportunity—and failure.
Turning to novels, Codr offers a refreshing analysis of Robinson Crusoe that rejects its typical association with economic individualism and productivity to argue instead that it is committed to the benefits of insecurity and disruption. Like Defoe’s [End Page 563] writing on projects—in which an uncertainty that enhances “the larger providential economy” (116) takes precedent over profitability—Crusoe demonstrates an ethics of risk-taking that makes anxiety a virtue. Writing against the familiar Weberian thesis of the Protestant ethic, Codr emphasizes how Defoe’s work develops out of the Calvinism of Richard Baxter, which emphasized “remaining unsure as to the morrow” (126) and saw productivity as about unsettling oneself, not locking down success. In this counterintuitive reading, Crusoe is a hero both for rejecting his father’s complacency and for expecting nothing good to come of that rejection. One of the odd truths arising from the ethics of uncertainty is that one “must suffer the fate of seeming evil, of seeming to have abdicated [one’s] duty” (142). Otherwise, one simply adheres to the calculative economics that Codr convincingly shows “was no less criminal than contract” (81).
Codr concludes with a chapter that argues (once again, counterintuitively) against the centrality of prudence to Henry Fielding’s work, specifically the play The Modern Husband and the novel Tom Jones. In the former, gambling is contrasted with lending as a more virtuous means of circulating money because it embraces risk. The narratively complex transmission of a banknote among characters shows how honest gambling can even become a form of gift-giving that rewards virtue without any character actually seeking out that reward. There is tension in this ethics, as Codr admits, but it is indicative of the difficulty of plotting a happy outcome that privileges “unexpected returns” (165) while insulating them from calculation.
The final section on Tom Jones applies this lesson in unsought rewards to Tom, whom Codr identifies as virtuous insofar as he remains unwilling “to think through the consequences of his actions” (176). Arguing against the critical tradition that finds worth in Tom’s education in prudence, Codr sees prudence as a vexed virtue because it employs calculation and forethought, just as risk-averse usury does. Tom is heroic because he does not submit to “an economy of rewards and punishments” (181)—his actions are like Derrida’s gifts in that they convey benefits without...