You may recall the movie Forrest Gump in which the title character, played by Tom Hanks, was a simple person who happened to have a ringside seat on many of the major events in American history in the 1950s through the 1970s. Forrest may have had a low IQ, but he was extraordinarily successful – All American football player at Alabama, Medal of Honor winner in Viet Nam, successful entrepreneur and loving father. This made for a very entertaining movie, but the fanciful brushes with history obscure the key point about Forrest. Based on recent readings, I now believe that the key point of the movie is that Forrest is successful because he embodies the core virtues and values of western civilization.
To see what I mean by this, consider the three-volume two-thousand page treatise on the so-called “Bourgeois Era” by economist Deirdre McCloskey (the titles of the three books are “Bourgeois Virtues”, “Bourgeois Dignity” and “Bourgeois Equality”). Although I can’t begin to do justice to Professor McCloskey’s beautifully crafted argument, the main theme is that the primary reason or root cause of the extraordinary 30 times improvement (that’s 2900%!) in living standards that has been accomplished over the past two hundred years is widespread acceptance of the notion that market activity, trading, entrepreneurship and innovation are valuable and admirable activities. McCloskey reviews the history of western philosophy and reports agreement among ethicists that there are seven core virtues from which all other virtues are derivative. The core virtues are prudence, temperance, courage, justice, faith, love and hope. She argues that successful innovation and creative destruction are consistent with all seven of these virtues (not just prudence and temperance as sometimes argued by economists).
The Key Virtues
How does Forrest embody the key virtues? Most obvious is his mastery of prudence and temperance.
Prudence means skill or knowledge of how things work and what needs to be done. It includes the concepts of diligence, effort and focus. While Forrest was no genius, he knew how to mow the lawn and he could focus with the best of them. Just consider his world-class skill in ping-pong, developed using just a backboard, or his expertise with weapon assembly (“Gump, you’re going to be a general!”).
Regarding temperance, Forrest lived frugally throughout his lifetime, even after becoming extraordinarily wealthy as the principal owner of the Bubba-Gump Shrimp Company.
Many people falsely equate business success with hard work (prudence) and frugality (temperance). But as Professor McCloskey points out, there is a lot more going on. By starting up the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Forrest displays courage (willingness to assume risk), hope (optimism for the future), faith (belief in the security of property rights) and love (desire to help his fellow man eat more shrimp).
Of course, Forrest also displayed courage in saving his fellow soldiers from the ambush in Viet Nam and protecting Jenny from bad guys.
Regarding justice, Forrest was more than fair. After achieving great success in the shrimp business, he turned over a large share of the proceeds to Bubba’s family, even though Bubba died before the company was born.
Finally, Forrest loved his Mama, Jenny, son Forrest, Bubba and Lieutenant Dan, Bear Bryant, the University of Alabama, and the USA.
To summarize, the Forrest Gump formula for success is simple: be frugal, focus on the task at hand, attempt to help others, and be enterprising, if you can. It is also helpful to own the last shrimp boat still afloat after a hurricane, and to invest shrimp profits in Apple (the “fruit” company). That is, it helps to be lucky, or at least not terribly unlucky.
Western philosophers from Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas and down to Deirdre McCloskey have agreed upon the core virtues. McCloskey has shown how these virtues support and are consistent with economic activity. It is not adequate simply to be prudent (knowledgeable and diligent) and temperate (thrifty and modest) in order to be successful. Forrest Gump was a heroic figure in that he lived these virtues, even though he probably never read Aquinas. He would have been successful, even absent the fanciful brushes with history in the movie. The key lesson: you don’t have to be a genius.