I’m reading a really good book, right now, a new biography of Adam Smith, titled, naturally enough, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson. I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, so I can’t give a real review, but so far it is a model biography: well written, smart, learned without being oppressive, and above all remarkable in the way it rescues this thinker from the caricture of a Galtian icon that the market fundamentalists of the right would have him be.
In fact, there’s a passage early on that captures beautifully what the Randian and Tea-Party right (which is to say, the entire Congressional GOP, functionally at least) don’t get about what underpins the wealth and long term health of nations. In it Phillipson talks about the roots of Smith’s ideas about the way the social world works — or must, if groups of humans are to prosper both materially and morally (two categories always intertwined in Smith’s ideas about human relations). Discussing Smith’s education in the small-town school of his childhood and youth, Phillipson writes that Smith was being taught to cultivate
…the ability Robert Burns was to characterize so brilliantly as seeing ourselves as others see us.
Which capacity leads to an approach to life lived in the company of others in which it would be not just possible, but valued to
exchange the company of cronies for the friendship of strangers who belonged to different walks of life….The company of strangers would teach one to moderate one’s own prejudices and would give one more ‘extensive’ views of the world. It would encourage tolerance, taste, judgment and a respect for that sense of propriety that played such an important part in securing the decencies and pleasures of ordinary life…
The suggestion that exchange — not of goods but of thoughts and conversation — between strangers is an essential element in the forging of a livable life in an increasingly mass-society proved, Nicholson argues, enormously valuable to the young Smith, as it…
…gave him a way of viewing human beings as agents whose lives and happiness depend on their ability to cultivate the moral and intellectual skills they need to live sociably, at ease with themselves, with other and the world. They encouraged him to think of self-command as the essential skill on which sociability, success and personal happiness depends….
Smith wrote Moral Sentiments long before he completed The Wealth of Nations. The latter did not supercede the former; rather it was built upon the ideas Smith developed there about the ways in which a diverse society may endure the encounters of its disparate members.
To me, there’s an almost perfect hint to the diagnosis of what ails our Palin-esque friends (and all those who use the marvelously consuming force of her crazy to obscure their own): what we find there seems a photo-negative opposite to the notions above, that which Smith was absorbing to serve as the foundation for his theory of happy and prosperous social life.
Consider this a belated Robert Burns/Scottish Enlightenment open thread…
…and if I may attach just a bit of a programming announcement, if you want to hear my perfect-face-for-radio-voice this evening, Jay Ackroyd and I will be talking about my book, Newton and the Counterfeiter; the NRA and its hatred of science; and a bit about the post here of a couple of days ago about the possibility of new web-video undermining the hold of Big Cable on TV opinion mongering. Digressions are always possible, and given who’s talking, almost guaranteed.
Image: Adolph von Menzel, Weekday in Paris, 1869