Yesterday: Nicomachean Ethics Tomorrow: Break Tuesday: The Wealth of Nations
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A brief note on what I’m currently reading, namely Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the great biography: this book began by boring me to tears. it is not an easy read because it is so detailed about life in late 18th Century England (and Scotland) and thus requires effort to get a feel for the setting and sentiments of the people described in it. But my! is it a complete book! This has to be one of the most thorough writings I’ve ever seen. Not Decline and Fall thorough, and not Iliad thorough, but thorough nonetheless!
Now, on to my task for today. Yesterday I described Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, using it as a lens to address the behavior of characters in The Song of Roland. Today my focus is Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the first of his two great works. Both of these works are exceptionally important as they should give men tools with which to modify their characters–and make them solid professionals and citizens of society–yet both of them are ignored in favor of lesser ethical theorists even in the most philosophical Business Ethics classes. Moreover, the substitute–the artificial “professionalism” that people seem to expect–is so far inferior to solid character as presented by these two thinkers (who are right, by the way) that it makes our business world a sick joke.
This treatise is focused on how men relate to one another so as to form a decent society. Smith’s main point is that men must restrain their expressions so that they lie within certain bounds that are acceptable to other people who are listening to them. He refers to an “impartial spectator” who men feel is watching and judging them, and who, in order for him to judge them favorably, requires their conduct to be reasonable. This is the backbone of sympathy, which serves as the linchpin of society. When people sympathize with one another–share their happiness and their sadness, their ups and downs–the world works much better.
Smith’s ultimate belief is that people will find a happy medium between how they would like to express themselves and how they actually do express themselves by experiencing how others react to them. (This has yet to work for me, but then again, I’m clearly slow.) Thus men are guided by an “individual hand” to find the best way to conduct themselves. This theory of equilibrium, of social order following scientific structure, is the predecessor for his theory of economic equilibrium, which I’ll get to tomorrow with The Wealth of Nations, and it stems at least in part from Newton’s theory of gravity. Smith is in essence hypothesizing that conduct will gravitate to an equilibrium.
Interestingly, he adds at the end of it a treatise on the hypothetical origin of language, which I personally found a bit far-fetched but which is in line with other Enlightenment treatises which hypothesize a transition from the state of nature or state of war to the state of civil society or state of peace. While I say I find it far-fetched, that means that I find it perhaps a bit too simplistic–but it is certainly reasonable in its own way.
Smith, of course, goes into substantially more depth about this than I am going into here. What is worth noting is, first, what Smith does not say–namely, that people should not express themselves at all. That is what the modern world tells us, and what our legal system demands of us; the less we say, the better. Smith assumes that men have confidence wherewith to express themselves, but believes rightly that to avoid the appearance of megalomania we must control how we do it.
I will leave this one short because I am exhausted–I just took one of my students to school on the basketball court, and I did not get a good night’s sleep last night (the publisher for one of my books appears shady at best, and after a year and a half still has not gotten out the paperback edition of my book; nevertheless I would encourage you to look at The Decline of the Epic?, as it will give insight into The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Song of Roland, among others which I will cover later.) I am taking a break tomorrow but will be back Tuesday with The Wealth of Nations.
In the mean time, enjoy this one and remember to check back the day after tomorrow!