Monday, July 7, 2008

TWO DIFFERENT ROADS

Adam Smith (1759) wrote in "The Theory of Moral Sentiments":
We desire both to be respectable and to be respected. We dread both to be contemptible and to be contemned. But, upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtue are by no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.
To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object. The one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition, the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behavior; the one more glittering in its coloring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshipers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshipers, of wealth and greatness.
Hence begins this “Wealth Through the Eye of the Sages” as follows:
Over the years, we’ve found ourselves in many conversations that turned rather briskly on the subject of money and wealth. The focus, invariably, would be on all the corruptions that accompany abundance: smugness and complacency in character, the monomaniacal obsession of having more and more; indifference to the suffering of others; the habit of extracting special favors from politicians, the inclination to sequester oneself from the rabble (life in hidden and faraway mansions) and thus to flee from the very real problems of society. Then as now, we tended to sympathize with the person too mindful of the traps of power and too inclined to fulminate against the super rich. A double harm is committed when morality deflects personal weaknesses and conceals a starving ego. In a culture that equates wealth with virtue and construes meaning and purpose as mere ‘success’, success cries out for a countervailing attitude. Such an attitude must rise above the easy riposte that says ‘You’re just jealous because you don’t have my money.
“Riches are valuables at all times and to all men; because they always purchase pleasures such as men are accustomed to and desire. Nor can anything (sic) restrain or regulate the love of money but a sense of honor and virtue, which if it be not nearly equal at all times, will naturally abound most in ages of knowledge and refinement. The desire for money takes the place of all genuinely human needs. Thus the apparent accumulation of wealth is really the impoverishment of human nature, and its appropriate morality is the renunciation of human nature and desires. And this dehumanized human nature produces an inhuman consciousness, whose only currency is abstractions divorced from real life --- the industrious, coolly rational economic prosaic mind. Capitalism has made us so stupid and one-sided that objects exist for us only if we can possess them or if they have utility” - David Hume (1771-1776), “Of Refinement In The Arts”.
One class is very rich, another very poor, and a third in a mean. It is admitted that moderation and the mean are the best, and therefore it will clearly be best to possess the gifts of fortune in moderation; for in that condition of life men are most really to follow rational principle. But he who greatly in beauty, strength, birth or wealth, or on the other hand who is very poor or very weak or very much disgraced, finds it difficult to follow rational principle. Of this two, one sort grow into violent and great criminals, the others into rouges and petty rascals. And two sorts of offenses correspond to them, the one committed from violence, the other from roguery. Again, the middle class is least likely to shrink from rule or to be over-ambitious for it; both of which are injuries to the country. Again, those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends and the likes, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority. The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience. On the other hand, the very poor, who are in the opposite extreme, are too degraded, so that the one class cannot obey and can only rule despotically; the other knows not how to command and must be ruled like slaves. Thus arises a nation, not of free man, but of masters and slaves; the one despising, the other envying; and nothing can be more fatal to friendship and good fellowship; when men are enmity with one another, they would rather not even share the same path.
It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. It is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty. For to what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and preeminence? Is it to supply the necessities of nature? what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it. It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us. But vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation. The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him. At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him. The poor man, on the contrary, is ashamed of his poverty. The poor man goes out and comes in unheeded, and when in the midst of a crowd is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel. The man of rank and distinction, on the contrary, is observed by all the world. His actions are the objects of the public care. Scarce a word, scarce a gesture, can fall from him that is altogether neglected. In a great assembly he is the person upon whom all direct their eyes; it is upon him that their passions seem all to wait with expectation, in order to receive that movement and direction which he shall impress upon them; and if his behavior is not altogether absurd, he has, every moment, an opportunity of interesting mankind, and of rendering himself the object of the observation and fellow-feeling of every body about him. Upon this disposition of mankind is founded the distinction of ranks, and the order of society. Their benefits can extend but to a few, but their fortunes interest almost every body. We are eager to assist them in completing a system of happiness that approaches so near to perfection; and we desire to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity or the honor of obliging them. Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That they are to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public convenience may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own sake, to tremble and bow down, to regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and to dread their displeasure, though no other evil were to follow from it.
This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint in all ages.
It is from our disposition to admire, and consequently to imitate, the rich and the great, that they are enabled to set, or to lead what is called the fashion. Their dress is the fashionable dress; the language of their conversation, the fashionable style; their air and deportment, the fashionable behavior. Even their vices and follies are fashionable; and the greater part of men are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonor and degrade them. They desire to be praised for what they themselves do not think praise-worthy, and are ashamed of unfashionable virtues which they sometimes practice in secret. There are hypocrites of wealth and greatness, as well as of religion and virtue; and a vain man is as apt to pretend to be what he is not, in the one way, as a cunning man is in the other. Many a poor man places his glory in being thought rich, without considering that the duties which that reputation imposes upon him, must soon reduce him to beggary, and render his situation still more unlike that of those whom he admires and imitates, than it had been originally.
To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one, and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions.

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