Thursday, December 04, 2008

G.K.'s Weekly - The Case of Adam Smith

by G.K. Chesterton

It is generally understood that our Constitution (the pride and envy of, etc.) rules modern Englishmen upon a certain principle of balance; a sort of double basis which is still rather a distinction than a mere compromise. Parliamentarians, now suddenly waking up in a fright on discovering the prolonged unpopularity of Parliament, write feverishly to the Liberal papers to say that, under their system, Englishmen enjoy every kind of Liberty. But most well-informed people know, at least, that it is not so simple as that; and that it really rests on a distinction; and especially on a distinction between facts and ideas. The distinction is practical and perfectly well known. If a man states the facts about modern politics, then he goes to jail for criminal libel, or is made a bankrupt by extravagant civil damages. But if he wishes to state his ideas, it is said, there are now practically no ideas that he may not state. But here again, in modern conditions, the case is considerably more complex. This is an age which boasts that all opinions can be expressed. It is also an age in which next to no opinions really are expressed. Certainly they are not clearly and strongly expressed; nor are they clearly and strongly repudiated. The truth is that we suffer from the lack of any tribunal which can test ideas for any purpose; even merely to record them. We need a Recorder, in other than the legal sense, if only to date and describe their appearance—and disappearance. I do not expect such an official organ to be infallible; nor the Recorder to be the Recording Angel. The Spanish Inquisition was not infallible, as many may learn with surprise; but I do sometimes fancy, so far as my own feelings go, that it would be rather a good thing to have the Spanish Inquisition without the tortures. After all the old word Inquisitor is only the very modern word Inquirer. And such old inquirers did inquire concerning the rise and range of new movements, with whatever motives; they took notes and gave us some data to go on. I do not mean to raise the ethical debate about persecution, when I state, as a fact of history, that a movement is often better documented because it is a heresy. It is much harder to trace when it is only a mood or a mode. I do not want such things persecuted; I am not here concerned even with having them denounced; but I am concerned with having them defined. And it is odd that they hardly ever were defined except, when they were denounced. Everyone knows where Calvinism starts from and what it stands for. But anybody can get muddled, in the modern atmosphere, about what Prussianism stands for, and even where it started; for there are some of our innocent pacifists who find it quite incredible that Prussianism could have started in Prussia. Precisely because it has not been a text for anathema, it has become a mere term of abuse. It is used in a vague and verbal way, about anything from torture to tin soldiers. These ideas wander about without being caught and labelled by a definition; or even a denunciation that has the lucidity of a definition.

Now there have passed over modern England especially, in the last hundred years or so, a succession of these formless ideas, which have formed the mind even while remaining formless. They are at once fixed and forgotten; and the vital point is that, in contrast to the case of the heresies, the old idea generally remains at the bottom of the mind, even when quite contrary ideas are piled on top of the mind. But the apparent composure and continuity of English life is very misleading. There has been no purge or clearance; and perhaps that is connected with there having been no riot or faction fight. But because there has been no political revolution, it does not mean that there has been no philosophical revolution. The truth is that the educated Englishman’s head has been going round like a windmill in one continuous revolution. He has lived quite lately in a series of topsy-turvy worlds. Earthquakes of extraordinary theory have been convulsing his mind—at least theoretically. When we think of the middle class of the middle century, complete with muttonchop whiskers and chimneypot hats, we underrate the wild and even wicked philosophies that have passed like a wind through their heads without disturbing their hats.

In giving one or two examples, in this and the next article, I will start with the secular sciences of the early nineteenth century; those before being entangled in the theological struggles. For one case; does anybody realise what a queer and fantastic faith is covered by the very name of Adam Smith? He is considered a dull and stolid person who invented Free Trade; but he invented much more marvellous things. He had a philosophy and even a religion; and a very rum religion it was. Its theological thesis was this: that God had so made the world that He could achieve the good, if men were sufficiently greedy for the goods. If everybody worked meanly and sordidly for money, the result would be a prosperity that would prove the benevolence of Providence. Adam Smith’s idea of justifying the ways of God to men, was to tell the men to do unjustifiable things which God would justify. Adam Smith was a mystic. He was a sort of Quietist, except that he certainly did not tell people to keep quiet. His creed was that if business men would bustle about from purely business motives, the bringing of good out of evil was the business of God. But he believed that God was good; indeed God was apparently the only person required to be good.

Now, of course, most Englishmen do not take a creed in this clear-cut way; and even when they swallowed the Smith philosophy pretty completely for generations, it was mixed up with other things. But when all such allowance is made, what an extraordinary creed it was to swallow! What a weird cosmos it was to inhabit; in which everything was good because everybody was bad. A world in which the financial speculator grew thistles to attract donkeys; and the thistles grew figs to be the food of all the good and wise; in which your neighbour gathered grapes of the thorns you had planted in order to scratch him. The whole thing was much more rationally stated than are most modern expositions; it was also rank raving nonsense, as anyone would have seen in an age of creeds and common sense. Sanity sees at a glance that society finds it hard enough to hang together, with everybody taught to be unselfish; and that it would simply smash if everybody were taught to be selfish. Incidentally, I may add, it has already smashed. We have seen with our own eyes the Wealth of Nations wither into the Poverty of Nations. But there were stranger examples after Adam Smith; and I shall say something of them next week.

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