THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MAN OF TRUE PUBLIC SPIRIT AND A MAN OF ARROGANCE AND CONCEIT

Adam Smith
Nothing but the most exemplary morals can give dignity to a man of small fortune. (from here)

As I was working my way through Rediscovering Americanism by Mark R. Levin, I read a quote from Adam Smith“s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that I think is directly relevant to my last post, IS THE LAW REQUIRED OR IS CUSTOM SUFFICIENT?. Levin, who uses the quotation to end chapter 5 of his book, described it this way.

The iconic Scottist economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1970), a contemporary of the American Founders and friend of Edmund Burke, smartly diagnosed the difference between the man of true public spirit and the man of arrogance and conceit, praising the former and condemning the latter.

As Levin observed, at the time Smith wrote it, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was highly acclaimed. Now, probably because we educate our children in secular schools, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is largely forgotten. Yet Levin, understanding the historical importance of this work, quoted it. Here is the passage he quoted.

VI.II.41

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

VI.II.42

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

VI.II.43

Some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the views of the statesman. But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which that idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him and not he to them. It is upon this account, that of all political speculators, sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous. This arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment. When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which it may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will. They hold in contempt the divine maxim of Plato, and consider the state as made for themselves, not themselves for the state. The great object of their reformation, therefore, is to remove those obstructions; to reduce the authority of the nobility; to take away the privileges of cities and provinces, and to render both the greatest individuals and the greatest orders of the state, as incapable of opposing their commands, as the weakest and most insignificant. (from here)

 

5 thoughts on “THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MAN OF TRUE PUBLIC SPIRIT AND A MAN OF ARROGANCE AND CONCEIT

Add yours

  1. Awesome,Tom! That’s a great quote, all of them really.

    I suspect good parents, (and perhaps even God Himself) desires us to love “the law,” to crave the moral standards, not because we have to, but because we want to. This requires that we be granted a lot of freedom and freewill so we can experiment and discover “why” exactly we have laws and moral standards.

    I used to fight with my kids over wearing their coat, putting on socks and shoes. Finally I said, “go ahead, walk out in the snow barefoot, check it out.” After doing that a few times they suddenly developed a great affection for dressing warmly. I came to understand that although they were small and I could certainly wrestle them into being sensible, it wasn’t really the most moral option.

    So government, rather then treating us like stupid children, should encourage us to govern ourselves.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Good reminder of what could be if politicians ran for office equipped with ‘true public spirit.”

    However, what I believe is we now have a lot of politicians so upset that they lost in the last election, that their arrogance and conceit is apparent because no one listens to them anymore.

    For example, this guy is literally fuming about the same issue as your frequent commenter Doug

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chicagoinc/ct-met-gutierrez-trump-impeachment-1101-chicago-inc-20171031-story.html

    Regards and goodwill blogging.

    Like

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