January 10, 2004

Notes: Adam Smith on Celebrity

From Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments:

When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it. it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal; and it seems hard to us, that death should at last put an end to such perfect enjoyment. It is cruel, we think, in Nature to compel them from their exalted stations to that humble, but hospitable home, which she has provided for all her children. Great King, live for ever! is the compliment, which, after the manner of eastern adulation, we should readily make them, if experience did not teach us its absurdity. Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men. It is the misfortunes of Kings only which afford the proper subjects for tragedy. They resemble, in this respect, the misfortunes of lovers. Those two situations are the chief which interest us upon the theatre; because, in spite of all that reason and experience can tell us to the contrary, the prejudices of the imagination attach to these two states a happiness superior to any other. To disturb, or to put an end to such perfect enjoyment, seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries. The traitor who conspires against the life of his monarch, is thought a greater monster than any other murderer. All the innocent blood that was shed in the civil wars, provoked less indignation than the death of Charles I. A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations.

Upon this disposition of mankind, to go along with all the passions of the rich and the powerful, is founded the distinction of ranks, and the order of society. Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their good-will. 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 honour of obliging them. Neither is our deference to their inclinations founded chiefly, or altogether, upon a regard to the utility of such submission, and to the order of society, which is best supported by it. Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency 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 before their exalted station, 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, as the severest of all mortifications. To treat them in any respect as men, to reason and dispute with them upon ordinary occasions, requires such resolution, that there are few men whose magnanimity can support them in it, unless they are likewise assisted by familiarity and acquaintance. The strongest motives, the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment, are scarce sufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them: and their conduct must, either justly or unjustly, have excited the highest degree of all those passions, before the bulk of the people can be brought to oppose them with violence, or to desire to see them either punished or deposed. Even when the people have been brought this length, they are apt to relent every moment, and easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look upon as their natural superiors. They cannot stand the mortification of their monarch. Compassion soon takes the place of resentment, they forget all past provocations, their old principles of loyalty revive, and they run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it. The death of Charles I. brought about the Restoration of the royal family. Compassion for James II. when he was seized by the populace in making his escape on ship-board, had almost prevented the Revolution, and made it go on more heavily than before.

Do the great seem insensible of the easy price at which they may acquire the public admiration; or do they seem to imagine that to them, as to other men, it must be the purchase either of sweat or of blood? By what important accomplishments is the young nobleman instructed to support the dignity of his rank, and to render himself worthy of that superiority over his fellow-citizens, to which the virtue of his ancestors had raised them? Is it by knowledge, by industry, by patience, by self-denial, or by virtue of any kind? As all his words, as all his motions are attended to, he learns an habitual regard to every circumstance of ordinary behaviour, and studies to perform all those small duties with the most exact propriety. As he is conscious how much he is observed, and how much mankind are disposed to favour all his inclinations, he acts, upon the most indifferent occasions, with that freedom and elevation which the thought of this naturally inspires. His air, his manner, his deportment, all mark that elegant and graceful sense of his own superiority, which those who are born to inferior stations can hardly ever arrive at. These are the arts by which he proposes to make mankind more easily submit to his authority, and to govern their inclinations according to his own pleasure: and in this he is seldom disappointed. These arts, supported by rank and preheminence, are, upon ordinary occasions, sufficient to govern the world. Lewis XIV. during the greater part of his reign, was regarded, not only in France, but over all Europe, as the most perfect model of a great prince. But what were the talents and virtues by which he acquired this great reputation? Was it by the scrupulous and inflexible justice of all his undertakings, by the immense dangers and difficulties with which they were attended, or by the unwearied and unrelenting application with which he pursued them? Was it by his extensive knowledge, by his exquisite judgment, or by his heroic valour? It was by none of these qualities. But he was, first of all, the most powerful prince in Europe, and consequently held the highest rank among kings; and then, says his historian, 'he surpassed all his courtiers in the gracefulness of his shape, and the majestic beauty of his features. The sound of his voice, noble and affecting, gained those hearts which his presence intimidated. He had a step and a deportment which could suit only him and his rank, and which would have been ridiculous in any other person. The embarrassment which he occasioned to those who spoke to him, flattered that secret satisfaction with which he felt his own superiority. The old officer, who was confounded and faultered in asking him a favour, and not being able to conclude his discourse, said to him: Sir, your majesty, I hope, will believe that I do not tremble thus before your enemies: had no difficulty to obtain what he demanded.' These frivolous accomplishments, supported by his rank, and, no doubt too, by a degree of other talents and virtues, which seems, however, not to have been much above mediocrity, established this prince in the esteem of his own age, and have drawn, even from posterity, a good deal of respect for his memory. Compared with these, in his own times, and in his own presence, no other virtue, it seems, appeared to have any merit. Knowledge, industry, valour, and beneficence, trembled, were abashed, and lost all dignity before them.

Posted by DeLong at January 10, 2004 10:30 PM | TrackBack


Shorter Adam Smith: The monarch is the original Mary Sue of the non-scribbling classes.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on January 10, 2004 11:04 PM


Shorter Adam Smith (attempt #2): if bad policymakers are celebrities, many people will make excuses for their bad policies.

Posted by: Amit Dubey on January 11, 2004 12:59 AM


Shorter Adam Smith (attempt #3): if bad leaders are celebrities, many people will make excuses for their bad decisions. (I guess invading a country doesn't count as policy, and, er... Louis did a bit of that)

Posted by: Amit Dubey on January 11, 2004 01:03 AM


"...Is it by knowledge, by industry, by patience, by self-denial, or by virtue of any kind?..."

Yes, at the outset, or else they, or their ancestors, would not have become celebrities in the first place.

I recall reading some place that when CIA or its prototype was being established and developing, members of the American establishment themselves were working in it and were taking assignments overseas.

Then, they did away even with conscription!

It is just mathematics of life cycle.

Towards the end of the life cycle of any establishment, nobility therein becomes more a matter of image than substance.

Posted by: bulent on January 11, 2004 02:47 AM


"Yes, at the outset, or else they, or their ancestors, would not have become celebrities in the first place."

And then, I think of Enron, the Mob, and W... It is the ultimate form of submission to one's hierarchical superiors to posit that they must have aquired their position thanks to some sort of virtue. Some have but, by far, not all. Do you consider heredity as a form of virtue?

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on January 11, 2004 05:27 AM


Heredity may indicate to potential virtue, but the potential does not always materialize.

You know, they have invented something called EQ, for Emotional Quotient, in parallel to IQ, to justify promotion of people who get along better with others and management. One may ask, "what is wrong with getting along better with others and management"? My answer is, I don't like the morals they tell of the story about the non-conforming sparrow. I tell them those morals could be good enough for a sparrow, but I am not a sparrow, or a cat, or a cow.

Where there are too many people with too high EQs, you are liable to find a lot of dirt under the carpet. If you are not stupid, the you know it. And if you have a heart, it becomes a burden on you unless you speak out. And when you do that, then they put copies of animal stories on your desk.

Sheeeehsh! (I learned that from this blog recently!)

Posted by: bulent on January 11, 2004 07:31 AM


Slightly-shorter Smith: We are irrationally partial to the rich and the great. The spectacle of wealth without virtue demonstrates the need to develop the stance of the impartial spectator.

The above passage is followed by a lengthy discussion "of the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor or mean condition."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on January 11, 2004 08:12 AM


bulent ( soon-to-be-elder)
It wasn't me. ( The animal stories--presumably Bambi and not Godzilla.)
JPS --Heredity a virtue? Looking at the monumental transfer of wealth currently underway with the Boomer generation, it is a timely question.
The only requirement is that one be able to make an appearance to collect.
So the laws are unambiguous.
Dubya is there because of his impeccable genes.
But in the long run, are we going to remember these clowns --Grasso, Lay...or even Clinton, Bush ? Or are they going to be revered for eva like Brittany?
The Celebrity dimension is a tad myopic.
The scale doesn't seem to get much further than the tabloids.
Real Leadership seems to be as scarce as hen's teeth.

Posted by: calmo on January 11, 2004 08:31 AM


“gained those hearts which his presence intimidated.” Lovely turn!

Curious that it transfers so readily from a traditional monarchic aristocracy to all the creepy people prominent, here and now.

Some sort of innate biological function, that we model ourselves on images of others, to grow? And a residue persists, as habit?

Seems countermanded only by critical inquiry and/or religious experience--but even after that, most everyone decides to stick with the ongoing system, unless injustice is irremediable. Revolution is so much bloodier.

A curious thing has happened under the great moral leveller capitalism, though: people still follow celebrity, but the followers (beyond adolescents) rarely suppose that underneath, the movie star is any better than they are.

And may be much worse: “celebrity” now attaches to murderers, particularly if there’s a dramatic story attached, and a tv crew nearby. But this may be partly the need to know about this stuff, in order to stop it or avoid it. So again: something of a survival function.

I guess Smith came at the moment the Enlightenment was prying all of this apart, in a natural progression after Shakespeare put Montaigne on stage, and showed everyone their own innards.

And democracy has thrown another wrench into it: half the people can despise the leader, but will wait until the next election to sort it out, and go on from there.

Posted by: Lee A. on January 11, 2004 09:41 AM


Didn't Francis Y. Edgeworth try to mix utilitarianism and the status quo of society at the time by claiming that Adam Smith's deduction about The Great having more intense preference, etc, actually being true? Women have weaker preferences than men, etc, etc?

Posted by: Julian Elson on January 11, 2004 11:25 AM


Struck me as a comment on the revelation's of O'Neill's new book...., Smith on Bush

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 11, 2004 12:03 PM


"...Dubya is there because of his impeccable genes..."

U-uh. He is there cause he is American equivalent of Soviet "apparatchik" of "the system".

Posted by: bulent on January 11, 2004 12:31 PM


Changes in the law permitting, you predict Schwarzenegger for 2008?

Posted by: Joerg Wenck on January 11, 2004 02:17 PM


I have no idea about Schwarzenegger capacity for becoming apparatchik.

You know, Brad once posted something like "recall Schwarzenegger!", and at the time I did not know yet about California procedure for recalling a Gov. So I thought Brad was using the term in the sense for example Ford would recall cars for reason of defects -- alluding to Terminator stuff you know... hah! Did I have a laugh when I found out about Californy procedure!!!

Posted by: bulent on January 11, 2004 02:38 PM


"they seldom of never receive the prince reverently to whom it should be their duty to show a willing reverence of submission.."

That was from a post here from last summer about Lombards, so evidently it is not a universal human attribute to give reverence to celebrity and royalty.

Posted by: northernLights on January 11, 2004 04:34 PM


"Some sort of innate biological function, that we model ourselves on images of others, to grow?"

Mmmm, part of it; non-sapient ape tribes are hierarchic, and I think humans carry some of that with us. There's a lot more I might write in that line: about the advantage of luck and circumstance, and perhaps even innate nobility (though I do not believe that is heritable). But let me draw attention to something else, to the difficulty of getting people to attend to their own lives and times. Self-mastery, attention, self-care--those things Buddhist monks are always talking about--these are not common.

"Know thyself."

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on January 11, 2004 05:24 PM


Anyone want to see the last king strangled in the guts of the last priest? That passage makes Adam seem a trifle impatient with deference.

Posted by: bad Jim on January 12, 2004 12:50 AM


Amazing how the learned men of the past managed to go on and on without benefit of word processing.
On the travails of ordinary people: try the herald's speech at the start of the Oresteia, on what it was like to be a common soldier in Ancient Greece (seasickness, bad food, lice, sleeping in the open). Aeschylus had been one.

Posted by: James on January 12, 2004 02:49 AM


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