Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Economic Dispositions

The "beauty of writing history," Adam Smith said in his lectures on rhetoric, in January 1763, consisted for Tacitus in a political theory of sentiments. Events, in Smith's description, have both external and internal causes, or causes to do with circumstances and causes to do with sentiments. It is the neglect of these internal causes, Smith says, which makes the writings of modern historians "for the most part so dull and lifeless." ... Such a history, Smith says, "perhaps will not tend so much to instruct us in the knowledge of the causes of events; yet it will be more interesting and lead us into a science no less useful, to wit, the knowledge of the motives by which men act." ...

There is no certainty in such a view of the world; there is only the consonance, or the conflict, of individual lives. Lamennais indeed identified Condorcet's view of society with yet another, and in some respects even more frightening version of the crime of enlightenment. This was the crime of a "dogmatic indifference" to religion. Condorcet understood, Lamennais wrote, that religion could not persist if it were reserved for the people alone. Society would then be abandoned to a morality without foundation, and to a universe without certainty. The human spirit, as in the later Roman Empire, under the influence of Epicurus, would be "deprived of its beliefs and even of its opinions, it would swim, at the mercy of chance, in an immense ocean of uncertainties and of doubts." The universe would be one in which the individual was endowed with "absolute sovereignty over himself"; a "horrible anarchy of contrary wills and opposed interests, of unequal forces and unequal desires," an "orgy of doctrines, [a] confused shock of all the interests and all the passions." ...

The economic writings with which this book is concerned are a description, above all, of opposed interests and unequal desires. They express an extraordinary tolerance for uncertainty, and for doubt. Condorcet's view of enlightenment, like Smith's, was close to the Epicurean prospect, as described by Lucretius, in which men and women no longer tremble like children in the dark, and the "terror of the mind" is dispelled by understanding; or as described by Lucian, in which men are freed "from terrors and apparitions and portents, from vain hopes and extravagant cravings." But they also believed that the process of understanding is slow, uncertain, and subject to error, chance, and the likelihood of being disconcerted. One source of uncertainty is that individuals will not understand their own interests very well; or that they will understand their own "local situation" so well that they will choose to pursue their interests by the "ruses of fear," or by political intrigues. A different source of uncertainty is the one which Lamennais found so fearsome; it is that the new, enlightened society will be without foundation, and without providence. There is an even more disturbing prospect; it is that a life of uncertainty will itself, eventually, be a source of strength, or of virtue. The challenge of laissez-faire - that is to say, of psychological laissez-faire, as well as of laissez-faire in the relations of commerce - is to live without certainty, including certainty about the truth of one's own dogma.

... Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment, Emma Rothschild

2 comments:

Seelaj said...

Chimology bro!!!!!!!!!!

TheHoopoe said...

Hey bun :)

This was one of the readings we had to analyze and critique for class yesterday night... And this was one of the 'simpler' text ... interesting though to know more about what Smith and Condorcet says about other things apart from what we learnt of them through Economics in college - the relation between religion and economics, of morality and economics, of politics and economics etc etc - therein the entries :)