Friday, February 17, 2012

Monarchs and Mongrels

For a first serious post here, I thought it would be interesting to revisit one of my first real bits of thinking about connections between the literary and the economic. The first economist I ever read was Hayek. Right after Hayek, I read Smith's Wealth of Nations. While I gather this is a somewhat...non-traditional economic education, it's served me reasonably well. And in reading Smith I found someone whose brain was as filled with literary allusions, references, and quotations, as any writer I'd ever loved and admired. This paper--and I've put the introduction here, with a link to the whole megillah at the end of the post--came from the moment when I realized I'd spotted an allusion that, so far as I could discover, had gone unnoticed for ages.

So, here's Smith and Shakespeare, together again, in "Monarchs and Mongrels."

Adam Smith’s respect for literature as art and as example infuses all his work. Whether it is The Theory of Moral Sentiments and its use of the characters of Iago and Othello to discuss issues of human sympathy and fellow-feeling, the quotations from Milton and Dryden which begin his essay on “The History of Astronomy,” his references to Phaedra, the Aeneid, and the Illiad in his examination of the legal history of marriage in the Lectures of Jurisprudence, or the Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the notes from his most extended considerations of literature, Smith’s use of literature throughout his body of work is constant.

Charles Griswold’s Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment points to the strong appeal that literature had for Smith as a way to speak about important contemporary moral concerns: “Not only plays, novels, and poems but tragedies, in particular, intrigue Smith. Together they completely overwhelm his relatively rare references to properly philosophical texts. …The notion that we are to understand literature and drama as sources for moral theory and moral education is clearly and strikingly evident in The Wealth of Nations as well. (59).” This attraction towards the literary as source material for moral arguments is easily seen simply by leafing through the footnotes to any of Smith’s works. His references to literature are myriad and most have been well-documented. In addition, however, Smith’s writing--steeped in poetry, novels, and drama as it is--often draws from the storehouse of his memory to allude to literature without giving a specific reference to the work of which he is thinking. Discovery and examination of such an uncited reference can give careful readers the sense of Smith as a writer who instinctively turns to literature as a tool for his thought.

Very early in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations the reader encounters one such reference, previously unnoted in Smith scholarship, during Smith’s meditations on human nature as demonstrated in comparison with the nature of dogs. The section is a justly famous one. It is elegant in both its content and its diction as well as in its explication of the social advantages and “conveniency” that arise from the human ability to “truck, barter, and exchange,” with skills that dogs are able only to use to help themselves. Smith writes:

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog. Those different tribes of animals, however, though all of the same species, are of scarce any use to one another. The strength of the mastiff is not, in the least, supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog. The effects of those different geniuses and talents, for want of the power or disposition to barter and exchange, cannot be brought into a common stock, and do not in the least contribute to the better accommodations and conveniency of the species. Each animal is still obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. Among men, on the contrary, the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another; the different produces of their respective talents, by the general disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, being brought, as it were, into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’s talents he has occasion for. (1.ii.30)

The passage has been analyzed often. What has gone unnoticed, however, is that Smith’s passage alludes to an equally well-known passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (The play may have been suggested to Smith by his use of the word “porter” early on in the passage reminding him of Macbeth’s famous Act II “porter scene.”) Suborning Banquo’s murder in Act III, Macbeth discusses human nature with the murderers for hire in almost precisely the same terms that Smith uses in the above passage.

First Murderer: We are men, my Liege.

Macbeth: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valu’d file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous Nature
Hath in him clos’d; whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike: and so of men. 
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.90-100)

The similarity of wording, of subject matter, even of the dog breeds mentioned make it clear that as Smith wrote his passage on dogs and human nature, Shakespeare’s lines were in his mind.
The previously unnoted allusion is interesting for more than just its help in building a more thorough record of Smith’s use of literature throughout his works, however. Smith’s allusion to Macbeth at this early and crucial point in the argument of Wealth of Nations is far more than a rhetorical flourish. It is topical, carefully considered, and significant. Smith’s allusion to Macbeth serves to forewarn the alert reader of Smith’s awareness of the market’s complexities and problems as well as its strengths.  Smith’s awareness of the corruptions to which a free market can be vulnerable are not reservations about the effectiveness of such a market. Rather, they are reservations about the damage that can be done to the market’s effectiveness by human action and imperfection. It is not the free market that is risky. What is risky is a free market that, like the monarchy of Macbeth's Scotland, has fallen victim to corruption, collusion, and misdirected self-interest that erodes human sympathy.

A much longer version of this argument is available here, with footnotes and everything.

1 comment:

  1. In a slight tangent stimulated by what you wrote here, it is a shame that, in my experience, literary references are no longer given their due weight. I actually had a paper rejected because I used both historical figures and fictional characters as examples. Absurd.