Friday, 1 February 2019

On The Modesty of Adam Smith

Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790
Why did the British Enlightenment succeed in creating a better society, while the French Enlightenment led to the bloodbath of the French Revolution? I think, we can draw some inferences from a comparison between the character of the British philosophers and their French counterparts.

The British philosophers of that period were modest and down-to-earth—they were not autocratic; they did not see themselves as intellectually and morally superior to other human beings; they philosophized extensively about the common human nature and the natural equality of all people.

Adam Smith, the most important figure of the British Enlightenment, asserts the common humanity of the street porter and the philosopher. Here’s an excerpt from Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter 2):
The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education… 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. 
David Hume and Edmund Burke have also philosophized on the idea of all men being created equal. On the other hand the major French philosophers of the 18th century were autocrats; they thought that the philosophers like themselves are superior to everyone else in society. It is impossible to imagine Rousseau and Diderot likening themselves to a street porter. They believed that they were destined by nature to pick up the burden of guiding the political and cultural future of their country.

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