Money and Good Will
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the second part of Good Will Is in Poetry, a 1972 lecture in which Eli Siegel speaks about Adam Smith and, later, about Percy Bysshe Shelley, and shows, remarkably, that they were going after the same thing. It is a lecture important for both economics and literature, and in the understanding of what people are hoping for.
Various persons of the right have turned Adam Smith into a kind of mascot for their views. Yet the Smith whom Mr. Siegel presents is vastly different from that. Smith, he makes clear, shows that at the very basis of economics as such is good will, "unarticulated," structural good will.
Mr. Siegel described good will as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). And he shows that Smith is presenting "something like mechanical good will" in passages from The Wealth of Nations. They are passages about, for instance, the fact that what one person needs another produces, that my labor can do you good as yours can be good for me.
Over the centuries, the primal, structural good will behind economics as such has not been continued by people in their thoughts about and use of others in daily economic life. It has not been continued in the way human beings have been made to work and live. Yet it can be.
Economics Is the Oneness of Opposites
Aesthetic Realism sees economics as fundamentally a matter of aesthetics. That is, the following principle is true about it: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Let us take some subjects Mr. Siegel quotes Smith about in the part of the lecture included here.
Exchange is always a oneness of sameness and difference. Barter is. One afternoon in the 12th century, Walter fixed Alison's door, and in exchange she gave him a cheese. Thus the cheese and the door-repair, while obviously different, became equivalent, or the same.
Money puts together sameness and difference. Money is certainly different from an item it purchases. But if I pay sixty cents for an apple, then the sixty cents and the apple are akin. How utterly akin they are is something felt by a person who is hungry and does not have the funds to buy that apple: the lack of money is the lack of food for his aching stomach.
Not only is money itself different-from-and-like something it buys—money shows that hugely different things are like each other. One hundred dollars can buy clothing; or it can buy food; or gasoline; or movie tickets; or medicine for an ailing animal; or books; or tools; or flowers. Therefore the hundred dollars, standing for them all, shows they have something in common; they have a likeness to each other.
Adam Smith writes about the coming to be of money. The coming to be of money was a coming to be of greater aesthetics: of opposites joining more richly and flexibly and efficiently for people than they could through barter. The creation of money, Mr. Siegel and Adam Smith show, was part of unconscious good will: it was a means of people's getting what they needed through giving others something they could use with ease to get things they needed too.
Matter & Feelings
Mr. Siegel comments on the way Smith writes about the world as matter: earth, water, touchable and weighing objects. And here we have crucial opposites in economics: the world as matter, and the hopes of people, the feelings and thoughts of people. That is, we have the tangible and intangible. No one ever touched feelings or thoughts. Yet they are central to what a person is. People need what the tangible earth can provide to be themselves—to have their intangible feelings and thoughts fare well.
There is no more important economic and ethical question than: what should be the relation of the tangible earth—the world as matter, goods, wealth—and every human being? Mr. Siegel answered that question very early, and he never deviated from the answer. In 1923, at age 20, he wrote in the Modern Quarterly:
The land is what everything comes from—the one means of industry....Now if nobody made the land, it is evident, to a really normal human, that everybody living has a right to own it and should own it.<
Aesthetic Realism explains that the ugly, hurtful interference in economics, as in every aspect of life, is contempt. Contempt is the desire to " get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself." Contempt has a person look at a fellow human being not as somebody who is as real as oneself is; rather, contempt's logic goes: "The weaker this person, the better for me. He's someone to beat, someone to use for my own aggrandizement, someone I need not think about deeply, someone to lessen so I can be more." That's the logic in the profit motive as it has functioned these centuries. And it's contempt alone which has made people feel some persons are entitled to much more of this earth than others are.
Let us look at a contemporary of Adam Smith (also with smith in his name): Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith was born in 1730, seven years after Smith, and his poem The Deserted Village was published in 1770, six years before The Wealth of Nations.
The Deserted Village is about the fact that the earth of the English countryside, which many, many people needed for their sustenance, was increasingly being owned by only a few rich persons. And we should ask: Is the grabbingness, the ill will, the way of ownership that Goldsmith condemns, something Adam Smith was for, or was Smith against it too?
For example, Goldsmith has this quite famous couplet about England—the nation is owned, he has been saying, by people who get richer by impoverishing others:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.
Goldsmith says that in the city, too, persons' ill will is running economics. This is about a man who has been forced to leave his rural home:
If to the city sped-what waits him there?
To see profusion that he must not share;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know
Extorted from his fellow-creature's woe.
Goldsmith is very angry, and his poetry is at once graceful and fierce. The idea that a person should get rich, be able to pay for amusements, through the pain and weakness of others! But that is what the profit motive has made for these many years.
There is the following description of a woman who has been made homeless and hungry because some lord was able to get hold of the land she needed:
She, wretched matron, forced in age, for bread,
To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,
To pick her wintry fagot from the thorn,
To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn.
This was happening in the Britain that Adam Smith also knew. Something like it, shamefully, is much with us now.
Various people who present themselves as followers of Smith would say: "While the pain Goldsmith describes is, of course, unfortunate, the economic system in which it took place is nevertheless admirable. It is the laissez-faire economics advocated by Adam Smith." However, I do not think Smith would agree with them. This weakening of somebody to augment oneself is not what he was for as he showed that economically people and nations could become more themselves through the production and needs of one another. He writes, in chapter 8 of Book I:
No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.
There Is Prose Style
One of the greatnesses of the present lecture is the way Mr. Siegel speaks about Smith's style. As he does, he has us see Adam Smith not the way he's most often seen, as some famous Economic Eminence, awe-inspiring and untouchable-he shows Smith as having "relish," having real pleasure. And we see Smith's down-to-earth pleasure about the world and his grandeur as the same.
Here, then, is more of Eli Siegel's lecture, with its understanding of Smith, and of that oneness of the earth and every human self which is economics.