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Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1664. — April 19, 2006
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Adam Smith & the Need for Good Will

Dear Unknown Friends: 

ith this issue we begin to serialize the 1972 lecture Good Will Is in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. It contains a very important, very surprising discussion of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations. Smith has been presented so often as the champion of capitalism. Yet Mr. Siegel shows that his renowned book has in it something very different from, and in fact opposed to, the way of mind of, say, Donald Trump, or William Buckley, or a boss today trying to rid his workplace of a union.

     He speaks about Smith in relation to that thing which Aesthetic Realism sees as central to the mental well-being of every person, and as urgently needed between individuals, in schools, in social life, in governments, in and between nations: good will. It's a term Mr. Siegel said he regretted needing to use, because it has so many soft, soppy associations. We have to see the tough, strict, rich meaning of good will. He described it as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121).

    Mr. Siegel shows that a principal idea of The Wealth of Nations is that the basis of economics is good will. He quotes and discusses many passages. This issue of TRO contains the first.

There Is "Self-Interest"

s a preliminary, I'll comment on Smith's statement that "self-interest" is central to the economic relations among people. Smith's writing about self-interest has been used to present him as an advocate of that profit economy which is going on now in America. In their book Economics Explained (NY, 1987), Robert Heilbroner and Lester Thurow describe Smith's depiction of "self-interest" and "self-betterment" this way:

How can a socially workable arrangement arise from such a dangerously unsocial motivation as self-betterment?...Each person out for self-betterment, with no thought of others, is faced with a host of similarly motivated persons. [Pp. 25-27]

      What we see, however, is that Heilbroner and Thurow make a rift which Smith himself does not make. The desire to better oneself does not have to be an "unsocial motivation." And far from a self-interested person having "no thought of others," Smith in fact says that to take care of yourself economically, you have to think of others. In chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith writes that to get something we want from another person, we have to be interested in that person's getting what he or she wants too:

Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren....He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.

     In keeping with the principle on which Aesthetic Realism is based, that "beauty is a making one of opposites," real good will is the same as taking care of oneself. And that is what Smith is illustrating in this passage: he is showing self-interest and interest in another to be one. Unless people see good will as care for self, they won't have good will; and unless they see taking care of themselves as interest in another, they will tend to be hoggish and cruel. This hoggishness and cruelty have been terrific and continuous in the economic history of humanity.

Contempt; or, Good Will Betrayed

hat Mr. Siegel explains in his lecture is not that Smith is saying individual people have good will as they sell and buy, as they hire a worker and pay him and fire him. Rather, he shows that Smith is describing a structure of good will at the very basis of economics—even while human beings engaged in economics may betray that underlying purpose day after day.

     We can compare the situation to marriage. The basis of marriage is good will, because marriage is an arrangement to have an individual better off through his or her caring for someone else, through seeing that person's well-being as inseparable from one's own. The basis of marriage is: "I am more myself through what you are, and through wanting your life, in its fulness, to be better." This structure of good will is the basis of marriage—but married people go away from that basis, are untrue to it, every day.

     In fact, Aesthetic Realism explains, that is why marriages fail. Instead of the purpose of good will being honored and continued in the states of mind of the two married people, there is contempt—often masked as devotion. The contempt comes to this: "I own you. I don't want you to like anything much besides me. I don't have to think about what you feel to yourself; you're now an extension of me. Also, I have a right to punish you for the fact that I need you at all."

     The passage of Smith that I quoted, with its statement "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want," is very different from the following way of mind: "I'm going to use this person to aggrandize myself, no matter how much it hurts him or her. The less I can give a person, the better off I am. I hope this prospective buyer is in desperate need of my product so I can force him to pay an enormous price, even though he may have little money. I hope this worker is frantic for a job, so I can pay him very, very little—even though he can't feed his family on such wages. I hope he and others need a job so badly that I won't have to spend money on safety measures—they'll be willing to work with hazardous machinery and breathe poisonous fumes." That has been the way of mind in economics these centuries. It has made for child labor; sweatshops; industrial diseases; long, life-sapping hours; crushed limbs. It is the profit motive. It is a form of contempt.

    Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else," and showed it to be the most hurtful thing in the self of everyone. It makes for every cruelty and damages every aspect of life, including economics and, as I described, marriage.

"Goodbye Profit System"

n 1970, in his Goodbye Profit System lectures, Eli Siegel showed that economics impelled by contempt was no longer able to flourish. It was harder and harder to rake in big profits by using one's fellow humans for personal aggrandizement. The world, he explained, had reached a crucial point: good will—the good will Smith describes as inherent in people's being completed by what each other can do—had to become conscious and honored, had to be what people went by. Mr. Siegel wrote:

There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

     The profit system, with its contempt for human beings, had failed. This failed profit system, this need for the economy to be based instead on good will, is what we have today. It shows itself in thousands of ways. I'll mention one.

Happening Now

A story in the New York Times of April 1 begins:

Delphi, the nation's biggest auto parts maker, on Friday asked a federal judge for permission to throw out some of its labor agreements, a move that could cost 20,000 union workers their jobs and leave thousands of others with less than half their current wages.

     What this is really about is how America's and the world's industry should be run. Today, in order for some few persons to make large profits, American workers are being forced to become poorer, to live with more difficulty, to live less well. The great economic question for America and the world now is: Which should be—should many people live not so well in order that a few individuals can make big profit from their labor; or should the completely unnecessary factor of profit for those who don't work for it be eliminated, and instead let the profits go to those who do the work?

     In keeping with the fundamental good will of economics: There are people who need automobiles and auto parts; there are people who can make automobiles and auto parts. There are people who need food; there are people who can produce food. There are people who need homes; there are people who can build and provide homes—and so on. This situation, with all its subtleties, does have a kind simplicity. Though human contempt has used the situation for profit, greed, superiority, and exploitation, the doing so was always completely unnecessary—and is unsustainable now.

     Eli Siegel's understanding of Adam Smith is new in the history of thought. Mr. Siegel did not, of course, agree with him about everything. But his love for the writer of The Wealth of Nations is clear. His pleasure, including literary pleasure, is clear. It is an honor to publish this lecture by Eli Siegel, whose own writings and classes on economics will, I believe, be seen as unsurpassed in importance and kindness. He is the philosopher who wrote the following to describe the most essential economic fact:

The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Good Will Is There
By Eli Siegel

erhaps for the first time in the history of English literature, there will be the beginning of a comparison between two persons noted in English literature and usually placed in different departments or categories. They are Adam Smith and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The thing that unites the two is what I have to call good will—I'm always sorry to, because it sounds so pleasant and comfy that the subtlety of the term is left out. However, I cannot think of a better term. Good will is present in every great book and it's present in poetry. The immediate title of this talk is "Good Will Is in Poetry." And one of its purposes is to show that the purport of The Wealth of Nations, which has been seen as the most massively useful book on economics in the history of English literature, goes along with the purport of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

     The other thing that should be seen is this: Adam Smith is noted for two works. Both are included in Mortimer Adler's list of great books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of 1759, and The Wealth of Nations, of 1776, and they are quite different. The Theory of Moral Sentiments has hardly anything to do with economics as such—hardly anything like price is mentioned—and it happens to be, all in all, the most interesting book on ethics that I know. There are books on the subject that are more important, but this is most interesting and has all kinds of little dramas in it that are not just tawdry, some of which I'll try to show. The chief approach is: one mind being aware of other minds looking at it.

     The book is different from The Wealth of Nations. However, one can see that what Smith was lecturing about in the 1750s and published in 1759 was going towards that world evidence which is in The Wealth of Nations. In other words, something like good will is written of. Some of the nastiest things are mentioned in The Wealth of Nations —there are all the tricks of economics, all the evil that goes with economics—and also there is a certain something asking for freedom and good will. That good will is present in the earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

     But I think it best to begin with The Wealth of Nations. As many persons know, it got the greatest praise one single book ever got. That praise is by Henry Thomas Buckle, who wrote:

This solitary Scotchman has, by the publication of one single work, contributed more toward the happiness of man than has been effected by the united abilities of all the statesmen and legislators of whom history has presented an authentic record.

So the book isn't compared to other books; it's compared to what people have done in the legislative field or in the political field. And that is some praise.

Unarticulated Good Will

n an early chapter on division of labor, Smith, with very great vivacity and something of a poetic style, describes how every person depends on the work of other people. Industry and economics can be called a procedure of matter-of-fact, unarticulated good will. That is, people are now busy making things that you may want next year. It's true, you have to pay for them, but the fact is that people try to see what you may need, even today, when the profit system is corrupt and meeting its doom.

     In the 1770s, the notion of people needing the work of other persons was very lively. This is in the first chapter—a description of how much even someone who is not rich, a "day-labourer," depends on the work of others:

Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on,...the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals—

     This is the true Adam Smith. He has ever so many details. The details in the earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments make that work a series of little plays, little stories, and not tawdry. This is the first time that has been said, because, although the 1759 book is included in Adler's list, it isn't usually made much of. In the passage from The Wealth of Nations, we see Smith interested in something like what Emerson later was interested in, butter churns. In "The American Scholar," Emerson pointed out that the American scholar has to know what is going on as people work in homes, people in New England and America generally. So Smith has the phrase "the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals."

—the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage—

This is Smith being a little yearning: "brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage." That is, they might have been brought from a certain part of England or elsewhere, both by water and by land.

—all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation—

Which is Adam Smith's way of saying, if Scotland couldn't have windows, you couldn't live in it. It may be noticed, all this is part of one sentence, and it goes on:

—if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to, what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.

     Imagine a woman who sews having to make her own needle. I think it would baffle most people.

What Is It About?

What is The Wealth of Nations really about?

     The chief thing that is said is that nations shouldn't be so suspicious of other nations, and there should be free trade—one nation shouldn't forbid the export of certain goods from that nation or forbid the import of their goods from other nations. In other words, it deals with the beginning of the tariff problem: nations shouldn't be suspicious of each other, but let people buy what they want and sell what they want. There is much more to be said about this.

     But the important thing is that Smith, as he writes about it, is a writer: he's affected by it. I may mention, he's the only economist who seems to have been worried about the niceties of Greek grammar; he knew his Greek grammar even while he was writing The Wealth of Nations.

     So I've quoted a first passage, and it means that something like mechanical good will, at least, has to be. People have to do things for other people, even if they get paid for it. That is, usually if you make your shoes, you don't make your sweaters. If you make your sweaters, you don't make your shoes. And if you make eyeglasses, usually you don't make wine pitchers.     

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.  The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.  The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.  All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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