Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 2

The Origin of Ambition and Distinction of Ranks

by Adam Smith Icon
8 minutes  • 1583 words
Table of contents

Our sympathy with the false idea of the happiness of the rich and the great is the basis of ambition

16 We parade our riches and hide our poverty because people sympathize more with our joy than our sorrow.

We are most mortified to:

  • expose our distress in public, and
  • feel that no one conceives half of what we suffer.

We pursue riches and avoid poverty chiefly from this regard to mankind’s sentiments.

  • For what is all the world’s toil and bustle?
  • What is the end of:
    • avarice and ambition,
    • the pursuit of wealth, power, and preeminence?
  • Is it to supply nature’s necessities?

The meanest labourer’s wages can supply nature’s necessities. Wages afford him:

  • food and clothing, and
  • the comfort of a house and a family.

If we rigourously examined his economy, we would find:

  • that he spends much of them on conveniencies, which may be regarded as superfluities, and
  • that he can spend for vanity and distinction on extraordinary occasions.

We are averse to his situation because we see bettering our condition as the great purpose of human life.

We are interested with the vanity, not the ease or pleasure. But vanity is always based on ourselves being the object of attention and approbation.

The rich man glories in his riches because:

  • he feels that riches naturally draw the world’s attention on him,
  • mankind is disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions from his situation.
    • His heart swells and dilates at the thought of this.
    • Thus, he is fonder of his wealth than for all its other advantages.

On the contrary, the poor man is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that:

  • it places him out of mankind’s sight or
  • if they notice him, they have no fellow-feeling with his misery and distress.

He is mortified by both. Being overlooked and disapproved of are entirely different. Yet obscurity covers us from honour and approval. The feeling that we are unnoticed necessarily:

  • damps our hope, and
  • disappoints the desire of human nature.

In the midst of a crowd, he is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel. He is occupied with humble cares and painful attentions which are not amusing to the dissipated. The fortunate and the proud:

  • turn away their eyes from the poor, and
  • wonder at the insolence of human wretchedness.

On the contrary, the man of rank and distinction is observed by all. Everybody is eager:

  • to look at him, and
  • to conceive his joy and exultation, at least by sympathy.

This renders greatness the object of envy despite:

  • the restraint it imposes, and
  • the loss of liberty with which it is attended.

It compensates:

  • all that anxiety undergone in its pursuit, and
  • all that leisure, ease, and careless security, which are forfeited forever by its acquisition.

This is of more consequence.

17 Our imagination colors the condition of the great in delusive colours as a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which we want ourselves and so we feel a sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it.

  • we favour all their inclinations and forward all their wishes.
  • We even wish them immortality.
    • Our ready compliment to them is: “Great King, live forever!” like what the Chinese do.

Our experience teaches us its absurdity. Every calamity and injury that befalls them excites 10 times more compassion and resentment in us. The misfortunes of Kings are the proper subjects for tragedy. In this respect, they resemble the misfortunes of lovers. The misfortunes of kings and lovers interest us in the theatre because our imagination makes us think that those two states have a superior happiness, despite reason telling us otherwise.

To disturb or end such perfect enjoyment seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries. The traitor who conspires to kill his monarch, is thought a greater monster than any other murderer. The death of Charles I provoked more indignation than the all the innocent blood shed in the civil wars

We see men’s:

  • indifference to the misery of their inferiors, and
  • regret and indignation for the sufferings of their superiors.

This would lead a stranger to human nature that:

  • pain must be more agonizing, and
  • the convulsions of death must be more terrible to persons of higher rank than to those of inferior rank

Rich versus Poor

18 Humans are disposed to go along with the feelings of the rich and the powerful. This leads to:

  • the distinction of ranks
  • the order of society

Our subordination to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for their advantages, than from any expectations of benefit from their goodwill.

  • Their benefits can extend only to a few.
  • But their fortunes interest almost everybody.
    • We are eager to assist them in completing a system of happiness.
    • We want to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity of obliging them.

Our submission to them is not totally founded:

  • on the utility of such submission, or
  • on the utility of the order of society

Our subordination will best support such utililty

Even if society requires us to oppose the rich and powerful, we cannot easily do so.

The doctrine of reason and philosophy is that kings are the people’s servants, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as required by the public convenience.

But it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to:

  • submit to them for their own sake,
  • tremble and bow down before them,
  • regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and
  • dread their displeasure as the severest of all mortifications, even if no evil were to follow from it.

Few men have the magnanimity required:

  • to treat them as normal people, and
  • to reason and dispute with them ordinarily

Only those who are assisted by familiarity and acquaintance can do such things. The following are insufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them:

  • the strongest motives,
  • the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment.

Their conduct must have excited the extreme of all those feelings, before the people can be brought to violently oppose them. Even when the people have been brought this length, they are:

  • apt to relent every moment, and
  • easily relapse into their habitual state of deference.

They cannot stand their monarch’s mortification. Compassion soon takes the place of resentment. They forget all past provocations. Their old principles of loyalty revive. They run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it.

The death of Charles I restored the royal family. James II was seized by the populace from escaping by ship. The people’s compassion for him then almost prevented the Revolution. It made the Revolution go on more heavily than before.

19 Are the great insensible of how easy they get public admiration?

Or do they imagine, just like others, that it must be bought with sweat or blood?

By what important accomplishments is the young nobleman instructed to:

  • support the dignity of his rank, and
  • render himself worthy of that superiority over his fellow-citizens, given to him by his ancestors’ virtue?

Is it by any kind of knowledge, industry, patience, self-denial, or virtue?

All his words and motions are attended to.

He learns a habitual regard to every circumstance of ordinary behaviour. He studies to perform all those small duties with the most exact propriety.

He is conscious:

  • how much he is observed, and
  • how much people are disposed to favour all his inclinations.

He acts with that freedom and elevation which the thought of this naturally inspires. His air, manner, and deportment, all mark that elegant and graceful sense of his own superiority.

Those who are born to inferior stations can hardly ever arrive at this.

These are the arts by which he proposes to:

  • make people more easily submit to his authority, and
  • govern their inclinations according to his own pleasure.

He is seldom disappointed in this.

These arts, supported by rank and preeminence, are ordinarily sufficient to govern the world.

Louis 14th was regarded all over Europe as the perfect model of a great prince because he was the most powerful prince in Europe. He consequently held the highest rank among kings.

But through what talents and virtues did he acquire this great reputation? Was it by:

  • his scrupulous and inflexible justice?
  • the immense dangers and difficulties that came with his undertakings?
  • his relentlessness in pursuing them?
  • his extensive knowledge?
  • his exquisite judgment?
  • his heroic valour?

It was by none of these.

His historian says:

He surpassed all his courtiers in his shape’s gracefulness and the majestic beauty of his features. The sound of his voice was noble and affecting. It gained those hearts which his presence intimidated.

He caused embarrassment to those who spoke to him. This flattered the secret satisfaction for his own superiority. An old officer was confounded and faultered in asking him a favour.

The officer was unable to conclude his discourse, and said to him ‘Your majesty, I hope you will believe that I do not tremble like this before your enemies.’ He then could easily obtain what he demanded.

These frivolous accomplishments were supported by his rank and by other talents and virtues not much above mediocrity.

Compared with these in his own times and presence, no other virtue appeared to have any merit. Knowledge, industry, valour, and beneficence, trembled, were abashed, and lost all dignity before them.

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