Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Parable of the Sentry Who Fell Asleep

This is the first of a series of posts (not necessarily of this length) that I am adding to Lost Legacy as announced last week. These are intended to be educational about Adam Smith's Works and will reflect what I am working on at the time. Comments are welcome, as are questions.

In Book II of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith discusses justice and how it affects all of society. He notes how:

All men, even the most stupid and unthinking, abhor fraud, perfidy, and injustice, and delight to see them punished. But few men have reflected upon the necessity of justice to the existence of society, how obvious soever that necessity may appear to be.” (TMS II.ii.3.9, p89]

From this observation, he becomes more precise; we focus on individual events and individual perpetrators, and fashion our abhorrent reaction against their conduct on an individual basis; we do not relate it to the broader, Kantian, view that if everybody behaved in that manner then society would crumble. We see this most clearly, says Smith, in the ‘man of humanity’ who contemplates the severity of the punishment of an individual despite the affect on a society:

A centinel, for example, who falls asleep upon his watch, suffers death by the laws of war, because such carelessness might endanger the whole army. This severity may, upon many occasions, appear necessary, and, for that reason, just and proper. When the preservation of an individual is inconsistent with the safety of a multitude, nothing can be more just than that the many should be preferred to the one. Yet this punishment, how necessary soever, always appears to be excessively severe. The natural atrocity of the crime seems to be so little, and the punishment so great, that it is with great difficulty that our heart can reconcile itself to it. Though such carelessness appears very blamable, yet the thought of this crime does not naturally excite any such resentment, as would prompt us to take such dreadful revenge. A man of humanity must recollect himself, must make an effort, and exert his whole firmness and resolution, before he can bring himself either to inflict it, or to go along with it when it is inflicted by others. It is not, however, in this manner, that he looks upon the just punishment of an ungrateful murderer or parricide. His heart, in this case, applauds with ardour, and even with transport, the just retaliation which seems due to such detestable crimes, and which, if, by any accident, they should happen to escape, he would be highly enraged and disappointed. The very different sentiments with which the spectator views those different punishments, is a proof that his approbation of the one is far from being founded upon the same principles with that of the other. He looks upon the centinel as an unfortunate victim, who, indeed, must, and ought to be, devoted to the safety of numbers, but whom still, in his heart, he would be glad to save; and he is only sorry, that the interest of the many should oppose it. But if the murderer should escape from punishment, it would excite his highest indignation, and he would call upon God to avenge, in another world, that crime which the injustice of mankind had neglected to chastise upon earth.” (TMS II.ii.3.11: pp90-91)

This is typical of Adam Smith’s use of religious-sounding statements which are taken by Christians, and those readers who find religious beliefs, including Deism, confirmed in Smith’s works, when a closer reading of his sentences suggests the constant element of his deliberate equivocation on all matters of religion and superstition.

This assertion of mine is supported by the context of him being a professor in a university in a strict Protestant country like Scotland, where academic freedom was severely curtailed and where candidates for university chairs had to profess their approved religious faith to be appointed to – and to keep – their chairs.

On his election to the Chair of Logic and Rhetoric by the society of Glasgow University on 16th January 1751, Smith completed the mandatory rituals; he read his dissertation in Latin, ‘De Origine Idearum’, which the assembled professors heard and approved ‘unanimously’ as ‘proof of his qualifications’.
Lectures in Scotland in the early 18th century were delivered in Latin and the dissertation and its delivery would qualify him on that score, as would its contents if they conformed to accepted Protestant theology.

There were other requirements – religious tests were rigorous, not notional – and the assembly of professors adjourned to the local Presbytery of Glasgow where he signed the ‘Calvinist Confession of Faith’ and took his ‘Oath de Fideli’ to be admitted as a Professor of the University. These ritual completed, he returned to Edinburgh as a new Professor of Philosophy (details in W. R. Scott, 1937: Adam Smith as Student and Professor, pp 138-9, Jackson & Son; Ian S. Ross, 1995. The Life of Adam Smith, p 108, Clarendon Press, Oxford).

There are two elements to Smith’s theme in this section of Moral Sentiments. First, his choice of the opinions of “A man of humanity”, a literary device he uses throughout his two major Works, who “must recollect himself, must make an effort, and exert his whole firmness and resolution, before he can bring himself either to inflict it, or to go along with it when it is inflicted by others.”

Clearly, ‘the man of humanity’ struggles within himself to be sympathetic to the official view that the sentry who slept on his watch should be punished by death. It is the quality of mercy that is under strain in such a person, though the sentry’s fellow soldiers at risk and in their beds may be less complaisant.

Smith contrasts the attitude of a ‘man of humanity’ considering the sentry who fell asleep and hoping that he was reprieved, to that of his attitude to “the murderer [who] should escape from punishment”. The murderer’s reprieve for same ‘man of humanity’ would “excite his highest indignation” and he “would call upon God to avenge, in another world, that crime which the injustice of mankind had neglected to chastise upon earth”.

This an example of the sentences scattered about Moral Sentiments that allegedly proves that Adam Smith was religious, but read what follows carefully: “Nature teaches us to hope, and religion, we suppose, authorises us to expect, that it will be punished, even in a life to come.”

The words “and religion, we suppose, authorises us to expect” is not the statement of a true believer; it is a statement of a philosopher deliberately and skilfully weakening an alleged definite truth in his society sufficient for him to remain unmolested by the religious zealots then patrolling the expressed views of people to seek out apostasy and atheism wherever the careless words of people left them open to the trouble the zealots could and regularly did cause when they believed they had found them.

Underlining this view of Smith’s purpose he adds that God’s punishment in the after-life “cannot serve to deter the rest of mankind, who see it not, who know it not, from being guilty of the like practices here”.

God’s justice is not certain, though people believe “that he should hereafter avenge the injuries of the widow and the fatherless, who are here so often insulted with impunity”. The key word is ‘should’, not would.

And he ends with a sentence carefully constructed to evade the hapless vigilance of the zealots:

In every religion, and in every superstition that the world has ever beheld, accordingly, there has been a Tartarus as well as an Elysium; a place provided for the punishment of the wicked, as well as one for the reward of the just.”

Christians, Protestant and Roman Catholic, share a common belief and it is one that “every religion and every superstition that the world has ever beheld” that the wicked who escape judgment on Earth will surely not escape the wrath of the gods they believe in.

Heaven and hell are beliefs based on hope, shared by many, but were they genuinely shared by Adam Smith?



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