Friday, June 05, 2009

Extraordinay Outburst Against Adam Smith

In British intellectual history, the name of John Ruskin for some reason stands out. The ‘soft’ left seem to adore him as do many modern environmentalists (often the very same people).

I am reading ‘Wealth and Life: essays on the Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1848-1914’, by Donald Winch (Cambridge University Press, 2009), loaned to me by a colleague for my summer, off-piste, reading.

And a good read it is turning out to be, perhaps because I have a loose acquaintance with the work of its subject personalities, in the chapter I am reading (4 to be explicit, which covers ‘Ruskin’s aversion to Mill’ - that is John Stuart Mill)and Harriet Taylor, his wife). I admit ‘loose’ probably is too strong a word for my actual familiarity, such as a skimmed reading of Mill’s Principles of Economics (1848), the most read
19th century economics textbook at university - until replaced by Alfred Marshall’s Principles (1890-1924).

Donald Winch, to be sure, is the doyen of historians of economics, highly regarded for good reason by his peers and those aspiring to become so. I read his shorter book, Adam Smith’s Politics (1967), a few years ago and it is in my library (I bought a second-hand copy for a few pounds and have consulted it several time since).

I was reading Wealth and Life this morning on my way home on a bus from a morning coffee with my retired geologist friend (parking is impossible in the centre of Edinburgh with the construction of a new tram way) and I found this astonishing attack (page 91) on Adam Smith by Ruskin:

Adam Smith was ‘that half-bred and half-witted Scotchman’ who had taught the ‘deliberate blasphemy’ that ‘thou shalt hate the Lord thy God, damn his laws, and covet thy neighbour’s goods”. (The Complete Works of John Ruskin, 1903-1912. vol. XXVII; 764, and XXIX: 134; 212; 282; London: George Allen & Unwin).

Ruskin didn’t think much better of Mill and said so in print. Extraordinary behaviour for a self-proclaimed Christian (?) gentleman. Ruskin took ad hominem debate to a whole new (low) level.

Yet he is still lauded for his artistic sensibilities by many people today!

As they say in parts of England: ‘there’s nowt so queer as fowk’ (Google it for a translation).

In the meantime, buy a copy of Wealth and Life by Donald Winch.

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