Saturday, August 13, 2005

Spreading the Word

A posting I made here on 1 August: "Guilty By the Books You Read" has been posted today on a US Blog,, which circulates widely across the USA. One of the books, 'dangerous' by implication, was Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" which occasioned my comments criticising such notions published in the Washington Post.

How such reading could be treated with suspicion is not explained in the Washington Post article. The person causing the 'offence' by his reading was John Roberts, a nominee by President Bush for the US Supreme Court.

As a correspondent here pointed out, Adam Smith, while at Oxford as a student was chastised severly by his tutors, who had searched his room, presumably on a 'tip off', and found a copy of David Hume's Treatise on Human Nature (1739). They took this as evidence on his impiety and unsuitability for becoming a Minister in the Protestant Church, for which he was destined under the terms of the Snell Exhibition he was on. Smith decided to become a philosopher instead.

Censorship is a sign of tyranny. If you don't want to read a book that offends you, or you think will offend you, then don't read it. The same with newspapers, tv programmes and speeches. That you do read, watch or listen it does not mean that you agree with them; it is probably a sign of your maturity in that you are able to participate in civilised discourse without wanting to ban what you do not like. If you remain friends with people across the political spectrum, and refuse to be told who to speak or listen to by others, that is a sign of the harmonious society that Smith wrote about in "Moral Sentiments".

Both David Hume and Adam Smith remained friends despite knowing of each other's philosophical differences; they were both friendly with their critics and were befriended by others who were criticsed by the 'zealots' of the day. Hume had many friends among the Scottish Ministers of the Kirk, in which some never gave up trying to persecute him for athiesm. Fortunately, his friends exceeded by a long way his enemies in the Kirk. Interesting that the Christian zealots in Smith's day seemed to have forgotten that Christ was criticised for consorting with 'sinners and publicans', instead of only the pious.

Adam Smith was no friend of the Jacobites, who wanted the Stuart Kings restored to the throne, yet he wrote the preface to a collection of the poems of William Hamilton, which his friends published on Hamilton's return to Scotland, having been pardoned for his Jacobite activities in the 1745 rebellion. If he was worried about such a public act, Smith did not let it deter him. He judged his conduct on the common decencies and the quality of Hamilton's poetry. I hope John Roberts learned something from reading "Wealth of Nations", a fine choice, if I may say so, for a young lawyer seeking a career in the justice system.

When people question the books you read, the friends you keep and the people you meet socially or otherwise, I believe you should look closely at these people and wonder whether you would want them in a position to cause you, and others, harm.


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