Adam Smith And Joseph Campbell On The Dangers Of “The Man Of System”

July 17, 2017
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Adam Smith And Joseph Campbell On The Dangers Of “The Man Of System”

Here is a passage from The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Smith at the Library of Economics and Liberty. Smith emphasizes the arrogance and conceit of those who think they can arrange society any way they want. In a separate passage, Smith writes about how this can be dangerous (that follows this longer excerpt). First, Smith discusses the man of humanity and benevolence, then the man of system for contrast. Then I have some quotes that are similar from Campbell.

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.
VI.II.42
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
VI.II.43

Some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the views of the statesman. But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which that idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance.”

Adam Smith also says in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The natural course of things cannot be entirely controlled by the impotent endeavours of man: the current is too rapid and too strong for him to stop it; and though the rules which direct it appear to have been established for the wisest and best purposes, they sometimes produce effects which shock all his natural sentiments.”

The “effects which shock all his natural sentiments” are the unintended consequences of on man trying to impose his will on society. He can’t know all the effects of all the changes he his bringing to a complex system.

Here is what Campbell has to say. This is from the book The Power of Myth (some parts might only be in the video version of the interview Campbell did with Bill Moyers upon which the book was base):

Campbell condemns “the man of system.”  He states this clearly while speaking of the character Darth Vader from the Star Wars movie trilogy. He is critical of him being an “executive of a system” who has no humanity. The man of system is a government planner, a bureaucrat who wishes to impose his own ideals on society.  Campbell mentions what he thinks is a good Oriental idea:  “You don’t force your mission down people’s throats.” (recall that Smith says the man of benevolence respects individuals, and will not attempt to subdue them by force) Also, “Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world.” (Smith refers to “furious zealots” who have contempt for open minded people)   Both Campbell and Smith fear the planner who will force his system on the rest of us.  Campbell’s views on this are best expressed in his comments on Darth Vader, the evil dark lord of the Star Wars movie trilogy.
Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity.  He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system.  This is the threat that we all face today.  Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system so that you are not compulsively serving it?  It doesn’t help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought.  The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action” (this is like Smith saying the current is too strong to be stopped by the impotent endeavours of man)

This is all seen much more clearly in an exchange between Campbell and Moyers from the second televised segment of The Power of Myth called “The Message of the Myth”: 

Moyers:  Do you see some of the new metaphors emerging in the modern medium for the old universal truths that you’ve talked about, the old story?

Campbell:  Well, I think that the Star Wars is a valid mythological perspective for the problem of is the machine-and the state is a machine (emphasis added)-is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity? 

And humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. 
[As the unmasking of Darth Vader scene from the movie The Return of the Jedi  is shown, Campbell continues:]
Campbell:  The father (Darth Vader) had been playing one of these machine roles, a state role; he was the uniform, you know?  And the removal of that mask-there was an undeveloped man there.  He was kind of a worm by being the executive of a system.  One is not developing one’s humanity.  I think George Lucas did a beautiful thing there.
Moyers:  The idea of machine is the idea that we want the world to be made in our image and what we think the world ought to be.

[Campbell seemed to agree or at least offered no dissent to this statement of Moyers-again, Smith says the man of system wants to impose his own plan on society, very similar to making the world in your own image]
Campbell put this in a slightly different way when he also discussed the movie Star Wars:

“Here the man (George Lucas) understands metaphor.  What I saw was things that had been in my books but rendered in terms of the modern problem, which is man and machine.  Is the machine going to be the servant of human life?  Or is it going to be master and dictate?  And the machine includes the totalitarian state, whether it is Fascist or Communist it’s still the same state. And it includes things happening in this country too; the bureaucrat, the machine-man. “What a wonderful power the machine gives you-but is it going to dominate you?  That’s the problem of Goethe’s Faust.  It’s in the last two acts of Faust, Part Two.  His pact is with Mephistopheles, the man who can furnish you the means to do anything you want.  He’s the machine manufacturer.  He can manufacture the bombs, but can he give you what the human spirit wants and needs?  He can’t.

This statement of what the need and want is must come from you, not from the machine, and not from the government that is teaching you (emphasis added) or not even from the clergy. It has to come from one’s own inside, and the minute you let that drop and take what the dictation of the time is instead of your own eternity (recall Smith says “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it”), you have capitulated to the devil.  And you’re in hell.

That’s what I think George Lucas brought forward.  I admire what he’s done immensely, immensely.  That young man opened a vista and knew how to follow it and it was totally fresh.  It seems to me that he carried that thing through very, very well” (From The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work by Phil Cousineau).

(Why?)

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