The Hazards of Ambition

"speaking of smith"

By Jesse S. Cone

December 31, 2020

Instead of being a blind supporter of today’s morally hazardous consumerism, Smith is perhaps its most astute critic. 
One cannot travel far on the internet these days without running into obviously erroneous depictions of capitalism, and by extension, of Adam Smith. Cataloguing and debunking these phrases, memes, and caricatures is a fool's errand, if for no other reason than the sheer overwhelming volume of all the wrongheadedness out there. Nonetheless, having suffered through much of this misinformation has sharpened my sight towards many of the true yet underappreciated insights Smith provides.

The folks who enjoy sticking the label of “late-stage capitalism” on every one of the day’s ills often think of Smith as an apologist for unfettered acquisitiveness. According to this picture, Smith is the grandfather of Gordon Gekko, the McMansion, fast-fashion, sky-high prescription prices, and the soul-sucking game, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Smith, the story goes, restructured society in order to incentivize our selfishness, pleasure, and greed. His great insight, and his great sin, was to unleash our desire for endless acquisition, and that great appetite now eats up the earth’s limited resources and gnaws upon our souls.

Such a mental picture cannot survive an encounter with even a single page of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. That mankind finds joy in blessing his fellow man is the initial declaration of the work, and the proper fostering of that beneficent sensibility is one of the key tasks of the book as a whole. 

Rather than letting individual acquisitiveness and greed go unchecked, Smith advocates restraint through temperance and prudence. And rather than being naive to the threat of acquisitiveness, Smith proves himself to be keenly insightful. “For what purpose is all the toil and bustle of the world? What is the end of avarice and ambition, the pursuit of wealth, of power, and preheminence (sic)?” he asks. It is not, he maintains, to supply oneself with the necessities of nature, since we see that many focus rather on conveniences and vanities. If left unchecked, we become corrupted by such foolishness, thinking our digestion and sleep are more improved by being “in a palace than in a cottage.”

The motive, Smith explains, is neither to acquire security nor prevail over others, but to “be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation.” Our desire is not material, but social—and human. “It is the vanity, not the ease or the pleasure, which interests us,” claims Smith. We desire riches because we want the “attention of the world”; it is a shortcut to the appropriate respect given to virtuous people by a wise society. So rather than acquire virtue—which is difficult, takes a lot of time, and has no guarantees of being noticed—we try to become rich. We pluck the fruit of virtue before it is ripe. 

We desire the loving attention of our fellow man, and it is this which too often drives us, “notwithstanding the restraint it imposes, notwithstanding the loss of liberty with which it is attended.” Adam Smith warns his reader of the dangers of what happens when this desire goes unchecked. He draws attention to “all that toil, all that anxiety, all those mortifications which must be undergone in pursuit of it; and what is of yet more consequence, all that leisure, all that ease, all that careless security, which are forfeited forever by the acquisition [of the world’s attention].” Quite often the desire for riches, rooted in deeper ground than mere physical and material pleasure, is not worth the cost.

Smith understands the complexities of the human heart better than the critics of “late-stage capitalism” because he allows for the existence of the non-material human desires. It is therefore not greed that he speaks of, but the subtler passion of ambition. “That passion, when once it has got entire possession of the breast, will admit neither a rival nor a successor,” he warns. He stresses the danger of succumbing to it by describing it as a mythic lair: “Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition.” Sympathy, the first tenet of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, enables us to joy and sorrow in the blessings and pains of our fellow men. Ambition, a passion of the imagination, warps that connection to our fellow creatures, and is in fact, “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Once we can no longer imagine and feel for our neighbor correctly our moral constitution becomes severely degraded. It is no wonder that Smith issues such alarming warnings about the dangers of ambition. 

There are only two ways one can survive the siren call of the world’s loving attention, and neither are easy. One must either be “raised very much above, or sunk very much below the ordinary standard of human nature.” To be raised up one must be “so confirmed in wisdom and real philosophy” as to see it of “little consequence” whether he is attended to or not. Like Socrates one must become so entranced by higher delights that the enchantments of rank and prestige have nothing of consequence to offer. For those who have yet to achieve this goal it is a painful one to have. What young person wants to aim at not caring about honor, prestige, and respect? The alternative, while easier to gain, is even less attractive. One can avoid ambition by becoming “so habituated to the idea of his own meanness, so sunk in slothful and sottish indifference, as entirely to have forgot the desire, and almost the very wish, for superiority.” Losers, Smith tells us, at least avoid the corruption of ambition. 

The Smith of the zeitgeist, the Smith of the memes, is nothing like the real Smith. Instead of being a blind supporter of today’s morally hazardous consumerism, Smith is perhaps its most astute critic. We would do well not to reject Smith and his capitalistic insights, but to return to them as a helpful guide to correcting consumerism’s ills.