Smith’s Man of System in Romeo and Juliet

man of system shakespeare

November 13, 2023

Treating people like plants (or chessmen) doesn't work out and the results can be tragic. 
The biggest threats to liberty always come from people who look at the world and become firmly convinced that their plan to overhaul the whole system will bring great joy. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith argues that such people will inevitably bring harm to society. 

Far better is the person who is willing to take things as they are and work within the system to nudge it into a better place: 
The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals... 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.

It is wise to realize that there are elements of a society which are slow to change, that one should not let the best be the enemy of the good. But, while “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” is a well-worn maxim, it inevitably falls on deaf ears to those who are in a hurry. Smith’s term for such a person is a “man of system.” Such people are convinced that their system will improve the world and are quite impatient with anything which slows down its implementation.

Convincing people that the man of system will bring destruction is a difficult task. The first step is to understand why the man of system is so convinced that he alone can properly order an entire society. Seeing a vast array of people engaged in a multitude of activities, why does anyone think he knows enough to implement a wholesale reorganization?

Fortunately, in Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare has provided a marvelous example of such a person, exploring both the motivation and the devastation which ensues. Friar Laurence may rank with Iago and Edmund in the roll call of Great Shakespearean Villains.

When we first meet Friar Laurence, he is out collecting herbs. His ruminations seem far afield from political philosophy, but note how he talks about the plants he is collecting.

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.

Friar Laurence is an expert in his field of horticulture, knowing well how the same plants can be used for good or ill. Smelling the plant brings benefits; eating it brings death. Friar Laurence has mastered the garden, So, it is not a surprise later in the play when Friar Laurence turns his attentions to the problems of Romeo and Juliet, he looks at society as akin to his herb garden. The assorted people are like the plants, and the art of the Master is to know how to employ each person well to achieve the desired end.  

Friar Laurence’s plan: Juliet should agree to marry Paris, but then on the eve of her wedding she should drink a special potion Friar Laurence concocts from his herbs which will make it seem like Juliet has died, but really she will just be asleep for two days, long enough for her to be put into a crypt where Romeo, whom Friar Laurence had earlier sent off to Mantua where he will be told via messenger of what is happening, will find her, showing up right after Juliet is buried when, in a feat of perfect timing, Juliet will suddenly wake up at the moment Romeo enters the crypt, enabling them to then run off to a foreign land and live happily ever after. Simple, right?

Looking at how Friar Laurence manages his garden explains why he so happily constructs his elaborate plan to bring Romeo and Juliet together. After all, Friar Laurence does complicated things with his plants all the time. Are people really any different? But Friar Laurence’s plans go horribly awry and the star-cross’d lovers take their lives. 

The end is not surprising to those who have read The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith could have been talking about Friar Laurence in his discussion of the man of system:
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] 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 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...It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth…

So, the next time you meet a man of system, you can just point to Friar Laurence and ask how well arranging people like they are pieces on a chessboard worked out in the play.