Monday, March 3, 2008

Adam Smith - Then and Now

In the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic, author Walter Russell Mead notes that "in 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic." Smith's book is "too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism," continues Mead. In fact, the book probably contains comments of a wider interest about human nature and society: "Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values."

It would be only a few years after Smith's The Wealth of Nations that John Stuart Mill would start modern political liberalism and its rejection of Locke's principle of majority rule.

Adam Smith, from Scotland, but familiar with the industrialization process throughout England, "observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization." As the alienation, later identified by Marx, left the individual workingman without a sense of community, "the city's small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code." In the experience of the individual, "these movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity."

In a different aspect of society, the technological innovations of the industrial revolution continued a trend which had begun in earlier centuries: the simultaneous deemphasis of organization religious institutions and the growth of individual religious spirituality. While technical geniuses like Michael Faraday grew increasingly unimpressed with the organized church, they became all the more committed to their individual religious faiths. So, while technological growth can undermine religious institutions, it seems to fuel increasingly serious personal commitments to spiritual beliefs: witness the missionary activities of chemist Robert Boyle, discover of Boyle's law.

"The symbiotic relationship between alienating, amoral modernity and fervent religion can still be seen," continues Mead. In modern education, in a technological society, "the intense competition for top university spots favors adolescents with steady homework habits, harmonious relationships with school authorities, and the ability" to control impulses when necessary to negotiate complex bureaucratic systems.

Technology, industry, and modern physics have not created a society of soulless robots; rather, it has reinvigorated personal spiritual activity. Isaac Newton symbolizes this well: while he was prone to disagree with a stuffy and inflexible Anglican church, he was even more prone to believe that "the Greek and Hebrew scriptures offer a wholly trustworthy guide to God's will for humankind."

It was, after all, not some conservative bishop or priest, but rather the radical Isaac Newton, who not only revolutionized physics and math, but also saw the events reported in the New Testament as central to the human experience.