Thursday, April 3, 2008

Adam Smith and William Blake

What can Adam Smith, a mathematical economist and coldly calculating observer of modern mechanized and industrialized urbanization, have in common with William Blake, a passionate poet and painter, whose works focus on the individual human experience?

Their thoughts and experiences intertwine with each other in a complex web. Blake was passionately religious, but adamantly anti-church. He attacked the notion of "natural religion," but embraced the notion of revealed religion, and saw God as the center of all things; yet he criticized the institutional church and organized religion as failing to address the human misery created by the Industrial Revolution. Whether, in Blake's mind, the church could not, or simply would not, help, is not clear.

Enter Adam Smith. Although writing somewhat earlier than Blake, his comments anticipate, agree with, and to a certain extent answer Blake's. In the fifth and final part of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith addresses the social effects of urbanization, mechanization, industrialization, and the modern economy. Smith, like Blake, sees the churches of the time as inadequate to address the human needs of these new forms of life.

But Smith goes a step further: he predicts that new forms of spirituality will arise. And in the early 1800's we see these new forms of Christianity arising, in the movements that would ultimately flourish in the middle of century in the birth of three large Christian institutions: the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. But even before the middle of the century, this new version of the New Testament message would make its impact felt in various reform movements to help conditions in the slums of industrialized big cities.

What Blake longed for, what Adam Smith foresaw, actually came to be.