The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Money and Good Will

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the second part of Good Will Is in Poetry, a 1972 lecture in which Eli Siegel speaks about Adam Smith and, later, about Percy Bysshe Shelley, and shows, remarkably, that they were going after the same thing. It is a lecture important for both economics and literature, and in the understanding of what people are hoping for.

Various persons of the right have turned Adam Smith into a kind of mascot for their views. Yet the Smith whom Mr. Siegel presents is vastly different from that. Smith, he makes clear, shows that at the very basis of economics as such is good will, "unarticulated," structural good will.

Mr. Siegel described good will as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). And he shows that Smith is presenting "something like mechanical good will" in passages from The Wealth of Nations. They are passages about, for instance, the fact that what one person needs another produces, that my labor can do you good as yours can be good for me.

Over the centuries, the primal, structural good will behind economics as such has not been continued by people in their thoughts about and use of others in daily economic life. It has not been continued in the way human beings have been made to work and live. Yet it can be.

Economics Is the Oneness of Opposites

Aesthetic Realism sees economics as fundamentally a matter of aesthetics. That is, the following principle is true about it: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Let us take some subjects Mr. Siegel quotes Smith about in the part of the lecture included here.

Exchange is always a oneness of sameness and difference. Barter is. One afternoon in the 12th century, Walter fixed Alison's door, and in exchange she gave him a cheese. Thus the cheese and the door-repair, while obviously different, became equivalent, or the same.

Money puts together sameness and difference. Money is certainly different from an item it purchases. But if I pay sixty cents for an apple, then the sixty cents and the apple are akin. How utterly akin they are is something felt by a person who is hungry and does not have the funds to buy that apple: the lack of money is the lack of food for his aching stomach.

Not only is money itself different-from-and-like something it buys—money shows that hugely different things are like each other. One hundred dollars can buy clothing; or it can buy food; or gasoline; or movie tickets; or medicine for an ailing animal; or books; or tools; or flowers. Therefore the hundred dollars, standing for them all, shows they have something in common; they have a likeness to each other.

Adam Smith writes about the coming to be of money. The coming to be of money was a coming to be of greater aesthetics: of opposites joining more richly and flexibly and efficiently for people than they could through barter. The creation of money, Mr. Siegel and Adam Smith show, was part of unconscious good will: it was a means of people's getting what they needed through giving others something they could use with ease to get things they needed too.

Matter & Feelings

Mr. Siegel comments on the way Smith writes about the world as matter: earth, water, touchable and weighing objects. And here we have crucial opposites in economics: the world as matter, and the hopes of people, the feelings and thoughts of people. That is, we have the tangible and intangible. No one ever touched feelings or thoughts. Yet they are central to what a person is. People need what the tangible earth can provide to be themselves—to have their intangible feelings and thoughts fare well.

There is no more important economic and ethical question than: what should be the relation of the tangible earth—the world as matter, goods, wealth—and every human being? Mr. Siegel answered that question very early, and he never deviated from the answer. In 1923, at age 20, he wrote in the Modern Quarterly:

The land is what everything comes from—the one means of industry....Now if nobody made the land, it is evident, to a really normal human, that everybody living has a right to own it and should own it.<

Contempt Interferes

Aesthetic Realism explains that the ugly, hurtful interference in economics, as in every aspect of life, is contempt. Contempt is the desire to " get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself." Contempt has a person look at a fellow human being not as somebody who is as real as oneself is; rather, contempt's logic goes: "The weaker this person, the better for me. He's someone to beat, someone to use for my own aggrandizement, someone I need not think about deeply, someone to lessen so I can be more." That's the logic in the profit motive as it has functioned these centuries. And it's contempt alone which has made people feel some persons are entitled to much more of this earth than others are.

Let us look at a contemporary of Adam Smith (also with smith in his name): Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith was born in 1730, seven years after Smith, and his poem The Deserted Village was published in 1770, six years before The Wealth of Nations.

The Deserted Village is about the fact that the earth of the English countryside, which many, many people needed for their sustenance, was increasingly being owned by only a few rich persons. And we should ask: Is the grabbingness, the ill will, the way of ownership that Goldsmith condemns, something Adam Smith was for, or was Smith against it too?

For example, Goldsmith has this quite famous couplet about England—the nation is owned, he has been saying, by people who get richer by impoverishing others:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay.

Goldsmith says that in the city, too, persons' ill will is running economics. This is about a man who has been forced to leave his rural home:

If to the city sped-what waits him there?

To see profusion that he must not share;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

To see those joys the sons of pleasure know

Extorted from his fellow-creature's woe.

Goldsmith is very angry, and his poetry is at once graceful and fierce. The idea that a person should get rich, be able to pay for amusements, through the pain and weakness of others! But that is what the profit motive has made for these many years.

There is the following description of a woman who has been made homeless and hungry because some lord was able to get hold of the land she needed:

She, wretched matron, forced in age, for bread,

To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread,

To pick her wintry fagot from the thorn,

To seek her nightly shed, and weep till morn.

This was happening in the Britain that Adam Smith also knew. Something like it, shamefully, is much with us now.

Various people who present themselves as followers of Smith would say: "While the pain Goldsmith describes is, of course, unfortunate, the economic system in which it took place is nevertheless admirable. It is the laissez-faire economics advocated by Adam Smith." However, I do not think Smith would agree with them. This weakening of somebody to augment oneself is not what he was for as he showed that economically people and nations could become more themselves through the production and needs of one another. He writes, in chapter 8 of Book I:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

There Is Prose Style

One of the greatnesses of the present lecture is the way Mr. Siegel speaks about Smith's style. As he does, he has us see Adam Smith not the way he's most often seen, as some famous Economic Eminence, awe-inspiring and untouchable-he shows Smith as having "relish," having real pleasure. And we see Smith's down-to-earth pleasure about the world and his grandeur as the same.
Here, then, is more of Eli Siegel's lecture, with its understanding of Smith, and of that oneness of the earth and every human self which is economics.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Land, Water, & Money

By Eli Siegel

There are occasionally passages that show that while writing The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith could be affected as if he were a wondering child. He writes about the difference between carrying things by land and carrying them by water, and says (which is quite true) that if things had to be carried by land always, economics would be in a pretty bad state.

Right after he describes how carrying things by water could be more efficacious than by wagon, he has a lovely sentence, and it happens to be poetic. I have put it in line structure and titled it "Four Ton Weight of Goods":

A broad-wheeled wagon,

Attended by two men,

And drawn by eight horses,

In about six weeks time

Carries and brings back

Between London and Edinburgh

Near four ton weight of goods.

Is that a four-square sentence! Is it matter-y; is it material! I think that Smith enjoys this moving bulkiness. That is in the third chapter of Book I, a chapter on the division of labor.

Smith points out a very dramatic thing: that if people had to make all of a pin at once—if someone couldn't make the head and another the point and another shape the stem—fewer pins would be made. So there's the beginning of the assembly line, which could be kinder than it has been. I don't think Smith knew what would happen in Detroit.

The Friendly Mediterranean

He also points out that if there were no Mediterranean Sea, trade wouldn't have been as easy. He presents the Mediterranean as if it were nicer than the Atlantic, and definitely nicer than the Pacific, which was hardly known at this time. For Europeans, the Pacific was for long a neglected ocean. Everybody should cheer up—at last it was found.

The nations that, according to the best authenticated history, appear to have been first civilized, were those that dwelt round the coast of the Mediterranean sea.

That is good 18th-century prose rhythm.

That sea,...having no tides, nor consequently any waves except such as are caused by the wind only-

In other words, the Mediterranean doesn't have that which you can see at Rockaway Beach. There, if you want to, you can see the tides and enjoy yourself, and also be very melancholy, because you can get the heebie-jeebies watching those tides.

That sea...was, by the smoothness of its surface, as well as by the multitude of its islands, and the proximity of its neighbouring shores, extremely favourable to the infant navigation of the world.

Which means that you could travel and feel you hadn't gone too far—you still knew where you were if you were on the Mediterranean. In fact, all the sea voyaging in the area for many years was done on the Mediterranean, because it could get you to three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe.

To pass beyond the pillars of Hercules, that is, to sail out of the Streights of Gibraltar, was, in the antient world, long considered as a most wonderful and dangerous exploit of navigation. It was late before even the Phenicians and Carthaginians, the most skilful navigators and ship-builders of those old times, attempted it, and they were for a long time the only nations that did attempt it.

That is, there's a story about how Carthaginians went down the side of Africa. They kept to the shore, but they went down—and it wasn't the Mediterranean. However, nobody emulated them.

The Reason for Money

In another early chapter (chapter IV, "Of the Origin and Use of Money"), Smith talks of how, in order to get along with other people, you have to have near you something they'd want to have too. It took a long time, because people felt if they had cattle by them, they could get what other people had; also, if they had corn. But in time, it came to be the metals. Then it came to be money. Smith says:

Every prudent man in every period of society, after the first establishment of the division of labour, must naturally have endeavoured to manage his affairs in such a manner, as to have at all times by him, besides the peculiar produce of his own industry, a certain quantity of some one commodity or other, such as he imagined few people would be likely to refuse in exchange for the produce of their industry.

If your job was to make grandfather's clocks, and you wanted some goods from other people, you'd better have a few things besides grandfather's clocks, because not many people are wanting them. That has to do with supply and demand and the market. But again, what makes the passage so valuable is the way this is put.

The facility with which what some people made was being used to get what other people made is a big thing in history. And there's a subtlety in this next passage, and a liveliness:

In all countries, however, men seem at last to have been determined by irresistible reasons to give the preference, for this employment, to metals above every other commodity. Metals can not only be kept with as little loss as any other commodity, scarce any thing being less perishable than they are-

That is quite right. As Gautier says in his poem "Art," a medallion or coin outlasts an emperor. For those who want to have a few Roman coins, they can be had right in this city. You can get even a few Macedonian coins, and of course you can get early American coins, coins of every country. Metal lasts. At the moment, metals have been superseded by paper. It can seem paper has been superseded by credit cards. But the idea of money goes on.

Smith says the biggest reason metals took the place of other things that could be used for barter or trade is that the metals were divisible.

—but they can likewise, without any loss, be divided into any number of parts...; a quality which no other equally durable commodities possess, and which more than any other quality renders them fit to be the instruments of commerce and circulation.

Durability, Exchange, Pleasure

If you take a look at a penny and a loaf of bread, you have a study in durability. It's likely that even if you throw the penny out the window, it will last somewhere much longer than the bread. It will even last longer than a teapot. And it will last longer than many books—not all, because some books are made of such paper that they last and last.

Metals remain. For instance, somebody would say, "I want a Bible. I have three sheep—will you take them?" Well, the sheep will not last forever. The Bible may last longer. But metals, if they were used, would perhaps outlast the Bible.

The man who wanted to buy salt, for example, and had nothing but cattle to give in exchange-

Smith relishes these exchanges of cattle for salt. He may be a learned person, but the idea of somebody giving cattle in order to get salt—he's very much taken by it.

-and had nothing but cattle to give in exchange for it, must have been obliged to buy salt to the value of a whole ox, or a whole sheep, at a time. He could seldom buy less than this, because what he was to give for it could seldom be divided without loss....If, on the contrary, instead of sheep or oxen, he had metals to give in exchange for it, he could easily proportion the quantity of the metal to the precise quantity of the commodity which he had immediate occasion for.

It happens that in America, salt has been less at the command of the inflationary roughnecks and ruffians. The price of salt is still amazing. You can pay for it sometimes in pennies.

These are passages from a book which in any list of great books simply has to be included. I've seen many a list of great books, and The Wealth of Nations is never left out.