Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Adam Smith and the Curse of Fame

Mark Thoma showcases a useful Amatrya Sen piece on the caricaturing of Adam Smith. It isn't--our shouldn''t be--exactly news, but it is gratifying to see it so well and so influentially set forth. I admit it took me a long time in life to see Smith in context and some detail, and to recognize that he was a far more interesting figure than the cartoon--even longer to grasp the extent to which he was truly a revolutionary (proposition, we really can't imagine what the conception of public life must have been before Adam Smith).

But it sparks a more general reflection on the number and variety of thinkers who are more or less travestied in the nonspecialist mind. Not all of them, of course: I don't suppose anyone goes around lamenting that "the masses so misunderstand Saul Kripke." But Nietzsche--surely as much mishandled as Adam Smith. And, I would add, Hegel. In both cases, you have the fatal (if largely undeserved) taint of Naziism. I'd say that Hegel had the added misfortune to inspire the ire of Bertrand Russell, a superb expositor with a non-trivial following among those who never read philosophy of any other kind.

But the real problem for all of them arises in the realm of "save me from my friends." Maybe the worst crime you can attribute to any of those named is their apparent capacity to inspire so much vulgar silliness in others. This fact alone is enough to distinguish the likes of Smith, Nietzsche, Hegel, from others who may be misunderstood, but who don't have that much of a popular fan club to begin with. Schopenhauer, for example: a lot of people know that he is "a pessimist," which is actually true enough. They also think seem to asume that he is a terrible writer which is wildly untrue, but it doesn't take on the character of a cultic error. Most people who have never read Machiavelli get him wrong. Those who do read him find that he is a fascinating, if somewhat mysterious, figure--but not many on either side are going around wearing their Machiavellian heart on their sleeve.

There must be lots of others. I've done only the one-page treatment of a dissertation here. I'm sure I'll think of more myself before the day is out. For the moment, let me excerpt one semi-cryptic comment from Thomas' post: "Kind of a 'Jesus was a Jew' moment for free marketeers." Un, do I get that? Not sure that I do, but in any case--yes, him too.

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