Chapter 2

The Origin of Ambition and Distinction of Ranks

by Adam Smith Icon

Our sympathy with the false idea of the happiness of the rich and the great is the basis of ambition

16 We parade our riches and hide our poverty because people sympathize more with our joy than our sorrow.

We are most mortified to:

  • expose our distress in public, and
  • feel that no one conceives half of what we suffer.

We pursue riches and avoid poverty chiefly from this regard to mankind’s sentiments.

  • For what is all the world’s toil and bustle?
  • What is the end of:
    • avarice and ambition,
    • the pursuit of wealth, power, and preeminence?
  • Is it to supply nature’s necessities?

The meanest labourer’s wages can supply nature’s necessities. Wages afford him:

  • food and clothing, and
  • the comfort of a house and a family.

If we rigourously examined his economy, we would find:

  • that he spends much of them on conveniencies, which may be regarded as superfluities, and
  • that he can spend for vanity and distinction on extraordinary occasions.

We are averse to his situation because we see bettering our condition as the great purpose of human life.

We are interested with the vanity, not the ease or pleasure. But vanity is always based on ourselves being the object of attention and approbation.

The rich man glories in his riches because:

  • he feels that riches naturally draw the world’s attention on him,
  • mankind is disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions from his situation.
    • His heart swells and dilates at the thought of this.
    • Thus, he is fonder of his wealth than for all its other advantages.

On the contrary, the poor man is ashamed of his poverty. He feels that:

  • it places him out of mankind’s sight or
  • if they notice him, they have no fellow-feeling with his misery and distress.

He is mortified by both. Being overlooked and disapproved of are entirely different. Yet obscurity covers us from honour and approval. The feeling that we are unnoticed necessarily:

  • damps our hope, and
  • disappoints the desire of human nature.

In the midst of a crowd, he is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel. He is occupied with humble cares and painful attentions which are not amusing to the dissipated. The fortunate and the proud:

  • turn away their eyes from the poor, and
  • wonder at the insolence of human wretchedness.

On the contrary, the man of rank and distinction is observed by all. Everybody is eager:

  • to look at him, and
  • to conceive his joy and exultation, at least by sympathy.

This renders greatness the object of envy despite:

  • the restraint it imposes, and
  • the loss of liberty with which it is attended.

It compensates:

  • all that anxiety undergone in its pursuit, and
  • all that leisure, ease, and careless security, which are forfeited forever by its acquisition.

This is of more consequence.

17 Our imagination colors the condition of the great in delusive colours as a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which we want ourselves and so we feel a sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it.

  • we favour all their inclinations and forward all their wishes.
  • We even wish them immortality.
    • Our ready compliment to them is: “Great King, live forever!” like what the Chinese do.

Our experience teaches us its absurdity. Every calamity and injury that befalls them excites 10 times more compassion and resentment in us. The misfortunes of Kings are the proper subjects for tragedy. In this respect, they resemble the misfortunes of lovers. The misfortunes of kings and lovers interest us in the theatre because our imagination makes us think that those two states have a superior happiness, despite reason telling us otherwise.

To disturb or end such perfect enjoyment seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries. The traitor who conspires to kill his monarch, is thought a greater monster than any other murderer. The death of Charles I provoked more indignation than the all the innocent blood shed in the civil wars

We see men’s:

  • indifference to the misery of their inferiors, and
  • regret and indignation for the sufferings of their superiors.

This would lead a stranger to human nature that:

  • pain must be more agonizing, and
  • the convulsions of death must be more terrible to persons of higher rank than to those of inferior rank

Rich versus Poor

18 The distinction of ranks and the order of society is founded on mankind’s disposition to go along with all the feelings of the rich and the powerful. Our subordination to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any expectations of benefit from their goodwill.

  • Their benefits can extend only to a few.
  • But their fortunes interest almost everybody.
    • We are eager to assist them in completing a system of happiness.
    • We want to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity of obliging them.

Our submission to them is not totally founded:

  • on the utility of such submission, or
  • on the utility of the order of society

Our subordination will best support such utililty

Even if society requires us to oppose the rich and powerful, we cannot easily do so.

The doctrine of reason and philosophy is that kings are the people’s servants, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as required by the public convenience.

But it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to:

  • submit to them for their own sake,
  • tremble and bow down before them,
  • regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and
  • dread their displeasure as the severest of all mortifications, even if no evil were to follow from it.

Few men have the magnanimity required:

  • to treat them as normal people, and
  • to reason and dispute with them ordinarily

Only those who are assisted by familiarity and acquaintance can do such things. The following are insufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them:

  • the strongest motives,
  • the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment.

Their conduct must have excited the extreme of all those feelings, before the people can be brought to violently oppose them. Even when the people have been brought this length, they are:

  • apt to relent every moment, and
  • easily relapse into their habitual state of deference.

They cannot stand their monarch’s mortification. Compassion soon takes the place of resentment. They forget all past provocations. Their old principles of loyalty revive. They run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it.

The death of Charles I restored the royal family. James II was seized by the populace from escaping by ship. The people’s compassion for him then almost prevented the Revolution. It made the Revolution go on more heavily than before.

19 Are the great insensible of the easy price at which they acquire the public admiration? Or do they imagine, just like others, that it must be bought with sweat or blood? By what important accomplishments is the young nobleman instructed to:

  • support the dignity of his rank, and
  • render himself worthy of that superiority over his fellow-citizens, given to him by his ancestors’ virtue?

Is it by any kind of knowledge, industry, patience, self-denial, or virtue? All his words and motions are attended to. He learns a habitual regard to every circumstance of ordinary behaviour. He studies to perform all those small duties with the most exact propriety. He is conscious: how much he is observed, and how much people are disposed to favour all his inclinations. He acts with that freedom and elevation which the thought of this naturally inspires. His air, manner, and deportment, all mark that elegant and graceful sense of his own superiority. Those who are born to inferior stations can hardly ever arrive at this. These are the arts by which he proposes to: make people more easily submit to his authority, and govern their inclinations according to his own pleasure. He is seldom disappointed in this. These arts, supported by rank and preeminence, are ordinarily sufficient to govern the world.

Louis XIV was regarded all over Europe as the perfect model of a great prince because he was the most powerful prince in Europe. He consequently held the highest rank among kings.

But through what talents and virtues did he acquire this great reputation? Was it by: the scrupulous and inflexible justice of all his undertakings, the immense dangers and difficulties with which they were attended, or his relentlessness in pursuing them? Was it by: his extensive knowledge, exquisite judgment, or his heroic valour? It was by none of these qualities. First of all, he was .

His historian says:

He surpassed all his courtiers in his shape's gracefulness and the majestic beauty of his features. The sound of his voice was noble and affecting. It gained those hearts which his presence intimidated. He caused embarrassment to those who spoke to him. This flattered the secret satisfaction for his own superiority. An old officer was confounded and faultered in asking him a favour. The officer was unable to conclude his discourse, and said to him 'Your majesty, I hope you will believe that I do not tremble like this before your enemies.' He then could easily obtain what he demanded.

These frivolous accomplishments were supported by his rank and by other talents and virtues not much above mediocrity. Compared with these in his own times and presence, no other virtue appeared to have any merit. Knowledge, industry, valour, and beneficence, trembled, were abashed, and lost all dignity before them.

The Vain Man

20 But the man of inferior rank cannot hope to distinguish himself by these kinds of accomplishments.

Politeness is so much the virtue of the great, that it will do little honour to anybody but themselves.

  • The vain man imitates their manner and affects to be eminent by the superior propriety of his ordinary behaviour.
    • He is rewarded with a double share of contempt for his folly and presumption.
    • He might be very anxious about how he himself holds up his head or uses his arms while walking as it marks a sense of his own importance, which no other person can go along with.

The Private Man

The chief characteristics of a private man’s behaviour should be the most perfect modesty and plainness, with self-negligence consistent with the respect due to others.

  • He must acquire dependants to balance the dependants of the great.
    • He can only pay them through:
      • the labour of his body, and
      • the activity of his mind.
    • He must therefore cultivate these.
  • He must acquire:
    • superior knowledge in his profession, and
    • superior industry in its exercise.
  • He must be:
    • patient in labour,
    • resolute in danger, and
    • firm in distress.
  • He must bring these talents into public view by:
    • the difficulty, importance, and good judgment of his undertakings, and
    • the severe and unrelenting application with which he pursues them.
  • Probity and prudence, generosity and frankness, must characterize his ordinary behaviour.
    • He must be forward to engage in all those situations, in which:
      • the greatest talents and virtues are required to act with propriety, and
      • the greatest applause is to be acquired by those who can acquit themselves with honour.

The Man of Spirit and Ambition

The man of spirit and ambition is depressed by his own situation. He impatiently looks around for some great opportunity to distinguish himself. He even looks forward to a foreign war or civil dissension. With secret delight, he sees the chance of drawing mankind’s attention and admiration, through all its confusion and bloodshed.

The Man of Rank and Distinction

On the contrary, the man of rank and distinction has his whole glory in the propriety of his ordinary behaviour.

  • He is contented with the humble renown which this can afford him.
  • To figure at a ball is his great triumph.
  • To succeed in an intrigue of gallantry is his highest exploit. He has an aversion to all public confusions: not from: the love of mankind, nor For the great never look on their inferiors as their fellow-creatures. the lack of courage, For he is seldom not brave. but from a consciousness that: he has none of the virtues required in such situations, and the public attention will certainly be drawn away from him by the virtue of others

He might be willing to:

  • expose himself to some little danger, and
  • make a campaign when it is the fashion.

But he is horrified at any situation which demands the continual and long exertion of patience, industry, fortitude, and application of thought.

These virtues are hardly seen in men born to those high stations.

Accordingly in all governments and monarchies, the highest offices generally belong to men educated in the middle and inferior ranks of life.

These men have been carried by their own industry and abilities, though:

  • loaded with the jealousy, and
  • opposed by the resentment of those born their superiors.
    • The great regard them:
      • first with contempt,
      • afterwards with envy.
    • They are finally contented to truckle with the same meanness which they want to impose on the rest of mankind.

21 The fall from greatness so insupportable because of the loss of this easy empire over mankind’s affections

The family of the king of Macedon was led in triumph by Paulus Aemilius. Their misfortunes made them divide, with their conqueror, the Roman people’s attention. The young royal children were insensible of their situation. Their sight struck the spectators with the tenderest sorrow and compassion amidst the public rejoicings. The king appeared next in the procession. He seemed confounded, astonished, and bereft of all sentiment, by his great calamities. His friends and ministers followed after him. As they moved along, they often looked at their fallen king and always burst into tears. Their whole behaviour demonstrated that they did not think of their own misfortunes, but were entirely occupied by the superior greatness of his. On the contrary, the generous Romans beheld him with disdain and indignation. They regarded as unworthy of all compassion the man who could be so mean-spirited as to bear to live under such calamities. Yet what did those calamities amount to? According to most historians, he was to spend his remaining days: under the protection of a powerful and humane people, in a state which seemed worthy of envy, in a state of plenty, ease, leisure, and security, from which it was impossible for him even by his own folly to fall. But he was no longer to be surrounded by that admiring mob of fools, flatterers, and dependants. He was no longer: to be gazed upon by multitudes, the object of their respect, gratitude, love, and admiration. The passions of nations were no longer to mould themselves upon his inclinations. This insupportable calamity bereaved the king of all sentiment. It made his friends forget their own misfortunes. Roman magnanimity could not conceive how any man could be so mean-spirited as to bear to survive.

222 My Lord Rochefoucauld says, ‘Love is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love.’ Once ambition fully possesses the breast, it will not admit a rival nor a successor. All other pleasures sicken and decay to those used to ambition or even the hope of public admiration. Many discarded statesmen have studied: to get the better of ambition for their own ease and to despise those honours which they could not attain. How few of them have been able to succeed? Most have spent their time in the most listless and insipid indolence. They chagrined at the thoughts of their own insignificancy. They were incapable of being interested in private life: without enjoyment, except when they talked of their former greatness without satisfaction, except when they were employed in some vain project to recover it Are you resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent?

There seems to be only one way to continue in that virtuous resolution: Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return. Never come within the circle of ambition nor ever compare yourself with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half of mankind before you.

23 It appears very important to be in the view of general sympathy and attention. That great object:

  • divides the wives of politicians, and
  • is the end of half of the labours of human life. It is the cause of all the tumult, bustle, rapine, and injustice, which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world. It is said that people of sense hate place.

They hate sitting at the head of the table. They are indifferent on who is pointed out to the company by that frivolous circumstance, which the smallest advantage can overbalance. But no man despises rank, distinction preeminence unless:

he is raised very much above or sunk very much below the ordinary standard of human nature, and he is either: so confirmed in wisdom and real philosophy It does not matter to him if he is not attended to, nor approved of. so habituated to the idea of his own meanness. He is so sunk in slothful and sottish indifference, as to have entirely forgotten the desire for superiority.

24 Prosperity has its dazzling splendour which comes from it being the natural object of mankind’s sympathetic attentions. Likewise, adversity has its gloom from our misfortunes being the naural object of mankind’s aversion. This is why the most dreadful calamities are sometimes easier to support.

It is often more mortifying to appear in public under small disasters, than under great misfortunes.

  • Small disasters excite no sympathy.
  • But great misfortunes call forth a very lively compassion, even if they cannot excite anything like the sufferer’s anguish.

The spectators’s feelings are narrower than those of the sufferer. Their imperfect fellow-feeling helps him support his misery. Before an assembly, a gentleman would be more mortified to appear covered with filth and rags than with blood and wounds.

  • They would pity him for being wounded.
  • They would laugh at him for being filthy.

The judge who orders a criminal to the pillory, dishonours him more than if he had condemned him to death.

Dishonour is the greatest evil to a gentleman. By the laws of honour, striking with a cane dishonours, but striking with a sword obviously does not.

  • The great prince who caned a general officer at the head of his army, disgraced him irrecoverably.
  • The punishment would have been much less had he shot him.

Among a humane people, the slighter punishments inflicted on a gentleman are seen as the most dreadful one. Therefore, they are universally laid aside with regard to gentlemen. The law respects their honour always. No European government, except that of Russia, is capable of the brutality of:

  • scourging a person of quality, or
  • setting him in the pillory for any crime.

25 A brave man is not rendered contemptible by being brought to the scaffold. His behaviour may gain him universal esteem and admiration. The spectators’ sympathy supports him and saves him from the shame that he feels.

Shame is the most unsupportable of all the sentiments.

26 The Cardinal de Retz says:

'Great dangers have their charms, because there is some glory to be got, even when we miscarry. But moderate dangers are horrible because the loss of reputation always attends the lack of success.'

His maxim has the same foundation with what we have observed regarding punishments.

27 Human virtue is superior to pain, poverty, danger, and death. It does not even require the utmost efforts to despise the latter. But the constancy of human virtue is more likely to fail when it is insulted and set up for scorn. Compared with mankind’s contempt, all other external evils are easily supported.