Feeling a little ambitious? Be careful what you wish for.

Hamlet

Ambition: not to be clowned around with

Here’s a truly sobering passage from the pages of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ambition – or at least an ambition which has run its course – is painted as a kind of living death, and echoes those famous lines from Hamlet: “the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. To achieve your goals can indeed be a fearful thing. It’s no coincidence that Bob Geldof’s autobiography is called, “Is That It?“, published after what must have been a monumental comedown post Live Aid. It’s also possibly the reason why Pulp’s last album was the supremely miserable, “This is Hardcore“, recorded after Jarvis Cocker’s realisation that fighting for what you want for so long, and then getting it, simply resulted in spending lots of time in hotel rooms alone watching films you probably shouldn’t. Even George W. Bush’s surprisingly readable autobiography, “Decision Points“, ends with the sorry post-presidential scene of him picking up poodle poop from his front lawn. Caveat emptor, dude.

‘Love,’ says my Lord Rochfaucault, ‘is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love.’ That passion, when once it has got entire possession of the breast, will admit neither a rival nor a successor. To those who have been accustomed to the possession, or even to the hope of public admiration, all other pleasures sicken and decay. Of all the discarded statesmen who for their own ease have studied to get the better of ambition, and to despise those honours which they could no longer arrive at, how few have been able to succeed? The greater part have spent their time in the most listless and insipid indolence, chagrined at the thoughts of their own insignificancy, incapable of being interested in the occupations of private life, without enjoyment, except when they talked of their former greatness, and without satisfaction, except when they were employed in some vain project to recover it. Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

We All Need a Little Luck of the Irish

JFK

It is that quality of the Irish–that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination–that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not. 

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

The Science of Super Powers

Sir_Humphry_Davy,_Bt_by_Thomas_Phillips

Davy: Putting the “umph” into Humphry

Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber. Living only in moments, he calculates but little on futurity. He has no vivid feelings of hope, or thoughts of permanent and powerful action. And, unable to discover causes, he is either harassed by superstitious dreams, or quietly and passively submitted to the mercy of nature and the elements. How different is man informed through the beneficence of the Deity, by science, and the arts! Knowing his wants, and being able to provide for them, he is capable of anticipating future enjoyments, and of connecting hope with an infinite variety of ideas. He is in some measure independent of chance or accident for his pleasures. Science has given to him an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it has bestowed upon him powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.

Sir Humphry Davy
Discourse, Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802)

A Farewell to Arms? Don’t be too hasty.

Early Cannon

Don’t go trick or treating at this guy’s house…

In ancient times, the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times, the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized. The invention of fire-arms, an invention which at first sight appears to be so pernicious, is certainly favourable, both to the permanency and to the extension of civilization.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The Origins of Legalese?

Jarndyce vs Jarndyce

Jarndyce vs Jarndyce

It has been the custom in modern Europe to regulate, upon most occasions, the payment of the attorneys and clerks of court according to the number of pages which they had occasion to write; the court, however, requiring that each page should contain so many lines, and each line so many words. In order to increase their payment, the attorneys and clerks have contrived to multiply words beyond all necessity, to the corruption of the law language of, I believe, every court of justice in Europe.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Book Review: The Tyranny of Experts

The Tyranny of Experts

When you’ve got two such thought provoking and controversial authors as Matt Ridley and Bill Easterly in a single blog, the results can never be boring. Here’s Matt Ridley reviewing Easterly’s latest book, “The Tyranny of Experts”:

Imagine that in 2010 more than 20,000 farmers in rural Ohio had been forced from their land by soldiers, their cows slaughtered, their harvest torched and one of their sons killed — all to make way for a British forestry project, financed and promoted by the World Bank. 

Read the rest of Matt Ridley’s Review at The Rational Optimist website.

 

On the Three Duties of the State

Houses of Parliament

According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works, and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual, or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations