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Sir Thomas Smith and covetousness in history


Smith is a fascinating example of those apparently minor figures in Tudor history who often don’t get the attention they deserve. Born on 23 December 1513, he was the son of a far from prosperous Saffron Waldon sheep-farmer. The relative poverty of his upbringing did not hold him back, however: his outstanding intellect took him to Cambridge University, where he was recognised as one of the leading students of his generation, and then to a career as an academic, an administrator, a privy councillor, and diplomat.

He is often said to have had an abrasive personality, but since he served the regimes of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, albeit in different capacities and not without periods of disfavour, he cannot have been quite as unyieldingly unpleasant as one might think. He was a moderate Protestant with friends across the religious spectrum, and his academic interests ranged from history and linguistics through political theory to chemistry and maths. In later life he was a noted patron of learning, founding two scholarships at Queen’s College, Cambridge and warmly encouraging the likes of Gabriel Harvey, another prodigiously gifted Saffron Walden man of mean background.

Yesterday, however, I came across a fascinating article about his work as an economic theorist. His principal work in this field was The Discourse of the Commonweal, written in 1549 during a period of exile from the court and not published until 1581. It is only recently that the text has been definitively ascribed to him. The article’s author, Murray N Rothbard, explains the importance of Smith’s work and his influence on the business empire of Sir Thomas Gresham, among others:


Smith’s Discourse is strikingly modern in frankly grounding its social analysis in the individual’s drive for his own self-interest… Smith was wise enough to point out that it is better for men to be “provoked with lucre” towards proper goals than to have governments “take this reward from them.” In short, government should work in tandem with the powerful incentive provided by individual self-interest.

In essence, Smith argues that economic policy should not be used to pursue impossible moral goals but should instead be framed in accordance with a more-or-less empirical understanding of human nature.

Perhaps it took a man whose career had depended entirely on his own self-interested drive for self-betterment – and whose uncomfortable presence in the political elite depended entirely on his talents and such motivation as he had to use them to his advantage – to see matters so clearly. But Smith’s work was nevertheless very far ahead of his time and brilliantly reaches towards the political and economic thinking that modern western capitalism depends upon.

But Smith’s relative obscurity also points towards a wider point about our understanding of Tudor England. We are fascinated – indeed, obsessed – by the personalities and politics of the court, and by the intellectual economy and the extraordinary literary and cultural explosion of the period. We know a great deal less about the commercial economy of the period, despite the fact that its realities dominated life for every individual in the country.

I for one would like to know far more about trade and commerce: not merely the empires built by the likes of Gresham – although they have certainly been under-researched – but also the workings of the many trading networks within the kingdom. The way goods were distributed, how and where food was bought and sold, the market for luxury imported goods and how it functioned, the provenance of items for sale in any given location, patterns of consumption and so on: all these things would tell us a very great deal, not just about the texture of everyday life but also about how people thought about themselves.

I suspect that one reason for this lacuna is that social historians are, by and large, of progressive or broadly left-wing sympathies. As such, their world view is politically inimical to the idea of commerce itself being a worthwhile field of study. Moreover, progressive politics being a moral cause above all else, they are far from neutral on the idea of self-interest as a basis for economic policy.

But as Smith wrote in The Discourse of the Commonweal, “Can we devise that all covetousness may be taken from men? No, no more than we can make men be without ire, without gladness, without fear, and without all affections.” By excluding such subjects from our research, we blind ourselves to the workings in history of a great and powerful human emotion.

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