[Outlook]Life’s greatest pleasureSpring has come practically unnoticed. Plants push out new shoots, flowers bloom everyday and everywhere. Our world turns light green. Spring is still something pretty and surprising to us, even though it comes at the same time every year.
During this beautiful spring season, the not-so-good-looking National Assembly elections were completed without mishap, with interesting outcomes. Some people, unaware that their candidates would lose at the polls, tried to tightly control the party nominations.
I am sure the National Assembly elections gave them a valuable opportunity to realize the fact that politics is but an empty dream. The voice of God is the voice of the people.
The judges on the committee that nominated candidates for the Grand National Party proved that some lawyers and professors, let alone public servants, are soulless. Regardless of their occupation, everybody seems to find it difficult to be in his right mind before a change in political power.
Elections are regarded as a round of exciting performances in pursuit of wealth and power.
Adam Smith, a pioneering political economist, maintained that it is vain to pursue wealth and power through politics.
According to him, people want more than anything to receive respect and envy from others. What people hate most is to receive neglect and ignorance from others.
People who are foolish generally pay their respects and envy those who are rich with political power, rather than wisdom and virtue. They look down upon the poor and powerless.
That’s why so many people get tied up seeking vanity. “Waste and injustice” are mainly caused by vanity; however, vanity serves to “encourage humankind to cultivate land, build homes, construct cities and countries, and create and improve science and technology.”
When does the folly of human vanity do sinful things, such as waste and injustice, and when does it create virtuous social development?
We may find the answer to the questions in the line that Smith drew between affection for oneself and greed. Most believe that Smith regarded an egotistical mind as a motivating power to facilitate economic development. However, there is not an appropriate word for it. Smith divided affection for oneself from an egotistical mind, and maintained that affection for oneself, not an egotistical mind, is the growth engine that encourages economic development.
Smith also explained that affection for oneself means pursuing one’s own interests, as long as others aren’t hurt unfairly, while an egotistical mind has an indiscriminate greed in the pursuit his own interests, even though others get hurt. Smith found it natural to have affection for oneself for the sake of preservation of the species. He thought an egotistical mind was far worse.
The economist believes that pursuing wealth and power, as long as it doesn’t hurt others, is a part of human nature and serves as a growth engine to improve human society.
I believe his idea is a universal truth. Humans are definitely not angels; they live a self-centered existence.
In this sense, capitalism exactly corresponds to human nature. Capitalist economics have greatly contributed to the development of every aspect of human society, encompassing the economy, politics and culture at an unprecedented pace.
However, affection for oneself is not enough.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “An egotistical mind deserves criticism. However, affection for oneself is a natural emotion, bestowed with some purpose. An egotistical mind does not mean a simple love for oneself, but an excessive love for oneself, like a penny-pincher with a strong desire for money. Nearly everyone has a certain degree of desire for money and other assets. Further, it is one of the greatest pleasures in people’s lives to pay kindness and provide services to their closest friends, guests and co-workers. However, it is possible only as long as he has his own assets.”
Perhaps Smith, who had a huge scholastic accumulation to the classics, read Aristotle’s works.
The division between the egotistical mind and affection for oneself exactly coincides with him. He also has the same theory as Aristotle, in that people can be rich because of their affection for themselves and that wealth allows people to enjoy great pleasures. However, they differ on the greatest pleasure of life.
Smith thought life’s greatest pleasure lay in receiving others’ envy, whereas Aristotle viewed the greatest enjoyment of life as treating neighbors and relatives with hospitality.
Both philosophers share a lot in common despite their differences. We can learn great lessons from them both.
*The writer is a co-representative of the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice and a professor of economics at the University of Seoul. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Keun-sik