Wisdom of the Moderns: Smith and the Anguish of Being Evil

In Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth, and in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, we find individuals face great anguish when they are faced with the question of the value of life. A solution to Shakespeare’s characters can be found in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith would say that Othello temporarily ignored his impartial spectator until he had committed an evil so great that he could not bear the accusation of his spectator once he again felt its force. Macbeth, on the other hand, continually insisted on self-deceit, though he could feel the force of his spectator weighing upon him. Smith can partially answer Mill. He would say that Mill’s spectator did not function properly because Mill could not imagine his case in someone else. However, Smith would not be able to answer the core of Mill’s problem.

A primary element of Smith’s thought is his concept of an “impartial spectator.” He says that it is integral to human nature to imagine how others think of us. We put ourselves in the shoes of a spectator to judge whether our own actions are moral. However, we are also able to ignore the accusations or blessings of this spectator. He calls the act of ignoring our spectator, “Self-deceit.” A key passage of Smith is his description of a person who lacks self-deceit; “If we saw ourselves in the light which others see us … a reformation would generally be unavoidable. We could not otherwise endure the sight” (III.I.93). When we commit to listening to our impartial spectator, we are pained at the evil within us, and to relieve this pain, we seek to reform ourselves. This is the process by which people cultivate their virtues, according to Smith.

This theory can be applied to the case of Othello. Smith would say that while he was struck with jealousy, Othello ceased listening to his spectator. He practiced self-deceit. This can most clearly be seen when he publicly slapped his wife, Desdemona, in Act 4, Scene 1. Lodovico is present, and says, “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, / Though I should swear I saw ‘t. ‘Tis very much. / Make her amends, she weeps” (4.1.234-36). After Desdemona starts to leave, he pleads, “I do beseech your lordship, call her back.” Lodovico represents a normal man who looks on to the situation disinterestedly, that is, without self-interest. This is precisely how the impartial spectator views us. Lodovico was disgusted with Othello and urged him to amend his mistake, so if Othello was not deceiving himself, he would have chastised himself in the same manner. However, he does not, showing that he is ignoring his spectator.

When the source of his self-deceit, jealousy, is finally removed from him, he again listens to his spectator, but only after he has done an immense evil. At the end of the play, he has killed his beloved and innocent wife, Desdemona. Once it is revealed that his jealousy was unfounded, he sees clearly what he has done. He sees his actions from an outside perspective, the perspective of his spectator. His actions were horrible, and his spectator accordingly accuses him. This is so painful that when Lodovico asks, “Where is this rash and most unfortunate man,” Othello responds, “That’s he that was Othello. Here I am” (5.2.296-97). He does not say “is” but “was.” He is in such grief that he can no longer claim his own name. Soon after, he commits suicide (5.2.372.1). Smith was optimistic that if men consistently listened to their spectators, they would reform themselves. This may be so, but in Othello’s case, reform was impossible. He had already committed too evil of a crime. Smith may agree that suicide is the appropriate response.

Macbeth was similar to Othello. When he is in the grip of ambition, he avoids the voice of his spectator. Lady Macbeth’s words demonstrate the self-deceit of both she and Macbeth. When she is preparing to murder Duncan, she says to herself, “Stop up the access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between / The effect and it!” (1.5.46-48). She is commanding herself to remove the ability to feel remorse. Smith would say that the feeling of remorse would come through her spectator, and resolving to ignore remorse is a textbook example of self-deceit.

The reason that she decides to enter into self-deceit is revealed after she and Macbeth have succeeded in killing Duncan. Macbeth has not as completely forgotten his spectator, and is suffering because of it. He heard servants pray that God would bless them, and he wanted to say “Amen,” but found that he was unable. He laments, “Wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’? / I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ / Stuck in my throat” (2.2.29-31). He knows that he needs God’s blessing in order to successfully secure the throne, but he is unable to say “Amen.” He is unable to ask for God’s help because he knows that he does not deserve it. Smith would say that this is a sign that he has not removed the influence of his spectator to the same extent as Lady Macbeth. To this, Lady Macbeth answers, “These deeds must not be thought / After these ways. So, it will make us mad” (2.2.31-32). She recognizes that if Macbeth continues wondering why he could not bring himself to pray and continues listening to his spectator, he will lose his mind.

The remainder of the play, he does indeed show signs of madness. He becomes more and more paranoid, even killing his close friend by hiring several murderers in Act 3, Scene 1. Later, in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth sees the ghost of his friend in the middle of a dinner party, and acts so deranged that Lady Macbeth requests that the guests leave. Smith would say that his madness is evidence that his spectator is powerfully accusing him, and he is struggling to ignore it.

This madness eventually brings Macbeth to his interpretation of life; “[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.26-28). Smith would say that the “sound and fury,” or emotional turmoil is a result of Macbeth and others refusing to listen to their respective impartial spectators. It is unclear how Smith may answer the claim that life signifies nothing, or has no meaning, but he would certainly say that Macbeth has only been brought to this conclusion because of his self-deceit.

Mill’s crisis is more complicated than those of Shakespeare’s characters. On the whole, Mill is a moral person. He does not have great flaws of ambition or jealousy, and indeed does much to help the world. Smith would say that this is evidence that he is able to resist the temptation to ignore his spectator and deceive himself.

However, Smith would say that Mill has a faulty spectator. Mill did not expect his depression to arise, and never witnessed it in anyone else. He said, “There was nothing in [my distress] to attract sympathy” (p. 113). He has no experience sympathizing with others when they have a crisis, so he is unable to imagine how others would sympathize with him. Smith would say that this gives him a faulty spectator. Mill’s spectator is unable to properly evaluate his own condition. Indeed, he imagines his father would not have understood it (p. 113). It is likely that his spectator accused him of being nonsensical. Because Mill persisted in listening to his spectator, he would constantly be in pain by its disapprobation. Smith would say that the solution is finding someone who is able to sympathize. If Mill had confided in someone who knew how to handle the situation, then he would be able to observe how another person viewed his case, and this would correct his faulty spectator. He would again be able to hold himself in approbation.

Despite these insights, Smith’s analysis is insufficient in Mill’s case. His depression was mostly unrelated to morality and sympathy, it was a result of his philosophical inability to find a firm grounding for the happiness for his life and humanity at large. Furthermore, Mill knew Smith’s theories, and this knowledge did not aid him. For these reasons, Smith cannot fully answer Mill’s crisis.

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