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Adam Smith’s Open Letter* to Former-President George W. Bush (et al.)

(*First published in 1759 in anticipation of many presidencies, and also includes Prime Ministers, Kings, Queens, and other heads of state; therefore Mr. Bush is not the first to receive this open letter, nor shall he be the last. It’s all déjà vu for Mr. Smith.)

[Dear Mr. Former-President:]

[I, Adam Smith, first published this observation in 1759 and made it comprehensive in scope so as to be useful in a variety of situations. I suspect you may fall into several categories of my concern. Hopefully, you will recognize the ones that apply, which may be useful as you draft your memoirs and prepare for your after-life—by which I mean, after-your-presidency-life. So here we begin, as I quote myself:]

“To attain to this envied situation [of wealth and greatness], the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions. But the ambitious man flatters himself that, in the splendid situation to which he advances, he will have so many means of commanding the respect and admiration of mankind, and will be enabled to act with such superior propriety and grace, that the luster of his future conduct will entirely cover, or efface, the foulness of the steps by which he arrived at that elevation. In many governments the candidates for the highest stations are above the law; and, if they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account for the means by which they acquired it. They often endeavour, therefore, not only by fraud and falsehood, the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal, but sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes, by murder and assassination [of reputations in more civilized societies], by rebellion and civil war [or dissension], to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their greatness. They more frequently miscarry than succeed; and commonly gain nothing but the disgraceful punishment which is due to their crimes. But, though they should be so lucky as to attain that wished-for greatness, they are always most miserably disappointed in the happiness which they expect to enjoy in it. It is not ease or pleasure, but always honour, of one kind or another, though frequently an honour very ill understood, that the ambitious man really pursues. But the honour of his exalted station appears, both in his own eyes and in those of other people, polluted and defiled by the baseness of the means through which he rose to it. Though by the profusion of every liberal expense; though by excessive indulgence in every profligate pleasure, the wretched, but usual resource of ruined characters; though by the hurry of public business, or by the prouder and more dazzling tumult of war, he may endeavour to efface, both from his own memory and from that of other people, the remembrance of what he has done; that remembrance never fails to pursue him. He invokes in vain the dark and dismal powers of forgetfulness and oblivion. He remembers himself what he has done, and that remembrance tells him that other people must likewise remember it. Amidst all the gaudy pomp of the most ostentatious greatness; amidst the venal and vile adulation of the great and of the learned; amidst the more innocent, though more foolish, acclamations of the common people; amidst all the pride of conquest and triumph of successful war, he is still secretly pursued by the avenging furies of shame and remorse; and, while glory seems to surround him on all sides, he himself in his own imagination, sees black and foul infamy fast pursuing him, and every moment ready to overtake him from behind.”

[PS: Mr. Former-President: Some of this may also apply to certain of your former associates. You are not alone. Ambition, on many levels, can be blinding and power intoxicating so as to pursue agendas at any cost. Thus, I send this not in judgment, but as a general observation of déjà vu.]

Reference: Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Mineola, New York: 2006, Dover Philosophical Classics) first published 1759; p. 61-2—I.III.III.