Friday, January 8, 2010

Animal Spirits

I'd heard of mineral spirits, of course. I remember using them in high school art class to clean paint brushes. But animal spirits was a new one. I came across the term in a blog on The New York Times Web site, Schott's Vocabulary. In it, Ben Schott considers an interesting new or obscure word or term every day. Thursday's was animal spirits. According to Schott and other sources, animal spirits is a term coined by the economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s to describe the irrational or instinctual confidence exhibited by people in the business world, particularly Wall Street types. The term came up this week because, at the start of this new year, financial writers were suggesting that animal spirits were making a resurgence. Schott cites the Economist, which says that Keynes defined animal spirits as "naive optimism"—a sort of confident cheerfulness, a state of mind in which the person ignores or forgets facts of life, such as death and taxes. The idea comes from the notion that animals can and do act from instinct and with exuberance because they are not aware of the possibility of their own deaths—or any consequences. In fact, "animal courage" was one of the original meanings of the term, per the Oxford English Dictionary. Another was simply "voluntary motion"—action caused by nerves and muscle.

The idea intrigued me, and, of course, my thoughts turned to the dogs. I have often wondered what they think, and I often put words to the thoughts I imagine ("I don't care if you wrap that stinking pill in cat poop; I am not going to swallow it." "Mailmanmailmanmailman!!!!"), but I never stopped to consider what they don't think about. Or how their lack of awareness of danger and illness and death frees them to burst into action. Any dog owner knows that desire or curiosity is all a dog needs to inspire naughty or silly or bad behavior. When a dog spots a squirrel, she doesn't look both ways before charging across the street. That's how animal spirits work. Somehow it does not inspire confidence—or animal spirits—in me to know that the people who invest our money rely on the same impulses as a dog that rolls in poop and then jumps on the bed.

I did please me to discover that Jane Austen used the term animal spirits in my favorite of her books, Pride and Prejudice (the version without zombies, thank you). I've read the book probably 30 times and never thought twice about the phrase, but it perfectly suits the character of Lydia Bennett. Here, Austen is describing Lydia, the youngest, silliest, most flirtatious, and least decorous  of her five sisters:
Lydia was a stout, well-grown girl of fifteen, with a fine complexion and good-humoured countenance; a favourite with her mother, whose affection had brought her into public at an early age. She had high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence, which the attentions of the officers, to whom her uncle's good dinners and her own easy manners recommended her, had increased into assurance.
The meaning Austen intends here is the one still recognized by the OED (which, by the way, does not recognize Keynes's definition)—"natural gaiety of disposition." But Lydia, as all readers of the book learn, illustrates Keynes's meaning, too. She displays naive optimism by not even pausing to think of her family or her reputation before running off with a handsome but penniless scoundrel. To Austen's credit, like any indulgent dog owner, she gives Lydia a pass. All ends well for Lydia and her sisters, just as all goes well for Muzzy when she steals another dog's ball or jumps in a mud puddle. All the responsible adults go "Tut, tut. For shame!" Then they tell her how cute she is and throw the ball again.

I recommend the following New Year's Resolution: To maintain animal spirits—within reason.
Ta! -z

1 comment:

  1. I like the way Jane Austen uses it better. It makes sense there. The more accurate term for Wall Street is irrational exuberance. Animals aren't irrational; they can't reason.

    I heard that they're making a movie of P&P&Z!


Please write a comment here or e-mail me directly at Thanks!