Learning from Great Thinkers…like Adam Smith



I must admit that as a teacher of literature, I’m partial to arguments that there is much wisdom and personal happiness that can be gained from immersing oneself in the writings of classic playwrights, fiction writers, philosophers and, as the following with demonstrate, economists.

Over the last few years I have been drawn to testimonies by contemporary authors about their encounters with and deep indebtedness to great thinkers, whether in their formative years or later in life. I find this short list a better choice than the hundreds of standard-issue self-help books cranked out by the Happiness Industry, lampooned if not condemned by Barbara Ehrenreich in Brightsided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2010) and by William Davies in The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (2016).

I’ve found engaging and instructive Sarah Bakewell’s 2014 How to Live: The Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer and William Deresiewicz’s 2012 A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter. Not all titles in this subgenre that mixes close readings of the sources with personal testimony are this long. But all set out to convince the reader to make a similar journey. See the end of the article for more titles.

Russ Roberts’ “How Adam Smith Can Save Your Life” (2014) is another recent entry in this field. In the introduction Roberts tips his hat to cultural critic Alain de Botton whose “How Proust Can Save Your Life” (1998) provides the template for his title. That’s early 20th century French novelist Marcel Proust.

Roberts is an economist who formerly had a faculty appointment at George Mason University and now works at The Hoover Institute, a conservative think-tank located at Stanford University. He’s well known for communicating economics to non-economists as host of the EconTalk podcast.

Like most economists he is very familiar with Adam Smith, a Scotsman acknowledged as the father of economic thought. Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) helped to launch the Industrial Revolution (and the American political Revolution) by formulating ideas about laissez faire capitalism. Smith’s observation that free individuals acting in their economic self-interest under conditions of very limited government regulations provide widespread prosperity and social harmony. Many contemporary economists, especially followers of the conservative Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman, try to demonstrate the contemporary application of Smith’s ideas even if 21st century society is vastly more sophisticated than Smith’s 18th century world.

But Roberts’ 2014 work is not about The Wealth of Nations, but rather about another Smith work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a book that Roberts barely knew and had never read until a university colleague urged him to take a close look.

Roberts’ reading of this earlier work, is, for him, a useful corrective, in part because Smith’s concern with character and the nature of social interaction challenges those Smith advocates who use the more famous The Wealth of Nations as a warrant for unfettered capitalism in which selfishness and even greed are confused with self-interest. The Theory of Moral Sentiments reveals another side of Smith: the ethically-minded social psychologist rather than the quantitative-minded free-trade apologist. At first Roberts thinks that these two works are those of two quite different individuals but then, at the end of his work, suggests that the more high-minded first book should be looked at as a frame for the second. To understand Smith fully and to apply him conscientiously, you need to read both. These works represent are complementary. Theory is about private life and behavior in the small, intimate communities of home and village. Wealth is about the public sphere where impersonal relations between those that barter and sell are best kept impersonal.

During the 2016 Presidential race, the character of the candidates, always a consideration in political campaigns, seems to loom even larger. The two contestants spend more time attacking the character rather than the policies of the opponent. Thus as we think about the character of the candidates we should think about our own character and that of our fellow citizens. We don’t need the public character flaws of the presidential candidates to share a general consensus that character has diminished and may be in short supply. [Whether we as a people are more moral or less moral than people in our grandfather’s generation is open to question.]

So Smith’s work (with the help of Roberts’ reading of him) comes at a good time. The nature and necessity of sympathy, the ways in which good behaviors are cultivated by the social group through approbation and disapprobation, the regulations of passions and other emotions, and the necessity and danger of self-love are topics that Smith takes up. Long before columnist David Brooks The Road to Character (2015) Smith was trying to define the important virtues for a life of self-fulfillment. Smith would certainly understand Brooks distinction between “resume virtues” (achieving wealth, fame, status) and “eulogy virtues” (e.g., bravery, kindness, honesty).

Roberts finds Smith’s ideas congenial because conservatives generally foreground matters of character and downplay social structures that foil advancement and happiness. Conservatives stress taking greater personal responsibility as the pathway to social improvement. Roberts finds Smith’s warning about “men of systems,” utopian schemers who would interfere with the pieces on the chessboard and would refashion unchangeable human nature. Whether progressive Democrats who advocate activist government in “leveling the playing field” are in the same company as Mao and Stalin is left open-ended.

We are fortunate to have Roberts as an intermediary because, as he points out, contemporary readers will struggle with Smiths elegant but stiff 18th century prose. Roberts provides us with important chucks of the book so that we do get a flavor of Smith’s thought and style, but, thankfully, most of the book is in Robert’s own folksy, approachable style. He skillfully interweaves examples from his own life and those of others (Super-investor Warren Buffet’s son who rejected his father’s monetary gift and found happiness through a successful career in music.)

Here’s a brief list of other recent works of this type:

Shakespeare Saved My Life, Laura Bates (2013)

How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreker (2015)

How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen (1998)

How Literature Saved My Life, David Sheilds (2013)

If you read any of these books, I’ll let you decide whether the claims of salvation in the titles are hyperbolic.






About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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