Adam Smith’s neglected masterpiece?

Corey Robin posted a brief write-up of a passage from Adam Smith over on his blog some weeks back. The text quoted was Smith’s earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s become quite popular in recent years to contrast this work with Smith’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, which came a few years later.

One commenter, Diana, expressed more or less this exact sentiment. “Please keep blogging about the Theory of Moral Sentiments,” she wrote. “Everyone so associates Adam Smith with the other book [The Wealth of Nations] and forgets about this one.” Another commenter, Benjamin David Steele, immediately seconded her request, writing: “I agree. I’ve never read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I’ve been very interested in this lesser-known side of Adam Smith.”

For whatever reason, though the Theory of Moral Sentiments is an interesting work, it annoys me when individuals try to “correct” common misperceptions about Smith’s political and economic philosophy by redirecting attention away from what is undoubtedly his greatest work, The Wealth of Nations. (This is, of course, the work that libertarians and neoliberals like to cite the most in their anti-government diatribes, though this is simply because they never read beyond Book I). So I felt I’d write something along these lines. What follows is a brief exchange mostly between Corey Robin and me on Adam Smith’s moral philosophy and its ideological relation to aristocratic (versus bourgeois) virtue. Also at issue is the relative worth of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as opposed to The Wealth of Nations.

On Adam Smith

Ross Wolfe

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a competent response to [his teacher] Francis Hutcheson and the other prominent theorists of the preceding generation, and contains an interestingly subversive displacement of aristocratic virtue in its argument that our sympathy for others is but the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us, but it would be foolish to lay too much emphasis on it.

The Wealth of Nations is Smith’s masterpiece. It was and remains so. Marx practically revered Smith, and to a lesser extent Ricardo, as the greatest of the bourgeois economists. In fact, it could be argued that Marx was simply Smith’s “profoundest reader” [a link to Spencer Leonard’s excellent article, which I encourage everyone to read].

Benjamin David Steele

Thanks for offering that link.

Anonymous commenter

It would be great to see a critique of some of the oddball revisionism that tries to paint Smith as some kind super-liberal bent on egalitarianism through free trade. Chomsky, for example, has a weird habit of quoting him out of context and then saying he was some kind of “socialist” before socialism was cool. An example is his “perfect liberty” quote.

Corey Robin

Samuel Fleishacker makes a credible case that Smith does in fact belong in the pantheon of modern egalitarianism. You should check out his Short History of Distributive Justice.

Ross Wolfe

Smith supported some basic measures of government-funded education, the provision of roads, and light welfare programs. Income redistribution [as such] was not on his radar, as well it shouldn’t have been. For some reason this is all the more “radical” the contemporary Left gets: tepid, moralizing calls for social justice won by stepping up taxes on the rich.

Sismondi, Ricardo, and Smith were far more progressive than the aristocratic protectionists of their day, as well as the more vulgar socialists like Proudhon who followed. There is a reason that Marx quotes Smith more than any other figure, save Hegel. It’s because Smith was the greatest political economist of the bourgeois epoch.

Corey Robin

As usual, Ross, your pronouncements are ill served by the fact that you haven’t read the books you claim to be pronouncing on. The case for Smith as an egalitarian and progressive has little to do with his policy pronouncements on education and so forth, and those pronouncements are certainly not why contemporary left scholars have turned back to him. Along the same thing lines of reading the text, this comment of yours above just caught my eye:

[Adam] Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments…contains an interestingly subversive displacement of aristocratic virtue in its argument that our sympathy for others is but the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us, but it would be foolish to lay too much emphasis on it.

It would indeed be foolish to lay too much emphasis on it given that Smith never made such an argument about sympathy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indeed, a mere four paragraphs into the text he defines sympathy as “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” And the rest of the text proceeds apace. But kudos, as always, on your ability to cite Marx. If only you followed his example and actually read these texts for yourself.

Ross Wolfe

Here’s Smith in his own words:

[W]e have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dullness of the conception.

That this is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others, that it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels, may be demonstrated by many obvious observations, if it should not be thought sufficiently evident of itself. When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.

I dare say that’s fairly close to what I said, albeit in the space of one line. With my earlier comment, this was the point I claimed Smith was arguing: “[O]ur sympathy for others is but the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us.”

As regards the other “aristocratic” virtues, like honor, valor, magnanimity, and courage, these receive some approving mention but in general are displaced by the more “bourgeois” virtues of honesty, industry, propriety, and prudence. Many of the “external graces” of “fashionable men,” i.e. courtiers and the like, are dismissed as ostentatious and haughty.


Obviously, the “subversive” point I claimed Smith was making stands. However, Smith’s theory of moral sentiments extends beyond situations of pain and suffering. As Smith writes (this is likely what Robin had in mind): “Neither is it those circumstances only, which create pain or sorrow, that call forth our fellow-feeling.” In any case, though some standard polemical barbs were thrown my way, I don’t think it got out of hand.

2 thoughts on “Adam Smith’s neglected masterpiece?

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith, revolutionary | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Adam Smith, revolutionary | The Charnel-House

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