„It is the best head joined to the best heart.” Adam Smith: TMS, VI, i, 15.
Adam Smith’s name shines like a beacon in the night when it comes to economics and moral philosophy but who would have thought him to be an exceptionally gifted rhetorician? It is little known that since 1751 Adam Smith was a professor of logic and rhetoric at the University of Glasgow, gave lectures on rhetoric (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres) and that in 1754 he, together with David Hume and Allan Ramsay, even founded a debating society called The Select Society. Likewise, his first major work The Theory of Moral Sentiments tends to be overlooked nowadays though it was sold out when first published in 1759 and even though it is still providing important insights into Smith’s basic principles of moral philosophy and rhetoric. What is it that we don’t know about Adam Smith and why should we read his Theory of Moral Sentiments? Here are three compelling reasons:
First, Adam Smith himself considered his first major work The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a much more significant work to his subsequent The Wealth of Nations for which he is famous today.1 It is not surprising that Smith made a name for himself in the world since this oeuvre was well received in Scotland, France and Germany. His academic friend David Hume wrote in his letter to Smith on the 12th of April 1759: „I proceed to tell you the melancholy news, that your book has been very unfortunate; for the public seem disposed to applaud it extremely. It was looked for by the foolish people with some impatience; and the mob of literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises. Three bishops called yesterday at Millar's shop in order to buy copies, and to ask questions about the author.” However, it wasn’t the financial success of his books but Smith’s special approach as a philosopher to base facts on principles and to describe the current state of human society. He describes what is, not what should be. His interest lies in human principles, in normative standards of human behavior, in identity construction and in social unity within society. And finally, the underlying question of it all: what shapes human conduct?
Secondly, Smith presents basic principles of human conduct and of the process of exchange and trade in his Theory of Moral Sentiments on which The Wealth of Nations would later be based. Thus, his Theory of Moral Sentiments is the basis for a profound reading and understanding of The Wealth of Nations. In this respect, Smith’s philosophy of human nature is crucial to truly understand The Wealth of Nations. This is shown by the fact that he worked on six new editions of TMS during his lifetime while simultaneously writing WN. The first edition of WN was published in 1776 and the last edition of TMS in 1790. He revised some passages in those editions but those about sympathy, compassion and the limits of self-interest weren’t altered fundamentally. For Smith there is no dichotomy between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations due to the fact that they describe two different worlds that interact with each other. Whereas TMS gives an insight into the personal space of humans and the social environment, WN deals with the broader and impersonal world.2 So, what is Theory of Moral Sentiments about? To put it in a nutshell, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a phenomenology and a model of human conduct in society. And even over 200 years after its first publication, Smith’s Theory still reads as a surprisingly modern work in psychology and philosophy. He does not put reason at the center of his philosophy but emotion: it is sympathy that determines human conduct and judgement. Man as a sentient being rather than a rational one. In Smith’s opinion, people are determined by the demands of self-love and by the desire for others to consent to their actions. To prove worthy of this consent is part of man as a social being according to Smith.3 This is a fundamental axiom of Smith’s philosophy: society as the mirror by which man learns and thus adjust his conduct.
Man as social being → sympathy → propriety → property (WN)
And finally, reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments opens up the possibility to discover Adam Smith the linguistic theorist, the philosopher and the rhetorician. Smith instructed his publisher to append his article “Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages” (1761) to the third edition of TMS in 1767. To what extent linguistic communication and moral judgement are related in The Theory of Moral Sentiments will now be analyzed. Moral judgement is influenced by the specific situation, it is a feeling (sympathy as compassion or empathy) and it adheres to norms „from the man within”. Sympathy denotes a „fellow-feeling” with any kind of passion and the human capacity for imagining ourselves in another one’s situation. It is a natural instinct of man and the basis for the anticipated reaction of the addressee in rhetoric. Knowing what is right or appropriate for others in a particular situation is a natural and rhetorical skill. And that is why rhetoric has an ethical aspect according to Smith which can be seen in his concept of propriety (Angemessenheit).4 For him, persuasion is a „natural desire”5 to lead and direct other people. People want to be believed but at the same time they are also conscious that they have to prove themselves worthy of this belief. This means that „being worthy” lies in the kind of persuasion itself. But what kind exactly should it be then? There is only one appropriate persuasion for Smith: the kind of persuasion that is harnessed by the rules of propriety and thereby becomes sympathy. Propriety and sympathy are two mutually dependent criteria in Adam Smith’s view. However, Adam Smith distinguishes in his Theory of Moral Sentiments two different types of propriety: rhetorical propriety and moral propriety. Rhetorical propriety is not a fixed heuristic for Smith, but rather a stylistic clarity and an adaptation of the speech to the situational circumstances. Moral propriety is safeguarded by the impartial spectator who allows no conduct that goes „beyond what this more equitable sentiment would dictate” (TMS, I, i, V, 4). It is a kind of moral control that takes place in our own minds when we judge the maxims of our actions from the point of view of the neutral observer (the man within/the great judge)6. It is the outside view of your own actions in the knowledge of what society is expecting from us.
Those who consider The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as a contradiction to one another run the risk of overlooking the most fundamental accomplishments instilled in his works. For too long have those works been regarded as contradicting one another (so called Adam Smith Problem). In fact, he is one of those philosophers who touched our world in the long run. The basis of his moral philosophy lies in his Theory of Moral Sentiments and must hence precede any reading of The Wealth of Nations. Justice wouldn’t be done to Smith’s outstanding accomplishments if society failed to relate the fundamental principles of his most important works and to recognize that they need to be considered jointly where the moral sentiments build the foundation for the economic considerations thereafter.