Rousseau Contra Smith Revisited

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith have long been powerful symbols of two very different approaches to the 18th century Enlightenment: the one liberal, the other democratic; the one for individual rights, the other collective sovereignty; the one focused on the economic, the other on the political; at bottom, the one for Enlightenment, the other mainly against it. In some versions of this story, such as the one articulated by F.A. Hayek, the two authors represent not just two different paths to modernity but two different national styles: Smith is not just the emblematic liberal, but the archetypal Anglo-Scot, with Rousseau as the equally archetypal Francophone.

Not infrequently, this already bulky schema takes on still more historical freight by being shoehorned into the great ideological battles of the 20th century. On one side we hear Adam Smith blamed for the supposed crimes of “capitalism,” while on the other side the horrors of the “people’s democracies” are traced to Rousseau.

Specialists of the 18th century have broadly agreed that there were indeed some fairly fundamental differences between the two thinkers, while also regretting the sometimes caricatured way in which those differences have been evoked. It is not unknown among scholars, for example, that Smith wrote a quite sympathetic review of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755) in the short-lived Edinburgh Review. But the review was not uncritical, and the dominant message of the academic literature remains that those two canonical authors offered markedly different solutions to the problems vexing 18th century thinkers.

Istvan Hont’s Politics in Commercial Society: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith is a frontal assault upon the whole dichotomization enterprise. Hont says on the first page that writing another book depicting Smith and Rousseau as, respectively, a proponent and an opponent of modernity “wouldn’t be very interesting.” While being “uninteresting” is not necessarily identical to being mistaken, Hont does promise that Politics in Commercial Society will attempt to “learn from the revisionist historiography of political thought of the last thirty years.” Although his editors at Harvard University Press helpfully inform us that Hont’s own rethinking of the similarities between Smith and Rousseau goes back at least to 2001, this opening way of situating the work does pose its problems, for reasons specific to the genesis of the book itself.

Istvan Hont, a Hungarian student of Hugh Trevor-Roper at Oxford who died too soon at the age of 65 in 2013, was one of the most gifted historians of political thought in his generation. From his post at King’s College in Cambridge, he was often thought of in connection with figures like Quentin Skinner or John Pocock as forming a kind of “Cambridge School” of historical inquiry, which did very much indeed to remake the scholarly landscape of 18th century studies as a whole. But unlike Skinner and Pocock, he did not write books. His undoubted and altogether justified influence came through other means, namely lectures and articles.

Hont was a captivating speaker, for whom the great thinkers of the 18th century formed part of lived experience. And the two books associated with his name are edited collections of essays. One, co-edited with Michael Ignatieff, was called Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (1983), and it did much to reshape the agenda of a generation, especially on the origins and meaning of political economy itself. The other, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (2005), was a volume of his own scattered essays from 1983 to 1994. Each of these is of lasting value to scholars.

The short book under review is different. It began as a series of six Carlyle Lectures at Oxford in 2009, which the author clearly intended to work up at some point for more polished publication. That he did not have time to do so is regrettable. Although the six essays themselves are relatively tightly reasoned, and emphatically repay rereading by all students of 18th century moral or political thought, the editors did find it necessary to, in their words, “correc[t] obvious errors” and “rephras[e] certain expressions or sentences that seemed insufficiently clear.” Since these corrections are silent, readers will not know when or where they have occurred.

This particular problem is not likely to be very grave; the work as a whole reads with the urgently focused cohesiveness one came to expect from its author. More serious is that Hont had not had a chance to insert his references to either the “revisionist historiography” announced in the opening, or (for the most part at least) to the primary sources that form the basis of his argument. The editors have supplied some of these references, but only where Hont had made explicit mention of them in his text.

So readers are not infrequently on their own in figuring out the allusions. What the editors have indeed done, and it is very helpful, is to refer to other places in his published corpus where Hont has discussed a given subject. This enables the reader to trace continuities between the author’s past writings and this one, though of course it does less to reveal the scaffolding of the current work.

That is a bit ironic, given the tradition of scholarship with which Istvan Hont is associated. “The view from Cambridge,” he had also written on that first page, “is that the new historiography of political thought has become stale and needs a push forward.” But one of the achievements of the “Cambridge School” has been to embed the works of major thinkers in a thicker web of their historical context than an older history of ideas had done.

A book on Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that is light on citation will seem incongruous to some. Through it all, though, there is plenty of food for thought for the intellectually hungry. In ways that will be familiar to his readers, Hont roots much of his thesis about Smith and Rousseau in the great debates of the 17th century. He insists repeatedly and usefully that Thomas Hobbes is the great theorist of “recognition” (with its corresponding passions of pride, self-love, and vanity) as a problem central to explaining the origins of social and political order, and that Rousseau and Smith were keenly aware of this problem.

Smith’s theory of “commercial society” (a category that is “just barely there,” as Hont reminds us) aims among other things to rescue “need” and “utility” as bases for social organization from the threat that the unsocial passions might consume the whole focus, as with Hobbes. Whereas exchange based upon reciprocal need was at least potentially a positive-sum transaction, the pursuit of recognition was always zero-sum (if someone receives more “honor” or “glory,” someone else must receive less); and the Hobbesian prospect of anarchy arose not so much from need as from the demand for recognition run amok. For Smith (and Immanuel Kant, too), the unfolding of a kind of “unsocial sociability” was a distinctive way around this problem.

Hont then makes an argument from classical moral philosophy. Eighteenth-century thought, he claims, hinged crucially on whether to appropriate a Stoic embrace of natural sociability or an Epicurean rejection of it. Here, his move is to view both Rousseau and Smith as Epicureans rather than Stoics on that essential point. This seems a departure from the tendency of some recent scholars to emphasize the Stoic dimensions of Smith’s thought. Likewise, few specialists have described Rousseau as an Epicurean. Hont tells us, however, that numerous contemporaries saw the connections clearly.

On his account, both Smith and Rousseau followed the lead of Bernard Mandeville while criticizing and going beyond him. Where the scandalous Dutchman had developed a conjectural history of honor in volume two of his Fable of the Bees (1714), Rousseau developed nothing less than a natural history of self-love in the second part of the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1755), emphasizing its relationship to pity, and Smith offered a natural history of sympathy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In each case, the moral quantum in question was seen as the key mechanism for generating all the social relations on display in modern society. Thus, from similarly “Epicurean” moral starting points, Smith and Rousseau reached their famously different political conclusions so that Smith’s moral treatise, for example, becomes an exercise in “enhanced Hobbism and Epicureanism.”

One passage will help illustrate the contours of Hont’s approach. At the end of his treatment of the “selfish system” in Book Seven of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote as follows: “That whole account of human nature . . . which deduces all sentiments and affections from self-love, which has made so much noise in the world, but which, so far as I know, has never yet been fully and distinctly explained, seems to me to have arisen from some confused misapprehension of the system of sympathy.”

This passage, which Hont reproduces in full, is often taken as Smith’s differentiation of his own system from that of Hobbes and Mandeville. Hont instead sees it as evidence that Smith meant to situate himself precisely within that “selfish” school, the better to improve and build upon it.

A comparable revisionism is at work for Rousseau, whom Hont calls at one point “essentially a kind of libertarian.” The Jean-Jacques Rousseau Problem, as the author half-facetiously calls it, is that he developed a political republicanism that did not begin with a theory of natural sociability. Instead, as Smith himself pointed out in his lengthy 1755 review of the Discourse on Inequality, the Genevan followed Mandeville in starting with a Hobbesian psychology, while then adding the principle of pity which could then generate all the necessary virtues of civil society.

This interpretive move on Hont’s part helps other convergences between the two thinkers to abound. Both Smith and Rousseau, we are told, give substantial attention to utility and pride as seminal problems for social organization, a linkage that today’s political theorists have lamentably forgotten. Both thus see markets as originating in a status-seeking culture of deception. Both are harshly critical of the military dimension of the modern European state system.

This whole line of thinking can be and is designed to be usefully provocative and stimulating. And as is usually the case with Hont’s writings, there are apercus made in passing that one wants to set aside for further exploration. The 18th century, he remarks, was not so much the age of republicanism as the age when a modern form of monarchy became a respected res publica. Rousseau, we are told, read the Baron de Montesquieu as an analytical thinker, Smith as a historical one. Smith’s account of the demise of feudalism after the nobility’s infatuation with their “trinkets and baubles” is remarkably similar to the standard corruption-and-fall narrative for ancient Rome. And so forth.

On the other hand, it is not always easy to define exactly how far the author’s revisionism intends to abandon, and how far to maintain, the “conventional wisdom” concerning a sharp opposition of these two representative thinkers. Hont acknowledges that Smith sees commerce mainly as curing the problem of corruption rather than causing it, that he sees commercial society mainly as diminishing rather than aggravating the historic problem of inequality, and that Rousseau “clung to the myth of the military superiority of hardy poor nations over effeminate and luxurious ones,” to give a few examples of his accession to the conventional view. What is regrettable is that he never neatly summarizes the similarities and differences he finds between the two thinkers, leaving it to the reader to piece that overall puzzle together.

All in all, this short, posthumous volume from one of the leading scholars of his generation will and should be eagerly read for its bracing pursuit of a counterintuitive but important line of inquiry, and for the many hints and suggestions disseminated along the way. It is unlikely that many readers will find this essay to be the definitive statement on the competing agendas of Smith and Rousseau, or even that the author intended as much. But the reader will certainly feel in the presence of a lively, learned, and exceptionally sophisticated mind.