Living Well with Adam Smith

Adam Smith is famous for his teachings on wealth; scholars often credit his most famous work, in fact, The Wealth of Nations, with inaugurating an era of unprecedented affluence. The economist Deirdre McCloskey calls this “the Great Enrichment,” and Smith’s teachings related to international trade, taxation, and enterprise represent the system whose fruits we still largely enjoy today. Rather less well-known, however, is that Smith’s academic vocation was not primarily in economics, even though he is sometimes regarded as the father of modern economics. He was, in fact, a moral philosopher, and his work in The Wealth of Nations is best understood as part of a larger system of thought. The other half, so to speak, of Smith’s system is his first major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here Smith the moral philosopher is in grand form.

The opening lines of The Theory of Moral Sentiments belie the caricature that we often have of Smith as advocating radical individualism and egoism: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Ryan Patrick Hanley’s latest book offers an accessible, erudite, and concise introduction to Adam Smith in full, the moral philosopher of wisdom and prudence. In Our Great Purpose, Hanley eschews the extensive reference apparatus and jargon that is so characteristic of contemporary scholarship. Instead, Hanley has taken an approach that is more faithful to Smith’s own purposes. Our Great Purpose functions as a guidebook to Smith’s thought, taking its point of departure in Smith’s own words, working through the ideas and texts to arrive at a comprehensive, nuanced, and coherent picture of the Scottish philosopher.

As Hanley understands him, Smith’s work is not primarily concerned with how to get rich or to create material wealth. It is true that the alleviation of poverty and the material development of human society is important. But Smith’s significant insights into political economy must be understood in proper relationship to his broader moral philosophy and his understanding of the human person. Thus Hanley writes, “Smith, to put it bluntly, knew that there is all the difference in the world between learning how to get ahead in life and learning how to live life well.” We might say that Smith has insights not only about how to get rich, but how to be virtuous, and even more importantly, how those two goals might be properly valued.

An engagement with Smith as “a wise guide to living a life” rather than simply as an important figure in the history of philosophy and economic thought invites a work like Hanley’s. Neither The Theory of Moral Sentiments nor The Wealth of Nations usually strike the modern layperson as particularly accessible. They are large works, written in an engaging but learned and somewhat difficult style. By contrast, Hanley’s work gives the reader a taste of the depths of Smith’s thought as well as his words, but in a style that invites his audience to take up the arduous but rewarding task of reading Smith directly.

One subtle but significant aspect of Hanley’s work is that it reaches its goal by encouraging the reader to transcend the book itself. Hanley’s fundamental purpose is to point beyond his own thinking to that of Adam Smith himself. Hanley’s own erudition is thus worn rather lightly in Our Great Purpose, but it is significantly present not only in the valuable notes and back matter, but also in the structure and substance of Hanley’s presentation of Smith’s thought. And Hanley gives us a picture of Adam Smith that is not only coherent (in itself no small achievement), but also compelling.

Each of the short chapters in this book takes its point of departure in a quotation directly from one of Smith’s works. The topics, such as “On Self-Interest,” “On Worshipping Wealth,” and “On Praise and Praiseworthiness,” build upon one another and when taken together present a progressive path through Smith’s thought.

Hanley identifies two key dynamics in Smith’s thought: The first of these is the interplay between the individual person and society. The second centers on Smith’s exploration of the link between reflection and action. These are perennial challenges for humans that find characteristic expressions today. The relationship between individual rights, for instance, and communal obligations is on display in disputes about religious liberty and civil rights. Controversies over the reality and realization of social justice likewise turn on views of the connection between the human person and society. The classical view of the relationship between the human intellect and human action saw the former as that which ought to control and direct the latter. There is, however, a complex and dynamic relationship between the human faculties of reason, will, and desire. Many have observed that contemporary discourse tends to elevate the language of emotion rather than reason, and this is one manifestation of this permanent task to properly relate and integrate our intellect and reason with our passions, emotions, and desires. By the conclusion of his book, Hanley has effectively showed how Smith resolves these various tensions into a coherent guide for living and flourishing.

With regard to the human person in relation to society, it is relatively common as I have noted to regard Smith as a defender of egoism. And it is true that Smith does defend the rights and dignity of the human person and regards it as a bedrock of his system of morality. But as we have also already seen in the opening lines of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith is far more concerned with promoting benevolence and regard for others than for a world full of selfish individuals. As Hanley puts it, “The lens through which Smith wants us to see moral life is that of our natural interest in others, rather than our self-interest alone.”

If I were to teach a class on Adam Smith or one that substantively engages Smith’s thought, I would use Hanley’s text to help introduce and acclimate the students to Smith’s work. It is ideally suited to function as a primer for undergraduates and laypersons, but can also serve well as a bracing refresher, along with its ancillary material and recommendations for further reading, for specialists in economics, politics, philosophy, and theology. But beyond the classroom, a greater compliment for Our Great Purpose is to say that it is also a book that I will give to my own children to read. In this, I think Hanley has certainly achieved his goal in presenting Adam Smith as “a wise guide to living a life.” Smith’s wisdom is surely something we need in the context of our contemporary challenges. These include the difficulties of social cohesion and stability amid inequality, the seemingly increasing lack of confidence in and enthusiasm for the liberal project and American experiment in ordered liberty, the sharp and radical criticisms of free markets and enterprise, and the moral challenges of virtuous living in the context of affluence. Smith recognized all of these as salient in his own time and more broadly significant for free societies, and provided great insights into navigating the fraught path of wisdom and virtue. In light of the crises of modern life, Hanley’s introduction to and recommendation of Smith renders a great service to the cause of liberty and civility.