Adam Smith As Solon: Accommodating, not Abandoning Liberty

man of system esotericism solon dupont man of public spirit

Michael Clark and Luke Hollister for AdamSmithWorks

A wise leader considers what the public can bear, not just what he thinks would otherwise be best. Clark and Hollister show Smith's Solonic side as Smith edits his works and responds to the world around him.

"The socialist or fascist is more prone to this folly, but a liberal may also qualify as a man of system if he makes his doctrine his vanity."

Wednesday, February 28, 2024
“The perfect is the mortal enemy of the good.” – Montesquieu, My Thoughts (2012 [1721], 281)
Adam Smith referred to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who is recounted in Plutarch’s lives as having attempted to give his people “the best [laws] they could receive” (Plutarch, 83). While such compromise might be regarded a sign of weakness by some, Smith praised Solon’s approach in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and used it to distinguish two archetypes of statesmen: the man of public spirit, who imitates Solon in his accommodation, and the “the man of system,” whose rigidity admits of no compromise (TMS 233). The use of Solon was not uncommon. For example, in The Federalist (no. 38) James Madison says that Solon “confessed that he had not given to his countrymen the government best suited to their happiness, but most tolerable to their prejudices” (Hamilton, Jay, and Madison 2001 [1788], 187).
The Solonic approach, which is suitable to Smith’s philosophy of sympathy (Clark 2020), helps us make sense of moments where Smith seems to equivocate on or make exceptions to the liberty principle. The presence of Solon in The Wealth of Nations (WN), as well as TMS, suggests that Smith ought to be read as a Solonic figure: a man coherent in his theory but pragmatic in his advocacy.

Solon versus the Man of System
In TMS, Smith refers to Solon in drawing a contrast between a “man whose public spirit is prompted…by humanity and benevolence” and a “man of system” (TMS, 233). The man of system cannot abide even the smallest deviation from his plan. Rather than respecting people’s opinions, faiths, interests, customs, and traditions, he treats individuals as if they were pieces on a chessboard, to be arranged according to his liking. He holds no regard for the fact that “every single piece has a principle of motion of its own” (234). Smith describes the man of system as “wise in his own conceit” (233). In contrast, the Solonic man of public spirit is willing to accommodate the “rooted prejudices of the people” (233). When the Solonic figure finds himself unable to persuade his subjects, he does not give up his ideas of the good altogether nor compel their adoption. Instead, “like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavor to establish the best that the people can bear” (233).
Commonly, the chessboard paragraph is quoted in isolation from the paragraph that precedes it. It is easy—and by no means improper—to cite it to show the folly of top-down intervention. It is easy and natural to read the passage as a defense of liberal bottom-up arrangements or spontaneous order, over against the “innumerable delusions” (WN, 687) of socialism, fascism, and more piecemeal governmentalizations of social affairs.
However, it would be a mistake to associate that regrettable character, the man of system, exclusively with the advocate of governmentalization. Smith is warning against an approach that liberals, too, can fall prey to. The socialist or fascist is more prone to this folly, but a liberal may also qualify as a man of system if he makes his doctrine his vanity.

Dupont’s 1788 letter to Smith
The TMS passage contrasting Solon and the man of system first appeared in 1790. In 1788 Smith had received a letter from Dupont de Nemours that helps us see the passage as advice for proponents of natural liberty. Emma Rothschild (2001, 271n29) seems to have been the first to note the connection between the letter and passage. The matter is further explored by Robert Prasch and Thierry Warin (2009), who translated the letter into English.
Dupont’s 1788 letter accompanied a book that Dupont had just published, Lettre à la Chambre de Commerce de Normandie; Sur le Mémoire qu’elle a publié relativement au Traité de Commerce avec l’Angleterre. In the letter to Smith, Dupont defends his decision to temper the language of that pro-liberalization book. Dupont expresses his concern that a forthright expression of his liberal ideas would “neither be read nor heard” but would rather “prolong by a decade ignorance and its deadly effects.” Dupont calls upon the Platonic metaphor of exiting a dark cave and immediately being blinded by the bright sun; in the same way, new ideas have the potential to blind the unenlightened with a truth that is too harsh in its brightness. Dupont is writing to Smith suggesting that for liberty’s own sake its light at time needs to be dimmed. He explicitly confesses holding back or engaging in certain forms of esotericism:
Dupont’s 1788 letter to Smith
(translation by Robert Prasch and Thierry Warin, 2009)

I am honored to send you a book that I have just published on the commercial treaty between our two nations [Dupont 1788]. I pray that you will accept it as a tribute of my respect for the excellent Book [WN] with which you have enriched the world.
          So you will find that I have not treated my topic with too much concern for its philosophical foundations; that there are a large number of truths that I did not mention; that there are several passages in which I avoid confronting my readers’ preconceptions, and I started by applauding their openness and views before presenting better perspectives that should inspire us.
          Sir, I wanted to persuade, prior to convincing, some people who are animated to the point of fanaticism, and who would believe they are engaged in righteous action by leading both [our] nations to a war reinstituting reciprocal [trade] Prohibitions.
          I had to fight a unanimous and universal opinion in my country. All public opinion deserves to be treated with respect, even more so when the administration is committed to opposing it. It is when we are not in a hurry to take a side that we can dismiss the mistake from the summit of truth.
          I hope that you will forgive the deficiencies of my work that are not unknown to me and some of which were voluntarily committed.
          It is more important to do well than to say well. If, speaking as a government official we announce to our traders, to our producers and to the cream of our civil administrators that it is useless and dangerous to give specific encouragement to firms and the export of their products, we would neither be read nor heard, but in addition we would risk having sound Principles denounced and estranged from the government itself, and we would prolong by a decade ignorance and its deadly effects. By assaulting their eyes with a bright light, we would reconstitute their blindness.
          I know that Posterity will be enlightened. I would like to be useful to the current generation. It is yet in its infancy. It requires sustenance that is proportional to its weakness.
          When I was in private life, I was more hardy; and I will return to it when I leave this little position that I have in the administration. A simple citizen can say what he pleases because no person can imagine that a Prince’s or nation’s advice is based on books. But if the administration itself seems willing to follow uniquely the Principles of a new philosophy, those Prejudiced against it would assemble in mass to stifle its success.
          So this is what I have seen happen to the excellent Mr. Turgot, and this is a misfortune that I shared with him. It took a decade for one part of his plans, the one for suppressing the corvées and the one on the creation of provincial assemblies, to be even imperfectly realized, and yet at the price of storms that you see embroiling our Kingdom.
          We should not believe, however, that these storms are as much of a nuisance as they seem to be. They assist reflection on interests and human rights; they assist in achieving a mature balance between the governing State and the governed State.
          We are quickly working toward a good Constitution, that will even then contribute to the perfection of your Fatherland; and the good principles after having been concentrated for some time among the United States of America, France and England, will spread out eventually to other nations.
          You have greatly accelerated this useful revolution, the French Economists would not have impeded this process, and they will offer you as much respect, Sir, as you hold them in esteem.
          I have the honor to be, Sir, your very humble and very obedient servant, respectfully signed,
Du Pont
Paris, June 19, 1788

Smith in a Solonic Light
Smith uses some of Dupont’s ideas, sometimes even with similar words. Given that Smith began writing the sixth edition of TMS in 1788, it seems possible that he took inspiration from Dupont’s letter. Thus, we should consider reading the TMS paragraphs on the man of public spirit and the man of system as a plea for those in favor of liberty to show caution, moderation, temperance, accommodation, compromise, bargaining—for the sake of the good of the whole and even for sake of liberty.
Such a reading provides a more nuanced understanding of Smithian classical liberalism. In a way, such a reading strengthens the case for Smith as a proponent of liberty. Smith’s principles in support of the “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” (WN, 687) and “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice” are stated and restated in his works. Yet, sometimes Smith seems to hesitate to apply the liberty principle; he ponders limitations provided by the present conditions and gives voice to potential objections. His Solonic approach is akin to Dupont’s. The Solonic liberal approach is moderating a system of natural liberty to accommodate the rooted prejudices against it.
Smith’s Solonic approach aligns with much of what he writes and says elsewhere. In his personal correspondence he wrote the following to William Cullen about his lack of public support for his friend David Hume’s candidacy for a vacant faculty position at Glasgow: “I should prefer David Hume to any man for a colleague; I am afraid the public would not be of my opinion; and the interest of society will oblige us to have some regard to the opinion of the public” (Smith 1987 [1751], 5). Smith greatly emphasized the importance of rhetorical style and taught classes on Socratic persuasion (Smith 1963, 111-5, 146-7). Smith often employed a dialectical style that addressed both sides of a question (Matson 2021). At times, he hedged and waffled in his judgments (Henderson 2006). In his History of Astronomy, Smith wrote of philosophers who “taught their doctrines to pupils only under the seal of the most sacred secrecy, that they might avoid the fury of the people, and not incur the imputation of impiety” (Smith 1980, 56).
Solon was introduced into the second edition of WN in 1788. There, Smith softens the conclusion of his digression against Britain’s current corn bounty laws, perhaps for the sake of bringing along recalcitrant readers and perhaps as an acknowledgment of the practical accommodations made by those who helped draft these laws—like his friend Edmund Burke (Stewart 2020). One account of a salvo from Burke that may have influenced Smith is provided in Jacob Viner:
You, Dr. Smith, from your professor’s chair, may send forth theories of freedom of commerce as if you were lecturing upon pure mathematics, but legislators must proceed by slow degrees, impeded as they are in their course by the friction of interest and the friction of preference. 
(Burke (supposedly), quoted in Viner 1965, 27)

The majority of the section is unequivocal in its condemnation of the bounties. Smith begins with the clear statement that “the praises which have been bestowed” upon corn bounties “are altogether unmerited” (WN, 524), and he proves this conjecture with four reasons that are well-supported by evidence. Although his opposition to the bounties is resolute, in the second edition he adds concluding words which commend the recent changes that have been made to the bounties. In the first edition the concluding words from the section were: “So far, therefore, this law seems to be inferior to the antient system.” But, in the second edition and beyond Smith adds, “With all its imperfections, however, we may perhaps say of it what was said of the laws of Solon, that, though not the best in itself, it is the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of” (WN, 543). While it is doubtless that Smith is citing Solon’s idea to explain how he can approve of these laws in spite of their imperfections, it is also likely that the Solonic view influenced Smith’s authorial decisions (here and elsewhere) to verbalize his ideas in a form that is not so strong as to alienate his audience. Although this is the only place in WN in which Smith explicitly refers to Solon’s accommodating method of statesmanship,1 we feel that Smith’s treatment of interest-rate caps (Diesel 2023), education (Drylie 2023), and the American colonies (Klein 2023) also represent that element in Smith.
Smith’s Solonic approach can be judged in multiple ways. One may view his attempts to accommodate as prudent and virtuous, but a shallow reader might feel frustrated with Smith. Murray Rothbard said that Smith “introduced numerous waffles and qualifications into what had been, in the hands of Turgot and others, an almost pure championing of laissez-fair” (Rothbard 1995, xif; see Friedman 2023 for a fine critique of Rothbard on Smith).
A proper reading of Smith acknowledges his Solonic approach. Smith should be read as a man who held “some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy,” (TMS, 234) but also as one who engaged other human beings responsibly. Reading sections in WN where Smith seems to relax his disfavor for the governmentalization of social affairs should be done with Smith’s Solonic approach in mind. In such sections, it is possible that Smith is not withdrawing that disfavor but rather is bargaining or engaging in the Socratic method, not letting the best be the enemy of the good. Such a reading of Smith enjoys the support of none other than Dupont himself, who in 1809 wrote that Smith “thought that in order to maintain public peace, one should not assault infirm eyes with a bright light turned too directly towards them” (Dupont 2011 [1809], 179).
The vision of normal people as mere chess pieces, to be used in the games of enlightened political players, is something that Smith deeply opposes. In his own writings, his rhetoric respects each individual’s principle of motion. He acts like Solon, appreciating the actions of all, but still attempting to achieve the best “that the people can bear.”

Michael J. Clark has a PhD in economics from George Mason University and is an associate professor at Hillsdale College, where holds the Wallace and Marion Reemelin Chair in Free Market Education and has been a finalist for the college wide professor of the year four times. Prior to his time at Hillsdale, he earned a school of business top teacher award while at the University of Baltimore. In addition to his work at Hillsdale, Michael frequently teaches for the Foundation for Economic Education and the Young America’s Foundation.

Luke Hollister is a student at Hillsdale College studying economics and English. He aims to communicate important economic truths in a manner that is both persuasive and accessible to those who have not studied the discipline. In June of 2024, he will begin working full-time at an Investment Consulting firm in Denver called Innovest, Inc., and he hopes to continue writing and reading about the fundamental principles of the markets.

This essay is part of the AdamSmithWorks series Just Sentiments curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.

  1. The other place in WN where Smith mentions Solon in WN (777) refers to a “law of Solon” that is unrelated to this moderating approach. Likewise, there are several mentions of Solon in the Lectures on Jurisprudence, one noting “the mild and equitable laws of Solon” (130), and none in the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the correspondence, and Smith’s essays on philosophical subjects.

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Drylie, Scott. 2023. “Adam Smith on Education Funding.” Adam Smith Works, December 27. Link
Dupont de Nemours, Pierre-Samuel. 1788. Lettre à la Chambre de Commerce de Normandie; Sur le Mémoire qu’elle a publié relativement au Traité de Commerce avec l’Angleterre. Rouen.
———. 2011 [1809]. Remarks from 1809 by Dupont de Nemours on Adam Smith. Trans. F. Sautet. Econ Journal Watch 8(2): 174–184.
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Smith, Adam. 1981 [1789]. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Eds. R.H. Campbell, A.S., Skinner, and W.B. Todd. Liberty Fund: Indianapolis.
———. 1982a. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Ed. W.P.D. Wightman. Liberty Fund: Indianapolis.
———. 1982b [1790]. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed.s D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Liberty Fund: Indianapolis.
———. 1983 [1763]. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Ed. J.G. Bryce. Liberty Fund: Indianapolis.
———. 1987. The Correspondence of Adam Smith. Ed. E.C. Mossner and I.S. Ross. Liberty Fund: Indianapolis.
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