Self-Help Advice from Adam Smith and Jane Austen

essay arts & culture

by Cecil Bohanon and Michelle Vachris for AdamSmithWorks

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith offers a guide to personal happiness. Pursue prudence, benevolence, and justice, ground these in self-command, and you will live a happy and virtuous life.[i]In our 2015 book, Pride and Profit: The Intersection of Jane Austen and Adam Smith, we explain how Smith’s guide to a virtuous life is uncannily illustrated and embellished by 19th century novelist Jane Austen. Austen’s characters bring the lessons of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to life, giving us a richer sense of Smithian virtue and how it leads to human flourishing.
To Smith, prudence is more than simple frugality. The prudent person never “rashly or unnecessarily obtrudes his opinion” nor “assumes impertinently over anybody” (Smith, TMS, 214). Rather than earning warm praise, on its own the practice of prudence only “commands a certain cold esteem” (Smith, 216). This is because prudence is a virtue that only concerns the person practicing it. To attain happiness and praise, it must be augmented by virtues that aim to help others; or in Smith’s words “…the virtues of justice and beneficence; of which, the one restrains us from hurting, the other prompts us to promote that happiness” (Smith, 262).

We do not have to read very far into The Theory of Moral Sentiments to see the value that Smith places on benevolence. In Book 1, Chapter V he insists “…that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature” (Smith, 25). He ranks the virtues concerning our treatment of others.  While benevolence is encouraged, justice is required from all of us. “Justice…is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society…must in a moment crumble into atoms” (Smith, 86). Benevolence, meanwhile, “is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building” (Smith, 86).
These three virtues of prudence, benevolence, and justice (which we refer to as the PB&J virtues) are rooted in self-command. “Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre” (Smith, 241). Just as prudence is more than frugality, virtuous self-command is more than simple self-control to Smith. It is a habit, an acquired trait that allows us to cope with and make the best of even the most difficult situations. Smith admires “that degree of self-command which astonishes by its amazing superiority over the most ungovernable passions of human nature.” (Smith, 25)

We will now examine the PB&J triumvirate of Smithian virtues and Austen’s illustrations of them and then turn attention to the ubiquitous role of self-command to both authors.
A vivid depiction of the PB&J virtues can be found in Mansfield Park. The story begins with Mrs. Norris, who is engineering the move of her impoverished 10-year-old niece, Fanny Price, to live with her sister, Lady Bertram, at the splendor of Mansfield Park. At first glance, Mrs. Norris appears to embody the PB&J virtues. She describes herself thusly—“with all my faults. …My own trouble, you know, I never regard” (Austen, 451). Austen describes her as having “the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.” (Austen, 452). Scratch the surface of Mrs. Norris, though, and a different picture emerges. 

You see, Lord Bertram, her brother-in-law, assumed when Mrs. Norris took an interest in Fanny that she would live with Mrs. Norris and her husband, not at Mansfield Park. But it was Mrs. Norris’s plan all along for Fanny to live with Lord and Lady Bertram. Mrs. Norris is satisfied with the illusion of living the PB&J virtues as “…the pleasures of so benevolent a scheme were already enjoyed. The division of gratifying sensations ought not, in strict justice, to have been equal; for [another person] was fully resolved to be the real and consistent patron of the selected child, and Mrs. Norris had not the least intention of being at any expense whatever in her maintenance” (Austen, 452).  
In other words, Mrs. Norris’s virtue is all talk and no action. “As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others; but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends” (Austen, 452). As the story unfolds we see that Mrs. Norris is miserly, not prudent; unjust, especially with Fanny; and she is only beneficent with other people’s money! 

In contrast, Lord Bertram is genuinely prudent, beneficent, and just towards Fanny. Even when he is cross with Fanny and scolds her for rejecting a marriage offer, he is thoughtful enough to observe that she does not have a fire to warm her room and immediately orders that she regularly have one for her comfort. Eventually, he also withdraws his unjust scolding and assures her he will not try “to persuade [her] to marry against [her] inclinations” (Austen, 635). The contrast between Mrs. Norris and Lord Bertram illustrates what it means to put the PB&J virtues into action. 
Austen’s endorsement of Smith’s view of self-command is especially clear in her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. The novel is ostensibly about the trials and travails of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in the marriage market. It is, however, really a story about the virtue of self-command. Austen tells us early on that “[Elinor] had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was knowledge her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught…” (Austen, 33-34).

Elinor exhibits virtuous self-command at key points of the novel. Two notable occasions are her partings from Edward Ferrars, the object of Elinor’s affection. In the first parting, after a congenial visit, Elinor and Marianne are both confused by Edward’s brotherly, rather than affectionate, good-bye. Marianne remarks “Even now her (Elinor’s) self-command is invariable. When is she dejected or melancholy? ” (Austen, 30).
Austen shares Smith’s view of self-command as an acquired habit that both supports the other virtues and equips individuals to face difficult situations. After their second parting with still no marriage proposal, Austen reveals how Elinor builds self-command. Edward’s departure: “…left an uncomfortable impression on Elinor's feelings especially, which required some trouble and time to subdue. But as it was her determination to subdue it…Elinor sat down to her drawing-table as soon as he was out of the house, busily employed herself the whole day, neither sought nor avoided the mention of his name, appeared to interest herself almost as much as ever in the general concerns of the family, and if, by this conduct, she did not lessen her own grief, it was at least prevented from unnecessary increase…” (Austen, 66).

By contrast, Marianne “abhorred all concealment” (Austen, 79) of emotion, equating it to self-betrayal. While Elinor “busily employed herself the whole day…” upon Edward’s second departure, to Marianne “Such behavior as this, so exactly the reverse of her own appeared no more meritorious to Marianne than her own had seemed faulty to her. The business of self-command she settled very easily: with strong affections it was impossible, with calm ones it had no merit” (Austen, 66).
Austen illustrates that Smithian self-command goes beyond merely buckling down to get through tough times. If we have self-command, we do not repress our emotions. Rather, we govern them and direct them to better outcomes, much like we might use sails to direct the force of the wind to get us where we want to go at sea.
Elinor uses the command she has over her disappointment over Edward to try to help Marianne develop her own self-command. When it is publically revealed that Edward is to marry the vulgar Lucy Steele, Elinor thinks it is her duty to let Marianne know she had long been aware of the secret engagement, but “She was very far from wishing to dwell on her own feelings, or to represent herself as suffering much, any otherwise than as the self-command she had practised since her first knowledge of Edward's engagement, might suggest a hint of what was practicable to Marianne” (Austen, 153).

After this encounter, Marianne reveals that she is beginning to understand the importance of self-command, saying “if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are, perhaps, a little less to be wondered at.—They are brought more within my comprehension” (Austen, 154). 
Smith teaches us and Austen demonstrates to us the value of the virtues of prudence, benevolence, justice, and self-command. But how do we develop these virtues in ourselves? 
According to Smith, we want to be loved and be worthy of love, to be praised and be praiseworthy (Smith, 113-114). Our moral development begins as we seek to please others with our behavior. Other people, at first usually our family and close friends, either approve of or disapprove of our behavior, and we adjust our conduct accordingly. As we mature, we internalize this judgmental process and develop our own impartial spectator to help govern our actions. So while we initially behave because we want to please others, we eventually behave because we want to look in the mirror and like what we see.
Smith’s “impartial spectator” (Smith, 24) comes to our rescue, playing the role of a virtuous bystander judging our behavior. The impartial spectator is similar to our conscience but is more objective. In the title character of Jane Austen’s Emma, we see Smithian moral development in action, with Mr. Knightley assuming the role of her “demigod within the breast” (Smith, 131).

Early in the novel, Mr. Knightley is described as “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (Austen, 726). When Mr. Knightley criticizes Emma for trying to sabotage the engagement of her protégé Harriet Smith to the farmer Mr. Robert Martin, Emma tries to convince herself that she is right. But in the back of her mind she has a sneaky feeling that Mr. Knightley’s criticism is deserved, rooted in “a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her” (Austen, 758). 
A famous scene from the novel illustrates how affected Emma is by Mr. Knightley’s opinion of her. When Emma embarrasses the poor spinster Miss Bates at a picnic, Mr. Knightley reprimands Emma. Spurred by his reaction, the next day Emma strives to obtain Mr. Knightley’s approval by visiting Miss Bates to smooth things over. 

We know that Emma has finally internalized Mr. Knightley’s judgement when, after reaching out to her rival Jane Fairfax, Emma imagines “that could Mr. Knightley have been privy to all her attempts of assisting Jane Fairfax, could he even have seen into her heart, he would not, on this occasion, have found any thing to reprove” (Austen, 947). Mr. Knightley thus serves as an impartial spectator for Emma in her moral development until she is capable of self-improvement. 
Our impartial spectator helps us to live the virtues of prudence, benevolence, justice, and self-command, but it cannot perfectly govern our behavior. Even Emma’s spectator, Mr. Knightley, is biased by his love for her. Smith acknowledges this and describes how difficult it is to move beyond our biases and self-deceptions. “He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct.” (Smith 158) 
We see, then, that in spite of our tendency for self-delusion, we can be inspired by Smith’s and Austen’s advice. If we let our impartial spectator be our guide to help us develop the virtues of self-command, prudence, benevolence, and justice then we will be praised and praiseworthy, loved and lovely.

For more on the topic of living well like Adam Smith, see Shanon FitzGerald's "Cultivating Prudence in an Age of Pandemic."

[i] This essay is based on our 2015 book Pride and Profit: The Intersection of Jane Austen and Adam Smith Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. For further evidence of the self-help nature of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, see Russ Roberts (2014) How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life New York: Portfolio/Penguin.