Smith and Rousseau's Competing Visions of Commercial Society

January/February 2024

with Ted Harpham
Pre-registration is required, and we ask you to register only if you can be present for ALL sessions. Some readings must be acquired in advance. You may use promo code VRG2023 to receive 35% off your purchase at Liberty Fund Books.  Participants who successfully complete ALL sessions will be eligible to receive an Amazon e-gift certificate.

This VRG will investigate the competing visions and critiques of commercial society found in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith. The first two sessions focus upon close readings of Rousseau’s Second Discourse (1754), along with Adam Smith’s early review of the book, first published as a Letter to the Edinburgh Review in 1755-6. Session 2 will also discuss brief excerpts from Rousseau’s On the Social Contract (1762). The third and fourth sessions will discuss selections from Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations in light of Rousseau’s moral critique of commercial society. Among the topics to be discussed in these sessions will be the ideas of pity and sympathy, of benevolence and justice, the impartial spectator and the General Will, the division of labor, and the Natural History of Opulence. Throughout all four sessions, attention will focus on how Smith’s thought might be a response to or extension of Rousseau’s perspective.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Basic Political Writings Second edition. Translated and edited by Donald A. Cress

Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1976. 

Adam Smith. An Inquiry into Nature and Causes of the wealth of Nations. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty classics: 1981. 

Adam Smith. “Letter to the Edinburgh Review. 1755-56.” In Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1982. This book is also available online through the Liberty Fund website.

Session 1: Tuesday, January 16, 2024, 1-2 pm EST, Rousseau’s Critique of Commercial Society

Leading questions: How does Smith link Rousseau’s thought to that of Bernard Mandeville and Thomas Hobbes? What are the two principles “prior to reason” that exist in the human soul? Why is the principle of “sociability” unnecessary in Rousseau’s analysis? Why is the distinction between natural inequality and moral inequality an important one for Rousseau? What does the “state of nature” mean for Rousseau? Why is “pity” an important concept for Rousseau in the state of nature?


Adam Smith’s Letter to the Edinburgh Review in Adam Smith’s Essays on Philosophical Subjects 1755-6 (Liberty Fund: 242-54)

Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality 1754. (24 pages)
  • Letter to the Republic of Geneva
  • Preface
  • Part I
  • Note IX (6 pages)

Session 2: Tuesday, January 23, 2024, 1-2 pm EST, Rousseau on Inequality and Freedom

Leading questions: How is Part II of the Second Discourse different from Part I? What is the natural history of the movement from nature to society for Rousseau? Why is the distinction between amour propre and amour de soi-même important to Rousseau’s understanding of commercial society (see note XV in Second Discourse)? How does Rousseau conceive of freedom and moral relations in the state of nature or in an advanced commercial society? How does Rousseau view the division of labor and economic development? Is the movement into society a good thing or a bad thing for the human race? Was there ever a choice? Why does Rousseau believe that the General Will makes citizens free?


Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality 1754.
  • Part 2. (24 pages)
  • Note IX (6 pages)
  • Note XV (1 page)
  • On the Social Contract: Chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7. (7 pages)

Session 3: Tuesday, January 30, 2024, 1-2 pm EST, Smith on Sympathy, Morals, and Justice

Leading questions: What does Smith mean by “sympathy” and “mutual sympathy”? How do sympathy and mutual sympathy generate “fellow feelings” that bind individuals together in societies? Is Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments an extension or a rejection of Rousseau’s vision of commercial society in the Second Discourse? Does Smith’s “impartial spectator” resemble Rousseau’s notion of the general will? How might it offer an alternative viewpoint to Rousseau’s General Will? 


Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
  • Adam Smith: TMS:  Part I: Chapters 1,2, and 3. (pp.9-19)
  • Adam Smith: TMS: Part II. Sections 1 and 2 (pp. 67-91)
  • Adam Smith: TMS Part III. Chapters 1-2 (pp. 109-34)

Session 4: Tuesday, February 6, 2024, 1-2 pm EST, Smith on the Division of Labor and the Natural Progress of Opulence and Government

Leading questions: How does Smith’s discussion of the division of labor offer an alternative perspective to Rousseau’s for viewing commercial society and the progress of wealth? What are the problems that the division of labor introduces into an advancing commercial society? What can be done to alleviate these problems? How does Smith’s view of the natural history of government in Book V differ from Rousseau’s idea of the social contract and the general will? How might Rousseau respond to Smith’s proposals for a government based on the system of natural liberty? 


Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
  • Adam Smith WN: Part I: Chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 13-30)
  • Adam Smith: Conclusion to Chapter 11 (pp. 264-67)
  • Adam Smith WN Part III:  Chapter 1 (pp. 376-380)
  • Adam Smith WN Part IV: pp. 687-88.
  • Adam Smith WN: Part V: pp.781-88.