Adam Smith and Aristotle

Charlotte Thomas for AdamSmithWorks

November 20, 2019
Often, I’m asked how I can take seriously ancient thinkers who would certainly not take a woman seriously. “Its easy,” I reply. “I pay attention to the arguments they make about human beings and not the ones they make about me not being one.” 

I’m also asked things like “Would Plato call Donald Trump a tyrant?” or “what would Aristotle say about the electoral college?” I try to answer politely when I can, but those arguments always feel vulnerable -- like I am stepping out onto a high wire strung over a chasm too wide to manage.

That is not how it is at all when I am asked about connections between Aristotle and Adam Smith. Despite the two thousand years between them, there is no chasm to cross—no conceptual incommensurability to cite before I back slowly away. Aristotle’s influence on Smith is incontrovertibly clear. 

In order to highlight some of the ways that Smith’s moral theory seems to be in conversation with Aristotle, I will present three Aristotelian ideas, then work backwards through that list to explore their reflections in Smith. 



1. Aristotelian Flourishing
“Happiness” is the ubiquitous English translation of Aristotle’s word eudaimonia, and it isn’t a very good one. Eudaimonia describes an active state of a human being who is fully developed and flourishing. A tree flourishes in this sense, for example, when it is acting excellently in all the ways that trees can act—when its leaves are “leaving” excellently, its roots are “rooting” in ways that all roots would aspire to root if they knew all about rooting. Its bark is “barking” beautifully. Etc. When a tree does all of its tree activities well and brings all those activities into a unified and coherent tree life, it is flourishing. 

By analogy with the tree, a human being would flourish if she was actively doing all the essential human things excellently and bringing all of them together into a unified and coherent human life. And this is exactly what Aristotle seems to mean by eudaimonia: to actively exercise all the excellences that a person can embody in a human life. So far so good. The next step is where things get tricky. 

In order to give any content at all to the idea of human flourishing, we have to consider the activities appropriate to a human being. When we looked at our admittedly over-simplified tree image, it was easy. Trees have certain uncontroversial activities that define them as trees, and embodying the excellence of all those activities in a coherent life would constitute flourishing. But the essential activities of human life are not uncontroversial at all. They are a huge tangle. Nonetheless, we must figure out what they are if we are to know what human flourishing would look like to Aristotle. And, in fact, Aristotle spends much of the Nicomachean Ethics discussing the excellences of particular human activities that would need to come together in coherent life in order for one to flourish. He calls them “virtues.” 




2. Aristotelian Virtue
Aristotle’s word for virtue is “arete,” which is more accurately translated excellence. But, “virtue” is a fine word for the sort of distinctively human excellence Aristotle has in mind. In order to understand the excellence of any activity, we need to know the particular constraints that define it. 

In order to know the excellence of a human eye, we need to know the function of a human eye. I expect to be able to get glasses that give me perfect vision, but, I don’t expect to be able to read a book without light or see through walls. The perfection of my eyesight does not include the capacity to do things that are not part of the normal functioning of human eyes. Even if we were to try to construct the pinnacle of the excellent function of a human eye in order to explore the heights of possibility (an exercise that Aristotle engages in all the time), we wouldn’t get to x-ray vision. 20/20 may set too low a bar for “perfection,” but x-ray vision clearly sets it too high. We may never zero in on the precise pinnacle of human vision; but, we can probably get close enough to establish reasonable ambitions for human eyesight. 



By analogy, in order to ask what human excellence looks like, we first have to ask what the essential functions of a human life are. What should we be shooting for? What should we recognize to be out of our proper range (like x-ray vision)? Aristotle takes an indirect path. He begins with sketches of excellences (virtues) and then works back towards the activities for which they are excellences. 



Courage is always the easiest Aristotelian virtue to start with because it maps so neatly onto the schema Aristotle provides. It is the mean relative to fear. That is, when one acts on the right amount of fear in the right way at the right time and for the right reasons, one is acting courageously. And one must determine the “right amount” of fear based both on the situation and on, to use Smith’s term, the “person principally concerned.” The right amount of fear that one should have standing on a pitchers’ mound in a baseball game varies wildly depending on whether you are Julio Teheran or, say, me. 

What’s crucial for our current consideration is not how to find the mean, but the way Aristotle began his description of courage. It is, he says, the mean relative to fear. Where did fear come from in this consideration? The short answer is just that Aristotle introduced it. But including courage in a list of human virtues means including “responding to fear” in the short list of activities that define the human condition. If we extrapolate in the same way from the other virtues discussed in the Nicomachean Ethics we get a list of distinctive human activities (and virtues) which begins like this: 

  • managing fear (courage)
  • managing pleasures and pains (moderation)
  • managing giving and taking (liberality)
  • managing big gives and takes (magnificence)
  • managing ambition (greatness of soul)

Practically every element of this list is controversial, and it I have edited it down to the first five intentionally. The point for the moment is that we can begin to draft a rough list of activities that define the human condition – a rough sense of the ambitions that Aristotle thinks are appropriate for human beings. The list may need infinite work, and doing that work may be, in fact, be an essential part of living well for some of us. But even if such a list is impossible to complete, it is not at all impossible to draft. For Aristotle, we can begin to think about virtues because we can begin to think about the distinctive activities of human living. 




3. Mirroring (Aristotelian Friendship)
Aristotle spends a whopping twenty percent of the Nicomachean Ethics on the topic of friendship. Why? Because a good friendship is one’s best hope for seeing oneself clearly, and seeing oneself clearly is a necessary condition for developing the virtues. The process looks something like this: 

  1. Deliberate on your situation and decide how it should be managed.
  2. Make a deliberate choice to act in a certain way. 
  3. Act
  4. Reflect on your actions and their consequences
  5. Incorporate what you learned next time you deliberate on similar situations. 

Friendship can play a role in any step along the way, but it is particularly important for step number four. Human beings are famously bad at judging matters that affect us directly. For Aristotle, the best remedy for our partiality is having a good friend who has one’s best interests at heart, shares one’s ambitions for virtue, and is committed to being actively attentive and engaged. And, such friends really need to live together. In the ancient world, this meant that such friendship was only really an option for wealthy men who had a great deal of leisure. In the contemporary world, leisure is more available to less wealthy people, but only marriages seem to offer a conventional model for such a commitment. 




4. Mirroring (Smith’s Impartial Spectator)
Smith, like Aristotle, understood that clarity about oneself was nigh impossible. Smith’s innovation was to appeal to the imagination to serve something like the function that friendship had served for Aristotle. So there are some family resemblances between the way friendship works in Aristotelian moral theory and the way the Impartial Spectator works in Smith’s moral theory, but there are also substantial differences. Smith’s moral theory does not emerge out of a vacuum, but it is brilliantly original. 

The Impartial Spectator is an imaginative construct created by someone observing someone else’s actions. Smith calls that someone else “the person principally concerned.” The observer appeals to the Impartial Spectator to determine whether or not that person has acted appropriately. Whatever one learns from the Impartial Spectator’s view of the predicament of the person principally concerned becomes a part of the store of experiences and judgments that one can use both for oneself and for others going forward. 

Rather than taking the Aristotelian approach of cultivating a friendship with someone who can become an accurate and sympathetic observer, Smith recommends cultivating an imaginary persona that will help one learn from observing others. And then, as those lessons accrue and one gains practice at forming such judgments, one can begin to take the same perspective on oneself. 

Engaging the Impartial Spectator is also a path toward moderating passions. By taking another’s perspective, we may realize that expressing a more moderate sentiment is more likely to elicit sympathy. We all want sympathy, according to Smith, and we are more likely to get it when the intensity of our passions is not completely out of proportion with what others think is warranted. So, we moderate our passions in order to make the sympathy of others more likely. In the process, we become more moderate. 




5. Smithian Virtue
Smith begins his account of the “Character of Virtue” in Book VI of the Theory of Moral Sentiments with a few claims that seem to operate like axioms. First, he says that “external fortune” is a necessary condition for gaining “the respect of our equals” and “our credit and rank in society.” Since we desire respect and rank, which depend on external resources, we value habits (of mind and action) that tend to promote the acquisition and conservation of those resources. We call the man who embodies those habits “prudent.” 

Our concern for ourselves grounds the virtue of prudence. Our concerns for others ground the next two virtues Smith presents: justice and beneficence. Everyone naturally feels his own pleasures and pains most intensely, but empathy with one’s family and closest friends comes in just behind. As we live closely with people, we naturally develop a disinclination for anything that could hurt them. We call those who cultivate the habits of mind and action that mitigate against harm, “just.” Similarly, we naturally develop an inclination toward anything that could benefit those same people. And, we call “beneficent” those who cultivate habits that tend to promote those benefits. 

The template for the derivation of all of these virtues is the same. We start with sympathy and a natural inclination toward self-care or the care of those close to us. We move to a consideration of the necessary conditions for achieving those things we are naturally inclined to desire. And, we call “virtuous” those who have mastered habits conducive to creating those conditions. 

Smith’s virtues are, structurally, very different from Aristotle’s virtues; but, functionally, they are actually quite similar. Aristotelian virtues begin with human activities. Smithian virtues begin in human desires. Both are grounded in human nature. Aristotle extrapolates from the distinctively human activities he highlights to the highest possibilities for the cultivation of those activities and calls them virtues. Flourishing is an active life characterized by a coherent and holistic set of virtues. Smith begins with distinctively human desires, thinks through the conditions for satisfying those desires, and calls virtuous the person who is good at promoting those conditions. In both cases, the ground of virtue is natural; its mode of development is social; its actualization is context and subject dependent, and the only standard against which any virtue can be judged is the image of a virtuous person. 

All this means that there is no objective standard against which a claim of virtue or vice can be adjudicated. For Aristotle, the decisive judgment comes from a virtuous man. Who can tell you whether or not you’re holding a guitar properly? A masterful guitar player. Who can tell you whether or not your marathon training schedule is sensible? An experienced marathon runner. Who can tell you whether or not you are being generous (rather than stingy or profligate)? A generous person. Who should you consult with about whether or not a decision is just? A just person. The more abstract the excellence, the more circular the logic seems, but it is not incoherent. 

Smith does not send us to find a virtuous man to determine whether or not some action or some person is consonant with virtue. Instead, he returns us to the Impartial Spectator. Who knows whether or not you are acting in accordance with prudence or justice or beneficence? The Impartial Spectator does. And if you have made a habit of conferring with him, then the man in your breast does, too. 




6. Smithian Flourishing
Before Smith moves from prudence to justice and beneficence, he hints at an image of a life awfully close to Aristotelian flourishing. Mere prudence, we learn, is extremely important, but not very interesting. It commands, Smith says, “ a certain cold esteem, but seems not entitled to any very ardent love or admiration.” Superior prudence, on the other hand, is mere prudence “combined with many greater and more splendid virtues, with valour, with extensive and strong benevolence, with a sacred regard to the rules of justice, and all these supported by a proper degree of self-command.” It “is the best head joined to the best heart.” One can hardly imagine higher praise. 

One passage that has polarized Smith scholars interested in reconciling the teachings for virtue in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations is known as “The Poor Man’s Son” (TMS IV.1.8). In this vignette, the son of a poor man is driven throughout his life by his desire to acquire objects of frivolous utility. On his deathbed, the poor man’s son realizes that he sacrificed real tranquility in order to acquire things that falsely promised tranquility. It is natural for people to be deceived in this way, and, Smith writes shortly after the conclusion of this morality tale, that “it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” 

Some of the best readers of Smith are split on how interpret this passage. Charles Griswold, for example, sees tragedy, and Ryan Hanley has a more sanguine view. Hanley points us to Smith’s account of the life of the prudent man for an alternative to the plight of the Poor Man’s Son. 
The man who lives within his income, is naturally contented with his situation, which, by continual, though small accumulations, is growing better and better every day. . . . He has no anxiety to change so comfortable a situation, and does not go in quest of new enterprises and adventures, which might endanger, but could not well increase, the secure tranquility which he actually enjoys. (TMS VI, 1.12)

This cannot be Smith’s whole account of something like Aristotelian eudaimonia, since it comes within the description of mere prudence. But, perhaps if we imagine that the person living this life has attached his prudence to other virtues and risen to what Smith calls “superior prudence,” it might just be something like Smithian flourishing. 



I want to believe that Smith believed that commercial and moral ambitions were compatible, but I admit to not being entirely convinced. It seems more likely to me that Smith recommends a life of superior prudence to everyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear his recommendation (not to mention the will to follow through). But, it seems likely to me that he does not think it very likely that a critical mass of human beings in commercial societies will be able to resist the allure of frivolous utilities. Smith is far less pessimistic than Aristotle, who stipulates that very few human beings have the external goods necessary to cultivate virtue, and even fewer will choose or be able to follow through even if they develop an ambition for virtue. The worst case scenario for Aristotle is slavery. For Smith the worst case seems to be working too much and being disappointed by one’s acquisitions. Perhaps Smith finds it unlikely that very many people will aspire to superior prudence in commercial society. How problematic this turns out to be is, for me, an open question.