Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: Sense, Sensibility, and Adam Smith

sympathy theory of moral sentiments jane austen literature novel sense and sensibility

Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

Jane Austen isn’t the first name that comes to mind when we think of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, or the moral side of the pursuit of wealth. But the England in which she lived and wrote her six extraordinary novels was deeply affected by the economic and social changes that Smith described in The Wealth of Nations. In this series, I’ll explore how several of her characters confront the moral consequences of the pursuit of wealth. 
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Adam Smith was a cheerleader for the modern world, a defender of self-interest, and an apologist for capitalism—among people who have never read Smith. Those who know their Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments realize, of course, that even while explicating and defending concepts such as the division of labor and the invisible hand, Smith expressed serious concerns about the ways that the Industrial Revolution and its newfound wealth deformed moral and intellectual habits, and the quest for wealth in particular took some of our best and most human impulses and turned them against us.
Consider the example of the poor man’s son, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” in Book IV of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His sympathy with the rich—his imaginative ability to put himself in their shoes and look upon their estates and carriages as they might see them—convinces him that if he can obtain their riches, he will be happier and have more leisure. As a result, Smith says, “he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered throughout the whole of his life from the want of them.” Only in his dying moments, looking at reality in the light of the “splenetic philosophy” that opens our eyes when we’re ill, does he realize that wealth and greatness are “mere trinkets of frivolous utility” that afford him little happiness. For these useless items, he “sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power.” Human imaginative sympathy, normally a force for good in Smith’s world, causes the financially ambitious man to spin his wheels and accrue a number of moral failings along the way, making “court to all mankind,” serving “those whom he hates,” and being “obsequious to all he despises.” Like an eighteenth-century Charles Foster Kane, he sees at the end of his life, sick and saddened by his toils, that he’s given up the time and experiences (and items of sentimental snow equipment) that are the most valuable aspects of human life for illusory phantoms of grandeur.
But then the passage takes an abrupt turn: “It is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner,” Smith tells us, because it is this fundamental self-delusion that improves the world for humankind. It’s the source of agriculture and trade, the founding of cities and commonwealths, and the source of “all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life.” And it is this self-delusion, this striving towards the empty promises of wealth and greatness, that causes the lot of the rest of mankind to improve. The ambition of the poor man’s son and others like him might be unlimited, but the size of his belly is not. He is “led by an invisible hand” to take only the best from the heap, leaving the considerably enhanced remains to the rest of us. And this is how the world prospers, and the lot of even the very poorest is gradually improved: through the needless toil and love of money that deform the characters of the ambitious.
My interest in the problem that Smith confronts here—how the quest for money and the delusion that money can buy happiness may destroy individual souls even as they make us all better off—grows out of my job, teaching in the Great Books program at St. John’s College, where one quickly gets a sense for the profound cognitive dissonance that money and wealth inspire among philosophers. From Plato’s plan to isolate the thinkers from the makers, to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelian assertion that it is only the contemplative life that is unconcerned with the acquisition of money that brings us to the worthy view of god, to Karl Marx’s reduction of all human unhappiness to economic inequality, most attempts to reckon with the role of money in human moral life end in asserting that wealth is an unmitigated evil. Yet Smith does not. In doing so, he reckons honestly with a problem that many others ignored. 
Still, he doesn’t solve what that problem looks like in an individual human life. But there’s another thinker, a near contemporary of Smith’s, who I think took some of Smith’s questions to heart and tried to think through the paradox he describes and how it looks in the lives of human beings. 
Her name is Jane Austen.
Austen isn’t the first name that comes to mind when we think of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, or the moral side of the pursuit of wealth. But the England in which she lived and wrote her six extraordinary novels was deeply affected by the economic and social changes that Smith described in The Wealth of Nations. In this series, I’ll explore how several of her characters confront the moral consequences of the pursuit of wealth. Because they are women of the minor landowning class in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, this pursuit of wealth is even more tied up in their personal lives and moral selves. Prevented by their sex and class from making their way in the world through business or the professions, they are forced to pursue their economic stability—often their very survival—through advantageous marriages. But if anything, this only intertwines the moral and the economic in a closer way.
Austen’s novels show us in the individual lives of her characters the moral meaning of the pursuit of money. They confront the old philosophical cognitive dissonance about wealth and possessions and show us that money is part of a moral life, whether we like it or not. And they bring the problems of money into sharp relief.
I’ll start with Sense and Sensibility, the novel most directly in conversation with Smith’s ideas.
Sense and Sensibility was written and set around 1797, and, like many of Austen’s novels, begins with a problem at the intersection of economics, inheritance law, and social prejudices. There’s a family called Dashwood, and they’re better off than most. Mr. Dashwood has just inherited a very fine estate in the Sussex countryside from an elderly relative, but as Austen tells us, this gift “gave as much disappointment as pleasure.” It has been left to him entailed, according to the cruel laws of primogeniture. Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence describes primogeniture, the principle that the eldest son should inherit the estate of a father intact and whole, as an artifact of a feudal society that has outlived its usefulness in a developed, commercial one. Nevertheless, primogeniture, entail, and the disinheriting of women are often the drivers which cause Austen’s characters to seek their fortunes. Mr. Dashwood has a son from a previous marriage and three daughters from his current one. In the conjugal markets of the English gentry, their desirability as brides is tied to the money they can bring their husbands. Mr. Dashwood resolves to save a portion of the income from the estate for his daughters’ dowries. But he dies within a year, leaving his second family impoverished and the Dashwood sisters at the mercy of their half brother. He’s married to a venial, conniving wife, who quickly talks him down from doing anything for his sisters but paying their moving costs to relocate from only home they have ever known.
The sisters, then, face the marriage market in a new neighborhood, where they have moved to a falling-down cottage on the estate of a wealthy relative. This is at the urging of Elinor, the oldest sister, and much to the dismay of the rest of the women. She is 19 and the “sense” of the novel’s title, always urging the financially prudent path on her mother and younger sister, Marianne, 16. Although “Marianne’s abilities were in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s” and include sensibleness, cleverness, generosity, and amiability, although notably not her sister’s prudence. Marianne is “sensibility,” which in the eighteenth century meant something like openness to beauty and art and the kind of exquisite sense for the feelings of others that Smith describes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
A major theme of the novel—and a point of contrast between Elinor and Marianne—is what each is willing to due to pursue the advantageous marriages that will secure their futures. Elinor’s early association with prudence suggests that she will be the fortune-hunting sister. In TMS, Smith says that the virtue of prudence that first recommends the “advantages of external fortune” to us, although in time, we realize that our rank, reputation, and standing among our equals are equally manifestations of the virtue. But in fact, Elinor and her suitor, Edward Ferrars, are the two characters in the novel who seem least interested in these pursuits. Marianne quickly attracts the attention of John Willoughby, the nephew of a local grande dame (the aptly named Mrs. Smith) who reportedly will bestow her fortune upon him, in addition to one that he already has. Marianne and Willoughby cavort around the countryside in his barouche, talking animatedly about their mutual love for music, romantic poetry, and the adventure novels of Walter Scott. Just in case, Marianne has a backup beau, although he is less exciting in every way, being 35, a bit solemn, and less rich than Willoughby (although shockingly rich by any modern reckoning, with an estate that nets him 2,000 pounds per year, equivalent to an income north of $350,000 in today’s dollars). It’s Marianne who begins to seem like the fortune-hunter, despite Austen’s description of her lack of prudence and her wild, romantic fancies.
The contrast between Elinor and Marianne in matters of the pursuit of wealth couldn’t be more stark than it is in a conversation they have early in the novel with Edward. Edward is talking with the Dashwoods about his mother’s plans for him. A rich man’s son whom heaven in its anger has visited with indolence and colorlessness, he bemoans the pressure he’s under to make something of himself, preferably as a great orator or jurist. “I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but like every body else it must be in my own way,” he complains. “Greatness will not make me so.” 
Marianne’s responds, after the fashion of a romantic but adding a term that Edward did not use, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” Elinor’s prudence prompts her to reply, “Grandeur has but little…but wealth has much to do with it.” 
The conversation that ensues reveals that Marianne’s idea of barely enough to survive on and Elinor’s concept of a vast fortune are, respectively, about 2,000 pounds a year and 1,000. Marianne, as it transpires, is imagining vividly her future life at Combe Magna, Willoughby’s vast estate, where 2,000 pounds will only just support “a proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters.” Willoughby happens to enjoy la chasse. Marianne’s eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow “with the delight of such imaginary happiness.”
Austen plays on two meanings of the word “imaginary” here. One is the imagination that Smith describes as fundamental to sympathy: the ability to imagine ourselves in the position of others, even if it’s just ourselves in the future, the mistress of a vast estate and the possessor of several fine steeds. The other is something closer to our current usage: as in, the Tooth Fairy is an imaginary character, not real person who gives children cash in exchange for mouth bones, and believing in this myth as an adult would be ridiculous. The ambiguity is a master stroke which underscores Smith’s point in TMS: it is not a narrow prudence that leads to the pursuit of wealth. Elinor is attending to how much she would need to live on; Marianne’s mind is entangling the pleasures of love, romance, a future of material splendor, and the regard of everyone around her for her new position. If she is prudent, she is prudent only in the sense that she has figured out what Smith says ultimately drives our search for more than subsistence: that “our credit and rank in the society we live in, depends very much upon the degree in which we possess…the advantages of fortune.”
It’s Edward’s reply that convinces me that Austen has Smith specifically in mind in setting up these contrasts between imagination and a more narrow prudence in the pursuit of wealth. Playing that all-too-familiar party game of “what would I do with a billion dollars?” Edward suggests that great benefits would accrue to the world if someone gave a fortune to Marianne. “What a happy day for booksellers, music-sellers, and print-shops!…I know her greatness of soul, there would not be music enough in London to content her. And books!—Thomson, Cowper, Scott—she would buy them all over and over again; she would buy up every copy…and the bulk of your fortune would be laid out in annuities on the authors or their heirs.” Like the poor man’s son, her imaginative capacities will benefit “all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life,” at least in Edward’s view.
Alas for Marianne, her subsequent journey recalls the poor man’s son’s sad fate. When Willoughby slips away from the neighborhood, Marianne goes in literal pursuit of a fortune. Paying court to the only nearby elderly female who can serve as a suitable chaperone (and whom Marianne despises for a fool), she gets herself passage to London, where Willoughby has gone. In the great metropolis, she spends her hours, often late into the night, writing him pleading letters about the fate of their romance. As her sister points out, she resembles nothing so much as a clerk hoping for a promotion. When it turns out that Willoughby, bankrupt, has engaged himself to an heiress, Marianne is utterly dejected. On the journey home from London, she falls dangerously ill and nearly dies; when she recovers, she tells Elinor that even in the midst of her delirium, “perfectly able to reflect,” she realized how much her pursuit of Willoughby and his wealth turned her away “from every exertion of duty or friendship” towards her family. Had she remained in her humble cottage, she might have been happy, had she only realized it. The point is made again when she marries Colonel Brandon and his 2,000 a year: exactly the sum that might have secured her, all the way back on page 87, her competency for happiness. Most satisfyingly, she learns that the well-named Mrs. Smith declines to bestow her fortune on Willoughby after all, having learned of her nephew’s poor conduct towards her. 
If Austen had left the matter there, it would have been little more than interesting footnote to Smith’s discussion of the poor man’s son. But Austen seems more optimistic than Smith that this bouncing between imagination and realism has had a purpose and a meaning in Marianne’s complicated life. Elinor, with her good sense, prudence, and realism, is often taken for the hero of Sense and Sensibility. But Elinor, as sober and sensible as she is, isn’t enough to carry a story. Austen listed her in a letter among her characters who were just a little too good to be believed. Her romance with the colorless, unambitious Edward undergoes no significant changes from beginning to end: they simply wait for others to remove the obstacles in their way. It’s Marianne’s imaginations, delusions, splenetic illness, and eventual recovery that drives the plot. And it’s Marianne, in the end, who has the imagination and sense of grandeur, along with the newly acquired prudence, to serve as the patroness of the village of Delaford, dispensing charity and benefices with both sense and sensibility (including one to Elinor and Edward, so that they may marry). The suggestion, I think, is that Elinor’s prudence and lack of imagination would have never allowed her to play Marianne’s role of benefactress to her little corner of the world. Where Smith’s poor man’s son never has the opportunity to benefit from his character arc, Marianne lives to “discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims”: to reap the benefit of the realization that she was wrong, and indeed can be wrong. And this, in the end, might be one of the most important revelations that any human has. 

This is part 1 of a 3-part series by Shannon Chamberlain.
Read the second part here:
Jane Austen's Theory of Moral Sentiments: Pride, Prejudice, and Prudence