Dear Adam Smith: Roommate Woes
Can Mr. Smith help reconcile roommates who, while once close, have grown apart?
Dear Mr. Smith,
We are just a few weeks into the semester, and I already have roommate woes.
Last spring, Emma and I seemed like such a good match. Jane Austen, Clueless, cookie dough ice cream: we loved all the same things. We were so in sync that I only had to look at her during a party to know what she was thinking: “As if!”
Now it’s like living with a stranger. On one hand, she is so absorbed in her romance with Frank that she can’t stop talking about his eyes, his hair, his biceps. So gross. On the other hand, she ignores my complaints about our community assistant, who harasses me endlessly. I don’t want to be harsh, but what can I do?
Frustrated on Campus
Dear Frustrated on Campus,
As Cher would say, “snaps” to you and Emma for your good taste in admiring Clueless. There is a pleasure in approving of the same object, and we (like the characters of that film) yearn for mutual sympathy.
Yet living with someone can be challenging, and the situations you describe—listening to lovers’ rhapsodies and expressions of resentment—are especially so. As I explain in my Theory of Moral Sentiments, love often includes passions of which we approve (such as humanity), but rhapsodies about the object of our affection appear ridiculous to others (TMS I.ii.2.1). It might be better for Emma (and you!) to have a sense of humor about such romantic enthusiasm.
Resentment, on the other hand, is more difficult to manage because it is such a disagreeable passion. As I note, “we are not half so anxious that our friends should adopt our friendships, as that they should enter into our resentments” (TMS I.i.2.5). It’s natural that you feel frustrated.
Fortunately, there is something you can do. Try to put yourself in your friend’s position when you are ranting about your community assistant. How might you sound to Emma? Is there any way in which you might flatten the sharpness of your tone so that she can go along with your sentiments? (TMS I.i.4.7). If so, you might restore some of your mutual tranquility.
I speak from experience. I once received a letter from my dear friend David Hume about a vicious rant to which he was subjected by the Bishop of Raphoe. Mr. Hume behaved with the utmost humility, asking pardon for any unintended insult, but the Bishop persisted in his venomous attack (Letter 104). I informed Mr. Hume that I would at the first opportunity slight the scoundrel, who was “a brute and a beast.” Since Mr. Hume restrained his indignation, I was happy to express it on his behalf (Letter 109).
I hope that you and Emma can restore your friendship and return to your discussions of Miss Austen’s novels. They are, after all, eloquent models of the sentiments and sensibility we should all embrace.
Yours in Fellow-Feeling,
Editor's Note: Letters to the "Dear Adam Smith" column are not, of course, answered by Adam Smith. He died in 1790. Letters are answered by Sarah Skwire, Caroline Breashears, and Janet Bufton. Advice is for the purposes of amusement and education about Smith's thought. We do our best, but caveat emptor and follow our advice at your own risk.