Heroes of the Smithian Turn, Part 1 of 2

sympathy literature mutual sympathy sympathetic imagination american conservatism

December 6, 2022

Penn invites readers to consider the Smithian ideas of sympathy and imagination woven throughout Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning
This is part 1 of a 2 part article. The second part is here.

Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Heros), an intimate portrayal of four friends who reunite one evening in rural Wyoming to celebrate the inauguration of a new president at their small, conservative Catholic college, is one of the most important plays that emerged amidst the turbulence of the past few years. First produced in 2019, critics heralded Arbery’s play as a refreshingly thoughtful portrayal of the kinds of people that tend to be at best misunderstood and at worst misrepresented in contemporary media. Arbery doesn’t just approach his subjects with empathy – he makes empathy one of the key subjects that twenty and thirty-somethings Justin, Emily, Kevin, and Teresa debate together as they struggle to reconcile their faith and their education with their place in modernity. 

Although it’s possible that they would have encountered his work as part of their studies at Transfiguration College (inspired by the real-life Wyoming Catholic College, whose curriculum emphasizes the Great Books), the arguably deistic Adam Smith is not among the many references to notable thinkers and poets the devout protagonists bandy about during the course of the evening. Even so, the kind-hearted and chronically ill Emily in many ways embraces the account of empathy (or “sympathy”) Smith famously developed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). While Justin argues for a retreat from the world, Teresa clamors to fight with it, and Kevin oscillates between the two in bleakly hilarious confusion, Emily’s quiet but firm conviction in the empathy’s moral force injects a Smithian strain in the quartet’s increasingly charged exchanges. 

Heroes is in many ways a dark play about troubled people, their inner demons, and the edges of empathy. However, it is also fundamentally a story about another of Smith’s key insights: the importance of friendship to human happiness. Friendship is key to finding a home within modernity, even with all its ills – and whether they like it or not, the children of Transfiguration College are living in Smith’s world. 


In TMS, Smith lays out an argument for locating the source of morality in the human person rather than the divine. However, the mechanism through which we develop our moral sentiments is hardly solipsistic. In Smith’s view, humans carry within them a natural desire to understand the perspective of others, especially when attempting to discern whether other’s actions or one’s own are morally just. In other words, Smith’s famous “impartial spectator” is a check against our own defective ability to fully enter into the thoughts and feelings of others. “His interests….can never be put into the balance with our own, can never restrain us from doing whatever may tend to promote our own, how ruinous soever to him,” Smith writes. “Before we can make any proper comparison of those opposite interests, we must change our position.”[1]

The question of shifting perspectives haunts each of Heroes’s protagonists, especially as they try to take stock conservatism’s future in the dizzying political landscape of 2017. Arbery deliberately sets his play a week after the notorious Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and the quartet spend a whiskey-soaked evening touching on everything from Steve Bannon’s role in American politics, to the internet’s influence over public discourse, to whether Trump is a golem or a form of “chemotherapy.”[2] As a provocative political writer living in New York who is convinced that the American left and right are on the verge of some kind of cataclysmic confrontation, Teresa has the play’s sharpest tongue, and she uses it to declare that she has no use for empathy. “Oh don’t with the empathy,” she snaps at Emily as the friends argue over whether or not there are any “good” people on the other side of the political aisle. “Empathy is empty. Hannah Arendt says we don’t need to feel what someone else is feeling  - first of all that’s impossible, second of all it’s self-righteous and breeds complacency, third of all it’s politically irresponsible. Empathize with someone and suddenly you’re erasing the boundaries of your own conscience, suddenly you’re living under the tyranny of their desires. We need to know how to think how they’re thinking. From a distance.”[3] 

In some ways, Smith would agree with Teresa. “Though our brother is upon the rack, so long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers,” he notes in the first chapter of TMS.[4] “It is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.” However, even if our sentiments can never be in perfect concord with another’s, Smith differs significantly from Teresa in concluding that we derive our greatest happiness from finding a way to harmonize them. It is no accident that, to use Smith’s words, that “we run not only to congratulate the successful, but to condole with the afflicted” (emphasis added).[5] Part of what makes Teresa such a fascinating but frightening figure is her eagerness to wall herself off from this decidedly human impulse that “enlivens joy and alleviates grief.”[6]  

However, there is another point where Smith, Teresa, and even Emily agree. As Smith notes in his chapter on propriety, to sympathize with another’s sentiments is necessarily to approve of them. Although she chose not to attend Transfiguration College, like her friends Emily is a devout Catholic who was employed at a crisis pregnancy center in Chicago before she became ill. Emily finds herself sympathizing with many of the women she encountered in the course of her work, including the ones who chose to terminate their pregnancies. “But it’s about these women….They taught me so much about what it’s actually like, and how hard these decisions actually are,” Emily explains to Teresa, trying in vain to convince Teresa to reconsider her position.[7] At the same time, Emily is similarly afraid of what it means to sympathize with someone whose decisions are completely opposed to her religious worldview. “I think feeling it might just be dangerous,” she explains in veiled terms to Justin early in the play. “It makes me feel violated. Taken-over. I think it might just make me a non-person.”[8] 

Despite these reservations, Emily finds a way to sympathize with every character in the play – from the stoic Justin, to the acerbic Teresa, to the blustering (and often wildly inappropriate) Kevin. She even finds a way to sympathize with her complicated and demanding mother Gina, Transfiguration’s new president and the reason behind the alumni reunion (after criticizing her mother’s overbearing nature, she seemingly can’t help but in the same breath praise her strength as dedicated teacher who taught fulltime while battling breast cancer). At the same time, the most remarkable moment in the play is driven by an unexpected (and terrifying) expansion in Emily’s empathetic nature. To describe it in detail would give too much of the play away, but suffice it to say that this moment both represents the logical conclusion of the Smithian predicament Emily finds herself in and a miraculous elevation of her capacity for what Smith called the “amiable” virtue of entering into another’s sentiments.[9] And it is all brought on by the threatened dissolution of her friendship with Justin. 

Part 2 of Nicole Penn's article will be published shortly.

Want more?
Nicole Penn's Quarantining with Adam Smith at Law&Liberty
The Infidel and the Professor: The Friendship of Adam Smith and David Hume and an #AMA with author Dennis Rasmussen at AdamSmithWorks
Great Antidote Extras: Matthew Continetti on the American Right at Speaking of Smith
Pierre Lemieux, The National Greatness Fraud, at EconLog
Alberto Mingardi, Is the Future of Conservatism "National"? at EconLog

[1] TMS, 135.
[2] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 71.
[3] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 58.
[4] TMS, 13.
[5] TMS, 15-16.
[6] TMS, 19.
[7] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 57.
[8] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 41.
[9] TMS, 23.