Heroes of the Smithian Turn, Part 2 of 2

sympathy literature mutual sympathy sympathetic imagination american conservatism

Nicole Penn for AdamSmithWorks

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

Summary from Part 1:
[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.]

That Adam Smith locates one of his most unambiguous pronouncements on human happiness in The Theory of Moral Sentiments' (TMS) chapter on “the selfish passions” helps to explain two core sources of tension in Heroes. Writing in a passage that Dennis Rasmussen has argued specifically refers to the “the esteem and affection of one’s friends,” Smith asserts that “the chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved.”[1] Even as most of Heroes’s drama is centered on their sharp verbal repartee, glimpses of genuine friendship offer some relief from the uncertainty, frustration, weakness, and pain that afflicts each of the protagonists. 

Although he graduated in the same year as Teresa and Kevin, Justin is significantly older than the rest of group, having served in the military years before he enrolled in Transfiguration College. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the play it is clear that he and Emily share a tight bond. Not only does Justin keep careful watch over Emily as she battles her joint pain and her chronic fatigue, they even share a kind of secret language. The rhyming, sing-song gibberish that they use to punctuate their exchanges is a sign of a deep sympathy that cannot be explained in words (“I got you,” Justin says as he helps Emily to walk; “Doopy-doo” she replies).[2] However, Justin is so disgusted by the modern world that he cannot bear to live even within its outskirts managing Transfiguration’s equestrian program. He views proximity to the city as an opportunity for a kind of spiritual contagion, and unlike Emily, he would rather close himself off further from the world than to give himself over to the demands of the amiable virtues. 

Teresa and Kevin are also close friends, even if their friendship is marred by Kevin’s oafishness and Teresa’s viciousness. “It’s nice to see that you still feel a weird responsibility to perform your self-loathing for me,” she remarks icily after Kevin pours out his existential dread over his life working for a Catholic textbook company in Oklahoma, which seems to manifest itself in watching too much porn and fighting with strangers on Facebook.[3] Kevin desperately wants to be understood – he wants to have a “big conversation,” like the deeply sympathetic exchanges hidden under philosophical diatribes he and Teresa used to have as undergraduates.[4] He tries to recapture the magic by asking Teresa to defend the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary, but Teresa launches into a clever monologue that is more about showing off her own intellect and contempt for the spiritual emptiness of contemporary life than it is about answering Kevin’s question or taking any interest in his life. “You had this whole conversation by yourself” he retorts when she complains that he is a “bad conversationalist.”[5] 

Teresa’s early dismissal of Kevin’s feelings instigates a spiral of heavy drinking and increasingly bizarre behavior as the play carries on. This would come as no surprise to Smith. As he explains in TMS, because “the cruelest insult…which can be offered to the unfortunate, is to appear to make light of their calamities….not to wear a serious countenance when they tell us their afflictions, is real and gross inhumanity.”[6] Like Emily, the decline of Kevin’s friendship with Teresa comes with psychological costs. And if Teresa appears stable, it is only because she is tethered by a kind of revolutionary crusade against modern decadence that would make Jean-Jacques Rousseau proud. But as Rasmussen has noted, “Rousseau seems to have been almost incapable of sustained friendship.”[7] 


Out of the four protagonists, it is Teresa whom, as Smith would put it, “heaven in its anger has visited with ambition.”[8] While Teresa may not be materially poor like the poor man’s son of Smith’s parable, she is certainly poor in spirit. Teresa covets the cultural and political power she believes is being hoarded by her adversaries on the left, and she uncritically mimics (and arguably intensifies) their excesses. “You call us ignorant Christians, we’ll call you spineless hedonistic soulless bloviating bloodbags” she hisses as she justifies her career choices to the increasingly horrified Gina, who decides to pay a visit to her former students later in the night.[9] 

Smith observes that next to their desire to be beloved, humans desire to be respected. There are two ways of achieving “this so much desired object”: either by “the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue” or “the acquisition of wealth and greatness.”[10] Gina clearly believes that she was forming students who would pursue the former and is therefore deeply disturbed by Teresa’s unflinching embrace of the latter. However, she herself is blind to the ways in which ambition has clouded her pedagogy and corrupted her example, as Teresa reminds her when she interrogates Gina about her former membership in the John Birch Society. 

Despite this inability to reckon with her own shortcomings, Gina succeeds in diagnosing the root of the evening’s increasingly unsettling atmosphere. “What is going on here tonight?” she asks bemusedly, “Why are you all so sad?”[11] If fear and anxiety are “the great tormentors of the human breast,” as Smith concludes, then Justin, Kevin, Emily, and Teresa are all profoundly tormented.[12] The modern world offers them no direction, and yet (with perhaps the exception of Emily) they are all terrified of the obligations that love – and therefore empathy – impose upon them. Teresa just succeeds in burying her fear of intimacy under the bravado of a crusade that will buy her both greatness and relief from her existential dread. Like the poor man’s son, she doesn’t realize that in the process, she is sacrificing “a real tranquility that is at all times in his power.”[13] As Smith warned, love once supplanted by ambition is difficult to recover. 

Smith had no illusions about the modern world he was describing through The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations that so disturbs Heroes’s characters. The effects of capitalism raised the world to a level of material prosperity never before experienced in human history, but in the process it obfuscated the secrets to a happy life. Gina again hints at what this might look like in her stuttered attempts to support her floundering students – she tells them to “climb a mountain. Make a meal. Behold creation and be.”[14] Emily is a bit closer to the mark, observing that “every second we’re creating and coexisting instead of tearing this place apart – I think it’s just miraculous.”[15]

Unlike his dear friend David Hume, who could find little positive to say about religion, Smith believed that in certain instances religion springs from “the noblest and best principles” of human nature.[16] It is a mistake to come away from Heroes with the conclusion that all its four protagonists need to salvage their broken and anxious spirits is to abandon their faith and embrace modernity instead. Despite their obvious flaws, Arbery ultimately wants us to sympathize with his characters more than he wants us to condemn them (the play was inspired by his family’s connection to Wyoming Catholic College, where his father currently serves as president). However, it would not take a conversion experience to agree that there is no greater tranquility than that which comes from the understanding that only friendship can accord. As a friendship recession sweeps across the political spectrum in the United States, there is a kind of quiet heroism that comes from sustaining a friendship year after a year, whose fruits might be best savored in the “small conversations” and glints of mutual sympathy alongside a bottle on a warm summer night.

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
Kevin Stucker's "Plato, Adam Smith, and the Good Life" at AdamSmithWorks
Maria Pia Paganelli's "Our Great Purpose" at AdamSmithWorks
Alex Aragona's Adam Smith and the Costs of the Division of Labor at AdamSmithWorks
Dear Adam Smith: An Antidote To Torpor at AdamSmithWorks
Related EconTalks: Agnes Callard on Philosophy, Progress, and Wisdom; Jennifer Frey on Education, Philosophy, and the University;
Daniel Klein on Honest Income; Daniel Haybron on Happiness, Leon Kass on Human Flourishing, Living Well, and Aristotle
Joy Buchanan's Freedom and Work in Severance at the OLL Reading Room
Aeon Skoble's In The Reading Room with Plato, Again: Work-Life Balance at the OLL Reading Room

[1] Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor, 258; TMS, 41.
[2] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 11.
[3] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 13.
[4] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 17.
[5] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 22.
[6] TMS, 15.
[7] Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor, 134.
[8] TMS, 181.
[9] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 81.
[10] TMS, 62.
[11] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 73.
[12] TMS, 12.
[13] TMS, 181.
[14] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 74.
[15] Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, 29.
[16] TMS, 169.