The Poor Man's Son According to Adam Smith and Hilary Mantel

happiness poor man's son tranquility pursuit of wealth pursuit of happiness

January 10, 2023

Many stories from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments rightfully linger in readers' memories. The poor man's son is one. Eyes are easily blinded by the dazzles of wealth. The spurs of ambition bite deeply into ourselves, friends and family, and a poor blacksmith's son from Putney named Thomas Cromwell. 
Over at our sister site, the OLL, is a virtual reading group called “The Messiness of Progress” that brings together Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and sections from David Hume’s History of England and his essays. I assume AdamSmithWorks readers are familiar with David Hume already. If you don’t know who Hilary Mantel is, I’m delighted to be your introduction. Mantel’s award-winning historical trilogy, of which Wolf Hall is the first book, follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a Putney boy of humble origins who becomes one of the most powerful men in King Henry VIII’s circle which makes him, for a time, one of the most powerful men in the world. 

The virtual reading group is led by Shannon Chamberlain and while we are just getting started there is a part of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) that hovers over my reading like a spector. It is Smith’s parable of the poor man’s son, or the case of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son. 

There are many story-like parts of TMS: The Chinese Earthquake; The Man of System and his Chessboard; the Suffering Mother with the Sick Child. Right before we get to the poor man’s son, Smith questions the people who ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility. Right after the poor man’s son, we get Smith’s discussion of why and in what sense the ambitious pursuit of wealth is good plus the sole mention of the “invisible hand” in the work. Smith’s background as a teacher of rhetoric must certainly aid him in these moments. I’ll probably quote too much about the poor man’s son below but it’s worth a read if you’ve never and a re-read even if you have. 
The poor man’s son, whom Heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich…He thinks if he had attained all these [palace,carriages,servants] he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity… he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniences which these afford, 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 through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and, like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious. There is no other real difference between them, except that the conveniences of the one are somewhat more observable than those of the other…They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more, exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.
Cromwell, as Hilary Mantel, fleshes and dresses him, is much like this (and I do find the sentences on the immense fabrics particularly fun to apply to the successful fabric merchant). Cromwell does almost all of the things Smith mentions: he labors unrelentingly, he is obsequious to those he despises, he sacrifices his own tranquility to these pursuits. Mantle is famous for her rehabilitation of Cromwell who usually looks quite bad in the company of Cardinal Wolsey and in comparison to men like Martin Luther and Thomas More. A subtle illustration of this is the very hyperlinks I use in this article. Martin Luther and Thomas More are profiled on the OLL website. You must go elsewhere for Cromwell and Wolsey. 

Cromwell in part represents the growing power of merchants and tradesmen in the early 1500s but he does not confine himself to amassing riches. He wants political power as well. In a Smithian sense, his market activities whatever the motivations are contributing to the benefits of others: a merchants bookkeeping is made better, a loan is made to a struggling business that is experiencing a temporary problem, a difficult negotiation is completed with both sides satisfied. Cromwell excels at these. But in the actions for Wolsey and the King the case is murkier. 

Both Smith and Mantle also tell us something about the happiness of kings and commoners. From this same section of TMS: 
When Providence divided the earth among a few Iordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last, too, enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of the body and peace of the mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.
This is a moment from Wolf Hall (before things start to go very badly). Cromwell is with his wife at home and has a moment to exhale. 
[Cromwell] thinks, I may not be rich yet but I am lucky. Look how I got from under Walter’s boots, from Cesare’s summer, and a score of bad nights in back alleys…And quiet moments like this are rare, because his house if full of people every day, people who want to be taken to the cardinal [artists, scholars, merchants, musicians, banker’s agents, traders, printers, poets, garden designers, cabalists, etc.]...
“Hush,” Liz says. “Listen to the House.”
At first, there is no sound. Then the timbers creek, breathe. In the chimney, nesting birds shuffle. A breeze bows from the river, faintly shivering the tops of the trees. They hear the sleeping breath of children imagined from other rooms. “Come to bed,” he says. 
The king can't say that to his wife [Queen Catherine]. Or, with any good effect, to the woman they say he loves [Ann Boleyn].
Both Smith and Mantel are reminding readers of the things that make lives good, even as they show us how easily ambition grows in its desires.  

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