Adam Smith Also Teaches Good Teaching

arts & culture rhetoric literature imitative arts adam smith lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres pedagogy

Jon Murphy for AdamSmithWorks

"Literature provides a connection throughout a culture, a touchstone for us to understand more abstract things.  Adam Smith used literature references throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations to highlight examples of concepts he is trying to explain."
Liberty Fund Senior Fellow Sarah Skwire likes to remind us that Adam Smith’s first job was not as a moral philosopher, or political economist, or even a jurist.  His first job was a professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres; he was an English Professor.  Literature provides a connection throughout a culture, a touchstone for us to understand more abstract things.  Adam Smith used literature references throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations to highlight examples of concepts he is trying to explain.

Some examples of Smith’s literary allusions:

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith alludes to John Milton’s Paradise Lost when describing the Stoic philosophies for dealing with hardship and pain (Pg 283).

In the same book, Smith refers to both real and literary examples of great dissemblers of information such as Ulysses by Homer (Pg. 241-242).

In his classroom lectures of Rhetoric, Smith makes too many references to literature to count.

In the Wealth of Nations, Smith uses imaginative language like “charm” (pg 378), references to “witchcraft” (pg 534), and superstition (pg. 367) to drive home his points.

Indeed, as Arizona State University economist Andrew Humphries and I argue in a 2021 paper, "His Memory has Misled Him? Two Supposed Errors in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments" Smith’s literary knowledge is key to understanding some of the lessons he imparts.

In my economic classes, I have begun to assign certain literature readings to help explain various concepts.  The opening readings for the class come from the Book of Genesis, specifically the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man, to demonstrate scarcity and the economic problem.  As I prepare for my class on monopolies in a few weeks, will be assigning the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In Ozymandias, the unnamed narrator meets an unnamed traveller who had just returned from abroad.  The traveller tells of a wrecked statue of Ozymandias [the Greek name for the Egyptian Pharoah Ramessess II], a great and powerful ruler of an ancient land.  But nothing remains of that land, and even the great statue dedicated to the ruler is crumbling into dust.  

This poem is appropriate for studying monopolies as monopolies themselves, no matter how large, are themselves transitory.  Since I was born in 1989, I have witnessed the “death” of such powerful and supposedly invincible firms such as Sears, Kmart, Myspace, Blockbuster, and Netscape.  Other massive firms, like Facebook, Nintendo, IBM, Netflix, Walmart, and even movie studios have found themselves in a position of weakness, their monopoly powers disappearing.  These monopolies, much like Ozymandias, find themselves relegated more and more to textbooks, their empires in shatters and new entities occupying the lands they once ruled.  

Why do monopolies fall?  Why are they only transitory?  Again, literature can provide a lens.  This time, Aesop:
An Eagle was soaring through the air when suddenly it heard the whizz of an Arrow, and felt itself wounded to death. Slowly it fluttered down to the earth, with its life-blood pouring out of it. Looking down upon the Arrow with which it had been pierced, it found that the shaft of the Arrow had been feathered with one of its own plumes. “Alas!” it cried, as it died, “We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction.
Monopolies, much like the eagle, provide the means for their own destruction.  Monopolies, if they attempt to exploit their monopoly power and charge relatively high prices, they encourage people to look elsewhere.  We all know the First Law of Demand: there is an inverse relationship between price and quantity demanded.  But less known is the Second Law of Demand: as price remains relatively high, the demand curve becomes more elastic.  That is: as a price remains relatively high, people search out or develop substitutes for the good in question.  They then become more sensitive to the relatively high price, and the monopoly cannot keep their prices relatively high; they must lower and lower their prices as new competitors step in.  

Even if monopolies do not charge relatively high prices, this effect happens.  Microsoft, for example, who had the unmitigated gall to charge a monopoly price of $0, found themselves at the mercy of competition.  Even on Microsoft personal computers, they are not the dominant internet browser.  

Literature has long been the method to convey moral lessons, simplify complex topics, and transmit historical knowledge.  Rather than dull-as-dishwasher mathematical explanations, perhaps we educators should return to tried and true pedagogy.

Want to Read More?
Jon Murphy's Why do we Admire Celebrities? and When Can Superiors Act Superior?
Sarah Skwire's Adam Smith’s Slips and the End of Othello and Smith on Rhetoric: Dangerous Clarity and Drama versus Data- Adam Smith on Description and Adam Smith and Milton's Shoes
Zaccheus Harmon's Beauty and Language in Adam Smith
Monopoly by George J. Stigler at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
Demand by David R. Henderson at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
J. C. Govindan

Really this paper add my knowledge about the father of economics and this is a different part of his role which contributed the human ethics.