Plato, Adam Smith, and the Good Life

plato poor man's son philosophy life philosophy of life the good life the republic

Kevin Stucker for AdamSmithWorks

Plato and Adam Smith did not see eye to eye on private property or the virtue of commerce. But as Kevin Stucker shows, the two philosophers' thoughts on what makes "the good life" have intriguing similarities. 
In this essay I will draw similarities between two renowned moral philosophers. The first (which is predictable given the name of this website) is Adam Smith, the oft-vilified “founder of capitalism”—a man supposed by many to have been a champion of man’s selfish nature, an amoral economist who wants every individual to amass vast amounts of wealth through the greedy pursuit of luxury. The second, no less a household name, is Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher—you know, the one who advocated for the abolition of private property (due to its corrupting nature) and who despised both usury and most commerce. I considered if I even needed to write this piece because, clearly, these two philosophers are just two peas in a pod!
All playfulness aside, Plato and Adam Smith are not as utterly antithetical as my introduction would suggest. And, for the record, Adam Smith was not a lover of greed and selfishness—one only needs to read the first sentence of the Theory of Moral Sentiments to understand this—and Plato was not as much an advocate for anything resembling communism as some would like him to be (this is hotly contested but beside the point for this piece). Nevertheless, when it comes to their views of a “good” or an “admirable” life, Smith and Plato propose some strikingly similar recommendations. To show this, I will begin with Book X of Plato’s Republic and the Myth of Er.
 Plato, or rather Socrates, reveals the Myth of Er to his interlocutors in order to once again prove that a life of justice is superior to a life of injustice. He tells of Er who dies and visits the afterlife, chosen to be a messenger to reveal the ways of the gods to man. Er sees the structures of the afterlife, the judgement zones, the passageways to heaven and hell—what one would expect. The crux of the myth comes when Er describes the process of reincarnation. Spirits who have spent their time suffering in Hades or being rewarded in heaven are brought before the “spokesman,” who presents numerous different “lives” to these spirits and gives them the choice of selecting their next life. Some famous figures from Greek mythology choose to be reincarnated as animals, usually because they have become disenchanted with the life of man. One man, however, selects—without much contemplation—a life of the tyrant. He sees the spoils of war and the life of luxury and cannot help but desire it—for who would not want to harness all the power mortal life has to offer? Yet, his quick decision is quickly lamented, for he sees that grave evils, including the consumption of his children, will come with this tyrannical life. Why did this man, who came from heaven and had been “virtuous” in his past life, make such a poor choice? His virtue in his past life was due to “habit,” and not because he practiced philosophy. To Plato, the life of philosophy and of justice not only brings benefits in this world, but is also necessary in the afterlife; without philosophy, one cannot make truly wise decisions of such gravity. However, Socrates notes that Odysseus—presumably quite the philosophical man in his life—takes his time to select “the life of a private man who minds his own business.” For in Odysseus’ life, he had experienced all the labors and suffering that came from a life in “love of honor.” Upon reflection, his philosophical mind understood that the life of the warrior, the statesman, the rich man, and the epic hero do not lead one to the truly just and happy life.
 Adam Smith, without engaging in such a mythical framework, tells the tale of the poor man’s son, revealing a belief similar to that of Plato. The poor man’s son, after growing up enduring the hardships of poverty, swears to a life of ambition to achieve great wealth and social recognition. For this man is able to look upon the lives of the rich and the great and sympathize with them; he envisions that if he had great wealth, his life would be much more convenient and would allow him “to sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation.” And so, the poor man’s son “devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness.” The poor man’s son, like Plato’s tyrant, is enchanted with the potential of a wealthy life, and never considers the surrounding circumstances. The poor man’s son “submits in the first year…to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life” as a poor man. The race to gain wealth and the frivolous conveniences of wealth wastes his life, until “in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil…he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.” Adam Smith recognizes that in this vain pursuit of wealth and glory, the poor man’s son “sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power” to obtain. 
 Both Plato and Adam Smith recognize the vicious nature of the pursuit of wealth and glory, and both recognize that a private life away from these trivialities is the most conducive to happiness. For Plato, the private life allows one to be away from the corrupting effects of society—be it commerce, sophistry, and the vain pursuit of power. The private man can truly be virtuous; he can develop his wisdom, courage, and moderation into a just, well-ordered soul, fit to practice philosophy and the contemplative life that offers the only pathway to happiness. And it is here in the prescriptions of the good life that Plato and Smith differ, for Smith presents a different justification for the private life. Smith believes that true “happiness consists in tranquility.” He states that the “great source of both the misery and disorders of human life” is man’s proclivity to overestimate the happiness of different stations of life. The poor man envies the rich, which not only makes him “miserable in his actual situation,” but inclines him to disturb his life and society to achieve his foolish desires. Yet, if he could simply temper his expectations, he might see that in “all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented.” Only with a tranquil mind may man be prudent and just; he must be tranquil to be virtuous and be happy. 
 After extending Plato and Adam Smith’s teachings into the modern day, I am drawn to the conclusion that they are as relevant as ever. When before has the life of the “poor” man ever been so convenient? Across the world poverty levels are fast decreasing, and the relative wealth of the less fortunate in America is still far greater than whatever Smith—let alone Plato—could have ever imagined. Not even kings enjoyed refrigeration or air conditioning, in their days. I would suspect that in Adam Smith’s time, his suggestion that the life of the rich was really not all too much more convenient was likely a radical suggestion, for the poor working class man lived a far more toilsome life than we in the present could imagine. Yet today, the least among us have access to basic utilities, advanced hygiene and health care, cars and (sometimes) planes, and most of all, access to more information on the Internet than any 18th-century man could have ever conceived possible. Sure, the uber-rich may have larger homes, a nicer car, or be able to take a few more vacations, but as Smith would have pointed out, these things come with their own costs. Perhaps we should heed Plato and Adam Smith’s advice to search for a private, tranquil life to best develop our virtues; one in which we can live free from the vanities of wealth, and cherish our families; then, we might find happiness in our increasingly complex world. 

Related Links:

Maria Pia Paganelli, "Our Great Purpose"
Plato in the Online Library of Liberty
Artur Constantino

Hi! I just want to congratulate for the excellent and essential content. I’m a great admirer of Adam Smith (he’s one of the main thinkers who influenced me), both of his life and his intelectual work. The same for the Classics (Greco-roman). It’s very important to spread the great minds of our civilization, because without them we would be nothing.