The Singular Significance to Smith of Claude Buffier

aesthetics luxury jesuits adam smith theory of value value claude buffier axiology

Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks

In this post, Professor McAleer shows how Claude Buffier (a "learned Jesuit") influenced Smith's axiology, or his study of the nature of value and valuation. 
Duncan Forbes argues that Smith’s impartial spectator provides “an objective criterion of civility.”[i] He views Smith as part of a Scottish effort – found in Hume and Kames, as well – “to give natural law more solid, truly empirical foundations in the observed facts of man’s social constitution.”[ii] 
Forbes argues that Smith is particularly comparable to Kames,[iii] who took a dual approach to natural law. Supplementing the a priori Continental approach of thinkers like Leibniz,[iv] Kames argues that a part of natural law is an a priori feeling (e.g. “consciousness of property”) and a second is a posteriori (e.g. the history of law shows that property rights are a response to population growth). In light of Forbes, we might say The Wealth of Nations is a philosophy of history delivering evidence to complement a Kamesian a priori of value in The Theory of Moral Sentiments
On this account, Smith is a natural law thinker, and more, his is a substantive natural law and no mere proceduralism. Smith’s impartial spectator delivers universal judgements and is not confined to tidying up the principles of practical reasoning, as has been argued by Knud Haakonssen.[v] For Haakonssen, Smith’s is a procedural jurisprudence and does not offer “moral-legal verities.” The values of a community grow in the particular circumstances of the situation in which it finds itself. The impartial spectator is designed to ensure only that when the particular norms of the community are applied, they are applied with impartiality, consistency, and coherence.[vi]
Amongst commentators, Jerry Evensky and Ian Simpson Ross align with Forbes,[vii] whilst Samuel Fleischacker and Dennis Rasmussen are allies of Haakonssen.[viii] I believe Smith’s discussion of Claude Buffier[ix] shows Forbes is right. 
Buffier (1661-1747), who was on the faculty of what remains today France’s most famous school, Lycée Louis-le-Grand, was the author of 50 books. Smith makes use of his 1724 Traité des premières vérités et de la source de nos jugements. Indeed, by discussing his book over two pages, Smith lavishes high praise on the “learned Jesuit.” (TMS, V.I.8, p. 198).   
Buffier argues that our judgements of beauty – recall Smith thinks of virtue as beauty and vice deformity (TMS III.1.3, p. 110) – stem from what we customarily experience. We do not customarily see humans with a triangular or spherical nose, but most frequently noses that are a mean between geometrical extremes. This mean is:
“the form which Nature seems to have aimed at in them all, which, however, she deviates from in a great variety of ways, and very seldom hits exactly; but to which all those deviations still bear a very strong resemblance… And thus the beauty of each species, though in one sense the rarest of all things, because few individuals hit this middle form exactly, yet in another, is the most common, because all the deviations from it resemble it more than they resemble one another” (TMS V.I.8, pp. 198-99).
Buffier’s theory cleverly explains both different experiences of beauty and a culture’s lack of self-awareness. Smith:
“Some of the savage nations in North-America tie four boards round the heads of their children, and thus squeeze them, while the bones are tender and gristly, into a form that is almost perfectly square. Europeans are astonished at the absurd barbarity of this practice… But when they condemn those savages, they do not reflect that the ladies in Europe had, till within these very few years, been endeavouring, for near a century past, to squeeze the beautiful roundness of their natural shape into a square form of the same kind” (TMS V.I.8, p. 199). 
Make note of Smith’s use of square and round as it hints at Smith’s departure from Buffier. If Smith does not believe in value verities, how can he talk of “the beautiful roundness” of a woman’s “natural shape?” 
The singular significance to Smith of Buffier is that the Jesuit pushed him to articulate a strain of a priori natural law thinking, axiology. “Such is the system of this learned and ingenious Father… I cannot, however, be induced to believe that our sense even of external beauty is founded altogether on custom” (TMS V.I.9, p. 199; emphasis added). 
In Smith’s axiology, something is agreeable which exhibits: utility, “certain colours… [that] give more delight to the eye the first time it ever beholds them,” a smooth surface, variety, and coherence. He contrasts objects with these value properties with objects displaying disvalues: weak utility, certain hues, rough surfaces, “a tedious undiversified uniformity,” and “a disjointed and disorderly assemblage of unconnected objects” (TMS V.I.9, pp. 199-200).  
I propose this axiology as a contender for the “divine” in Smith’s description of the impartial spectator (TMS, III.2.33, p. 131):
“When his judgements are steadily and firmly directed by the sense of praise-worthiness and blame-worthiness, he seems to act suitable to his divine extraction: But when he suffers himself to be astonished and confounded by the judgements of ignorant and weak man, he discovers his connexion with mortality, and appears to act suitably, rather to the human, than to the divine, part of his origin.” 
Critically, Smith argues that the division of labour, the root cause of the wealth and refinement of nations, is provoked by the appetite for “expensive vanity” (WN III.iv.11-15, pp. 419-421). Luxury matches the value properties of the axiology. Are there any exceptions: Is there luxury that is cumbersome, pallid, rough, tedious, and chaotic?   
[i] Duncan Forbes, “Natural Law and the Scottish Enlightenment,” in The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment (John Donald Publishers, 1982), p. 201
[ii] Ibid., p. 193.
[iii] Ibid., p. 197.
[iv] Ibid., 189.
[v] Knud Haakonssen, “What Might Properly Be Called Natural Jurisprudence?” in The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment, p. 205.
[vi] Ibid., p. 206.
[vii] Ian Simpson Ross, “Reply to Charles Griswold ‘On the incompleteness of Adam Smith’s system,’” Adam Smith Review, Vol. 2 (2006).
p. 188.
[viii] For a summary of the debate, see D. Rasmussen, The Pragmatic Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 114-15 & 123-24: “recall that for Smith there simply is no transcendent or independent standard… no Platonic Form of morality to which the impartial spectator could appeal” (p. 51). 
[ix] For background, see Louise Marcil-Lacoste, Claude Buffier and Thomas Reid (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982).
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