Empathy, Adam Smith, and Greek Tragedy

empathy tragedy greek tragedy

Ryan Young for AdamSmithWorks

Why were the Greek tragedies so important for Smith? One likely reason is their moral ambiguity, which requires empathy to navigate.
Adam Smith has a way of popping up in unexpected places. One of those is Ancient Greece, as a recent Liberty Fund Virtual Reading Group discussed. One reason people still read Sophocles and Aeschylus after nearly 2,500 years is because their tragedies are a way to practice empathy—a subject dear to Adam Smith’s heart. 

Khalifa University’s Arby Ted Siraki argues in “Adam Smith’s Solution to the Paradox of Tragedy” that Greek drama was a major influence on Smith’s thought (Thanks to Smith scholar and VRG participant Thaís Alves Costa for sharing this essay with the group):
Dramatic theory and the theatre in general were, however, never far from his thoughts. In his biographical memoir of Smith, Dugald Stewart mentions that Smith was especially interested in ‘the history of the theatre, both in ancient and modern times’, and that drama and the theatre ‘were a favourite topic of his conversation, and were intimately connected with his general principles of criticism’
(Stewart 1980, ‘Account’ III.15)
It wasn’t just in conversation. Greek tragedies and other dramas come up throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres and Essays on Philosophical Subjects. If they are mostly absent from The Wealth of Nations, it is perhaps because that book is more about applied empathy than the thing itself. 

Why were the Greek tragedies so important for Smith? One likely reason is their moral ambiguity, which requires empathy to navigate.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus claims self-defense in murdering his father, King Laius. Years before the events of the play, Laius’ chariot nearly runs Oedipus off the road, which starts a brawl. The lone surviving member of Laius’ party claims instead it was an attempted robbery. There is no way to know who is telling the truth. That is one source of ambiguity.

Another is that Oedipus and Laius did not recognize each other. Oracles foretold their fates before Oedipus’ birth, which led his parents to abandon him as an infant, though Oedipus survives. Laius and Oedipus never see each other again until the murder. When Oedipus later marries his mother Jocasta and becomes king of Thebes, he again has no way of recognizing her.

Do these mitigating circumstances matter? If so, how much? Sophocles does not answer these questions. He leaves them for the audience to ponder. 

That pondering requires empathy, which likely fascinated Adam Smith. Oedipus is as horrified by his fate as everyone else. Would you try to avoid that fate if you were him? Can you blame him or his parents for trying to outrun it? How at fault is Oedipus?

Antigone, which takes place later, follows Oedipus and Jocasta’s daughter Antigone, and her quest for revenge against her uncle Creon, who took over Thebes’ throne. Antigone’s brothers both die in battle, yet Creon refuses to give a proper burial to one of them, Polynices. 

Antigone does the job herself in defiance of both king and custom. Creon imprisons her for it, and she hangs herself. This sets off a chain of events where Creon loses his wife and son.

Who is in the right, Antigone or Creon? As with Oedipus, it isn’t clear. Both were too stubborn to listen to calmer voices around them. But both were also committed to doing what they thought was right, even at great personal cost. Antigone wanted to do her duty to her family, while Creon wanted to do his duty to the state and to the gods. How much do their good intentions matter? How much does it matter that Creon repents, though too late to change events? 

Tough questions like these are a hallmark of Greek drama, and may have helped Adam Smith come up with the impartial spectator as a moral guide—what would an objective outside observer think of these actions? Or about my actions in real life?

Sophocles’ characters often mean well, but they lack balance and empathy. We can learn from their mistakes and embrace empathy, try on other points of view, and maybe avoid the flaws that took down Oedipus, Creon, and Antigone. 

Nobody is perfect, but everyone can improve. Part of that process is using empathy to see things from other perspectives. The Greek tragedies teach us that morality is not a conclusion. It is a never-ending process, similar to the way Israel Kirzner views markets, or how James Buchanan or Elinor Ostrom view institutions. 

Adam Smith’s impartial spectator is a fantastic tool for working through the moral process. And maybe, just maybe, he was inspired in part by the Greek tragedeians and the spark they gave to his sense of empathy.

Want More?
Nir Ben-Moshe's Can We Become the Impartial Spectator?
Roosevelt Montás, Anika Prather, Aeon J. Skoble, and Jennifer A. Frey's "Why Read the Ancients Today?" in Liberty Matters
Pierre Lemieux's "The Basics: Anarchy and Public Goods"
Greek Tragedy: Its Genius & Character on the Online Library of Liberty
T. C. W. Stinton's "Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy"
Econ Journal Watch Special Issue on Adam Smith's Impartial Spectator