June 5, 2023


Just ImagineAdam Smith on the faculty that makes us human (Robert Zaretsky, June 5, 2023, American Scholar)

And so, let's take a moment to celebrate Smith's birthday by trying to imagine why he thought The Theory of Moral Sentiments to be the better book. Whereas he begins the work, in the provocative fashion that endeared him to his students, with a description of a man being tortured on a rack, we can instead begin with a man attending a club in Edinburgh. Not the sort of club given to drinking, though that certainly took place, but instead a club given to thinking.

Crucially, these clubs helped rebrand 18th-century Edinburgh. Long known as Auld Reekie--thanks to the stifling shroud of coal soot that rose from its forest of chimneys--the city became known as the Athens of the North. This was not a hollow claim. Though it boasted scarcely 40,000 residents, Edinburgh also boasted that it was, in the words of an observer, "crouded with men of genius" (Though as a walled city with tottering tenements packed together on wynds, or narrow streets, Edinburgh could hardly be anything but crouded.)

These men of genius, when not lecturing at universities like Smith, writing in their studies like David Hume, sermonizing from pulpits like Hugh Blair, or overseeing their estates like Lord Kames, met in clubs and societies to debate the great notions of that enlightened age. Between sips of claret and gulps of oysters (usually at the Oyster Club), they fearlessly prodded and poked one another (especially at the Poker Club) on the questions of human progress and the nature of being human. They weighed the gains and losses of technological, industrial, and commercial advances; they sought the sources of moral action and why we tend to be good when we could quite easily be bad.

The most select of these clubs was, inevitably, the Select Society. Conceived in 1754 by the portrait painter Allan Ramsay, it brought together the city's best and brightest. Along with Hume and Kames, there was Blair, the Protestant minister who could "stop the hounds with his eloquenc"; Lord Monboddo, who wrote on the evolution of languages when not hearing cases as a judge; and that young "noddle-head," as Hume called James Boswell. ("Bozzy" was admitted to the august society long before he published his biography of Samuel Johnson, who happened to think little of Scots and less of the Select Society).

Another founding member, also yet to become famous, was Smith. A professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow--he commuted on the daily coach to Edinburgh for these sessions--Smith was decidedly the most remarkable figure in this group of remarkable men. He never spoke--at least to others. "The most absent man in Company that I ever saw," recalled his friend Alexander Carlyle Smith was always "Moving his Lips and talking to himself, and Smiling, in the midst of large Company's." Indeed, he was often incapable of taking part in everyday conversation, Stewart noted, a man "habitually inattentive to familiar objects, and to common occurrences."

It's not that he was inattentive to the men in his midst. What Smith understood, perhaps better than most of his colleagues at the club, was how futile it is to gain access to the minds of those we meet. We are all strangers to one another not just in the night, but in the day as well. As Smith remarks, "we have no immediate experience of what other men feel." This is both an undeniable and unsettling observation. Yet it is resolved, Smith contends, by two capacities we all share: sympathy for another person's pain or happiness (expressed in the form of pity or joy) and imagination. To Smith, imagination picks up where fellow feeling leaves off. As Smith declares at the start of the book, we can form no idea of how another person feels "but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation."

Posted by at June 5, 2023 12:00 AM