Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor – with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith – by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

 

Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for Ordinary Philosophy in 2017

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? ~ by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne ~ by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Montaigne’s life and thought with David Wootton, Terence Cave, and Felicity Green (my Intellectual History advisor!) for the BBC’s In Our Time

Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) ~ by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) ~ by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher ~ by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No ~ by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem ~ by Alain de Botton

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Michel de Montaigne, who lived from February 28, 1533 to September 13, 1592, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his Essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for this publication in 2017

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays – by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? – by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne – by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne – from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) – by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) – by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher – by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living – by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No – by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem – by Alain de Botton

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!