Prudence and Magnanimity – Fredrik Albritton Jonsson

This comment is from a roundtable on Ryan Patrick Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue.

Ryan Hanley’s book Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue offers a strikingly original new interpretation of Smith’s moral philosophy. Through a subtle and learned reading of the revisions Smith made to the final 1790 edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Hanley recovers a sophisticated and powerful virtue ethics at the heart of Smith’s thought. The three virtues of prudence, magnanimity, and beneficence represent in Hanley’s argument an attempt by Smith to redeem commercial society through the reconstruction and synthesis of pagan and Christian values. Hanley’s meticulous and imaginative scholarship marks the emergence of a major new voice in the field of Smith studies.

Two major issues stand out in my reading of Hanley: the relation of prudence to consumption in Smith’s thought and the political significance of magnanimity in the era after the American Independence. These themes serve in turn as means of appraising the wider significance of Hanley’s thesis. How precisely were the Smithian virtues intended to redeem and ennoble a world of unprecedented prosperity haunted by the specter of moral corruption?

Throughout Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue, Hanley favors the language of psychological remedy to discuss Smith’s moral philosophy. Tellingly, the famous parable of the poor man’s son from the first edition of TMS occupies a central place in Hanley’s account of prudential virtue. The young man suffers from some of the quintessential psychological ills of modernity, “anxiety and restlessness as well as inauthenticity and slavish abasement” (106). Hanley interprets this vivid story through the lens of the last edition of TMS as a “cautionary tale” that encourages the reader to embrace Smith’s new account of prudence. Rather than extinguishing self-love, Smith wants to redirect vanity toward “goods more conducive to both virtue and happiness” (106).

This requires patient exercise and a gradual movement of the mind outward in widening social and temporal circles. First ask what actions will make one happy then consider what consequences these actions have for others. Prudential virtue for Smith aims to alleviate anxiety through the increase of security. But true tranquility comes only to the person willing to sacrifice present indulgence to “the long-term interest in preservation” (118).

Here we encounter the risk-averse, anti-projecting Smith familiar from The Wealth of Nations. The prudent man seeks to better himself through gradual steps and the improvement of frugal living. He cultivates “a patient firmness and steady resolve” (109). He surrounds himself with a like-minded small circle of friends who will reinforce this way of life. For Hanley then, Smith’s version of prudence is predicated on the recognition that commercial life induces anxiety and that the proper remedy is an economic and moral strategy of caution, patience, and simplicity in life.

Because Hanley focuses on psychological ills and remedies, we sometimes lose sight of the material foundation of moral corruption in Smith’s thought. The cautionary tale of the poor man’s son can be read as a story of the fall of modern man into the dizzying world of consumer goods, away from true utility (70) towards dazzling ostentation and endless anxiety. Smith speaks in the sixth edition of the “wandering eye” of the untutored mind, easily seduced by fashion and ornament (TMS I.iii.3.2). Throughout the revisions of the sixth edition, Smith returns to the necessity of disciplined “attention.” The wise man must labor with “a very great effort” to “fix his attention upon that of the impartial spectator” (TMS III.3.28). The question then is just how seriously the world of consumer wants and superficial appearances threatens prudence. When we redirect vanity to “proper objects,” must we in fact avoid certain goods in order to maintain the steadiness, future orientation, and fixed attention Smith recommends? Does the life of the frugal and prudent man involve an ethos of material simplicity?

In some revealing passages on Smith’s concept of vanity, Samuel Fleischacker has suggested precisely such a reading. He proposes that there might not be any real contradiction between simplicity and economic development: the modest and frugal habits of the majority could still drive respectable rates of growth in a commercial society.1 But it seems to me that Hanley’s account of the virtue of prudence moves us beyond Fleischacker’s sketch towards a more specific problem. Should a man of prudent “attention” rank commodities into different classes of use and frivolity? If so, what would be the principal standards by which we rank goods? Can we extract from Smith’s discussion of commodities in The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments the principal norms by which we would rank goods – say in terms of price, durability, simplicity, functionality, and so forth (see for example WN II.iii.38)? Or will a moral education be sufficient to allow us to purchase goods with a cool imagination, that is, without lapsing into the world of ostentation and striving?

Hanley’s case for magnanimity in The Theory of Moral Sentiments raises a different question about the practical function of the Smithian virtues. According to Hanley, magnanimity serves as a remedy for the inherent shortcomings of prudence. The preference for a quiet and modest life threatens to narrow “the horizons of the individual” by favoring private comfort over “nobler purposes” (128, 131). Fortunately, prudence cannot fully overcome another basic urge. This is the anxious yearning of the mind to be worthy of praise (136). The love of self is in fact divided between base self-preference and a noble yearning to transcend “individualism and mediocrity” (147).

Magnanimity thus “inflames” the imagination “of those disposed towards politics” (160). It stimulates the yearning for “true glory characteristic of the hero, the statesman, or the legislator” (160). This is the virtue necessary for far-sighted politicians, capable of bridging “jarring domestic interests” and reforming great states. But as Hanley notes, the world of politics is for Smith deeply distasteful, steeped in a degree of corruption and self-interest even greater than that of commercial life. When Edmund Burke resigned from office in the wake of the Marquis of Rockingham’s death in 1782, Smith praised Burke’s withdrawal from politics as an act of honor (CAS 217).

The political significance of magnanimity for Hanley is thus somewhat paradoxical. It transcends base private interest, yet threatens to degenerate into “hubris and injustice” (175). In the end, he argues that Smith turned to the religious virtue of beneficence to resolve the dilemma. Beneficence overcomes the self-absorption and callousness of magnanimity by stimulating “solicitude for the well-being of others” (191). Hanley here takes us full circle to the basic project of Smith’s political economy. The wise and virtuous man seeks to improve the material conditions of the poor: “the duty of the greatest is service to the least” (203).

Why did Smith take up a defense of pagan nobility in the last edition of the TMS if he nurtured such deep misgivings about politics? Indeed, why then and not much earlier?

I wonder if we might not strengthen Hanley’s argument here by considering briefly the historical circumstances surrounding Smith’s final revisions. Hanley rightly draws attention to Smith’s political correspondence with Edmund Burke. But much more can be done with this connection. Burke resigned his office in the midst of a profound crisis of the nation. The Atlantic empire that Smith had spent so much time analyzing in The Wealth of Nations was in shambles after the American victory at Yorktown in 1781. Yet this disaster was also a moment of great opportunity for reformers.

When William Pitt the Younger took charge of the government in 1784, a new liberal era seemed at hand. Pitt and Burke led the charge to reform the East India Company. The abolitionist movement was launched by William Wilberforce and his evangelical allies. Pitt orchestrated the free trade treaty with France in 1786 and pushed for one with Ireland as well though the latter was unsuccessful. Pitt himself seemed a new breed of politician, personally austere, and an avowed opponent of luxury and corruption (Hilton, Mori).2 Pitt was probably not alone. At least one historian has argued that the British aristocracy in fact reinvented itself during the decades after Yorktown to become a service elite.3

It should come as no surprise then that Smith thought highly of Pitt and his government. He wrote to the MP Henry Beaufoy in 1786: “I think myself much honoured by the slightest mark of Mr. Pitt’s approbation. You may be assured that the long and strict friendship in which I have lived with some of his opponents, does not hinder me from discerning courage, activity, probity, and public spirit in the great outlines of his administration.”4 In another letter to Pitt’s right hand man Henry Dundas in the wake of the Regency crisis of 1788, he continued to praise the “firmness, propriety and prudence of every part of your young friend’s conduct” (CAS 318). Clearly, the sentiments were reciprocated. When Dundas invited Smith to visit his suburban villa in Wimbledon, he assured Smith that there would be “time to discuss all [sic] your Books with you every Evening” (CAS 267).

In short, the historical context here may provide a vital clue to Smith’s urgent wrestling in his last years with the question of how to synthesize pagan and Christian virtues. Might we not read Smith’s last revisions as an urgent commentary on the prospect and dangers of a new kind of politics: the liberal reform of empire?

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson is Assistant Professor of British History at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the forthcoming Nature’s Commerce; the Environmental Context of the Scottish Enlightenment 1750-1820 from Yale University Press.

  1. Samuel Fleischacker, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations; a Philosophical Companion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 111,115.
  2. Jennifer Mori, “The Political Theory of William Pitt the Younger,” History, Vol. 83, No. 270 (April 1998): 237-38; Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 116, 119.
  3. Linda Colley, Britons; Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London: Pimlico, 1992), p. 168, 170.
  4. David Raynor, Adam Smith: Two Letters to Henry Beaufoy, MP, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 43, No. 5 (November 1996): 586.