Adam Smith on how to love and be lovely

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2023 is the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth. This post is part of a series highlighting aspects of Smith’s thought that continue to influence liberal thought in general, and CEI’s work in particular. Part 1 on the real Adam Smith, is here. Part 2 on Smith and American bureaucracy is here.

Happiness was more important to Adam Smith than anything in economics. In some ways, The Wealth of Nations was a side project. For Smith, wealth is not valuable for its own sake. Wealth is good because it enables people to pursue meaningful lives and make deep connections with other people. Contrary to Smith’s reputation, he believed one of the most important things in life is love.

Smith had little regard for the fleeting happiness that comes from cheap thrills and the instant gratification that many people wrongly associate with free markets. He was interested in longer-term Aristotelian happiness. It has two main ingredients. Neither of them is money, and both are related to love.

As Smith put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” He uses those words differently than we do today, but the ideas are timeless.

To love, in Smithian terms, is to be the type of person who is able to feel love. To be lovely, in normal 18th century usage, means worthy of being loved. Loveliness in the sense of “you look lovely today” did not emerge until after Smith’s lifetime. A good person has the empathy to feel love, and the character to deserve it in return. The two concepts are intertwined.

Feeling love takes empathy, which is Smith’s eternal theme. To love means being kind and giving to those you love. It means being a good listener. It means saying sorry and meaning it. It means forgiving human shortcomings, and having the grace to not take slights personally. It means helping people when they need it, and being able to ask for help when you need it. It means both giving and taking, without ulterior motives.

Deep friendships are not transactional. There must be genuine concern for the other person’s well-being. If people are selfish, is it really friendship?

There are many different types of love, not just romantic love. There is also love between friends, and between family, and between parents and children. Smith had a number of deep, lifelong friendships that he valued above all else. There is even a whole book about Smith’s lifelong friendship with David Hume. Most of Smith’s thought focuses on this type of love.

Smith was a lifelong bachelor, and may or may not have known romantic love. Smith also never experienced the love a parent has for their child, though as a doting son he experienced the flip side of that relationship. As Liberty Fund’s Christy Lynn Horpedahl has pointed out, that left a gap in Smith’s thought, not just his life. If he had known those loves, it may have deepened what he had to say about the love he shared with his family and friends.

This despite being socially award; he was an absent-minded professor type who would drift off into his own thoughts at odd times and get lost in conversation. The historian Jim Powell shares that “Once, reportedly, he was giving a tour of a Glasgow tannery, and he absent-mindedly fell right into the tannery pit, from which his friends extricated him.”

Smith knew nearly every major Enlightenment thinker, often through their joint membership in social clubs like The Select Society or The Poker Club. Almost nobody had anything bad to say about him as a person, even when they disagreed with his ideas. In circles as catty as academia and intellectual salons, this is almost unheard of. He apparently practiced what he preached.

A life filled with Smithian love sounds nice, but it is incomplete. One must also be lovely. Again, that means worthy of being loved. A lovely person, for Smith, is a virtuous person. They keep their word, are quick to help, and are quick to forgive. They are honest and reliable. They lift people up when they are feeling down, and gently bring them back to Earth if they are a little too exuberant. A lovely person is fun when the occasion calls for it, and is serious when the occasion calls for that.

Loveliness cannot be faked, as my colleague Jeremy Lott and artist Doug Curtis illustrated in a one-page comic over at AdamSmithWorks. Adoration feels nice, but a person who lies about their accomplishments, or who befriends other people only to take advantage of them, knows he is a fraud. His friends don’t love him, they love a false idea of him. That is a blow to self-esteem severe enough to prevent someone from being truly happy.

Being lovely is a process, not an end result. It takes work, maintenance, and long-term self-improvement. Putting in all this effort is more than a life’s work. It is its own form of loveliness.

Smith had an adult’s view of materialism. He didn’t worship Mammon, nor did he condemn material wealth. He had a nuanced view that saw prosperity as giving people the means to pursue the important things in life: to love and be lovely.