Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Adam Smith on Friendship and Love

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Adam Smith on Friendship and Love

Article excerpt

Democracy does not create strong attachments between man and man, but it does put their ordinary relations on an easier footing.


The excellent person labours for his friends and for his native country, and will die for them if he must; he will sacrifice money, honours and contested goods in general, in achieving what is fine for himself. For he will choose intense pleasure for a short time over mild pleasure for a long time; a year of living finely over many years of undistinguished life; and a single fine and great action over many small actions.


The centrality of "sympathy" to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments points to the centrality of love in the book. While Smith delineates a somewhat unusual, technical sense of "sympathy" ("fellow-feeling" for any emotion), his actual use of the term frequently slips into its more ordinary sense of "compassion" or affectionate fellow feeling. This no doubt intentional equivocation on Smith's part helps suffuse the book with these themes, to the point that, without much exaggeration, one could say that the Theory of Moral Sentiments is generally about love: our need for love and sympathy, love as friendship, self-love, the love of praise and praiseworthiness, the love of beauty.(3) Even in the Wealth of Nations, our loves are thought to be very important in explaining our behavior.(4) Smith is unusual among modern moral philosophers in according so central a place to love in this broad sense (a sense that includes friendship), although of course Christianity made love a central theme in reflection on ethical life, and philosophers such as Hutcheson (one of Smith's teachers) made benevolence a key virtue in their ethical systems. However, it is not our purpose to examine Smith's critique of Hutcheson(5) or indeed of any of his predecessors. Rather we aim in this paper to reflect on his treatment of this topic. We shall do so in part by means of comparisons with Aristotle and Plato, first with respect to friendship and then with respect to love generally. Smith's writing is replete with classical references, raising the issue of the degree to which his thought is "ancient" or "modern." Friendship is arguably the pinnacle of social relations for the ancients, and thus it provides us with a useful device for determining the degree to which Smith's thought embodies classical moral and philosophical principles. The subtlety of Smith's interweaving of traditions will become visible as we reflect not just on the ways Smith's thought exhibits classical conceptions of friendship and love, but also on the ways he departs from them. For in at least one important respect, love is a closed book from Smith's standpoint, and thus, as it turns out, also at odds with classical friendship.

To reiterate, our purpose is not to provide a Quellenforschung, or a historical treatment of Smith's appropriation of the thought of his predecessors.(6) We seek to account for Smith's theory of friendship in light of his somewhat dialectical treatment of love, and do so first by outlining the components of classical friendship as one finds them in Aristotle, since this is the standard by which virtually all subsequent theories of friendship may be judged. We next argue that although Smith is "modern" in many respects, his theory of true friendship has some important structural similarities to Aristotle's conception of friendships of virtue. These similarities allow Smith to gain many of the benefits of Aristotle's theory without having to make the same theoretical commitments. Yet the commitments Smith is unwilling to make and the subsequent implications this has for love in general may, in the end, explain the ambivalence towards classical friendships Smith exhibits. We conclude by reflecting on the possible deficiencies of Smith's synthetic account of friendship and love. Our approach here, like Smith's own thought, is itself dialectical. …

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