Adam Smith’s footnote to Plato

Alternative title: Is Smith’s wise and virtuous man an officious intermeddler?

Alfred North Whitehead famously described the 2000-year European philosophical tradition as consisting of “a series of footnotes to Plato.” As we shall see, Adam Smith will be no exception to this general rule.

Thus far, we have reviewed the first half of Ryan Patrick Hanley’s beautiful new book on Adam Smith–specifically Hanley’s treatment of Smith’s imaginary spectator as well as his presentation of Smith’s theory of reciprocal sympathy. Here, we will review the culmination of Smith’s moral philosophy: “the wise and virtuous man.” Before proceeding, however, it is worth noting that Smith’s concept of virtue–his “wise and virtuous man”–is not only the focus of Hanley’s book; it is also a central feature of Smith’s moral philosophy, along with reciprocal sympathy and the imaginary spectator. Smith wrote up an entirely new section titled “Of the character of virtue” for the sixth and last (1790) edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a datum that is significant not only because of its relative size–the section on virtue takes up a big chunk of the entire book–but also because this section on virtue represents Adam Smith’s last major contribution to the world of ideas.

So, then, what is Smith’s theory of virtue, and why does Hanley find it so appealing for our times? In summary, Smith’s theory of virtue is personified by an archetype, “the wise and virtuous man.” According to Hanley, he is not just a man of contemplation, an idle philosopher; he is a man of action–a point Hanley emphasizes throughout his book. But this observation begs the question, What actions are wise and virtuous?

Hanley responds to this key question by bringing Plato’s famous allegory of the cave into the picture. Specifically, Hanley compares and contrasts Smith’s archetype to the freed prisoner in Plato’s allegory in which a group of prisoners are chained to the wall of a cave. The chains prevent their legs and necks from moving, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them. Shadows are projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. The prisoners, unable to see the objects casting the shadows, thus mistake the shadows for the objects themselves. Now, suppose one of the prisoners is freed from his chains. He has left the cave and seen the natural light outside, the truth. But what does the man do after he leaves the cave? Wouldn’t you, Hanley asks (p. 110), if you were such a person, want to stay in the world of the perfect and beautiful rather than be compelled to return to the cave? Here is Hanley’s response (ibid.):

But in fact it’s precisely this [the act of returning to the dark cave] that the wise and virtuous man does. So far from sitting forever with his vision of absolute perfection, the wise and virtuous man takes the vision of absolute perfection that his wisdom has afforded him and carries it with him back into the real world, using it as a standard with which to judge the things of this world.

Furthermore, Smith’s wise and virtuous man is not only a man of contemplation; he is also a man of action. Hanley claims that Smith’s archetype would return to the cave to help the prisoners trapped inside (p. 112): “Bettering the conditions of others–striving at all times ‘to promote their further advancement’–is however the project of a wise and virtuous person’s life.” In other words, the wise and virtuous man is an officious intermeddler. Legally speaking, an officious intermeddler is someone who, without any contractual or legal duty to do so, steps in to assist or confer a benefit on another. Courts have generally concluded that intermeddlers are not entitled to compensation for their voluntary intermeddling, a legal doctrine that goes back to the Roman law maxim culpa est immiscere se rei ad se non pertinenti–“it is a fault for anyone to meddle in a matter not pertaining to him.” (For a review of the caselaw, see John P. Dawson’s classic law review article “The Self-Serving Intermeddler,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 87, No. 7 (1974), pp. 1409-1458.)

Alas, the Smithian classical liberal in me strongly rejects Hanley’s portrait of Smith’s wise and virtuous man. It is one thing to strive to become wise and virtuous for your own sake, or to set a good example for one’s children, or to lead one’s men into battle, but I strongly disagree with Hanley’s portrait of the wise and virtuous man as an officious intermeddler, as someone who wants to improve the condition of others. Also, Hanley himself seems to have forgotten the actual ending of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In Plato’s allegory, the freed prisoner does return to help his fellow prisoners, but he becomes blind upon re-entering the cave, and worse yet, the remaining prisoners infer from his blindness that the journey out of the cave is too dangerous to undertake themselves. Plato concludes that the prisoners do not want to be dragged out of the cave.

My critique of Hanley’s reading of Smith’s theory of virtue, however, does not mean that we should reject Smith’s wise and virtuous man. I agree with Smith (and Hanley) that we should aspire to become wise and virtuous, and I further agree that wisdom and virtue are necessary conditions for free markets to thrive, but I draw a different lesson from Smith. I will present my view of Smith’s concept of virtue and wrap up my review of Hanley in my next post …

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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