On “Our Great Purpose”

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I was at a loss to think of what I could possibly add to all the dreadful news this last week, I always have a few columns in various stages of preparation.  None seemed appropriate amid all the disheartening developments. I experienced revulsion one day, schadenfreude the next, genuine pity the day after. In desperation, I tried to make something out of the decision last month by the German Parliament to turn the inner border that split the nation for 45 years into a narrow national park for hikers and cyclists – an 870-mile-long green zone. No luck. Then I remembered Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life, by Ryan Patrick Hanley, a book I had skimmed in the spring.

Hanley is a professor of political science at Boston College. According to Eric Schliesser, of the University of Amsterdam, he is one of the world’s leading experts on Smith.   Our Great Purpose is a 120-page book comprising 27 meditations on short passages from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the book Smith published in 1759, seventeen years before An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations appeared. Wealth of Nations founded the modern science of economics. The second book completely eclipsed the first.

But Theory of Moral Sentiments is every bit as interesting as Wealth of Nations, because the first book is an exploration of human nature viewed through a much wider lens than the “trade, truck, and barter” of the second. Only now is technical economics catching up with it.  At 342 pages (in the Oxford edition, from Liberty Fund), it is challenging reading, even though Smith’s prose is still sprightly by eighteenth-century standards. That’s why Hanley augmented the snippets with his own reflections – plus pointers to the more elaborate passages in TMS. A welcome replacement for The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the text on which my generation was brought up.

I zeroed in on XII, the entry on Hatred and Anger. I was curious to know whether the joy we feel at the suffering of those whom we don’t like serves any useful purpose.  I suspect it does, binding like-minded persons together.  Smith thought not:  “Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to a good mind,” he wrote. Or, as Hanley puts it, “Tranquility is threatened by anger and hatred, but promoted by gratitude and love.”

I skipped ahead to XX, “Choice.” Smith wrote, “To deserve, to acquire, and enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainments of this so much desired object, the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness.”  Or, as Hanley compresses it, “We need to choose between the road admired by the world and the road less traveled.”

I felt better immediately. Hanley’s little prism made it easier to think about the events of the week.  I turned to the keyboard, and, when I was done, I took Our Great Purpose home to put on the nightstand, next to Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaassen.