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Morality and Sociability in Commercial Society: Smith, Rousseau—and Mandeville

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 October 2017


In 1756 Adam Smith reviewed Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality and claimed that it was indebted to the second volume of Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees. While much recent scholarship has taken this as the point of departure for studying Smith's engagement with Rousseau, the place of Mandeville in shaping that engagement has been largely neglected. This article brings Mandeville back into the picture and reassesses Smith's engagement with both thinkers in light of the connections he identified between their works. This involves reconstructing Mandeville's historicized account of the development of sociability and government, and showing how Rousseau developed this to articulate his critique of modern society. In evaluating Smith's response to this challenge, it is argued that he only partially succeeded in distancing his own analysis of commercial society from Mandeville's principles.

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Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2017 

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1 The following abbreviations are used for frequently cited primary sources. For Smith: ER = “Letter to the Edinburgh Review,” in Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. Wightman, W. P. D. and Bryce, J. C. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982), 242–56Google Scholar; LJ equals  Lectures on Jurisprudence, ed. Meek, R. L., Raphael, D. D., and Stein, P. G. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982)Google Scholar; TMS equals  The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982)Google Scholar; WN =  An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Campbell, R. H. and Skinner, A. S. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981)Google Scholar. For ease of comparison with other editions, references to TMS and WN are given by part/section/chapter/paragraph numbers as appropriate. For Mandeville: FB =  The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. Kaye, F. B., 2 vols. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1988)Google Scholar. References are given as FB I or FB II to denote the volume, followed by page numbers. For Rousseau: DOI = Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 3, ed. Kelly, Christopher and Masters, Roger D. (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992), 195 Google Scholar.

2 Castel, Louis-Bertrand, L'homme moral opposé à l'homme physique de Monsieur R**** : Lettres philosophiques où l'on réfute le Déisme du jour (Toulouse, 1756), 57–58, 173–74Google Scholar; Jean de Castillon, Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalité parmi les hommes, pour servir de réponse au discours que Rousseau, M., Citoyen de Genève, a publié sur le même sujet (Amsterdam: J. F. Jolly, 1756), 129, 255–66Google Scholar.

3 Jack, Malcolm, “One State of Nature: Mandeville and Rousseau,” Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 1 (1978): 119–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hundert, Edward J., The Enlightenment's Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 105–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hundert, , “Mandeville, Rousseau and the Political Economy of Fantasy,” in Luxury in the Eighteenth-Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods, ed. Berg, Maxine and Elgar, Elizabeth (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), 2840 Google Scholar; Simonazzi, Mauro, “Bernard Mandeville e Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” in La filosofia politica di Rousseau, ed. Chiode, Giulio M. and Gatti, Roberto (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2012), 231–37Google Scholar.

4 The quote is from Dennis C. Rasmussen's brief survey of the extant scholarship, Adam Smith and Rousseau: Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment,” in The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, ed. Berry, Christopher J., Paganelli, Maria Pia, and Smith, Craig (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 5456 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 The term “commercial society” is associated principally with Smith. It is a society in which the division of labor is so entrenched that everyone “lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant” (WN, I.iv.1). This also implies a psychological component, as such a society can subsist “from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection,” through commercial exchange and observation of the rule of justice (TMS, II.ii.3.2). See also Hont, Istvan, Politics in Commercial Society: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith, ed. Kapossy, Béla and Sonenscher, Michael (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 34 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While neither Mandeville nor Rousseau used the term “commercial society,” it is plausible to view them as having analyzed the type of society that Smith classified as commercial.

6 Ignatieff, Michael, “Smith, Rousseau and the Republic of Needs,” in Scotland and Europe 1200–1850, ed. Smout, T. C. (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1986), 187–89Google Scholar; Hanley, Ryan Patrick, “Commerce and Corruption: Rousseau's Diagnosis and Adam Smith's Cure,” European Journal of Political Theory 7, no. 2 (2008): 137–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rasmussen, Dennis C., The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), 5 Google Scholar.

7 Smith was concerned to distance his moral philosophy from Mandeville and appears troubled by what we can assume was the suggestion that he had not done so. See Smith, Adam, “Letter to Gilbert Elliot,” in Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. Mossner, E. C. and Ross, I. S. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987), 49 Google Scholar. The possibility that Smith's moral philosophy failed to refute Mandeville tends to receive more of a hearing in scholarship focused primarily on Mandeville than on Smith. See Horne, Thomas A., “Envy and Commercial Society: Mandeville and Smith on ‘Private Vices, Public Benefits,’Political Theory 9, no. 4 (1981): 562–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Castiglione, Dario, “Considering Things Minutely: Reflections on Mandeville and the Eighteenth-Century Science of Man,” History of Political Thought 7, no. 4 (1986): 485Google Scholar; Goldsmith, Maurice M., “Regulating Anew the Moral and Political Sentiments of Mankind: Bernard Mandeville and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49, no. 4 (1988): 603–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hundert, Enlightenment's Fable, 219–36; Kerkhof, Bert, “A Fatal Attraction? Smith's ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ and Mandeville's ‘Fable,’History of Political Thought 16, no. 2 (1995): 219–23Google Scholar; Welchman, Jennifer, “Who Rebutted Bernard Mandeville?,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 24, no. 1 (2007): 68–69Google Scholar. None of these studies, however, consider in detail how Smith's arguments compare to the historical account of sociability from the second volume of the Fable, and only Hundert's makes anything more than passing reference to Rousseau and/or the “Letter to the Edinburgh Review.”

8 Cohen, G. A., Why Not Socialism? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 7779 Google ScholarPubMed; Skidelsky, Robert and Skidelsky, Edward, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (London: Penguin Books, 2013), 4853 Google Scholar.

9 Ignatieff, Michael, The Needs of Strangers (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984)Google Scholar; Berry, Christopher J., “Adam Smith: Commerce, Liberty and Modernity,” in Philosophers of the Enlightenment, ed. Gilmour, Peter (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1990), 113–32Google Scholar; Hanley, Ryan Patrick, “From Geneva to Glasgow: Rousseau and Adam Smith on the Theater and Commercial Society,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 35 (2006): 177202 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hanley, , “Enlightened Nation Building: The ‘Science of the Legislator’ in Adam Smith and Rousseau,” American Journal of Political Science 52, no. 2 (2008): 219–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 West, E. G., “Adam Smith and Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality: Inspiration or Provocation?,” Journal of Economic Issues 5, no. 2 (1971): 68 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ignatieff, “Republic of Needs,” 189, 200–201; Pack, Spencer J., “The Rousseau-Smith Connection: Towards an Understanding of Professor West's ‘Splenetic Smith,’History of Economic Ideas 8, no. 2 (2000): 46, 49 Google Scholar; Hanley, “Commerce and Corruption,” 146–47; Griswold, Charles L., “Smith and Rousseau in Dialogue: Sympathy, Pitié, Spectatorship and Narrative,” in The Adam Smith Review, vol. 5, Essays Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Brown, Vivienne and Fleischacker, Samuel (London: Routledge, 2010), 61, 63 Google Scholar.

11 Leigh, R. A., “Rousseau and the Scottish Enlightenment,” Contributions to Political Economy 5, no. 1 (1986): 11–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Colletti, Lucio, From Rousseau to Lenin, trans. Marrington, John and White, Judith (London: NLB, 1972), 197 Google Scholar.

13 Prieto, Jimena Hurtado, “Bernard Mandeville's Heir: Adam Smith or Jean Jacques Rousseau on the Possibility of Economic Analysis,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 11, no. 1 (2004): 2, 414 Google Scholar.

14 Equally, however, we should be wary of inferring intellectual influence too quickly given the difficulty of knowing precisely why Smith wrote the “Letter.” See Paul Sagar, “Smith and Rousseau, after Hume and Mandeville,” Political Theory, published electronically June 29, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0090591716656459. Sagar's caution regarding the “Letter” is in response to stronger positions than that defended here and, more broadly, we agree that the influence of Rousseau on Smith has been overstated. While our arguments are complementary, Sagar takes a different approach by largely leaving the “Letter” aside and instead arguing on independent grounds that Mandeville, and especially Hume, were more important than Rousseau as interlocutors for Smith.

15 For example Winch, Donald, Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750–1834 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6676 Google Scholar; Schliesser, Eric, “Adam Smith's Benevolent and Self-Interested Conception of Philosophy,” in New Voices on Adam Smith, ed. Montes, Leonidas and Schliesser, Eric (London: Routledge, 2006), 343–46Google Scholar; Rasmussen, Problems and Promise, 59–71; Phillipson, Nicolas, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 144–48Google Scholar; Stimson, Shannon C., “The General Will after Rousseau: Smith and Rousseau on Sociability and Inequality,” in The General Will: The Evolution of a Concept, ed. Farr, James and Williams, David Lay (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 353–58Google Scholar. Two notable exceptions are Force, Pierre, Self-Interest before Adam Smith: A Genealogy of Economic Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 34 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hont, Politics in Commercial Society, 19–20. Both rightly point out that the second volume of the Fable focuses more on the historical development of society and sociability, but neither examines this development in any detail and it has little impact on the main claims they make about the relationship between Rousseau and Smith.

16 Tolonen, Mikko, Mandeville and Hume: Anatomists of Civil Society (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013), 134 Google Scholar.

17 Tolonen, Mandeville and Hume, 156, and see 103–46 more generally on the publishing history of the Fable. Tolonen quotes Smith's remark about volume 2 of the Fable as evidence that its influence “remained a well-established fact in eighteenth-century Scottish thought” (156). However, he provides no further discussion of the aspects of Mandeville's thought that Smith associated with Rousseau.

18 Some commentators have jumped on this comment to argue that Smith dismissed the substance of Rousseau's arguments and was interested only in his eloquence and style. See Hundert, Enlightenment's Fable, 220; West, “Inspiration or Provocation?,” 69; Wokler, Robert, “Todorov's Otherness,” New Literary History 27, no. 1 (1996): 52 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, this reading completely overlooks the reason why Smith was reviewing Rousseau's Discourse in the first place, which was to draw attention to the one French work, above all others, that had taken up the branch of modern philosophy lately neglected in England.

19 Schliesser, “Smith's Conception of Philosophy,” 343–44; Hanley, “Commerce and Corruption,” 139–40; Rasmussen, Problems and Promise, 68–71.

20 Dugald Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith,” in Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 293.

21 Smith advances a similar (but not identical) argument himself (LJ, 208, 404; WN, V.i.b.12). See also Pack, “Rousseau-Smith Connection,” 52–53; Schliesser, “Smith's Conception of Philosophy,” 346; but cf. Hont, Politics in Commercial Society, 21–22, 48–49.

22 Hont, Politics in Commercial Society, 20, 26.

23 For more extensive accounts of how this distinction plays out in the historical narrative of volume 2 see Hundert, Enlightenment's Fable, 52–115; Tolonen, Mandeville and Hume, 65–102.

24 For helpful analysis of this wider debate and Mandeville's place in reviving an Epicurean account of the origin of languages see Lifschitz, Avi, Language and Enlightenment: The Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1638 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Hundert, Enlightenment's Fable, 113.

26 Jack, “Mandeville and Rousseau,” 121–22; Force, Self-Interest before Smith, 65; Seigel, Jerrold, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 116 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brooke, Christopher, Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 182–84Google Scholar.

27 See Douglass, Robin, Rousseau and Hobbes: Nature, Free Will, and the Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015), 8293 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 See also Rasmussen, Problems and Promise, 63–64.

29 Phillipson, Enlightened Life, 141–48.

30 Leigh, “Rousseau and the Scottish Enlightenment,” 12; Kerkhof, “A Fatal Attraction?,” 233; Pack, “Rousseau-Smith Connection,” 45–46; Force, Self-Interest before Smith, 14–20; Griswold, “Smith and Rousseau,” 61–64; Phillipson, Enlightened Life, 149–50; Hont, Politics in Commercial Society, 27–28; Stimson, “Smith and Rousseau on Sociability and Inequality,” 358–61.

31 Smith never uses the term “sociability”—probably to distance himself from Francis Hutcheson—but passages like these (and those on “social” and “unsocial” passions) indicate that he is addressing similar questions to Mandeville and Rousseau. To clarify, when I refer to genuinely sociable sentiments in Smith, I mean sentiments that lead us to seek society for its own sake (i.e., the view of sociability that Smith claims Mandeville and Rousseau reject in the “Letter”). Smith himself lists “Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, all the social and benevolent affections” under the “social” passions (TMS, I.ii.4.1).

32 Ignatieff, “Republic of Needs,” 200–201; Hanley, “Commerce and Corruption,” 141–44; Rasmussen, Problems and Promise, 118–19; Phillipson, Enlightened Life, 156; but cf. Sagar, “Smith and Rousseau.”

33 Bernard Mandeville, An Enquiry Into the Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity in War (London, 1732), 7–8.

34 In taking up this challenge, Smith never explicitly claims to be responding to Mandeville and/or Rousseau, and my interpretation thus encounters a similar problem to that faced by much of the existing scholarship on Smith's engagement with Rousseau. The claim that Smith had Mandeville and/or Rousseau in mind at different points where neither is mentioned is plausible, but remains somewhat speculative. However, my argument need not rest on such a strong claim. My weaker and less speculative claim is simply that Smith addressed the issues raised by the Mandevillean challenge, irrespective of whether he saw himself as responding to Mandeville and/or Rousseau directly. As the preceding analysis hopefully establishes, Smith would have been well aware of Mandeville's and Rousseau's views on these issues, and had gestured towards them explicitly in the “Letter.”

35 Similarly, the virtue of justice is based on sympathizing with the victim's resentment, but resentment itself is an “unsocial passion” (TMS, I.ii.3.1–8, II.ii.1–3).

36 Cf. Fleischacker, Samuel, On Adam Smith's “Wealth of Nations”: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 9394 Google Scholar, who argues that persuasion recognizes the independence of those we seek to persuade and shows them respect. Fleischacker is right to argue that persuasion has more favorable connotations than force, but he downplays its association with the desire for superiority.

37 A notable exception is Kerkhof, “A Fatal Attraction?,” 232–33, but he does not discuss this point in any detail.

38 This is not to deny that Smith thinks that humans naturally desire the company of others and take pleasure in mutual sympathy. My claim, more specifically, is simply that this desire does not characterize the social bonds associated distinctively with commercial society.

39 Robertson, John, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680–1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 394 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Indeed, at points Smith suggests that “the rich and the great” become less sociable and generous as feudalism gives way to commercial society, as their fortunes are increasingly spent on “frivolous objects” that display “a base and selfish disposition,” rather than in hospitality (WN, II.iii.42, II.iv.5).

41 Cohen, Why Not Socialism?, 77–79.

42 Ignatieff, Needs of Strangers, 111–13; Fleischacker, Wealth of Nations, 107–8; Brooke, Philosophic Pride, 205–6.

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