Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.Oscar Wilde (2007: 185)
Adam Smith remarks in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that once the division of labour has taken hold and interdependence is the norm, ‘Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.’ To be a merchant is not just to sell goods, one might claim, but to sell oneself. It is not difficult to imagine exchange as an invitation to manipulative and debased relations not just in a commercial context but also in a broad range of interactions in society.
In this essay I will focus on one of the ways in which Rousseau articulates what he takes to be a key problem that besets society (particularly one devoted to commerce), and on Smith's contrasting take on the issue. That problem concerns a split between ‘to be’ and ‘to appear’ (DI 1997a: 170.2/OC III: 174) that involves deception about who or what one is, as well as play-acting of which even the actor may be unaware. The matter involves a distinction, indeed contrast, between the self as it truly is and how the self appears to others (and possibly even to oneself). I will refer to this multifaceted problem as ‘self-falsification’. It turns out that, for Rousseau, self-falsification corrodes freedom (a contested notion that will therefore draw my attention here as well). Remarkably, two of the three passages from the Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men that Smith translated in his Letter to the Authors of the Edinburgh Review discuss the being/appearing theme. Modern interpreters too have frequently focused on those passages.
On one occasion Smith speaks of ‘commerce’ in the broad sense of the term, as meaning social exchange (TMS I.ii.4.1: 39). In that sense commerce has always been with us.