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Self-Interest before Adam Smith: A Genealogy of Economic Science

Author(s):Force, Pierre
Reviewer(s):Vivenza, Gloria

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Pierre Force, Self-Interest before Adam Smith: A Genealogy of Economic Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ix + 279 pp. $65/?45 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-83060-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gloria Vivenza, Facolt? di Economia, Dipartimento di Economie Societ? Istituzioni, Universit? di Verona, Italy.

In the past few decades, a growing literature on Adam Smith as moral philosopher has been added to the rich series of studies devoted to Smith as economist; the result has been a renewed attention to the problem of the relationship between Smith’s two main works.

Pierre Force, Professor of French at Columbia University in New York, a scholar with a literary training and author of works on Pascal and Moli?re, tackles in this book a subject which is both ambitious and someway limited. Ambitious for the self-evident relevance of the argument; limited by relying perhaps too much on Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests as a source of inspiration. The well-known work is proclaimed to be the author’s “greatest intellectual debt,” but sometimes one would appreciate that it may be less present. In what follows, I will limit myself to examining one aspect of Force’s interpretation of Smith’s thought, namely its connection with the classics — although this means that my illustration of the work will not be exhaustive.

The main purpose of the volume is to single out the “first principles” of Adam Smith’s system in order to investigate if the common opinion grounding the Wealth of Nations (WN) on self-interest can stand the test. To effect this check the author engages in a thorough analysis of the philosophical and psychological bases of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), compared with those of two authors on whose work Smith expressed some reservations: Mandeville and Rousseau.

Some key concepts are examined at the beginning: the opening passages of TMS are related to a passage of Mandeville where it is claimed that everyone, even a criminal, feels piety in front of an atrocious scene. The disinterestedness of Mandeville’s pity and of Smith’s sympathy leads Force to connect the latter with the former, because he reduces Smith’s concept of pity to “an empirical illustration … of the psychological phenomenon that Smith subsequently proposes to call sympathy” (pp. 15-16). In the immediately following pages, “pity” and “sympathy” are used almost interchangeably. Now, a comparison can be made between homogeneous objects: I think it inappropriate to connect Mandeville’s “pity” and Smith’s “sympathy.” Smith would have accepted Mandeville’s definition of pity and compassion as “fellow-feeling and condolence for the misfortunes and calamities of others” (quoted at p. 15), but he makes clear that to himself “sympathy” is something more than pity. Although he is aware that the original meaning of sympathy is participation in the others’ pain or sorrow, he says that he wants to use the term to indicate “our fellow feeling with any passion whatever,” using “pity and compassion” only for the sympathy with the sorrow of others (TMS I.i.1.5, cf also I.iii.1.1). Given the asymmetry in Force’s comparison, it is not surprising that he is obliged later to consider counterintuitive, straining or paradoxical the passages where Smith says that we sympathize more easily with the joy than with the sorrow of others (pp. 165 and 168).

In the book, the history of the idea of self-interest is illustrated by opposing an “interest doctrine” of Epicurean-Augustinian origin, based on the concept that every human action is self-interested even if seemingly unselfish (altruism may be an autogratification, so to speak), to an “harmony of interests doctrine” of Stoic origin which presupposes a concord of interests between individual and society.

The connection between Epicurus and St Augustine is achieved by means of Gassendi, obviously; and perhaps does not take enough into consideration the rich seventeenth-century literature which stressed Epicurus’ religiousness. The problem naturally is that Epicurean philosophy was considered atheist, but really it would be better to say that it was inconsistent with Christianity. This is why the comparison between Epicurus and St Augustine is perplexing, despite the author’s warning in proposing it. His frequent use of words like ‘neoStoic’ and ‘neoEpicurean’ makes it clear that he alludes to the modern developments of the ancient doctrines; and he is certainly not wrong in searching for a relationship between them and Christian religion: but the problem was just that. It is impossible for ancient philosophies to come to terms with concepts like original sin or God’s grace. For the Stoics, medieval and modern thought had established a similarity (though more seeming than real) with a concept of Providence; but the Epicureans, although they did not deny the gods’ existence, notoriously believed that they were not interested in human affairs: a position which for Christian religion was perhaps worse than atheism.

Pierre Force recalls that the “first principle” of the Epicureans is pleasure, whereas for the Stoics it is virtue; nonetheless, it seems easier to connect Christianity with Epicurean hedonism than with Stoic virtue. Why so? The true reason is that Stoic virtue can do without God and His grace; but this criticism could be made only by St Augustine, obviously — the Epicureans were not so different from the Stoics under this aspect. To reconcile the ancient doctrine with Christian principles it was necessary to distort Epicurus’ pleasure by identifying it with virtue and love for God; just as the Stoics’ cosmic order was interpreted in terms of divine Providence. These “compromises” had certainly a long tradition and were well alive in Smith’s time; I feel it unnecessary to add a new one by connecting Epicurus with St Augustine.

Space does not allow an accurate report of Force’s argumentation. He considers Smith’s position Stoic for its consistency with the “harmony of interests doctrine” connected with a providential design; and Smith’s adherence to “propriety” instead of “prudence” confirms his anti-Epicurean stance. Force thinks that many problems aroused by Smith’s works come from the fact that his Stoicism has been analyzed with Epicurean instruments, namely the interest doctrine.

The basic elements of Smith’s psychology are examined in close connection with Rousseau’s thought (also D. Winch should be considered an intellectual debt), but not only: on this point my review cannot do justice to the book. The main character of Force’s analysis seems to me an attention to ambivalence in Smith’s main concepts: sympathy is a natural instinct, but it involves reason since it is a form of identification with another person; the desire of bettering our conditions although treated as innate and instinctive is also rational; even the self-love of WN is considered a motive only because it is used as an argument to persuade to exchange. What we have of selfishness obeys God’s or nature’s rational design. Force’s strategy consists in stressing the rational calculation in self-interest, rather than its instinctual aspect; and the same happens to all human propensities which characterize economic behavior.

That Smith integrates instinctive tendencies and reason I cannot but agree; Force however seems oriented towards reducing the role of natural instincts and ruling out the “selfish hypothesis” even from economic conduct. For instance, “vanity,” not self-love is the motive of our efforts for bettering our conditions; a desire which Force describes as exclusively addressed to gain the others’ consideration and esteem rather than to improve material condition (wealth is a source of approbation, and as such it is sought for). This interpretation is grounded on a single passage in TMS (I.iii.2.1) frequently repeated, and seems to be caused mainly by the necessity to find in Smith a correspondent to Rousseau’s amour propre.

Smith notoriously maintains that it is nature’s (useful) deception which brings us to admire wealthy people: by this conclusion he repudiates the ‘philosophical’ contempt previously expressed for taking pains in order to acquire a position. That this ‘deception’ is a cause of the “corruption of our moral sentiments” (TMS I.iii.3.1) is evident to Smith, but nonetheless it is also evident to us that he considers it useful for maintaining the distinction of ranks and the order in society, let alone for stimulating man’s activity. We may discuss if it is true that Smith does not distinguish between “economic concerns … and the symbolic goal of securing esteem and consideration” (p. 180): after all, he wrote that the “accommodation” of the industrious peasant is much better than that of the African king — and there is no doubt that the latter received more esteem and consideration than the former, at least in his own social milieu.1 But vanity can only be originated in a passive sympathy, so to speak (the desire for receiving sympathy); and to be the object of sympathy in this sense is only possible through that general disposition which mankind has to sympathize with joy (and wealth) that Force finds difficult to explain.

As regards Smith’s position about passions and interests, I do not know whether he was aware to speak of them “not as antonyms, but as near-synonyms” (p. 157). It would not be strange, individual interests were egoistic passions in much of the traditional literature. The alternative “passions versus interests” was born later, although there is something true in Stephen Holmes’ observation that “the attempt to repress violent passions by appealing to material interest” is not so modern and untraditional as Hirschman represents it.2

Smith dealt straightforwardly with the problem: he did not share Hutcheson’s opinion that self-interest spoils the merit of an action. He affirms that self-love can be the motive of a virtuous action, and that a man who does not give “the proper attention to the objects of self-interest” (TMS VII.ii.3.16) has to be disapproved. Smith’s approach is to give moral dignity to self-interest, giving it the right place among human motivations, rather than to remove it from the explanatory principles of economic behavior. The fact that ‘Epicurean’ prudence must be employed to better one’s condition depends on the fact that it is the best means for this; it is a virtue, although a minor one, and nothing gives occasion, in Smith’s description, to infer that the prudent man’s desire to improve his condition is originated in vanity rather than in the care of himself.

So I do not think that Smith rejects Epicureanism so thoroughly as Pierre Force believes; probably because I find that Smith’s Epicureanism is near enough to the (ancient) source, not interwoven with St Augustine’s doctrine as proposed in the book.

Despite the narrowness of this review, Force’s book has the merit of illustrating the wide ranging relations of Smith’s thought to that of many other modern authors. Sometimes, however, this seems to overshadow Smith’s originality. An instance of this is the treatment of Smith’s ‘republicanism,’ which is a matter too debated by scholarship to be dealt with here. Force’s interpretation, however, avoids the main issues usually connected with the problem: the relationship between republican/jurisprudential paradigms, between virtue and duty, rights and virtues, and so on. It seems that Smith’s republicanism simply derived from his sharing of Rousseau’s criticism of modern commercial society, with rejection of the reason of state theory and of the countervailing passions doctrine.

I am certainly willing to admit that Rousseau was an important interlocutor for Smith as Pierre Force maintains. But Smith had no need to “appropriate” another’s view, not even if the other was a great mind like the philosopher of Geneva.


1. I had already written these words when I read J. Hurtado Prieto’s “Bernard Mandeville’s Heir: Adam Smith or Jean Jacques Rousseau on the Possibility of Economic Analysis,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 11:1, 2004, p.21. The article, though reaching different conclusions, shares Pierre Force’s (and others’) approach of analyzing the relationship of Smith’s thought with Mandeville’s and Rousseau’s.

2. S. Holmes, “The Secret History of Self-Interest,” in Beyond Self-Interest, edited by Jane J. Mansbridge, Chicago, 1990, p. 340.

Gloria Vivenza’s recently published works include Adam Smith and the Classics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval