But if any Smith book was likely to have sat on an Austenian side table, it wasn’t The Wealth of Nations, but the work that Smith himself considered foundational, and thus revised a staggering six times over the course of his lifetime, up until the year of his death. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) introduced Smith’s concept of sympathy. This was a word used slightly differently in Smith’s time than in our own, and doesn’t have much to do with the modern tendency to click like on a Facebook friend’s engagement announcement to show our support, or to feel terrible about the plight of child soldiers. It referred instead to the mortar of civilized society, the way that we modify our behavior as we come to an understanding of how others see us and realize that they cannot regard our problems in the same close and passionate way that we do.
Smith, who sought to reconcile a kind of genial 18th-century deism with the precepts of the established Churches of Scotland and England, summarized the matter thus: “As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us.” We might, if we listen closely, hear a slight echo in bookish Mr. Bennet’s philosophy: “For what do we live for but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
But for all of the strides Smith made toward reconciliation, he never quite came to a conclusion about whether a rich man could get into heaven, or even be happy on earth. The ambiguity is more apparent in The Theory of Moral Sentiments than it is in The Wealth of Nations; the latter makes the operation of the invisible hand its subject, but the former inquires about its origins.
Smith turns out to be less than enamored with those origins. In one of the many cases where “sympathy”—so connotatively positive now—is as dangerous as it is necessary, Smith tells us that it is our imaginative sympathies, our way of picturing how much fun it would be to be rich, that do in fact create the wealthy, bustling world around us, but which may deform our moral characters and even our ability to be happy in the process.
Few realize it now, but the first appearance of the invisible hand in Smith’s work occurs in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, not The Wealth of Nations. And that forgetting is part of a radical revision of the way that we tend to regard greed in the modern era.
Greed, for us utilitarian moderns, is dangerous because it prioritizes the individual over the society, accruing benefits to a small number of people at the expense of larger groups. Smith’s concern about wealth and virtue is diametrically opposite. The acquisition of wealth does little good for the individual, but much good for the world around her. To demonstrate, he gives us the parable of the poor man’s son, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” a man who imagines that it would be a very good thing to have some servants to labor for him, so thus labors his entire life to get some servants, in one of the finest 18th-century examples of economic irony.