On Some Fundamental Issues in 21st Century Political Economy
Chapter 6: Adam Smith on Character
FOLLOWING ARISTOTLE ON CHARACTER Smith largely follows Aristotle on the importance and the development of character.1 For example, with regards to virtue, Smith agrees with Aristotle that virtue is excellence (Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS): 25). Also, for Smith as for Aristotle, it is important to hit the mean to be virtuous (for example, TMS: 27); for both, virtuous actions are a sort of mean between two opposite vices, one of excess, one of defect (for example, TMS: 270–72). In his lecture course on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith, sounding much like Aristotle, counsels that ‘it is chiefly the character and disposition of a man that gives rise to his particular conduct and behaviour’ (p. 78). For Smith, as for Aristotle, character is largely a function of upbringing. Thus, for example, Smith claims that people who: have had the misfortune to be brought up amidst violence, licentiousness, falsehood, and injustice; lose, though not all sense of the impropriety of such conduct, yet all sense of its dreadful enormity . . . They have been familiarized with it from their infancy, custom has rendered it habitual to them, and they are very apt to regard it as, what is called, the way of the world, something which either may, or must be practiced, to hinder us from being the dupes of our own integrity. (TMS: 200–201) As with Aristotle, habits and experience will have a large effect upon the development of a person’s character. Thus, ‘the objects with which men in the...
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