Adam Smith Is Still Relevant

Many people are familiar with Adam Smith from his “The Wealth of Nations” book (actually it’s: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) published in 1776 that basically gave birth to the field of economics (and contains the famous “Invisible Hand” quotation).

But, many fewer are familiar with his other classic work: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). I have it on my Kindle, and started to read it a few times, but I never got very far as it was more work than I was willing to do (the language is a bit dated and the sentences are long…).

Fortunately for all of us, Russ Roberts (host of the marvelous EconTalk podcast) has written a modern look at The Theory of Moral Sentiments with his latest: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. Roberts has done the heavy lifting for us and brought the work up to date with modern examples, reorganization, and elaborating on some of the key passages and ideas.

I can’t give a satisfactory summary in a short blog post, so I really encourage you to check out the book yourself if it has any interest to you. Just to give you an idea of the areas covered, here are some of the chapter titles:

  • How to Know Yourself
  • How to Be Happy
  • How Not to Fool Yourself
  • How to be Loved
  • How to be Lovely
  • How to be Good
  • How to Make the World a Better Place
  • How Not to Make the World a Better Place
  • How to Live in the Modern World

What struck me was just how similar human nature was in Smith’s day to what it is in ours and how easy it was to recognize the relevance of the insights that Smith made over 250 years ago (I’m sure some of the credit for this should go to Roberts).

I’ve got a lot of other things on my reading list, but this book may have given me the push I needed to go back and read The Theory of Moral Sentiments itself. Even if I don’t, I’m more familiar with its ideas than I would have been. I also might look at reading more of David Hume (a friend of Smith’s and another key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment)

Many of the ideas in the book were common (today, anyway), but some were new to me. I didn’t agree with everything Smith had to say, but I found the overall set of insights to be interesting and valuable and I now have a hightened and renewed respect for Adam Smith, the man. Perhaps you will too.


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