Liberty Matters

When Reading Spencer, Remember Smith


Let me follow up the thought that we need to pay attention to the evolution of human character. While I am more comfortable with endogeneity than with evolution, the point is exactly right.  Drawing on a paper I’m writing with Sandra Peart for background,[105] I think it important to remember that Social Statics is so heavily influenced by Adam Smith’s work. And before Smith, there is David Hume’s short but enormously difficult essay “Of National Characters.”[106]
Hume makes the pregnant distinction between the physical causes of character differences—wind, water and sunlight—and the “moral” causes provided by motivating incentives.[107]  Hume makes a remarkable claim that the link between occupation-linked incentives and character is a necessary one, overwhelming the physical environment:
A soldier and a priest are different characters, in all nations, and all ages; and this difference is founded on circumstances, whose operation is eternal and unalterable. ([1777] 1987, p. 198)[108]
We find a kindred claim of necessary truth in Smith’s link in The Wealth of Nations between occupation and character.[109] 
The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasion. [I.i.8; 19; emphasis added]
As occupations change in the course of the extension of the division of labor, character changes. Here’s what Smith told his students a decade before the celebrated philosopher–porter comparison saw print:
It is not the difference of naturall parts and genius (which if there be any is but very small), as is generally supposed, that occasions this separation of trades, as this separation of trades by the different views it gives one that occasions the diversity of genius. No two persons can be more different in their genius as a philosopher and a porter, but there does not seem to have been [any?] originall difference betwixt them. For the 5 or 6 first years of their lives there was hardly any apparent difference; their companions looked upon them as persons of pretty much the same stamp. No wisdom and ingenuity appeared in the one superior to that of the other. From about that time a difference was thought to be perceived in them. Their manner of life began then to affect them, and without doubt had it not been for this they would have continued the same. The difference of employment occasions the difference of genius; and we see accordingly that amongst savages, where there is very little diversity of employment, there is hardly any diversity of temper or genius. [Lectures on Jurisprudence vi. 46; p. 348] [Editor: A different version of the story of the philosopher and the porter can be found in Cannan's edition of the 1763 lectures.]
Perhaps one reason Spencer’s thoughts have been so mangled is that we’ve lost the Smithian background against which he writes.  And without Smith we are unlikely to see Hume in the shadows.
[105.] "From national character to statistical discrimination,” to be presented at the Allied Social Sciences Conference in Boston in January 2015.
[106.] My late friend, Gene Miller, the editor of the critical 20th-century edition of Hume’s Essays in which “Of National Characters” appears, suggests why we need specialist help, Miller ([1985] 1987, p. xxii:): “One finds abundant evidence of his reading in the Greek and Latin classics as well as of his familiarity with the literary works of the important English, French, Italian, and Spanish authors.… He knew the important treatises on natural science, and he investigated the modern writings on political economy.”  Popkin ([1977-78] 1980, pp. 257-58) helpfully reads Hume in opposition to Montesquieu.
[107.] Smith is completely clear in crediting Hume with opening one vital part of the discussion. “Thirdly, and lastly, commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours, and of servile dependency upon their superiors. This, though it has been the least observed is by far the most important of all their effects. Mr. Hume is the only writer who, so far as I know, has hitherto taken notice of it.” The Wealth of Nations III.iv.4; p. 412. The modern reader might ask: where’s Montesquieu?   Mizuta (2000, pp. 174-5) collects Smith’s comments on some empirical claims made in the De L’ espirit des Lois.  This is suggestive of Smith’s attitude: “The two facts above mentioned on which Montesquieu ground this argument are not all well ascertained” (174).  The questioned “fact” claimed to “explain” polygamy was a sex ratio of 10 females born to each male.  The impact of musical education on Greek morals is treated more gently since here Montesquieu has the authority of Plato and Aristotle to cite (175).
[108.] There is a marvelous geometrical image offered in the commentary on Aristotle’s Prior Analytics by Alexander of Aphrodisias that will help explain this: “the necessary is like a line which has been stretched from eternity to eternity, and contingent comes into being from this line when it is cut. For if this line is cut into unequal segments, the result is the contingent as the natural and what is for the most part, and also the contingent as the infrequent, which includes chance and spontaneity. But if the line is cut into equal segment there results the ‘who can tell’….” (163.19-23; 102-3).
[109.] We have argued against the temptation to read modal language in Smith—both “natural” and “necessary” are modal—as stylistic tics of no great interest (Levy and Peart 2013).