Adam Smith's well known and little read masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, is of a kind with Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species; dense, intensely thought through and rewarding of close reading even these centuries later. Though for turgidness and digression, I am afraid that Smith leads the race.
Fortunately, one of our best humorists, commentators and essayists, P.J. O'Rourke, has made the journey through the jungles of Smith's works (P.J. O'Rourke On The Wealth of Nations) and returned to report to us and serve as an ambassador of Smith's thinking in prose that is more comprehensible and definitely more entertaining.
Smith was writing at the time of, and as one of the principal lights of, the Scottish Enlightenment, that incredible flowering of thinkers and doers in Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century.
It is easily forgotten that Smith was a moral philosopher in the widest sense and that he just happened, in his reasoning on moral philosophy, to set the study of economics on a modern foundation. As widely admired (though little read) as The Wealth of Nations might be, even less read is it's predecessor volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
But between the two, O'Rourke points out, Smith established one of the most critical principles underpinning his thinking. The following is an excerpt from O'Rourke's On the Wealth of Nations. I have elided many of his humorous comments to try and keep the track headed towards the point at which I wish to arrive, I hope without misconstruing his meaning.
Adam Smith begins The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the riddle upon which all our well-being depends: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it." The root of these principles is, according to Smith, sympathy. We are sympathetic creatures. We possess one emotion that cannot be categorized by cynics as either greed or fear. And it isn't love. . . .
Our sympathy makes us able, and eager, to share the feelings of people we don't love at all. We like sharing their bad feelings as well as their good ones. . . .
This sympathy, Smith argued, is completely imaginative and not, like most emotions, a product of our physical senses. No matter how poignantly sympathetic the situation, we don't feel other people's pain. . . . "Our senses," Smith declared, "never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person." It is our imagination that generates sympathy and gives sympathy its power. . . .
People have the creative talent to put themselves in another person's place and to suppose what that other person is feeling. . . .
But sympathy by itself - be it for humans, animals, . . . - can't be the basis of a moral system. . . .
Imagination, already working to show us how other people feel, has to work harder to show us whether what they feel is right or wrong. Then there's the problem of whether we're right or wrong. We'll always have plenty of sympathy for ourselves. . . .
Our imaginations must undertake the additional task of creating a method to render decent judgments on our feelings and on the feelings of others and on the actions that proceed from those feelings. Adam Smith personified these conscious imaginative judgments and named our brain's moral magistrate the "Impartial Spectator." . . .
According to Adam Smith, the "wise and virtuous man" uses his imagination to create "the idea of exact propriety and perfection." This is "gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within." If, Smith wrote, the Impartial Spectator did not endeavor to teach us "to protect the weak, to curb the violent, and to chastise the guilty," then "a man would enter an assembly of men as he enters a den of lions." . . .
The imagination that Smith describes is the strenuous imagination of an Einstein or a Newton, with all the discipline that this implies. "Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre," Smith writes. And, "In the common degree of the moral, there is no virtue. Virtue is excellence."
This hard, creative work that imagination does links the moral sympathy central to The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the material cooperation central to The Wealth of Nations. The imagination also has to make a creative effort to divide labor and conduct trade. Sympathy and cooperation are the more-conscious and the less-conscious sides of what allows civilization to exist. They are the "principles in his nature," that man has, "which interest him in the fortune of others."
All of which, I am afraid tortuously, finally leads me to the real question that occurs to me from this reading.
Among the many benefits that people often credit to early and frequent reading are increased vocabulary, factual knowledge, social awareness, attention spans, self-discipline, imagination, etc. I am sympathetic to all these implied benefits and suspect there is something to most of them.
The one I have always wrestled with is, however, imagination. How do you measure it? How do you know if more reading makes you more imaginative?
Having read O'Rourke's interpretation of Smith though, I think there is something more substantive here than I had reflected on. I do think that the act of reading forces children to project themselves into the circumstances of others and to exercise that sympathy of which Smith speaks. So imagination becomes not just a source of creativity but also a source of social awareness and adjustedness. And that you can begin to measure.
I wonder if anyone has ever done any sort of longitudinal study trying to measure the social adjustedness and the social sensitivity of early and avid readers compared to a random slice of the population? Likewise, I wonder if a child who has had much practice, through reading, of exercising their sympathy, correspondingly demonstrates greater creativity and innovation in other fields of endeavor.
There is of course an issue of sample bias - are children that are prone to early and enthusiastic reading also gifted with sympathy and creativity? Or can reading on its own help build those characteristics. I suspect both might be true.