This two-week seminar will explore foundations of conservative thought in the works of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Edmund Burke is known as the West’s first modern and arguably greatest conservative thinker; Adam Smith, as the founding father of capitalism. Through sustained engagement with key texts by both thinkers, students will be introduced to the original arguments for and debates over such concepts as freedom, equality, individual rights, representative government, and free enterprise, as well as the conceptions of human nature and human excellence on which these arguments were founded. In shedding light on the character of Burke and Smith’s political vision, students will also attempt to compare their thought to current strands of conservatism and liberalism in order to meditate deeply on the nature of political ideology itself.

Images: Peter Tillemans, Commons in Session, 1810 | Kazimierz Wojniakowski,The Passing of the 3rd of May Constitution, 1791

Ryan Patrick Hanley lectures on Adam Smith


Ryan P. Hanley

Ryan Patrick Hanley is the Mellon Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Marquette University. His research in the history of political philosophy focuses on the Enlightenment. He is the author of Love’s Enlightenment: Rethinking Charity in Modernity and Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue.

Gregory Weiner

Gregory Weiner is associate professor of Political Science, founding director of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Center for Scholarship and Statesmanship, and Provost at Assumption College. He is the author of American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Recommended Reading:

Adam Smith, The Great Thinkers




Discussion Questions:

  1. What is “sympathy”? How does it compare to what we today might call “pity” or “compassion”? What role does Smith think that sympathy plays in moral life
  2. What role do ambition and “vanity” play in commercial life, on Smith’s account? What sorts of virtues does Smith think commercial life can encourage? What sorts of “corruptions” does he think it can lead to?
  3. What is the point of the story of the “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger visited with ambition” (p. 211)? What does it reveal of Smith’s understanding of the relationship of economic ambition to human happiness?
  4. What is the “invisible hand” (p. 215)? And more importantly: what effect does it have on the distribution of goods?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between justice and beneficence for Smith? Why does he consider justice to be more important politically? Does this lead him to dismiss beneficence as worthless?
  2. Who does Smith consider to be “the man of the most perfect virtue” (p. 175)? How does this individual compare to conceptions of human excellence and perfection that various ancient and religious traditions value? That we value today?
  3. What is prudence, according to Smith? What sorts of concerns does the prudent man focus on? What sorts of actions does prudence prompt him to undertake?
  4. What is self-command, according to Smith? What sorts of actions does self-command lead us to perform, or not perform? What place might self-command have in a capitalist order?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Reread the end of TMS IV.1. What does Smith have in mind there when he speaks of “political disquisitions” (p. 217)? Is the Wealth of Nations a “political disquisition” of this sort?
  2. What role does the love of beauty play in the opening chapters of WN? What is it about the rhetorical presentation of the story of the pin factory that makes it so effective?
  3. Smith says that market orders are “not originally the effect of human wisdom” (p. 117). What then accounts for their regularity? What light might the story of the butcher, brewer, and baker shed on this?
  4. WN II.iii returns to the question of our efforts to “better our condition” (p. 441). How does Smith’s account here compare to that given in TMS? Does he still think that vanity drives this, or are there other dispositions in human nature that encourage our commercial ambitions?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Smith consider to be the likely social effects of the individual’s desire to better his condition? What role should the government play in encouraging or restraining this desire?
  2. WN III offers a history of the end of feudalism and the birth of commercial society. To what particular historical actions and human passions does Smith trace this transition? What are the specific beneficial effects of this transition?
  3. What is the difference between the practices of a “vulgar politician” and the true “science of the legislator,” according to Smith (p. 45)? What general rules does Smith think legislators should strive to follow?
  4. Why does Smith defend free trade? What are the specific benefits that he thinks it brings? Why is he so skeptical of political efforts to regulate trade?



Discussion Questions:

  1. Under the “system of natural liberty” (p. 274), to what three duties is the state limited? Why does Smith charge the government with these three responsibilities? What sorts of functions that we today commonly associate with government does he exclude from this list?
  2. What is Smith’s complaint with university education? How does he use market-based mechanisms to improve it? Do you think that these are likely to work? Why or why not?
  3. What is this “mental mutilation” that Smith discusses (p. 374)? How is it related to the division of labor for which he argues earlier in WN 1? What are its effects on political life? How does Smith propose to cure or manage these effects?
  4. What does Smith emphasize in his discussion of religion? What are its effects on political stability? How does he propose to cure or manage these effects? How does this cure or scheme of management draw on certain market principles that he elsewhere emphasizes?

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