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 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.
PREVIEW THE SYLLABUS BY WEEK/SESSION
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?
- Theory of Moral Sentiments: II.ii (pp. 95–110); III.3 (pp. 156–80); VI.1 and 3 (pp. 250–56, 280–308)
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?
- Wealth of Nations: Introduction and Plan of the Work (Vol. 1, pp. 104–06); I.i–ii (Vol. 1, pp. 109–21); I.vii (Vol. 1, pp. 157–66); II.iii (Vol. 1, pp. 429–49), pp. 3–70
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?
- Wealth of Nations: III.i (Vol. 1, pp. 479–84); III.iv (Vol. 1, pp. 507–20); IV.ii (Vol. 2, pp. 29–49); IV.ii.c (Vol. 2, pp. 66–77)
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?
- Wealth of Nations: IV.ix.48–52 (Vol. 2, pp. 272–75); V.i.a (Vol. 2, pp. 279–97); V.i.f.1–18 (Vol. 2, pp. 348–54); V.i.f. 48–61 (Vol. 2, pp. 368–75)
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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Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, he was opinion editor of The Weekly Standard, where he remains a contributing editor.
Darren Staloff is Professor of History at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Professor Staloff has published numerous papers and reviews on the subject of early American history and is the author of The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts and Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding.
James W. Ceaser is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written several books on American politics and political thought, including Presidential Selection and Liberal Democracy and Political Science.
Hugh Liebert is assistant professor of American politics, policy, and strategy in the department of social sciences at the United States Military Academy. His primary areas of interest are Greek and Roman political thought and American politics. He is the author of Plutarch’s Politics: Between City and Empire.
Diana J. Schaub is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s task force on The Virtues of a Free Society. She is the author of Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters”, along with a number of book chapters and articles in the fields of political philosophy and American political thought.