August 4, 2014


Austen was a year old when the modern science of economics was invented. Adam Smith, Jane’s neighbor to the north in Scotland, published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, commonly known today by its pithier final four words. Its most famous line is the rallying banner for free marketeers even in 2014, a winning defense of the power and driving force of the very commercial self-interest that the established churches of Europe derided: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their self interest.” . . .

But if any Smith book was likely to have sat on an Austenian side table, it wasn’t The Wealth of Nations, but the work that Smith himself considered foundational, and thus revised a staggering six times over the course of his lifetime, up until the year of his death. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) introduced Smith’s concept of sympathy. This was a word used slightly differently in Smith’s time than in our own, and doesn’t have much to do with the modern tendency to click like on a Facebook friend’s engagement announcement to show our support, or to feel terrible about the plight of child soldiers. It referred instead to the mortar of civilized society, the way that we modify our behavior as we come to an understanding of how others see us and realize that they cannot regard our problems in the same close and passionate way that we do.

People are always rediscovering the Theory Of Moral Sentiments.