Friendship in Commercial Society Revisited: Adam Smith on Commercial Friendship

Friendship is a rather unusual topic for Adam Smith scholars given the emphasis that the concept of sympathy has received in the field of Scottish Enlightenment scholarship. However it has been quite rightly pointed out that Smith considered sympathy to be central to commercial motivation (See Hanley, ms). The emblematic Smithian motto, the effort of every single human being to better its condition is driven by the human desire ‘to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation’ (TMS I.3.2.1). Throughout Smith’s oeuvre, to turn moderate wealth-getting into a widespread legitimate and ‘improving’ social activity is a priority. To this end, he pleads for the ‘trickle down’ effect of an increasingly productive economy together with the subsequent development of a social and cultural framework that will turn wealth-getting into a morally acceptable and politically manageable activity. In the same vein, an analogous, ‘proper’ consumption mentality should be equally developed, immune to the dangers of aristocratic conspicuous consuption and the subsequent ‘corruption of the moral sentiments’ due to boundless admiration of the rich and famous. In this specific context the idea that Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is a ‘manifesto of middle class mores’ (Barzilai, 2010) gains acceptance. In this Smithian landscape, is there any place left for a modern conception of friendship beyond a vestigial classical legacy? The core claim of this paper is that there is something particularly original in Smith’s treatment of friendship. Indeed, Smith explores the void left once both the idealized, largely elitist ‘virtue friendship’ on the one hand and what one could name ‘kinship friendship’, that is enlarged family solidarity on the other become or are expected to become obsolete within commercial civilization.

In this chapter first I address an under-appreciated scholarly debate regarding the status of friendship within the framework of a declining clan based environment and an emerging commercial society such as was encountered in 18th century Scotland. I then examine Smith’s own conceptual strategy and terminology in added part VI of the TMS in its last edition (1790). New forms of social visibility and prestige emerge within the frame of commercial civil society. Friendship will be reframed and repositioned within a novel affective economy. This frame of analysis could be profitably set next to a broader agenda of Enlightenment ideals of enlarging one’s opportunities to interact with strangers expanding the circles of affective ties of individuals beyond the clan and the polis without reflecting classic cosmopolitan sensibilities. To conclude, elaborating the issue of refined, commercial affectivity, I thus succinctly address the existence of similar thought patterns in French enlightenment focusing on Sophie de Grouchy, Condorcet’s widow an important intellectual figure of the old regime. She highlights the transition of modern, ‘Scottish’ sympathetic affectivity in the immediate post-French revolution context, within a set of refined manners leading to the progress of civilization.