It was today in 1723 that the economist Adam Smith was born. Like Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith is credited with “inventing” something—capitalism, in this case—that of course had existed since the dawn of time. But what people don’t know about Smith is what a profoundly moral and just person he was (his best book is The Theory of Moral Sentiments). They also don’t know the source of his keen moral sensibility: Stoicism. Smith’s teacher, Francis Hutcheson, was actually a translator of The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, which may have been how Smith was introduced to Stoicism.
In any case, we find in Smith’s work constant reference to the Stoics and how Stoicism influenced his belief in capital markets, the “invisible hand,” and the beauty and wonder of the efficiency of people pursuing their self-interest. You could say that Stoicism was what tempered Smith’s belief in capitalism and why he would have rejected the later Ayn Randian-narcissism and heartlessness that many capitalists would try to justify through him. As he writes,
“One individual must never prefer himself so much even to any other individual, as to hurt or injure that other, in order to benefit himself… and who does not inwardly feel the truth of that great stoical maxim, that for one man to deprive another unjustly of any thing, or unjustly to promote his own advantage by the loss or disadvantage of another, is more contrary to nature, than death, than poverty, than pain, than all the misfortunes which can affect him, either in his body, or in his external circumstances.”
It’s ironic that the father of market capitalism makes the Stoics sound like communists. Marcus Aurelius has a phrase, διάνοια δικαία καὶ πράξεις κοινωνικαὶ (“a just mind and acts for the common good.”) He says elsewhere, “What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee.” This is actually what Smith believed too: That if we take care of ourselves, if we hold ourselves to high standards, and we actively work not to hurt other people (because we are all citizens of the same world, as Marcus put it), then we indirectly and directly make everything better for everyone.
It’s important to remember that Stoicism is not sociopathy. No, it’s about responsibility. To yourself. To “nature.” To virtue. To your work and your skills. The baker serves his fellow citizens by being a great baker, a great businessman, a great father, a great friend, and a good Samaritan. That’s what Adam Smith believed, and how he rendered to the world—developing and modern alike—an enormous service by articulating and popularizing the market economy.
The question for each of us then is whether we are going to properly play our role or are we going to be one of the bad actors who abuses the freedom we’ve been given to take advantage of other people?