AdamSmithWorks Teaching Resources
What can Adam Smith teach us about friendship?
The answer...a lot!
As we've settled into a new school year and are now approaching the winter holidays–still living in a pandemic world–makes us both grateful for and anxious about our rekindling social relationships. We are social beings who thrive on connectedness, a desire made sweeter after pandemic interruptions to in-person teaching and learning. Chances are, we now think more about the qualities and traits we look for in friends rather than consider what friendship qualities we offer to others. What if we worked at becoming better at friendship? It is likely that this effort could increase our own well-being as well as the happiness we bring to our friends.
Adam Smith teaches us that living a virtuous life and achieving happiness is a lifetime project requiring careful intention. Interactions with good friends provide us with valuable feedback that is important to the development of virtue. Friendship played a dominant role in Adam Smith’s life as evidenced through long-term correspondences as well as his own and other’s documentation of his life. Smith famously declared after the death of his close friend David Hume, that his friend was ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.
What are the virtues that we can hone to become a better friend? How do we nurture friendships to last perhaps for a lifetime? In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith give us an outline for developing desired interpersonal behaviors. In addition, he gives examples of the antithesis of virtuous behaviors that might inform our own behavior as well as when it might be prudent to end a friendship. Adam Smith begins the book discussing the Propriety of Action. Acting appropriately in various circumstances, sympathizing with the joys, sorrows, and grief that our friends experience, and enjoying the satisfaction of knowing a friend understands who you are and how you feel are gems to savor from this philosophical work. This is his grand opening:
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred.
Being loved and being lovely. Are these not ideal qualities for friendship? Smith believes that life should be enjoyed, and that friends can help us reach a state of tranquility, finding the pleasures in our everyday life. From Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch to Smith, this wisdom has been passed down for ages.
The mind, therefore, is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness.
Smith can help us build a moral narrative for developing our social lives at home, school, work or anywhere we interact with others. The AdamSmithWorks team hopes that Smith’s words and the collection of articles, classroom activities, and podcasts provide a basis for discussion as students are learning about each other and the world around them. May the new year be rich with human interaction and of course, fulfilling friendships! As always, we would love to hear from you, about this topic as well as your ideas for future topics. We wish you a strong start, and enduring positivity as you navigate the challenges and celebrations of this year.
Until next month, stay curious and stay well,
The AdamSmithWorks Team