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Character in the Age of Adam Smith


What does Adam Smith’s moral philosophy owe to the literary discourse of his own time? Many recent studies of Smith have focused on finding his fingerprints on later imaginative literature, particularly in the nineteenth-century novels of free indirect discourse. The argument of this dissertation is that we gain both a better understanding of Smith and the eighteenth-century evolution of novels by attempting to place Smith in his original literary context, as a well-informed participant in the debates around the moral and didactic purpose of literature, especially as they concerned “character.”

The use and purpose of literary character was undergoing profound philosophical changes during Smith’s career (1748-1790). From the scandalous and barely disguised society figures who occupied the pages of proto-novels and romances in the early part of the century, to Hugh Blair’s late-century assertion that “fictitious histories…furnish one of the best channels for conveying instruction, for painting human life and manners, for showing the errors into which we are betrayed, for rendering virtue amiable and vice odious,” literary character in novels became the crux of a larger debate on the relationship between rhetoric—previously a somewhat suspect and corrupt art—and morality. Smith’s method of instruction in the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres has long been understood as revolutionary, but relatively less attention has been paid to how his description of the “character of the author” and this figure’s careful deployment of readers’ sympathies engages with the relatively new notion that fictional characters were easier to sympathize with, and therefore better figures for the teaching of ethics, than “real” people. Notions of characters’ fictionality evolved, I argue, into The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ assertion that all other human beings are essentially fictional to us, products of their rhetoric and our imagination.

I examine the evolution of moral and literary “character” throughout Smith’s career—from his praise for epistolary novels in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to his engagement with Edinburgh literary circles in the later eighteenth century and especially the novels of his close friend, Henry Mackenzie—to offer a fuller portrait of how Smith’s theories came to play such an outsized role in nineteenth-century novels. But part of the purpose of this project is to revise our nineteenth- and post-nineteenth-century understandings of Smith as they have been inflected by J.S. Mill and later thinkers in the liberal tradition, and reinvigorate Smith as the product of a moment that was just beginning to theorize a moral role for imaginative literature. Gulliver’s Travels, Clarissa, and Julia de Roubigné are stories about how we represent ourselves as moral beings to others, and provided Smith with practical examples about rhetoric as a means of moral inquiry and formation. Most fundamentally, I argue that Smith’s conception of the “moral sentiments” evolved from formulating a relationship between readers and writers through characters, a subject that was also a particular interest of the eighteenth-century novel.

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