That Jane Austen can be associated with moralists, Adam Smith in particular, has
been well known for many years. Although the English novelist does not quote the
Scottish philosopher and economist or any other intellectual authority, for that
matter, there are reasons to suspect that she had read Smith. Half a century ago
Kenneth Moler showed that the distinction between vanity and pride drawn by
Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is remarkably similar to the one made by Smith
in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (The Bennet Girls and Adam Smith on Vanity
and Pride, Philological Quarterly 46 [October 1967]: 25562). And other authors
have followed this line of research down to the present.
This fine book by the professors of economics Cecil E. Bohanon and Michelle
Albert Vachris is a step forward because they present the full picture of the problem in
the following sense: they go over all the novels by Austen and indicate what they call
the intersections of her ideas and Smiths in order to prove that she embellishes,
refines, and explains Adam Smith (p. 4).
The book is divided into three parts, and there is also an appendix at the end of
the book with a synopsis of Austens six completed and published novels. The title
of the first part is Adam Smiths Theory of Moral Sentiments: A Users Guide for
Jane Austen Readers, presenting Smiths ideas in chapters 2 and 3.
Part II, Austen Reflects and Illuminates Smith, is the core of the book: from
chapter 4 to 9 it links each novel by Austen to a particular Smithian concept.
Chapter 4, Self-Command in Sense and Sensibility, presents Elinor Dashwood as a model of Smithian virtue (p. 46). Chapter 5, Prudence, Benevolence, and Justice
in Mansfield Park, deals with this virtue Trinity highlighted by both Smith and
Austen. Chapter 6, Vanity in Persuasion, studies vanity in both Persuasion and
Mansfield Park. Chapter 7 analyzes pride in Pride and Prejudice. Chapter 8, Greed
and Promises in Northanger Abbey, distinguishes greed and ambition, as Adam Smith
did, and includes reflections on greed in Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sense and
Sensibility. Chapter 9, Man of System and Impartial Spectator in Emma, studies
the character of Emma Wodehouse and takes a look at Mrs. Morris, Lady Catherine
de Bourgh, and Lady Russell as men of system in Mansfield Park, Pride and
Prejudice, and Persuasion, respectively. It also focuses on impartial spectators in
Emmas enlightenment as well as in Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and
In part III, Economic Life in Smiths and Austens Times, Bohanon and
Vachris study land rents, income, and entails (chapter 10); representations of
business in Smith and Austen as well as the adoption of what Deirdre McCloskey
calls the bourgeois virtues (chapter 11) (see McCloskeys book The Bourgeois
Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce [Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2006]); and social rank in Smith and Austen (chapter 12). This part ends with
some reflections on the intersection between Austen and Smith and its relevance
for today (chapter 13).
There has been a certain tendency from the Left in recent years to revitalize the
old thesis that questions Adam Smiths sympathies for capitalism and the free market,
a thesis originally defended in 1927 by Jacob Viner in his famous article Adam Smith
and Laissez Faire, published in the Journal of Political Economy (35, no. 2: 198232).
And this tendency has used the example of Jane Austen to prove the rigors of
poverty and inequality in nineteenth-century England. (I have criticized this approach
recently in Piketty Misreads Austen, The Independent Review 21, no. 3 [Winter 2017]:
46576). However, Austen and Smith in general terms saw eye to eye in the acknowledgment
of economic growth and the appreciation of how the liberalmarket and liberal
institutions produce that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of
the people (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, [Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981],
vol. 1, p. 22). Bohanon and Vachris point out: In Austens work, we start to see the
emergence of respect for business (p. 143).
Adam Smith, in spite of his celebrated remarks against businessmen who conspire
to obtain privileges from the state at the expense of consumers, underlines the
usefulness of commerce; in his lessons, he recalls that Ulysses was asked by way of
affront, whether he be a pirate or a merchant. At that time a merchant was reckoned
odious and despicable. But a pirate or robber, as he was a man of military bravery, was
treated with honour (Lectures on Jurisprudence [Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund,
1982], p. 527). And in the Wealth of Nations, he states: The prejudices of some
political writers against shopkeepers and tradesmen, are altogether without foundation
(vol. 1, p. 361).
Smith criticizes anticapitalist positions, and as Bohanon and Vachris say, The
attitudes of most of the landed gentry of Jane Austens novels reflect this pre-commercial
way of thinking (p. 10). There is no das Adam Smith Problem here, and Bohanon
and Vachris emphasize that markets and ethics are not contradictory: markets need
morality to work and markets make us moral at the same time (p. 140). For Austen, as
for Smith, contra the likes of Gordon Gekko, greed is not good (p. 159).
Just as self-interest can be a useful but also an excessive universal drive, much the
same is true of inequality, which in itself does not conspire against social order,
because of the moral sentiment that impels us to admire our betters, because we
would like to be admired. But the distinction of ranks as well as the effort to better
our own condition can corrupt, according to both Smith and Austen. This is why
Austens novels do not applaud the aristocracy but rather the rising middle class of
merchants, manufacturers, and professionals who progress by virtue of merit and
not of birth. In the case of landowners, Austen prefers landed before titled gentry
(pp. 14850); she acknowledges and salutes social mobility and shares in the
movement that changed the treatment of the commercial class from disdain to
respect (p. 153).
Pride and Profit (a good title, by the way) convincingly argues that there are, in
fact, numerous intersections between Adam Smith and Jane Austen; their lives might
have overlapped by only fifteen years, but they had ideas in common with each other
and with the Enlightenment atmosphere that surrounded them. It should be
remembered that if a novelist can learn from a moralist, the opposite can also be
true: Smith uses literary references in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and was a great
admirer of writers such as Voltaire and Racine, whose tragic drama Phèdra was for
him the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language ([Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984], p. 123).
According to Bohanon and Vachris, the final lessons we can learn from the
professor of moral philosophy and the novelist are the following: Develop selfcommand
over our passions so we can live a life that balances both sense and sensibility.
Be prudent in our affairs but not to the extent of miserliness. Show benevolence
toward those we care about, and justice to all. Have pride in our true accomplishments,
but do not become too vain or greedy. Show respect to those who earn it.
Finally, take those Enlightenment themes to heart by thinking for ourselves, tolerating
others, and always striving for improvement (p. 161). Some philosophers, economists,
or novelists would perhaps disagree. Adam Smith and Jane Austen most
certainly would not.