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From Çeneva to Çfasgow: (Rçusseau amfjlaam Smith" on tfie Theater and'Commercial Society RYAN PATRICK HANLEY T'he delivery ofthe two sets of lectures today known as the Lectures on Rhetoric and the Lectures on Jurisprudence was hardly the only university business that occupied Adam Smith in the winter of 1762-63. That term he served the University of Glasgow not only as Professor of Moral Philosophy but also as a member of a faculty committee organized by the university to thwart the construction of a theater in the city.1 This detail will interest Smith's students for several reasons. Students of his biography will consider it incongruous given his well-documented enthusiasm for the drama.2 Students of his political thought will be stmck by it given his explicit recommendation ofthe social utility of dramatic representations in the Wealth of Nations? Students of his moral philosophy will be surprised to find a hint of possible anti-theatrical ire from one who offers long comparisons ofthe merits and mechanics of comedy and tragedy, takes frequent recourse to examples drawn from the classical and the contemporary stage, and whose moral system is itself built on the eminently theatrical concepts of sympathy and spectatorship.4 The centrality of the stage to Smith's thought is further suggested by his first biographer, who notes that his projected works included a treatise on the history of the theater and "the principles of dramatic composition."5 How then to make sense of his anti-theater stance in 1762? 177 178 / HANLEY Several explanations suggest themselves. Perhaps the committee was an exercise in prudence and an attempt to preempt possible student and town riots.6 More plausible, perhaps, is the suggestion that Smith and the Glasgow authorities sought to avoid another theological conflagration like that which had empted in Edinburgh five years earlier after the initial performances of Reverend John Home's controversial Douglas.1 Smith would not have missed the warning of his good friend Hume that support of the stage during that controversy gave further encouragement to those already seeking his excommunication.8 But prudential considerations alone do not fully explain the anti-theatrical activity of one who otherwise seems such a steadfast supporter ofthe stage. Where then might the Professor of Moral Philosophy have found a philosophical justification for his position? One possibility is that he discovered his defense in the most renowned anti-theater polemic of his day: Rousseau's 1758 Letter to d'Alembert. That Smith knew the Letter seems likely given the available evidence.9 But here I focus less on this claim and instead suggest that Smith's treatments of the theater and its place in commercial society illuminate an overlooked side of a much broader, sustained engagement with Rousseau.10 We might expect theirs to have been a relationship of opposition, with Smith, avowed champion of commerce, the theater, and the plays of Voltaire, out to correct the errors of Rousseau, sworn enemy of all three. Yet as their discussions ofthe theater reveal, the Rousseau ofthe Letter and the Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments share a common understanding ofthe nature of modem morality and also propose a similar remedy for modernity's corruptions ofthat morality. This remedy is distinguished by its moderation. Both Rousseau and Smith call for moralists to reform modem corruption from within the context and constraints of modernity itself. ' ' Indeed for all their substantive political differences, their concrete proposals for countering commercial corruption are both grounded in this fundamental similarity. For both insist that solicitude for the opinions and esteem of others is the distinguishing quality of modem commercial society, and that any attempts to shape contemporary morals must begin with this first principle - a fact which animates their parallel discussions of the difference between theatrical duplicity and the genuine utility of a certain type of spectatorship in political life. Attention to their shared conception ofthe role of theater and theatricality in modem society thus reveals important additional points of agreement between the two thinkers. These agreements further challenge received views of Rousseau as republican reactionary and Smith as champion of commercial modernity. Smith's treatment ofthe theater in fact reveals...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 177-202
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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