Adam Smith


The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, Smith examined what made these objects so enticing. Pocket gadgets claimed to have practical functions, but these "trinkets of frivolous utility" struck Smith as more trouble than they were worth. He deemed their appeal less practical than aesthetic and imaginative. "What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility," Smith wrote, "as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it." Toys embodied aptness, "the beauty of order, of art and contrivance." They were ingenious and precise. They were cool. And they weren't the only objects of desire with these qualities.

The same pattern applied, Smith argued, to the idea of wealth. He portrayed the ambitious son of a poor man, who imagines that servants, coaches, and a large mansion would make his life run smoothly. Pursuing a glamorous vision of wealth and convenience, he experiences anxiety, hardship, and fatigue. Finally, in old age, "he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquility of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys."

Yet Smith didn't condemn the aspiring poor man or deride the lover of toys. He depicted them with sympathetic bemusement, recognizing their foibles as both common and paradoxically productive. "We evaluate such desires as irrational only when we're depressed", he suggested, "In a good mood, we care less about the practical costs and benefits than about the joys provided by the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety."

Besides, Smith suggested, pursuing the false promise of tranquility and convenience had social benefits. It was nothing less than the source of civilization itself. "It is this which prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealth, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life, which have entirely changed the whole face of the globle, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth."
— Virginia Postre (July 2023) Gadgets and Gizmos That Inspired Adam Smith