How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

I read Russ Roberts’ book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, and it’s certainly the most heavily dog-eared book I’ve read in the last couple months. It’s slighter in hindsight, but still got some good stuff out of it. Smith is best known for the more macro-level, distant, impersonal view on economics in The Wealth of Nations. This books relies on Smith’s lesser-known A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explores the more intimate, direct relationships between individuals.

What I like is its undercurrent of humility and courtesy, for one, and the idea of ripple effects that go beyond us. There’s the idea of the “impartial spectator” in here – a hypothetical (and likely impossible) imagined outsider, an objective witness we can turn to to evaluate what we do. Of course, we’re delusional and biased and self-obsesssed. The principle stands, though, and the community around us helps to shape this hypothetical ideal that we imagine.

Virtuous behavior is like passable writing vs. great writing. At a basic level, there is grammar and syntax. There’s broad agreement on many of those details. But there’s a special something that goes beyond the basic requirements. Along the same lines, no one individual really decides what proper grammar is, and how a language works. But many people, making many small decisions every day, spread and sustain behaviors that add up to something bigger on the scale of family, office, neighborhood, nation, culture. And it’s that big-picture thinking that (hopefully) motivates us to “be lovely even when we can get away with not being lovely”. Going along with that are some healthy warnings about our obessions with powerful people, and about hubris when it comes to societal engineering.

Some other parts I like? Smith on keeping it simple:

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?

Smith on praise we haven’t earned…

To us they [his praises] should be more mortifying than any censure, and should perpetually call to our minds, the most humbling of all reflections, the reflection of what we ought to be, but what we are not.

Or as Roberts phrases it, “Undeserved praise is a repimand – a reminder of what I could be.”

There’s another great section that talks about how gadgets are seductive. Roberts says, “We often care more about the elegance of the device than for what it can achieve.” Smith’s line here made me think about the tech and especially the #EDC community:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.

Smith on why friendship is so valuable when you’re grieving – we see our pain through their eyes, and see it’s not so bad:

We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous.

Roberts on caring on a smaller scale than save-the-world dreams:

Maybe, just maybe, your best way of making the world a better place is to be a really superlative husband or mom or neighbor. […] We forget that being good at our work helps others and makes the world a better place, too.

And a lovely bit of rabbinic wisdom:

It is not up to you to finish the work. But you are not free to desist from it.

A similar, more energetic book along the same lines is Sarah Bakewell’s very excellent How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

The Code Duello: Rules of Dueling

The Code Duello, covering the practice of dueling and points of honor, was drawn up and settled at Clonmel Summer Assizes, 1777, by gentlemen-delegates of Tipperary, Galway, Sligo, Mayo and Roscommon, and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland. The Code was generally also followed in England and on the Continent with some slight variations. In America, the principal rules were followed, although occasionally there were some glaring deviations.

Rule 15. Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intend leaving the place of offense before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings.

The Code Duello: Rules of Dueling

If everyone had good manners we wouldn’t need laws. I think that’s the great hope of civility, that we can control society through cultural means rather than through lawyers.

How to Behave in an Art Museum – Paper Monument

Intellectual conversations, as a woman I briefly dated once admonished me, are like public displays of affection—fun to be in, but mortifying to observe, and in a museum you know you’re being observed. But refusing to answer your friend’s questions is no solution either. You’re paralyzed. And you’re not even sure what you’re afraid of. You’re not sure whether your replies will make you look like a philistine or a snob. Which would be worse? Which are you more qualified to be?

How to Behave in an Art Museum – Paper Monument

Why not try a formal picnic for a change? – Miss Manners

Hear, hear. The fact that this seems novel and exciting is telling:

The motto of informality is: “Let’s do things the easiest, most convenient way and never mind how they seem, because nobody is paying any attention, anyway.”

Formality says: “Yes, it does matter, and the surrender of individuality to high group standards is a trivial sacrifice to the overall beauty of the thing.”

At a formal picnic, people do not wear exercise clothes, serve food in packages from the store, eat wandering around whenever they feel like it or treat bits of paper as napkins, cardboard as plates and plastic as flatware.

Food is served on non-absorbent materials, to be eaten with unbreakable utensils, and the fact that a table cloth, napkins, dishes and cutlery will have to be washed afterward is accepted as one of the burdens of civilization.


Dress does not begin with a surrender to the heat, but the optimistic, if vain, idea that one can rise above it, so to speak. Gradual reactions, such as fanning, forehead mopping and the rolling up of sleeves or baring of feet to dangle in creeks, are considered more exciting than just starting out by sweating into one’s gym suit.

Why not try a formal picnic for a change? – Miss Manners

Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (review: 5/5)

In 1800s America, Shakespeare productions had juggling and singing amidst the acts, and theatergoers would cheer the heroes, boo the villains, shout out lines along with the actors, even walk about on the stage. Opera divas would sing “Yankee Doodle,” “Home Sweet Home,” Irish ballads and other folk songs, and take requests from the audience. Orchestras would choose a few excerpts from Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and mix them in with popular reels, jigs, and other dance tunes. It was a different world:

An African Monkey
and several
Come One Come All

I dog-eared Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America more heavily than any book in recent memory. Lawrence Levine doesn’t argue that the old ways of interacting with art were necessarily better. But it is important to know that it was different. The book gives a whole different history and perspective on our inherited rituals, kind of like hearing a whole new arrangement of a familiar melody.

Levine opens the book with a focus on Shakespeare in American cultural life. Shakespeare was really popular. At home, in books (like Mark Twain’s parodies in Huckleberry Finn), on the road, in the theaters. Even the illiterate mountain man Jim Bridger knew it was worth hiring someone to read it to him enough that he could recite long passages.

In performance, this popularity and relevance made it fairly common for the actors to shorten or lengthen the monologues as they saw fit, and companies would commonly rewrite the endings. In a typical account from a local newspaper, when the audience disapproved, “Cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, a wreath of vegetables, a sack of flour and one of soot, and a dead goose, with other articles, simultaneously fell upon the stage.” What’s cool is not only that the audience was carrying vegetables to the show, but also that they knew Shakespeare well enough to know the difference when changes were made to voice their opinion. And audience and performers alike weren’t just mutely receiving the Greatness of Shakespeare, but participating and engaging with it.

Events like the Astor Place Riot in 1849 helped mark the growing division between the audiences for art (the Cultured and the Masses), and the “sacralization” of the works themselves. A lot of it was tied to the economics of the art industry. Amateur actors and musicians were gradually replaced with professional payrolls. Wealthy patrons became the primary financial support for the organizations, so the programming was less reliant on popular approval and ticket sales at the door. With the Masses weeded out, the new superstar conductors began to program entire works, instead of just excerpts.

And along with that came programs of behavioral control (dimming the lights, refusal to encore, training audiences in when to clap, etc.). Levine ties in “the taming of the audience” to a broader cultural change that separated public and private space, and public and private behavior. As art became more hierarchical, the classes weren’t attending the same types of performances or sharing the same spaces. The cultural institutions were active in “teaching their audiences to adjust to the new social imperatives, in urging them to separate public behavior from private feelings.” By the early 1900s,

the masterworks of the classic composers were to be performed in their entirety by highly trained musicians on programs free from the contamination of lesser works or lesser genres, free from the interference of audience or performer, free from the distractions of the mundane; audiences were to approach the masters and their works with proper respect and proper seriousness, for aesthetic and spiritual elevation rather than mere entertainment was the goal.

In other words, it changed to the modern, frosty atmosphere that lingers in performance halls and museums today. No more audience outrage, no more spontaneous celebrations. The groups were transformed “strove to concentrate on the music rather than the performance.” The orchestra plays, the audience receives. You see a similar transformation in museums and libraries at the same time. They change from the fantastic freak shows and cabinets of curiosity to sacred archives, filled with carefully curated items for preservation or quiet contemplation.

One really interesting bit that Levine touches on is how knowledge of these cultural manners (like knowing when to clap) helps classes distinguish themselves. In this way, knowledge becomes both a status symbol and a barrier to entry:

Thorsten Veblen constructed his concept of conspicuous consumption, he included not only the obvious material possessions but also the “immaterial” goods—“the knowledge of dead languages and the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of the various forms of domestic music… of the latest proprieties of dress, furniture, and equipage”; of the ancient “classics”—all of which constituted a conspicuous culture that helped confer legitimacy on the newly emergent groups. This helps explain the vogue during this period of manuals of etiquette, of private libraries and rare books, of European art and music displayed and performed in ornate—often neoclassical—museums and concert halls.

It’s a really fantastic book. Levine to close it out:

When the art forms that had constituted a shared culture for much of the nineteenth century became less accessible to large segments of the American people, millions of them satisfied their aesthetic cravings through a number of the new forms of expressive culture that were barred from high culture by the the very fact of their accessibility to the masses: the blues, jazz or jazz-derived music, musical comedy, photography, comic strips, movies, radio, popular comedians, all of which though relegated to the nether world culturally, in fact frequently contained much that was fresh, exciting, innovative, intellectually challenging, and highly imaginative. If there is a tragedy in this development, it is not only that millions of Americans were now separated from exposure to such creators as Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Verdi, whom they had enjoyed in various formats for much of the nineteenth century, but also that the rigid cultural categories, once they were in place, made it so difficult for so long for so many to understand the value and importance of the popular art forms that were all around them.

A couple years ago, Alex Ross rounded up some literature on applause during concerts:

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause.

Blame for the move to silence eventually falls on the conductors, beginning especially with Leopold Stokowski:

To refrain from applause heightens focus on the personality of the conductor. Silence is the measure of the unbreakable spell that Maestro is supposedly casting on us. A big ovation at the end salutes his mastery of the architecture of the work, or whatever… By the way, I‚Äôve noticed a new trend ‚ÄîThoughtful Celebrity Conductors holding their arms motionless for ten or fifteen seconds after the end of some vast construction by Bruckner or Mahler. ‚ÄúDo not yet applaud!‚Äù those frozen arms say. ‚ÄúDo not profane the moment!‚Äù

He goes on further to touch on the influence of recording technology on the individual & concert listening experience, the rise of classical performance as a high-brow cultural event, and the communal aspect of concert attendance.