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.

I read Adam Phillips’ book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, and I wish I’d enjoyed it more. I probably would have, if only I were more familiar with Freud and Shakespeare (King Lear and Othello are frequently discussed). I’ve read a couple of his others that I really liked (Going Sane and On Kindness).

This one a lot of “What does it mean when we say ____?” kind of stuff, and a good bit of historical/etymological looks at how our our language has developed ideas like “getting away with it” or “getting out of it”. The best recurring theme for me was the idea of omniscience, and how it relates to frustration (assuming we know what we need; reluctance to seek advice or try new things), escapism/prediction (assuming we know what we’re avoiding, or that we are in fact avoiding it), tyranny (false confidence about someone else’s needs), avoidance (“we mustn’t let knowing do the work of acknowledging”), etc.

It seemed a bit more impersonal and less psychological than what I remember of the other two. Still, some good stuff here and there, and Phillips has a knack for aphorism.

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: The End of Quitting

He knew the habit wasn’t worth it. The inevitable consequences had long resonated, I’m sure. But the culture that says that such remembering, taken one day at a time, is the key to recovery is the culture that drives so many — even those who have sought help in the past — to die in the shadows. It’s just too embarrassing to admit you did it anyway. Again.

There are limits to empathy. Every addict lives in fear of reaching them.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: The End of Quitting

He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self Reliance. Pretty clear echoes of Seneca:

They undertake one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says: “Thus ever from himself doth each man flee.” But what does he gain if he does not escape from himself? He ever follows himself and weighs upon himself as his own most burdensome companion.

Hilary Mantel reviews ‘Tormented Hope’ by Brian Dillon · LRB 5 November 2009

Anxiety about a specific symptom is more bearable and easier to rationalise than the diffuse ontological malaise that used to be known as spiritual despair. It is easier to say ‘my knee is killing me,’ because we know it isn’t, than to dwell in the belief that the clock is ticking and that the journey from birth to death is a journey to extinction; it is better to have a symptom than to have a void inside.

Hilary Mantel reviews ‘Tormented Hope’ by Brian Dillon · LRB 5 November 2009

There’s no need for you to “decide” on one feeling. If we don’t allow ourselves multiple, confusing, even conflicting feelings, then how else do we learn to deal with people when the going gets gray?