Saying, doing and being

In my coffee break, as the wind howls and the rain lashes down outside the window, I got absorbed in the chapter of 

on rhetoric and character. It concerns Smith’s less well-known book,

[amazon_image id=”0199605068″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith (Oxford Handbooks in Economics)[/amazon_image]

The author of this essay, Jan Swearingen, traces Smith’s views about the importance of rhetoric – the way someone communicates – as an indicator of character to classical authors. I learn that Cicero prescribed, “The cultivation of virtue through an education emphasizing self-control, moderation and civilized verbal behaviour,” and that Scottish education in Smith’s time was strongly geared towards the teaching of verbal or rhetorical style. For Smith in the

, humans as social beings constantly and strongly influence each other, often via verbal communication. A virtuous character could be internalized through an appropriately clear and straightforward style. Language and moral sentiment are learned together.

[amazon_image id=”0143105922″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Penguin Classics)[/amazon_image]

This is fascinating in many ways. One currently on my mind is the emphasis all employers place on the importance of communication skills, and their lack in young people. Another is my firm belief that people who truly understand something can explain it clearly. I also read recently Albert Hirschman’s

. It also, of course, relates to the very interesting notion of performativity – the capacity of language to amount to action in some circumstances.(My Tanner Lectures in 2012 discussed this in the context of economics.)

I’ve got no idea what modern scientific evidence says about the causality if any between language and character but Smith’s notion that language and ‘moral sentiments’ are so tightly bound is intuitively appealing.