This image is a manifestation ofthe consumer revolution, engendered by globalisation which broadened accessibilityto markets and goods. The tweezer case is itself manufactured from shagreen onwood which, in the eighteenth century, likely entailed leather made fromsharkskin or rays, thus reflecting the far-reach and extravagance of luxuries inEuropean society. Smith was familiar with this level of trade, with hishometown Kirkcaldy having been described by Daniel Defoe as having “considerabletraffick” of “foreign goods.” Likewise, both Smith and his father would servein Scottish customs, where Smith later remarked on the increase in “netrevenue”, during his tenure.Luxury in the commercial societyaugmented social emulation. Such “trinkets of frivolous utility” (TMS, 180) asa tweezer box, came to represent the great in society and the objects of aspirationfor those seeking upward mobility, as an embodiment of wealth and socialstability. The box, a nécessaire, implies necessity, and explainswhat kept the poor man’s son “roused” in “continual motion” in Smith’s familiarparable (TMS, 183). The craving for adulationreflects a desire for sympathy; the poor man recognizes that his station limitsinbound sentiments to “obscurity” or disapproval, such that he may never besatisfied with that “honour and approbation” which is “the most ardent desireof human nature” (TMS, 51).
The joy that one derides from sympathising withsomeone in a more fortunate position leads humanity to “parade … our riches,and conceal our poverty” (TMS, 50). From an economic perspective, Smith motionsthat this has a positive influence on society. It is somewhat of an invisiblehand, where the “deception” that “pleasure and greatness rouses and keeps incontinual motion the industry of mankind” (TMS, 183). This created an opulence whichengaged and enriched the poorest in society.
Such underpins Smith’s critique ofRousseau who, in his Discourses theorised that ”luxury is diametricallyopposed to good morals.” Likewise, Smithnoted that this opulence vis-à-vis self-interest was, contrary to the views ofMandeville – not immoral – for those incentives driving self-interest, the loveof “glory” and “virtue”, are ultimately admirable qualities. It is interesting that Smith regards socialemulation a deception, and that wealth does not inspire pleasure. He regarded tranquillityof mind the true embodiment of happiness, but which is threatened by the beliefthat wealth equated to happiness. However, owing to humanities imperfection andnatural self-interest, it seems that displays of wealth satisfy tranquillity asfar as is possible. Indeed, the ability to recognize oneself as “but one of themultitude” is reserved for the “wise and virtuous man”: by Smith’s depiction, anunattainable feat.Smith would learn a lot about luxury from his visitsto French salons, the social and intellectual hubs of the Parisian highsociety. However, it is unlikely that, when referencing luxury as a utility of socialascendency several years prior, Smith would ever conceive of himself as a ladderfor those social climbers.
His letter to Hume in 1765 remarks on that affectionfrom the “great Princes and Ladies” who expressed vanity, by their “having anillustrious man in their house” (WAC, 108). Thus did Smith became a trinket,albeit of very non-frivolous utility.