Dear Adam

Smith, that is.

Are you in adversity? Do not mourn in the darkness of solitude, do not regulate your sorrow according to the indulgent sympathy of your intimate friends; return, as soon as possible, to the day-light of the world and of society. Live with strangers, with those who know nothing, or care nothing about your misfortune; do not even shun the company of enemies; but give yourself the pleasure of mortifying their malignant joy, by making them feel how little you are affected by your calamity, and how much you are above it.

I don’t want to give the impression that The Theory of Moral Sentiments reads anything like an advice column, but every once in a while I feel like Smith could have written a damn good one.

I am now through Part III, so halfway there or so. Almost every paragraph is quotable. I find myself not picking it up so readily, thinking it heavy, but once I get a few pages in it’s very satisfying.

On The Theory of Moral Sentiments, post the first

I haven’t been totally keeping up with the Theory of Moral Sentiments book club, but I have been doing the reading bit at least. I’m through Part I.

Before even getting into the content, I have to say how much I was struck by what an enjoyable read it is. I suspect the appeal would not be universal. But for me it is pleasant, relaxed, methodical, generally clear.

Part I is a really engaging discussion of sympathy and propriety. With every new thing Smith says about sympathy, you really feel like he is building on the last. I like that. As I said, methodical.

I always have my eye out for quotables, but here I was especially noticing statements that would appear at odds with a superficial (and flawed) idea of Smith and all his self-interest business.

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.


This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

And sort of not what you’d expect, though on a different front:

Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquillity, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it; as well as the best preservatives of that equal and happy temper, which is so necessary to self-satisfaction and enjoyment. Men of retirement and speculation, who are apt to sit brooding at home over either grief or resentment, though they may often have more humanity, more generosity, and a nicer sense of honour, yet seldom possess that equality of temper which is so common among men of the world.

In general, you get a real sense of humanism. In more than one place I actually thought of Dickens. I think next week I may discuss some of the actual content.