Theory of Moral Sentiments 1:2-6

[This is part of my steady series of reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, one page at a time.]

What is sympathy?  The source is our ability to conceive or imagine the same emotion as someone else.   We flinch when we see someone else get hurt.  One itches, another itches.  One yawns, another yawn.  “Grief and joy affect the spectator with … painful or agreeable emotion.”  Smith also calls this “fellow-feeling.”

Even stories:  “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us” – the bystander imagines the sentiments of the sufferer.

Smith distinguishes between pity, compassion and sympathy.  Pity and compassion are concerned with suffering, while sympathy is a more general term for all “fellow-feeling.”  “Sympathy” is Smith’s word that is Girard would say represents the mimetic nature of the human mind.

On seeing pleasure and pain in others

I.  On the Propriety of Action; Section I O the Sense of Propriety; Chapter I.1 Of Sympathy.

When we see people in pain or joyful, we feel.  We may not get any direct benefit from their emotion, but we “derive sorrow from the sorrow of others”and  are interested in the their fortune.  This description of “sentiment” is seems to describe an empirical reality as such that it is universal, although some may feel it with “most exquisite sensibility,” and “The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society is not altogether without it.”

This is Smith’s understanding of sympathy – not necessarily approval or disapproval, but that we feel what others feel.    I am riveted by sentimental You Tube videos; I enjoy the winning of my favorite team; I am sad when a family member faces a disappointment.  Girard might consider this obvious as well, for we do imitate one another.  He might add that we learn from one another how to by sympathetic.

Are we blank slates?  Or is this innate?  Pragmatically, until babies can survive on their own, perhaps the question is moot.  We have to learn to survive from someone, so perhaps we are built to be excellent imitators of both action and emotion.  Still, are the captains of finance sympathetic to the needs of the suffering?

Adam Smith and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

I’ve decided that over the next year I’m taking on a new project:  reading Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  I first read parts in Divinity School, when it was praised by my professor of ministry.

Over the last three year’s I’ve also been a part of a study group that has been focused on Mimetic Theory and the writings of Rene’ Girard.   Both Adam Smith and Rene-Girard are helpful in understanding culture, I suspect; Adam Smith didn’t have an understanding of “mimetic theory” but does discuss “creative imagination.”

I’ll be taking it in very short segments, and although I hope to do this daily, I’ll be satisfied with three posts a week, one per section.