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Adam Smith’s solution to the paradox of tragedy


Tragedy is a subject that has occupied the thoughts of many theorists since antiquity. Of special interest is the so-called ‘paradox of tragedy’ – the problem of why spectators derive pleasure from viewing distressing scenes – which became of central importance during the second half of the eighteenth century. Unlike many of his philosophically inclined contemporaries, Adam Smith never wrote an essay on tragedy. Dramatic theory and the theatre in general were, however, never far from his thoughts. In his biographical memoir of Smith, Dugald Stewart mentions that Smith was especially interested in ‘the history of the theatre, both in ancient and modern times’, and that drama and the theatre ‘were a favourite topic of his conversation, and were intimately connected with his general principles of criticism’ (Stewart 1980, ‘Account’ III.15). Furthermore, Stewart suggests that these topics were to be included in Smith’s completed essay on the imitative arts. The Theory of Moral Sentiments also brims with allusions to the theatre and tragic drama. In his later years, Smith wrote of a work he had ‘upon the anvil’, a ‘sort of

Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence’, which was never realized (Smith 1987, Corr. Letter 248 to Duc de la Rochefoucauld, 1 Nov. 1785). Unfortunately for posterity, on his deathbed Smith ordered no fewer than sixteen folio volumes of manuscripts to be destroyed, a request faithfully carried out by his literary executors, Hutton and Black, and it is impossible to say precisely what was burnt (Campbell and Skinner 1982: 223). Fortunately, in 1795, five years after Smith’s death, Essays on Philosophical Subjects appeared, a collection of Smith’s essays on various subjects, of which he apparently thought highly enough to preserve them. In addition, we now possess student lecture notes that were posthumously collected and published as Lectures on Jurisprudence and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. These essays, along with the two major works published in his lifetime, reveal Smith’s comprehensive interdisciplinary interests. The pieces in Essays on Philosophical Subjects further demonstrate Smith’s interest in aesthetics, a subject he also refers to in his two major works. In fact, some commentators have argued that for Smith,

virtually all human endeavour has an aesthetic impulse: the impetus to obtain trinkets, to engage in scientific and philosophical speculation, and to sympathize are all fundamentally aesthetic in nature.1