12 Pages

The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the inner life


The Theory of Moral Sentiments has had a long and involuted history, over the two hundred and fifty years since its first publication in 1759. I would like to suggest that it is also an historical work, in three different senses: first, as a work which depends, to an extent which increased over the successive editions, on historical illustrations; second, as a work in which historical information is of importance to moral judgments; and third, as a work which is suggestive, or inspiring, for historical scholarship. The celebration of The Theory of Moral Sentiments at the University of

Oxford is itself odd, and even eery, from the historical perspective of Smith’s own life. Smith encouraged his readers to sympathize with the dead, and there is no evidence that he changed the dismal view of Oxford that he expressed to his family at the age of seventeen, reiterated in the Wealth of Nations in 1776, and returned to once more in the entry he included in the index he added to the Wealth of Nations in 1784; ‘Oxford, the professorships there, sinecures’ (Smith 1784, Index, unpag.; Letter 1 to William Smith of 24 August 1740, Smith 1987, Corr.: 1). There is some evidence, even, that Smith’s views were reciprocated by the university, to the extent that the university had a corporate point of view. It is certainly the case that the Clarendon Press, the Oxford University Press which is now the custodian of so much of Smith’s continuing renown, undertook a small but diligent vendetta against Smith, over the entire period from the publication of the Wealth of Nations to his death in 1790. The ViceChancellor of the time, George Horne, was the leading figure in the campaign, with a celebrated open letter to Smith, published by Clarendon Press in 1777, about his account of Hume’s death; Smith wrote later that this had brought upon him ‘ten times more abuse’ than the Wealth of Nations (Horne 1777; and see Letter 208 to Andreas Holt of October 1780, Corr.: 251). The ViceChancellor’s letter was republished in second and third editions in 1777, and in a fourth edition in 1784. In his subsequent Letters on Infidelity, also published by Clarendon Press, Horne was identified on the title page as the author of the letter to Smith; in this later work he added a very good and slightly paranoid description of Smith, as ‘wary and modest’ (Horne 1784: 8). The Clarendon Press continued the vendetta in 1790, in a pamphlet in

opposition to the essayist Vicesimus Knox, who had followed the Wealth of

Nations in describing the university’s professorships as ‘Sinecures’ – ‘I believe Europe cannot produce parallels to Oxford and Cambridge, in opulence, buildings, libraries, professorships, scholarships, and all the external dignity and mechanical apparatus of learning. If there is an inferiority, it is in the PERSONS … ’ – and who was accused of participating in the ‘common errors of Voltaire and of Smith’ (Knox 1781: 356; [Anon.] 1790: 5). The minor Oxford publishers contributed to the common enterprise, and so did the larger milieu of Oxford printing. One of the most effective of all Smith’s early critics, the poet William Julius Mickle, was the proof-corrector for the Clarendon Press, and his brother was an Oxford printer. Mickle’s dissection of Smith’s writings on the East India Company was published in Oxford, buried within a long historical introduction to his translation of the Portugese epic, The Lusiad (Mickle 1778: clxi-clxxxi; [Anon.] 1794: xxxvii). Smith’s writings on Hume were in particular, for Mickle, something like the sounds of a frog: ‘And Smith, in barbarous dreary prose,/ Shall grunt and croak his praise’.1

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is at first sight the least historical of all Smith’s writings. Smith’s enduring preoccupation, in Dugald Stewart’s account, was ‘the study of human nature in all its branches, more particularly of the political history of mankind’ (Stewart 1980: 271). The Wealth of Nations is a notoriously historical work, full of pieces of information about the price of wheat in 1202, or the copper content of coins during the second Punic war; ‘particular facts’, or ‘long digressions’ about ‘the history of a law, or an institution’, in Jean-Baptiste Say’s description (Smith 1976b, WN I.xi.p.10, V.iii.61; Say 1803: v-vi, xxv). For Walter Bagehot, it was ‘a very amusing book about old times’ (Bagehot 1881: 295). The Essays on Philosophical Subjects, published posthumously by Smith’s friends in 1795, is also, in large part, a work in the history of science, or on the principles of philosophical enquiry, ‘illustrated by the history’ of astronomy, ancient physics, ancient logic and metaphysics (Smith 1980, EPS, title pages, 31, 106, 118.) The two extended series of Smith’s lectures which have since been published as the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1983) and the Lectures on Jurisprudence (1978) are historical surveys, of language and law; the Lectures on Rhetoric are in part a guide to ‘historicall Composition’, and to the ‘History of Historians’ (LRBL ii.31, 45). The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was published in 1759, was by

contrast an almost entirely unhistorical work. The reader of the first edition had to proceed as far as page 58 before arriving at a proper noun; and another few pages before coming to the name of an historical figure (the royalist poet Cowley, with his ‘grave, pedantic and long-sentenced love’) (Smith 1759: 62). The work is not particularly abstract. It is full of stories, or descriptions of sentiments. It is even ‘a little too diffuse’, as Edmund Burke wrote to Smith, with all its ‘easy and happy illustrations from common

Life and manners’ (Letter 38 from Edmund Burke of 10 September 1759, Corr.: 46-47). But the illustrations are for the most part not historical. The word ‘history’ occurs only three times in the book; twice in relation to the experience of reading history, and once in the last paragraph, in which Smith announces his own future inquiry into the history of jurisprudence (Smith 1759: 164, 267, 551). It is this unhistorical sense which changed, I would like to suggest, in the

course of the thirty years over which Smith added to, subtracted from, and in general deconstructed the book. The Theory of Moral Sentiments became a substantially more historical work, in a sequence of revisions which is associated, in interesting respects, with Smith’s ideas of the inner life. The omnipresent metaphor of The Theory of Moral Sentiments is of vision

or seeing, as Vivienne Brown and others have shown (Brown 1994). Smith used the words ‘eye’ and ‘eyes’ 38 times in the 1759 edition; he referred 67 times to the verb ‘to see’, and 31 times to spectators. The image of moral experience, in the book, is of looking or glimpsing, at oneself or at others. But there is a related metaphor, of insideness or interiority, which is also omnipresent. The experience of moral judgment consists of looking at the inner life; of seeing inside, or seeing that which cannot be seen. The inner life is within, and therefore invisible. To have moral sentiments is to have looked, in as clear a light as possible, at the outside events of life, and to have imagined the life within. The image of light and vision is ubiquitous in eighteenth-century philoso-

phy, and the image of trying to see the unseeable, or that which is in darkness because it is within, was one of the continuing preoccupations of the critics of the French Enlightenment. The philosophers of the French Revolution, for Joseph de Maistre, were like a child, who when he is given a toy, ‘breaks it, to see inside. It is thus that the French have treated the government; they have wanted to see inside’ (‘Lettres d’un Royaliste savoisien’, quoted in Descostes 1894: 2, 328). But for Smith, too, the related metaphors of seeing and insideness posed continuing difficulties. These difficulties were associated, in part, with the overall enterprise of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of founding a system or science of morality (in Burke’s description) on the ‘whole of Human Nature’ (Letter 38 from Edmund Burke, Corr.: 46). A system in which morality was founded on powers of judgment which were placed inside individuals by God, who is all-seeing, would pose no such problems; and Smith’s Theory, to the extent that it was understood, as it clearly was by Dugald Stewart and Sophie de Condorcet, as attempting to provide an unmetaphysical ‘foundation of Morals’, can be included in the works of enlightenment which De Maistre so disliked (Stewart 1980: 287, 290; see Rothschild 2001: 68). But there were other and less metaphysical difficulties that Smith encountered, in relation to the image of seeing inside, and they were difficulties to which he returned in all his successive revisions of the Theory. Smith altered The Theory of Moral Sentiments in many different ways, of

which the most conspicuous was the sub-title that he added in the fourth

edition of 1784: Or, An Essay towards an Analysis of the Principles by which Men naturally judge concerning the Conduct and Character, first of their Neighbours, and afterwards of themselves. This was an odd adjustment, in respect of an ‘essay’ which extended to 551 pages in 1759, and had increased to 898 pages in 1790. It is an example, to use the Oxford expression, of Smith at his most ‘wary and modest’. But it established several important characteristics of the work: that it was about human nature; that it was concerned with both outside or visible events (‘conduct’) and inside events (‘character’); and that it asserted a sequence over time in moral judgment, in which individuals start by judging other people, and then judge themselves. In the new Advertisement to the 1790 edition, Smith explained that ‘a good many illustrations’ of his doctrines had ‘occurred’ to him over the preceding 30 years, and the changes he made were for the most part illustrations; illustrations, in particular, of the judgment or evaluation of the inner life. Smith returned again and again, in the revisions, to the double metaphor

of seeing and insideness. The idea of the ‘man within’ is not present in the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is introduced in a small way in the 1761 edition, and in an ostentatious way in 1790, where there are 22 references to the ‘man within’, together with various demi-gods, judges, vice-gerents, and other ‘inmate[s] of the breast’ (Smith 1761: 208, 213; and see the anticipation of the ‘man within’ in Smith 1759: 132, 281, 283). The idea of ‘other people’ – Smith uses the expression an amazing 84 times in the 1790 Theory – is also far more important in the later editions. He tinkered almost obsessively with the language of vision and insight. There is an awkward reference to eyes – ‘we must look at ourselves with the same eyes with which we look at others’ – which he removed in the second edition; and a passage to do with mirrors – ‘Unfortunately this moral looking-glass is not always a very good one’ – which he also removed (Smith 1759: 257, 260). There are more eyes in the 1790 than the 1759 edition; almost twice as many. The two ‘Raskolnikov’ passages in the Theory – where Smith describes the remorse of the criminal, for whom ‘solitude is still more dreadful than society’, and who ‘could not think without terror and amazement even of the manner in which mankind would look upon him, of what would be the expression of their countenance and of their eyes’ – were revised and rearranged (TMS II.ii.2.3 and III.2.9; see Smith 1759: 184-7 and 250-3).2