Saturday, February 18, 2006

No Monopoly on Sentiments

Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Model Sentiments” (1759; 6th edition 1790) is kept in print partly by the reputation of the author, partly from the curiosity of modern philosophers, but mostly by the availability of a perfect facsimile of Oxford University Press’s authoritative 1976 Glasgow Edition from the Liberty Fund, Indiana, at a fraction of the OUP price (check it out at Amazon – better still, order a copy today).

The first paragraph on the first page is its most famous quotation might (cynicism might suggest many people only read that far):

How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.” (TMS I.i.1.3: p 9)

Another step in Smith’s argument is often missed (it’s on the next page!):

Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy, though its meaning, was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” (TMS I.i.1.5, page 2)

This is byway of my introducing an interesting piece from Chris Armstrong: ‘For Sentimental Reasons: how the emotional stories of Christian preachers and writers shaped a movement’ in Christianity Today, 13 February.

Chris Armstrong writes:

In fact, these two impressions derive from a single "sentimentalist" agenda at work in the novels of Dickens, and in hundreds of other 18th- and 19th-century novels, as well as period biographies and histories. This agenda was the brainchild of the group of 18th-century philosophers and writers who in fact invented the novel as a genre.

These sentimentalists included philosophers such as Adam Smith, novelists such as Samuel Richardson, and, at one point in his career, the philosopher/ historian David Hume. To these thinkers, the term "sentimentalism" did not carry the meaning that it does now—of over-wrought, insincere emotional expression. Rather, it named a coherent set of philosophical ideas about emotions and morality.

The first of these is that all people share certain basic experiences and emotions. Although … post modern "strong constructionists" have sowed suspicion in our minds about this, modern social-scientific emotions researchers are beginning to reaffirm it.
The second sentimentalist affirmation, dependent on the first, is that we can become better people by hearing the stories of other people and having our own emotions (hearts) shaped by those stories.

This agenda of moral and spiritual formation shines from the full title of Samuel Richardson's 1740 prototypical sentimental novel
Pamela: "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded—Now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes, A Narrative which has the Foundation in Truth and Nature; and at the same time that it agreeably entertains."

Sentimental novels? Surely not!The literary sentimentalists were not hack writers; they were philosophers who expressed their deepest philosophical convictions in their writings. Under the influence of John Locke's empiricism, Smith, Richardson, Hume, and Newton all assumed that our experiences (and by extension, our emotions, and by another extension, other people's experiences and emotions) are a strong, helpful source of knowledge.

In turn, these sentimental authors and many others exerted a pervasive influence on readers and reading habits in the 18th and 19th centuries. The three most popular genres in those centuries were novels, biographies, and histories. Why? Because, thanks to Locke and the sentimentalists, everyone assumed that what you learned in reading those books was valuable, experiential knowledge that could transform you in ways mere rational argumentation could not achieve.

[Read it at:]

Smith regarded the sentiments between people as the binding that kept societies together. He felt they were strongest within the family, then in diminishing strength as people considered their friends, acquaintances and finally strangers, remembering that those who are strangers to us are friends and acquaintances of others.

For Smith his was not a world of hostile, selfish and suspicious persons, fighting it out daily for their sustenance and seeking always to do other people down in their endless quest for self-betterment at the expense of everybody else. Some laissez faire fanatics have not read Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” as closely as they affirm themselves to have done, to say nothing of his (ignorant) critics who have not read him, especially in his “Moral Sentiments”, at all.

That Christian authors write their novels along the lines suggested by Chris Armstrong is an interesting approach. It is an approach not confined to Christian novelists. Those with political axes to grind do so too. Charles Dickens did so in his antipathy to early industrialisation and what he considered were the unacceptable moral – and aesthetic – consequences of commerce. He shared these sentiments with Ruskin and Carlyle, the latter of whom descended into racism in his horror at John S. Mill’s sentiments towards ‘Negro’ slaves being the equal of white Europeans. Carlyle sneeringly called them ‘Niggers’ and issued his famous dismissal of Mill and his ‘dismal science’.

Presently, I am reading Anthony Trollope’s satire, ‘The Way We Live Now’, oozing with his “agenda of moral and spiritual” antipathy to the moral corruption of members of the middling and upper classes in Britain’s late 19th-century commercial society. That it is more about the mores and manners of marginalised people coaxing, lying and prostituting themselves in their quest for place and position than it is about entrepreneurs creating wealth (which meant jobs for the common poor) is not the point. It is a literary treasure, much like Thomas Love Peacock's “Crotchet Castle”, which I discussed in an earlier Blog, in its theme, though it is much better written and plotted.

Readers of Smith’s “Moral Sentiments” are treated to snatches of his views on literary themes and plots, and his acidic, but so true, characterisation of how we all have behaved and witnessd others behaving from time to time. Christians do not have a monopoly on the appreciation, or, indeed, the practice, of human sentiments. Smith's 'other work' is a magnificent essay on the unchanging human condition


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