Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Smith on Family Life and Family Discord

In National Review (14 February) David F. Forte offers an essay: “The Founders @ Home: the framers’ ideas of marriage and family”, where he refers to Adam Smith and his statement in the first sentence of “Moral Sentiments”:

How selfish soever 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” (TMS I..i.I.1, page 10).

David Forte missed a great opportunity in confining his quotation to a general statement about mutual sympathy, because Smith wrote about the mutual affections within families in his book that circulated widely in the American colonies and was read sympathetically by some of the framers. David Forte could have quoted from “Moral Sentiments” the following:

With what pleasure do we look upon a family, through whole of which reign mutual love and esteem, where the parents and children are companions for one another, without any other difference that what is made by respectful affection on the one side, and kind indulgence on the other; where freedom and fondness, mutual raillery and mutual kindness, show that no opposition of interest divides the brothers, nor any rivalship of favour sets the sisters at variance, and where every thing presents us with the idea of peace cheerfulness, harmony, and contentment? On the contrary, how uneasy are we made when we go into a house in which the jarring contention sets one half of those who dwell in it against the other; where amidst affected smoothness and complaisance, suspicious looks and sudden starts of passion betray the mutual jealousies which burn within, and which are every moment ready to burst out through the restraints which the presence of the company imposes? (TMS I.ii.4.2, pages 39-40).

Or from Smith’s more extensive essay on the family (TMS VI.ii.1.1, pages 219-24) where he averts that disaffection between close family relatives is the ‘highest impropriety, and sometimes even a sort of impiety’.

Smith's own family circumstances show a sickly child born, not long after his father died, in 1723, brought up by his widowed mother, who never re-married but devoted her life to her son's well-being, seeing him well educated and settled. She was a model doting-mother and a practising Christian of the Protestant sect. Smith reciprocated with his deep love and consideration (even at variance to his philosophical principles in the matter of religion, from which alleged 'athiesm' he kept her ignorant, evem minding carefully his public writings) and she shared his household until she died in 1783.

So did his mother's neice, Janet Douglas, his cousin, who was his housekeepr from 1754 to 1788, of whom he always displayed the warmest of family affections. Extant letters show him teasing his cousin in company at tea. When he wrote about family discord his reaction was in the contrast with his own family and its 'mutual love and esteem.'


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