Sunday, August 21, 2005

Self Command a General Not a Male Only Virtue

Another piece from the Scotsman (no, I do not have any shares in The Scotsman, though I admire its editorial lines on the economy, public and private, and on general political issues). This time it is on that age-old debate about women versus male influences on behaviour. Kirsty Milne’s article is occasioned by the recent death of a popular woman politician, Mo Mowlam, aged 55. My interest is in her reference to David Hume and Adam Smith:

“For we have been here before. The 18th century experienced a vogue for "sympathy" or fellow-feeling, explored by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith. The smash hit of 1771 was The Man of Feeling, by the Edinburgh lawyer Hector Mackenzie, featuring a male hero whose sensitivity was attested by frequent bouts of tears. The fashion produced great uneasiness, with calls for a return to Roman or Spartan self-denial and self-command. The two sisters in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, one spontaneously emotional, the other prudent and careful, play out this tension in fictional form.”

Yes, one could refer to Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, Hume and Smith (why not Francis Hutcheson too?) as being interested in ‘human sympathy’ (though it was hardly a general ‘vogue’). Smith was interested in what caused virtues to be practised and why they were applauded. (See my blog piece on Adam Smith’s Philosophy, no 1, earlier this month). But Kirsty Milne goes on to speak of a counter-reaction:

“The fashion produced great uneasiness, with calls for a return to Roman or Spartan self-denial and self-command.”

This is strange. Smith always included the Stoic virtue of self-command in his set of moral sentiments. He saw no contradiction between sympathy (through the Impartial Spectator) and self-command (which he praises in “Moral Sentiments” in several places). Adam Ferguson, among others, tended to lean towards worrying about martial virtues and their decline in a commercial society (he was from close to the Highlands and served as Chaplain to the Black Watch for many years before becoming an academic), but this did not appeal to Adam Smith or David Hume.

I think the counter-poising of feminine and male psychology (as discussed in the rest of her article over a kafuffle among John Buerk and the usual suspects in journalism) is a harmless source for a few paragraphs, but ought not to be taken too seriously.

Still we can all agree on the loss of the decent Mo Mowlam to public life.


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