Monday, April 27, 2009

Thought for the Day: no. 7

Adam Smith in Moral Sentiments strays into dangerous territory:

A woman who paints, could derive, one should imagine, but little vanity from the compliments that are paid to her complexion. These, we should expect, ought rather to put her in mind of the sentiments which her real complexion would excite, and mortify her the more by the contrast. To be pleased with such groundless applause is a proof of the most superficial levity and weakness. It is what is properly called vanity, and is the foundation of the most ridiculous and contemptible vices, the vices of affectation and common lying; follies which, if experience did not teach us how common they are, one should imagine the least spark of common sense would save us from.” (TMS III.2.5: 115; 1872 Alex Murray (Joseph Black edition), p 103).

The original sentence in editions 1 - 5 began: ‘A woman who paints to conceal her ugliness, could derive, etc., …’, and ending with ‘… paid to her beauty.’ (which he changed as above to ‘paid to her complexion’, both of which he changed for the 6th edition, the last he supervised in 1790, as above.

Rather ungallant of Adam Smith, though we do not know what was presented as fashionable to him in the streets and drawing rooms of Edinburgh.

Modern make up, properly presented is beautifying compared to the rosy cheeks, slap dash, thinly-disguised horribleness that passed for ‘paint’ in the 17th-18th centuries. Maybe it was an improvement on common face sores at the time.

Edinburgh had its fair share of prostitutes and prostituted women, as written about in ‘Boswell’s Edinburgh Journals 1767-86’, edited by Hugh M. Milne, 2001, Mercat Press, 2001 and Yale University 2003. Boswell was a frequent user of prostitutes.

Smith also commented on prostitutes in London, while extolling the virtues of the potato in a diet:

The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root.’ (WN I.xi.b.41: 177)

Smith’s mother died in 1784 and he may have decided to dilute his critique of a ‘woman who paints to conceal her ugliness’, which was written possibly to reassure her of his lack of interest in any such women.

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