Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Friday, October 08, 2010

Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith

Many people don't know about Adam Smith's other major book besides The Wealth of Nations. Unfortunately my library doesn't have copy of Theory of Moral Sentiments, at least it has a compilation with some long excerpts.

I'm sure I can find it online for free since it's now in the public domain. Maybe I really do need a Kindle!

He had some interesting thoughts on why we fear death.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity....

That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. The happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly, is affected by none of these circumstances; nor is it the thought of these things which can ever disturb the profound security of their repose. The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether... from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive.

I liked his analysis of why people who are in love make such bad company sometimes. "The passion appears to everybody, but the man who feels it, entirely disporoportioned to the value of the object."

He was perceptive about what people really want when they try to get rich. In his mind, people don't really want money or even the things money can buy. Instead, they want the honor that is paid to rich people. This is shown first by people who pretend to be rich even though it ends up bankrupting them.

Vain men often give themselves airs of a fashionable profligacy, which, in their hearts, they do not approve of, and of which, perhaps, they are really not guilty. They desire to be praised for what they themselves do not think praise-worthy, and are ashamed of unfashionable virtues which they sometimes practice in secret, and for which they have secretly some degree of real veneration. There are hypocrites of wealth and greatness, as well as of religion and virtue.... Many a poor man places his glory in being thought rich, without considering that the duties which that reputation imposes upon him, must soon reduce him to beggary, and render his situation still more unlike that of those whom he admires and imitates, than it had been originally.

And again...

To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhapily, the road which leads to the one, and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions... It is not ease or pleasure, but always honour, of one kind or another, though frequently an honour very ill understood, that the ambitious man really pursues.

The following is one of the best analyses of ambition I've read. The reasoning is sound and the writing is memorable. It almost tells a story.

The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness.

To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month, to more fatigue of body and uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to aacquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real a a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that hmble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with... that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the love of toys.

He goes on to point out that a nail clipper may give just as much real happiness as the more obvious advantages of wealth like large houses, servants and so on. The difference is that what wealth brings is obvious whereas a nail clipper is easy for other people to overlook. Therefore, if you chiefly want other people to admire you, you'll try to get rich and not just buy a new nail clipper.

Smith recommends being as lazy as possible while enjoying the simpler pleasures of life. Or as Jesus said, "Be careful of all kinds of greed. Life is more than the abundance of one's possessions."


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