Adam Smith on Love

I have been researching and writing about Adam Smith’s enigmatic love life and have thus titled my latest work-in-progress “Adam Smith in Love.” But Adam Smith also wrote about love. In fact, Smith made several philosophical observations about love and romance in his first major published work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, an intellectual masterpiece that deserves a place of honor in our Western philosophical canon, along with the works of Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant. By way of background, Smith first presents his now-influential theory of virtue, a theory based on the notion of “mutual sympathy” or fellow feeling. (See summary, bottom left.) To see the spirit of Smith’s moral theory, there is no better place to begin than with the famous opening sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereinafter “TMS“), which begins as follows: 

“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 [the happiness of others] necessary to him, though he deserves nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” 
(Book 1, Section 1, Chapter 1 of TMS)

For Smith, then, our ability to feel “mutual sympathy” with others–i.e., feelings of anger, happiness, gratitude, pain, etc. depending on the circumstances–is the source of morality. For example, in the first paragraph of the TMS chapter titled “Of the Passions which take their origin from the body,” Smith illustrates his theory of mutual sympathy with the following graphic illustration of physical pain:

“There is, however, a good deal of sympathy even with bodily pain. If … I see a [whip] aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg, or arm, of another person, I naturally shrink and draw back my own leg, or my own arm: and when it does fall, I feel it in some measure, and am hurt by it as well as the sufferer.”
(Book I, Section II, Chapter 1 of TMS)

But then, in the very next paragraph, Smith proceeds to compare and contrast “passions which take their origin from the body” (such as physical pain) with “those passions which take their origin from the imagination” (such as love). More to the point, in what could be described as a tender and auto-biographical reference to his first failed love affair–i.e. the early romantic liaison described by Smith’s first biographer Dugald Stewart in Note K; see here for more details–, Smith observes that “[a] disappointment in love, or ambition, will, upon this account, call forth more sympathy than the greatest bodily evil.” Below is the complete quote for the reader’s reference. After describing the sympathy elicited by physical pain, Smith specifically states:

“It is quite otherwise with those passions which take their origin from the imagination. The frame of my body can be but little affected by the alterations which are brought about upon that of my companion: but my imagination is more ductile, and more readily assumes, if I may say so, the shape and configuration of the imaginations of those with whom I am familiar. A disappointment in love, or ambition, will, upon this account, call forth more sympathy than the greatest bodily evil.”
(Book I, Section II, Chapter 1 of TMS)

Smith even goes onto say: 

“The loss of a leg may generally be regarded as a more real calamity than the loss of a mistress. It would be a ridiculous tragedy, however, of which the catastrophe was to turn upon a loss of that kind. A misfortune of the other kind, how frivolous soever it may appear to be, has given occasion to many a fine one.”
(Ibid.)

What is Adam Smith trying to tell us with these passages about disappointed love and lost mistresses? Specifically, when Smith is writing about a “disappointment in love” or the “loss of a mistress,” is he referring to his own lost love–i.e. to the “Fife lady whom he had loved very much,” to the “young lady of great beauty and accomplishment” to whom Adam Smith was “for several years attached.” (Stewart, Note K.) Yet, Smith himself will conclude that romantic love is a “ridiculous” passion. We will see why soon …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Adam Smith on Love

  1. Pingback: Love and Liberty Redux | prior probability

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