The Place of Romantic Love in Adam Smith’s Theory of Mutual Sympathy

Below is another extended (and revised) excerpt from the latest draft of my “Adam Smith in Love” paper:

Some scholars (Dawson 2013; Harken 2013b) have described Adam Smith’s views of romantic love in negative terms. Maureen Harken (2013b, 6), for example, in reviewing the work of Deidre Dawson (2013), refers to “Smith’s denigration of romantic love in [The Theory of Moral Sentiments] …” I, however, strongly disagree with Harken and others who take this view of Smith’s views on love. Far from denigrating romantic love, Adam Smith is trying to explain why romantic love is such a powerful or “furious” force of nature and why his mechanism of mutual sympathy does not extend to such emotions. To fully appreciate Adam Smith’s analysis of romantic love, we must first take a step back and revisit one of the main contributions of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith’s general theory of mutual sympathy,[1] and to get a good grasp of Smith’s highly original and sophisticated theory, consider the famous opening sentence of Smith’s tome, which begins thus:

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.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 1, Ch. 1, para.1.)

Furthermore, these feelings of mutual sympathy are so deep and pervasive that even “the most brutal, hardest [criminal] … is not totally devoid of them.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 1, Ch. 1, para.1.) In other words, our ability to feel “mutual sympathy” or “fellow feeling” with others, such as feelings of anger, happiness, gratitude, pain, etc. depending on the circumstances, is for Smith the ultimate source of morality.[2]

Smith illustrates his theory of mutual sympathy with the example 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.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 2, Ch. 1, para.1.)

In the very next paragraph, however, Smith draws a distinction between physical passions (“Passions which take their origins from the body”) and purely cognitive passions (“those Passions which take their origin from a particular turn of the imagination”). This distinction is crucial because, for Smith, the mechanism of mutual sympathy is especially salient in the cognitive or imaginative domain. Furthermore, here is where romantic love first enters Adam Smith’s philosophical picture. Specifically, in what could be described as a tender and auto-biographical reference to his first lost love–the romantic liaison of Smith’s youth as described by Dugald Stewart (1980, Note K)–Smith observes that “[a] disappointment in love, or ambition, will, upon this account, call forth more sympathy than the greatest bodily evil.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 2, Ch. 1, para.2.) Below is the complete passage for the reader’s reference:

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.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 2, Ch. 1, para.2.)

In other words, for Smith, purely “mental harms” are felt more deeply and are easier to sympathize with than actual physical harms! 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.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 2, Ch. 1, para.2.)  

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 any of his own love affairs, including his first lost love: the “Maid of Fife” (Fay 2011, 144), the “Fife lady whom he had loved very much” and who was “a young lady of great beauty and accomplishment” to whom Adam Smith was “for several years attached.” (Stewart 1980, Note K.)

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[1] Smith’s other major contribution in The Theory of Moral Sentiments was his idea of “the impartial spectator.” See generally Raphael 1975; Haldane 1887, 62-71.

[2] For Smith, sympathy refers to “our fellow feeling with any passion whatsoever.” (TMS, Book 1, Sec. 1, Ch. 1, para.5.) Compare Alcouffe & Massot-Bordenave (2020, 22): Smith defines “[s]ympathy … as man’s ability to experience the sorrows and joys of his fellow men in varying degrees.” See also Fleischacker 2017.

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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