The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is much more readable than The Wealth of Nations. WoN is a long slog. Read TMS instead.

TMS is less directly about economics. It’s more about how we care about each other. There were several places where I wondered: “How did Smith know this about me?”

I see it as sort of a guide to being nice and how to conduct yourself in society.

Here are my favorite parts:

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 necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?

The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbors, has surely very little positive merit. He fulfills, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and des everything which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.

The man of system is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all of its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chessboard have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If these two principles coincide and act in the same direct, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.

The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies.

To seem not to be affected with the joy of our companions is but want of politeness; but not to wear a serious countenance when they tell us their afflictions, is real and gross humanity.

If we hear a person loudly lamenting his misfortunes, which, however, upon bringing the case home to ourselves, we feel, can produce no such violent effect upon us, we are shocked at his grief; and, because we cannot enter into it, call it pusillanimity and weakness. It gives us the spleen, on the other hand, to see another too happy or too much elevated, as we call it, with any little piece of good fortune. We are disobliged even with his joy; and, because we cannot go along with it, call it levity and folly. We are even put out of humor if our companion laughs louder or longer at a joke than we think it deserves; that is, than we feel that we ourselves could laugh at it.

Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility… Men of retirement and speculation, who are apt to sit brooding at home over either grief or resentment, though they may often have more humanity, more generosity, and a nicer sense of honor, yet seldom possess that equality of temper which is so common among men of the world.

We sympathize with the fear, though not the agony of the sufferer. Fear, however, is passion derived altogether from the imagination, which represents… not what we really feel, but what we may hereafter possibly suffer. The gout or tooth-ache, though exquisitely painful, excite very little sympathy; more dangerous diseases, though accompanied with very little pain, excite the highest.

Though a lover may be good company to his mistress, he is so to nobody else.

A person becomes contemptible who tamely sits still, and submits to insults, without attempting either to repel or to revenge them… We are as provoked by it as by the insolence of his adversary.

Hatred and anger are the greatest poison to the happiness of a good mind. There is, in the very feeling of those passions, something harsh, jarring, and convulsive, something that tears and distracts the breast, and is altogether destructive of the composure and tranquility of mind which is so necessary to happiness, and which is best promoted by the contrary passions of gratitude and love.

Generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, when expressed in the countenance or behavior, even towards those who are not peculiarly connected with ourselves, please the indifferent spectator upon almost every occasion.

Nothing is more graceful than habitual cheerfulness. It inspires us with the same joy, and makes every trifle turn up to us in the same agreeable aspect in which it presents itself to the person endowed witht this happy disposition.

Small vexations excite no sympathy, but deep affliction calls forth the greatest. The man who is made uneasy by every little disagreeable incident will seldom meet with much sympathy.

Resentment would prompt us to desire, not only that he be punished, but that he should be punished by our means, and upon account of that particular injury which he had done to us. Resentment cannot be fully gratified, unless the offender is not only made to grieve in his turn, but to grieve for that particular wrong which we have suffered from him.

All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy. All the different members of it are bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection, and are, as it were, drawn to one common center of mutual good offices.

Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behavior of those he lives with.

To be pleased with such groundless applause is a proof of the most superficial levity and weakness. It is what is properly called vanity.

The foolish liar, who endeavors to excite the admiration of the company by the relation of adventures which never had any existence; the important coxcomb, who gives himself airs of rank and distinction which he well knows he has no just pretensions to; are both of them, no doubt, pleased with the applause which they fancy they meet with. Their superficial weakness and trivial folly hinder them from ever turning their eyes inwards, or from seeing themselves in that despicable point of view in which their own consciences must tell them that they would appear to everybody, if that truth should ever come to be known.

To show much anxiety about praise, even for praise-worthy actions, is seldom a mark of great wisdom, but generally of some degree of weakness. But, in being anxious to avoid the shadow of blame or reproach, there may be no weakness, but frequently the most praise-worthy prudence.

To persons under such misfortunes, we could, perhaps, easily pardon some degree of weakness; but, at the same time, they who carry the firmest countenance, who accommodate themselves with the greatest ease to their new situation, who see to feel no humiliation from the change, but to rest their rank in the society, not upon their fortune, but upon the character and conduct, are always the most approved of, and never fail to command our highest and most affectionate admiration.

The man who feels the most for the joys and sorrows of others, is best fitted for acquiring the most complete control of his own joys and sorrows. The man of the most exquisite humanity, is naturally the most capable of acquiring the highest degree of self-command.

In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves: we are apt to over-state the good offices we may have done, and the injuries we may have suffered: we are apt to be too much elated by our own good, and to be too dejected by our own bad fortune. The conversation of a friend brings us to better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and condct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty, by the presence of the real spectator: and it is always from that spectator, whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self-command.

Are you in adversity? Do not mourn in the darkness of solitude, do not regulate your sorrow according to the indulgent sympathy of your intimate friends; return, as soon as possible, to the daylight of the world and of society. LIve with strangers, with those who know nothing, or care nothing for your misfortune; do not even shun the company of enemies; but give yourself the pleasure of mortifying their malignant joy, by making them feel how little your are affected by your calamity, and how much you are above it.

It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavorable. He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct. Rather than see our own behavior under so disagreeable an aspect, we too often, foolishly and weakly, endeavor to exasperate anew those unjust passions which had formerly misled us; we endeavor by artifice to awaken our old hatreds, and irritate afresh our almost forgotten resentments; we even exert ourselves for this miserable purpose, and thus persevere in injustice, merely because we once were unjust, and because we are ashamed and afraid to see we were so.

The prudent man is not willing to subject himself to any responsibility which his duty does not impose upon him. He is not a bustler in business where he has no concern; he is not a meddler in other people’s affairs; is not a professed counselor or adviser, who obtrudes his advice where nobody is asking it. He confines himself, as much as his duty will permit, to his own affairs, and has no taste for that foolish importance which many people wish to derive from appearing to have some influence in the management of those of other people.

What is called affection, is in reality nothing but habitual sympathy.

Among well-disposed people, the necessity or convenience of mutual accommodation, very frequently produces a friendship not unlike that which takes place among those who are born to live in the same family. Colleagues in office, partners in trade, call one another brothers; and frequently feel towards one another as if they really were so.

Far from despising your esteem, the vain man courts it with the most anxious assiduity. Far from wishing to mortify your self-estimation, he is happy to cherish it, in hopes that in return you will cherish his own. He flatters in order to be flattered. He studies to please, and endeavors to bribe you into a good opinion of him by politeness and complaisance, and sometimes even by real and essential good offices, though often displayed, perhaps with unnecessary ostentation.

The vain man courts the company of his superiors as much as the proud man shuns it. Their splendor, he seems to think, reflects a spendlor upon those who are much about them. He haunts the courts of kings and the levees of ministers, and gives himself the air of being a candidate for fortune and preferment, when in reality he possesses the much more precious happiness, if he knew how to enjoy it, of not being one. He is fond of being admitted to the tables of the great, and still more fond of magnifying to other people the familiarity with which he is honored there. He associates himself, as much as he can, with fashionable people, with those who are supposed to direct the public opinion, with the witty, with the learned, with the popular; and he shuns the company of his best friends whenever the very uncertain currents of public favor happens to run in any respect against them.