Chap 9: Theory of Moral Sentiments

  • Smith enjoyed a very high Scotch reputation long before his name was known to the public by any literary contribution.
  • But in 1759 he gave his Theory of Moral Sentiments to the press.
    • He then took his place in the first rank of contemporary writers, by almost immediate and universal recognition.
  • The book is an essay supporting and illustrating the doctrine that moral approbation and disapprobation are in the last analysis expressions of sympathy with the feelings of an imaginary and impartial spectator.
    • Its substance had already been given yearly in his ordinary lectures to his students.
    • Though after the publication, he thought it no longer necessary to dwell at the same length on this course, giving more time to jurisprudence and political economy.
  • The book was published in London by Andrew Millar in two volumes. 8vo.
    • From the beginning, it was well received.
    • Its ingenuity, eloquence, and great copiousness of effective illustration were universally acknowledged and admired.
  • Smith sent a copy to Hume in London.
    • He received the following reply.
    • It contains interesting particulars of the book’s reception there:


London, April 12, 1759.

Dear Sir

  • Thank you for the agreeable present of your Theory.
  • Wedderburn and I made presents of our copies to [Pg 142]such of our acquaintances as we thought good judges and proper to spread the reputation of the book.
    • I sent one to the Duke of Argyle, to Lord Lyttelton, Horace Walpole, Soame Jenyns, and Burke, an Irish gentleman who wrote lately a very pretty treatise on the Sublime.
    • Millar wanted my permission to send one in your name to Dr. Warburton.


  • I have delayed writing you until I could:
    • tell you something of the success of the book, and
    • could prognosticate with some probability whether it should be finally:
      • damned to oblivion or
      • registered in the temple of immortality.
  • It has been published only a few weeks.
    • But I think there are already strong symptoms that I can almost foretell its fate.
  • It is, in short, this—
  • But I have been interrupted in my letter by a foolish impertinent visit of one who has lately come from Scotland.
    • He tells me that the University of Glasgow intend to declare Rouet’s office vacant upon his going abroad with Lord Hope.
    • I question not but you will have our friend Ferguson in your eye, in case another project for procuring him a place in the University of Edinburgh should fail.
    • Ferguson has very much polished and improved his Treatise on Refinement.
    • With some amendments it will make an admirable book, and discovers an elegant and singular genius.
    • I hope the Epigoniad will do, but it is somewhat uphill work.
  • I do not doubt but you consult the Reviews sometimes at present, you will see in The Critical Review a letter upon that poem;
    • I want you to employ your conjectures in finding out the author.
  • Let me see a sample of your skill in knowing hints by guessing at the person.


  • I am afraid of Kames’s Law Tracts.
    • He might as well think of making a fine sauce by a mixture of wormwood and aloes as an agreeable combination by joining metaphysics and Scottish law.
  • However, I believe the book has merit.
    • Though few people ever take the pains of inquiring into it.
    • But to return to your book and its success in this town.
  • I must tell you—


  • A plague to interruptions!
    • I ordered myself to be denied.
    • Yet here is one that has broke in upon me again.
  • He is a man of letters.
    • We have had a good deal of literary conversation.
  • You told me that you was curious of literary anecdotes.
    • Therefore I shall inform you of a few that have come to my knowledge.
  • I believe I have mentioned to you already Helvetius’s book De l’Esprit.
    • It is worth your reading, not for its philosophy, which I do not highly value, but for its agreeable composition.
  • I had a letter from him a few days ago.
    • He [Pg 143]tells me that my name was much oftener in the manuscript, but that the censor of books at Paris obliged him to strike it out.


  • Voltaire has lately published a small work called Candide, ou l’Optimisme.
    • I shall give you a detail of it.
  • But what is all this to my book, say you?
  • My dear Mr. Smith, have patience; compose yourself to tranquility.
    • Show yourself a philosopher in practice as well as profession.
    • Think on:
      • the impotence and rashness and futility of the common judgments of men
      • how little men are regulated by reason on any subject, much more on philosophical subjects, which so far exceed the comprehension of the vulgar—


  • Non, si quid turbida Roma Elevet, accedas: examenve improbum in iliâ Castiges trutinâ: nec te quaesiveris extra.
    • A wise man’s kingdom is his own heart; or
    • if he ever looks farther, it will only be to the judgment of a select few, who are free from prejudices and capable of examining; his work.
  • Nothing can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude.
    • Phocion always suspected himself of some blunder when he was applauded by the populace.


  • Therefore, supposing that you have duly prepared yourself for the worst by these reflections, I tell you the melancholy news that your book has been very unfortunate.
    • Because the public seem to applaud it extremely.
  • It was looked for by the foolish people with some impatience.
    • The mob of literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises.
  • Three bishops called yesterday at Millar’s shop to:
    • buy copies, and
    • ask questions about the author.
  • The Bishop of Peterborough said he had passed the evening in a company where he heard it extolled above all books in the world.
    • The Duke of Argyle is more decisive than he used to be in its favour.
      • I suppose he either considers it as an exotic, or thinks the author will be very serviceable to him in the Glasgow elections.
    • Lord Lyttelton says that Robertson and Smith and Bower[107] are the glories of English literature.
    • Oswald protests he does not know whether he has reaped more instruction or entertainment from it, but you may easily judge what reliance can be placed on his judgment.
      • He has been engaged all his life in public business, and he never sees any faults in his friends.
    • Millar exults and brags that [Pg 144]:
      • 2/3 of the edition are already sold, and
      • he is now sure of success.
    • You see what a son of the earth that is, to value books only by the profit they bring him.
      • In that view, I believe, it may prove a very good book.


  • Charles Townshend passes for the cleverest fellow in England.
    • He is so much taken with its performance that he said to Oswald he would:
      • put the Duke of Buccleugh under the author’s care, and
      • make it worth his while to accept of that charge.
  • As soon as I heard this, I called on him twice to:
    • talk with him about the matter, and
    • convince him of the propriety of sending that young gentleman to Glasgow
      • for I could not hope that he could offer you any terms which would tempt you to renounce your professorship
      • but I missed him.
  • Mr. Townshend is a little uncertain in his resolutions
    • so perhaps you need not build much on his sally.


  • In recompense for so many mortifying things, which nothing but truth could have extorted from me, and which I could easily have multiplied to a greater number, I doubt not but you are so good a Christian as to return good for evil, and to flatter my vanity by telling me that all the godly in Scotland abuse me for my account of John Knox and the Reformation.
  • I suppose you are glad to see my paper end, and that I am obliged to conclude with—Your humble servant.[108]


  • On July 28, Hume again writes from London on the same subject:—


  • I am very well acquainted with Bourke,[109] who was much taken with your book.
    • He got your direction from me with a view of writing to you and thanking you for your present, for I made it pass in your name.
    • I wonder he has not done it.
    • He is now in Ireland.


  • I am not acquainted with Jenyns,[110]
    • But he spoke very highly of the book to Oswald, who is his brother in the Board of Trade.
  • Millar showed me a few days ago a letter from Lord Fitzmaurice,[111]
    • He tells Millar that he has carried over a few copies to the Hague for presents.
  • Mr. York[112] was very much taken with it, as well as several others who had read it. [Pg 145]


  • I am told that you are preparing a new edition.
    • I propose some additions and alterations to obviate objections.
  • I shall propose one which you might have in view, if it appears to be of any weight.
    • I wish you had more particularly and fully proved that all kinds of sympathy are agreeable.
    • This is the hinge of your system.
    • Yet you only mention the matter cursorily on p. 20.
    • It would appear that there is a disagreeable sympathy as well as an agreeable.


  • As the sympathetic passion is a reflex image of the principal, it must partake of its qualities, and be painful when that is so.
    • When we converse with a man with whom we can entirely sympathise, that is when there is a warm and intimate friendship, the cordial openness of such a commerce overbears the pain of a disagreeable sympathy, and renders the whole movement agreeable, but in ordinary cases this cannot have place.
    • A man tired and disgusted with everything, always ennuié, sickly, complaining, embarrassed, such a one throws an evident damp on company, which I suppose would be accounted for by sympathy, and yet is disagreeable.


  • It is always thought a difficult problem to account for the pleasure from the tears and grief and sympathy of tragedy, which would not be the case if all sympathy was agreeable.
  • A hospital would be a more entertaining place than a ball.
  • I am afraid that on p. 99 and 111 this proposition has escaped you, or rather is interwoven with your reasoning.
  • In that place you say expressly,
    • “It is painful to go along with grief, and we always enter into it with reluctance.”
  • You probably need to modify or explain this sentiment, and reconcile it to your system.[113]



  • Hume reported that Burke had been so much taken with the book.
    • Burke reviewed it most favourably in the Annual Register.
    • He recognised Smith’s theory as new and ingenious and accepted it as being “in all its essential parts just and founded on truth and nature.”
    • He says that “The author seeks for the foundation of the just, the fit, the proper, the decent, in our most common and most allowed passions, and making approbation and disapprobation the tests of virtue and vice.
      • Showing that these are founded on sympathy, he raises from this simple truth one of the most beautiful [Pg 146] fabrics of moral theory that has perhaps ever appeared.
    • The illustrations are numerous and happy.
      • They show the author to be a man of uncommon observation.
    • His language is easy and spirited.
      • He puts things before you in the fullest light.
      • It is rather painting than writing.”[114]
  • One of the most interesting characteristics of the book, from a biographical point of view, is that mentioned by this reviewer.
    • It certainly shows Smith to have been a man of uncommon observation of:
      • his own mental states and
      • the life and ways of men around him.
    • Mackintosh remarks, the book has a high value for “the variety of explanations of life and manners which embellish” it, apart from the thesis it writes to prove.[115]


  • Charles Townshend adhered to his purpose about Smith with much more steadiness than Hume felt able to give him credit for.
    • Townshend was the brilliant but flighty young statesman.
    • We owe the beginnings of our difficulties with America to him.
    • He was the colonial minister who first awoke the question of “colonial rights,” by depriving the colonists of the appointment of their own judges.
    • He was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who imposed the tea duty in 1767 which actually provoked the rebellion.
  • Horace Walpole says “A man endowed with every great talent, who must have been the greatest man of his age if he had only common sincerity, common steadiness, and common sense.”
    • Burke says “In truth, he was the delight and ornament of this house, and the charm of every private society which he honoured with his presence.
  • Perhaps there never arose in this country nor in any other a man of a more pointed and finished wit.
    • (when his passions were not concerned) of a more refined and exquisite and penetrating judgment.”
  • In 1754 he married the Countess of Dalkeith.
    • She was the:
      • daughter and co-heiress of the famous Duke of[Pg 147] Argyle and Greenwich
      • widow of the eldest son of the Duke of Buccleugh.
    • She had been left with two sons by her first husband.
      • The eldest had succeeded his grandfather as Duke of Buccleugh in 1751.
        • He was now at Eton under the tutorship of Mr. Hallam, father of the historian.
        • On leaving Eton he was to travel abroad with a tutor for some time.
        • It was for this post of tutor to the Duke abroad that Townshend, after reading the Theory of Moral Sentiments, had set his heart on engaging its author.


  • Hume hints that Townshend bore as a bad character for changeability.
    • He was popularly nicknamed the Weathercock.
    • A squib of the day once reported that Mr. Townshend was ill of a pain in his side, but regretted that it was not said on which side.
  • But he stood firmly to his project about Smith.
    • He paid Smith a visit in Glasgow that very summer and saw much of him.
    • He invited Smith to Dalkeith House and arranged with him about the selection and dispatch of a number of books for the young Duke’s study.
    • He seems to have arrived at a general understanding with Smith that the latter should accept the tutorship when the time came.
  • Townshend delighted the Glasgow professors during this visit as he delighted everybody.
    • But he seems in turn to have been delighted with them.
    • For William Hunter wrote Cullen a little later in the same year that Townshend had come back from Scotland passing the highest encomiums on everybody.
  • Smith seems to have acted as his chief cicerone in Glasgow, as appears from one of the trivial incidents which were all that the contemporary writers of Smith’s obituary notices seemed able to learn of his life.
    • He was showing Townshend the tannery, one of the spectacles of Glasgow at the time—”an amazing sight,” Pennant calls it—and walked in his absent way right into the tanpit, from which, however, he was immediately rescued without any harm.


In September 1759, on the death of Mr. Townshend’s brother, Smith wrote him the following letter:—[116]

[Pg 148]


  • It gives me great concern that the first letter I ever have done myself the honour to write to you should be upon so melancholy an occasion.
  • As your Brother was generally known here, he is universally regretted,
  • Your friends are sorry that, amidst the public rejoicings and prosperity, your family should have occasion to be in mourning.
  • Everybody here remembers you with the greatest admiration and affection.
  • Nothing that concerns you is indifferent to them.
  • There are more people who sympathise with you than you are aware of.
  • It would be the greatest pedantry to offer any topics of consolation to you who are naturally so firm and so manly.
  • As your Brother dyed in the service of his country, you have the best and the noblest consolation:
  • That since it has pleased God to deprive you of the satisfaction you might have expected from the continuance of his life, it has at least been so ordered that ye manner of his death does you honour.


  • You left Scotland so much sooner than you proposed, when I had the pleasure of seeing you at Glasgow, that I had not an opportunity of making you a visit at Dalkieth (sic), as I intended, before you should return to London.


  • I sent about a fortnight ago the books which you ordered for the Duke of Buccleugh to Mr. Campbell at Edinburgh.[117]
  • I paid for them, according to your orders, as soon as they were ready.
  • I send you enclosed a list of them, with the prices discharged on the back.
  • You will compare with the books when they arrive.
  • Mr. Campbell will further them to London.
  • I should have wrote to you of this a fortnight ago, but my natural dilatoriness prevented me.—
  • I ever am, with the greatest esteem and regard, your most obliged and most obedient humble servant,

Adam Smith.

College of Glasgow,

September 17, 1759.

  • Hume immediately anticipated the second edition of the Theory in 1759.
    • But it did not appear until 1761.
    • It contained none of the alterations or additions he expected.
  • But the Dissertation on the Origin of Languages was for the first time published along with it.
  • It is difficult to know why there was an omission of the other additions.
    • for the author prepared [Pg 149]them and gone the length of placing them in the printer’s hands in 1760, as appears from the following letter.
  • They did not appear in the 3rd edition in 1767, or the 4th in 1774, or the 5th in 1781; nor until the 6th.
    • The 6th was published with considerable additions and corrections immediately before Smith’s death in 1790.
    • The earlier editions were published at 6s., and the 1790 edition at 12s.
  • This was the last edition published in Smith’s lifetime.
    • It has been many times republished in subsequent century.
  • This is the letter just referred to:—


Dear Strahan

  • I sent up to Mr. Millar four or five Posts ago the same additions which I had formerly sent to you, with a good many corrections and improvements which occurred to me since.
  • If there are any typographical errors in the last edition, I hope you will correct them.
  • In other respects, I could wish it was printed pretty exactly according to the copy which I delivered to you.
  • The Spanish proverb says that a man had better be a cuckold and know nothing of the matter, than not be a cuckold and believe himself to be one.
    • In the same way I say that an author had sometimes better be in the wrong and believe himself in the right, than be in the right and suspect himself to be in the wrong.
  • I am afraid of giving you too much trouble in asking you to read my book over and mark all the corrections you want me to make on a sheet of paper and send it to me.
    • However, if you could take this trouble, you would oblige me greatly.
  • I know how much I shall be benefitted.
    • At the same time, I shall preserve the pretious right of private judgment, for the sake of which our forefathers kicked out the Pope and the Pretender.
  • I believe you to be much more infallible than the Pope.
    • But as I am a Protestant, my conscience makes me scruple to submit to any unscriptural authority.


  • Apropos to the Pope and the Pretender, have you read Hook’s Memoirs?[118]
  • I have been ill these 10 days.
    • Otherwise, I should have written to you sooner.
    • But I sat up the day before yesterday in my bed and read them through with infinite satisfaction, though they are by no [Pg 150]means well written.
  • The substance of what is in them I knew before, though not in such detail.
    • I am afraid they are published at an unlucky time, and may throw a damp upon our militia.
  • However, nothing appears to me more excusable than the disaffection of Scotland at that time.
    • The Union was a measure from which infinite good has been derived to this country.
  • However, the Prospect of that good must then have appeared very remote and very uncertain.
    • Its immediate effect was to hurt the interest of everyone in the country.
    • The dignity of the nobility was undone by it.
    • The greater part of the gentry who had been accustomed to represent their own country in its own Parliament were cut out for ever from all hopes of representing it in a British Parliament.
    • Even the merchants seemed to suffer at first.
      • The trade to the Plantations was opened to them.
      • But that was a trade which they knew nothing about.
      • The trade that they knew, that to France, Holland, and the Baltic, was laid under new embarrassments.
        • They almost totally annihilated the two first and most important branches of it.
      • The Clergy, too, who were then far from insignificant, were alarmed about the Church.
      • No wonder if at that time all orders of men conspired in cursing a measure so hurtful to their immediate interest.
  • The views of their Posterity are now very different.
    • But those views could be seen by but few of our forefathers, by those few in but a confused and imperfect manner.


  • It will give me the greatest satisfaction to hear from you.
    • I pray you write to me soon.
  • Remember me to the Franklins.
    • I hope I shall have the grace to write to the youngest by next post to thank him, in the name both of the College and of myself, for his very agreeable present.
  • Remember me likewise to Mr. Griffiths.
    • I am greatly obliged to him for the very handsome character he gave of my book in his review.—
  • I ever am, dear Strahan, most faithfully and sincerely yours,

Adam Smith.

April 4, 1760.[119]


  • The Franklins in this letter are Benjamin Franklin and his son.
    • They spent six weeks in Scotland in the spring of the previous year.
    • Franklin says “six weeks of the densest happiness I have met with in any part of my life.”
  • We know from Dr. Carlyle that during this visit, Franklin met Smith one evening at supper at[Pg 151] Robertson’s in Edinburgh.
    • But it seems from this letter highly probable that he had gone through to Glasgow, and possibly stayed with Smith at the College.
  • Why otherwise should the younger, or, as Smith says, youngest, Franklin have thought of making a presentation to Glasgow College, or Smith of thanking him not merely in the name of the College, but in his own?
  • Strahan was one of Franklin’s most intimate private friends.
    • They took a pride in one another as old compositors who had risen in the world.
  • Smith had no doubt heard of, and perhaps from, the Franklins in some of Strahan’s previous letters.
  • The Mr. Griffiths in this letter was the editor of the Monthly Review, in which a favourable notice of his book had appeared in the preceding July.



[107] Burton thinks with great probability that this junction of names was meant as a sarcasm on Lord Lyttelton’s taste.

[108] Burton’s Life of Hume, ii. 55.

[109] Edmund Burke.

[110] Soame Jenyns.

[111] Afterwards the Earl of Shelburne, the statesman.

[112] Probably Charles Yorke, afterwards Lord Chancellor Morden.

[113] Burton’s Hume, ii. 59.

[114]Annual Register, 1776, p. 485.

[115] Mackintosh, Miscellaneous Works, i. 151.

[116]Buccleuch MSS., Dalkeith Palace.

[117] Mr. Campbell was the Duke’s law-agent.

[118]The Secret History of Colonel Hooke’s Negotiations in Scotland in Favour of the Pretender in 1707, written by himself. London, 1760.

[119] Bonar’s Catalogue of Adam Smith’s Library, p. x.

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