A Brief History of the Editions of TMS: Part 2

sympathy theory of moral sentiments impartial spectator self-command conscience theology atonement natural religion

Erik W. Matson for AdamSmithWorks

If we confine ourselves to the editions of TMS we see Smith, in the first edition, set out largely on a project of moral anatomy. He lays out a novel account of moral judgment through sympathy. But he came gradually to blend his anatomy with painting, to fuse science with art.

December 4, 2020
Read Part 1 here.

The sixth and final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments underwent significant changes. Smith first wrote of his design to prepare a final edition to his London publisher, Thomas Cadell, in 1788. Smith took a four month leave from his duties at the Custom House in Edinburgh to start in on revisions. Speaking of his leave, he tells Cadell that his subject “is the theory of moral Sentiments to all parts of which I am making many additions and corrections. The chief and the most important additions will be to the third part, that concerning the sense of Duty and to the last part concerning the History of moral Philosophy” (Corr. 276, 310-311).
In 1789 Smith wrote again to Cadell, reiterating that he has “been labouring very hard in preparing the proposed new edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments” (Corr. 287, 319). He announced yet more ambitious revisions to the work than he anticipated: “Besides the Addition and improvements I mentioned to you; I have inserted, immediately after the fifth part, a compleat new sixth part containing a practical system of Morality, under the title of the Character of Virtue” (ibid, 320). He tells Cadell in the same letter that “the subject [of practical morality] has grown on me” (ibid).
When the final edition appeared in print in May 1790, it included an “Advertisement” written by Smith describing some of the changes to the work:
SINCE the first publication of the THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS, which was so long ago as the beginning of the year 1759, several corrections, and a good many illustrations of the doctrines contained in it, have occurred to me. But the various occupations in which the different accidents of my life necessarily involved me, have till now prevented me from revising this work with the care and attention which I always intended. The reader will find the principal alterations which I have made in this New Edition, in the last Chapter of the third Section of Part First; and in the four first Chapters of Part Third. Part Sixth, as it stands in this New Edition, is altogether new. In Part Seventh, I have brought together the great part of the different passages concerning the Stoical Philosophy, which, in the former Editions, had been scattered about in different parts of the work. I have likewise endeavoured to explain more fully, and examine more distinctly, some of the doctrines of that famous sect. In the fourth and last Section of the same Part, I have thrown together a few additional observations concerning the duty and principle of veracity. There are, besides, in other parts of the work, a few other alterations and corrections of no great moment. (Smith 1982,3)

Among the alterations and corrections “of no great moment” are several conspicuous alterations of orthodox theological language and ideas. Those alterations dovetail with some of the shifts in tone in edition 3. That Smith makes no mention of these alterations is not particularly surprising given the religious climate of the day. But the changes did not go unnoticed by his contemporary readers.

The changes to edition 6 can usefully be grouped into five interrelating categories: (1) conscience and the impartial spectator; (2) theology; (3) moral corruption; (4) Part VI, “Of the Character of Virtue”; (5) self-command (cf. Raphael 1992, 103).
The changes concerning conscience and the impartial spectator may be seen as a continuation of Smith’s engagement with Gilbert Elliot’s criticism of the first edition. Smith strives to retain his social account of moral formation without sacrificing a socially transcendent conception of virtue. To maintain both he introduces, albeit implicitly, a spectrum of impartial spectators with different degrees of wisdom and virtue. There is a kind of spectator that is “impartial” because he is not materially involved in the situation at hand. He is a seemingly well-intended stranger watching a fight break out at a sporting event, a neighbor watching you bicker with your spouse on an evening walk. This kind of impartial spectator can be understood simply as a representative member of our population. Of course, a representative of our population will have his biases. He won’t have the acumen to usefully spectate and judge a situation on the other side of the world in a foreign country. But we naturally imagine higher sorts of impartial spectators who are wiser and more virtuous with respect to larger social wholes. At the limit of the moral imagination resides an elusive, highest impartial spectator, a God-like figure with superhuman knowledge and benevolence towards the whole of humankind. In a theological reading of Smith, the highest impartial spectator is God himself.1
Smith’s polysemous use of “impartial spectator,” especially in edition 6, provides his final response to Elliot. Our conception of virtue is made from social influences. But through reflection and interaction with moral exemplars—living or dead, real or imaginary—we can sketch a sense of the character of the highest impartial spectator. Our conviction of the sentiments and desire for the approval of that spectator, or his/her representative, can sustain us against the clamor of the crowd.
Smith implicitly draws out the point about different sorts of spectators in a new set of passages at III.2.31-32. He begins by noting, “man has … been rendered the immediate judge of mankind.” This is the lowest kind of impartial spectator, a representative community member. But “an appeal lies from [the sentence of man] to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast.” This supposed impartial spectator is “partly immortal, yet partly too of mortal extraction.” The highest impartial spectator is akin to God, “the all-seeing Judge of the world, whose eye can never be deceived, and whose judgment can never be perverted” (III.2.33). It is toward this highest impartial spectator that our consciences strive. Smith draws out the relation between conscience and the highest impartial spectator clearly in the new Part VI, speaking of “the entire approbation of the impartial spectator, and of the representative of the impartial spectator, the man within the breast [i.e. conscience]” (VI.i.11).
A surprising number of the overtly theological elements and passages are revised in edition 6. By far the most conspicuous change is the removal of a long passage on the doctrine of atonement. That passage was perhaps the only passage in the book touching on doctrines of revealed as opposed to natural religion. The long original passage ends with a declaration that “the doctrines of revelation coincide, in every respect with those original anticipations of nature; … they show us … that the most powerful intercession has been made, and that the most dreadful atonement has been paid for our manifold transgressions and iniquities.” (II.ii.3.12). In edition 6 Smith replaces that sentence and the preceding paragraphs with one short sentence: “In every religion, and in every superstition that the world has ever beheld, accordingly, there has been a Tartus as well as an Elysium; a place provided for the punishment of the wicked, as well as one for the reward of the just” (II.ii.3.12).
Smith adds a takedown of what David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, called the “monkish virtues,” notably humility and self-mortification. Affirming the beauty of the doctrine of a world to come, Smith rejects the notion that that doctrine ought to lead us to withdraw from the present world. More specifically, he rejects the idea that withdrawal and contemplation ought to be considered virtuous.
To compare … the futile mortifications of a monastery, to the ennobling hardships and hazards of war; to suppose that one day, or one hour, employed in the former should, in the eye of the great Judge of the world, have more merit than a whole life spent honourably in the latter, is surely contrary to all our moral sentiments; to all the principles by which nature has taught us to regulate our contempt or admiration. (III.2.35)

Gavin Kennedy (2011) reads the theological changes in edition 6 as showing that Smith was at heart something of a Humean agnostic. Smith, according to Kennedy, kept his beliefs private in order to avoid controversy and appease his pious mother, who passed away only a few years before Smith. The Archbishop of Dublin, William Magee, perceived Hume’s influence in edition 6. He wrote of Smith’s removal of the atonement passage as “one proof more … of the danger, even to the most enlightened, from the familiar contact with infidelity” (quoted in Rasmussen 2017, 234).
In passing it is worth noting a subtle tension between the decrease in overt theology in edition 6 and the reformulation of the impartial spectator. Smith appears to become more of a skeptic, or at least a bit less orthodox in this theology. But at the same time his conception of the impartial spectator takes on a more theological cast. In an effort to distinguish between the judgments of the crowd and true virtue, Smith leans into a unique fusion of eighteenth-century sociability and Protestant theology (Forman-Barzilai 2010, 93). Dickey (1986) writes of Smith employing a “coy theology” in edition 6 (605).

Part VI treats the moral and social pitfalls of wealth and power. These pitfalls multiply in a commercial society, where distinctions of wealth and status become more pronounced and dynamic. The reason for Smith’s emphasis on such topics in edition 6 is likely in part a product of his focus on wealth and politics later in life—a focus which led to the publication of the Wealth of Nations—and in part a reaction to social and economic trends of the time. The late eighteenth-century saw spikes in economic growth which led to expanding urbanization and luxury. In England laborers’ wages “increased gradually for much of the century, especially between 1760 and 1790 … craftsmen’s wages … increased dramatically everywhere” (Garbo 2016, 47). Higher wages afforded comforts and embellishments—coffee, tobacco, quality linen garments, and so forth. “Between the first and last edition of TMS, England and Scotland experienced … the very first consumer revolution” (ibid., 42). Perhaps his observation of the consumer dimension of commercialization spurred Smith to attempt to counter what he saw as the corrupting effects of acquisitiveness, effects he had made note of from the first edition of TMS (e.g. IV.i.8).
Smith added a new chapter to Part I, “Of the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by this disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition.” The theme of the chapter is that there are two different roads to the respect and status that we naturally desire: One is the road taken by those “of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity; the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice” (I.iii.3.2). The latter is a lonely road. The tragedy is that changes in status and fortune don’t really contribute to our well-being, at least not in an enduring way. Smith flags the issue, perhaps in an attempt to contribute to the moral education of his contemporary readers, landed gentry and aspiring bourgeois.
In edition 1, Smith states that there are two central questions involved in treating morality. “First, wherein does virtue consist?” “And, secondly, by what power or faculty in the mind is it, that this character … is recommended to us?” (VII.i.2). The first five editions appear, at least on their surface, to dwell on the second question (although Smith strangely says at VII.iii.intro.3 that the second question is “a mere matter of philosophical curiosity”). The addition of Part VI to edition 6 may be seen as Smith’s attempt to answer the first and ostensibly more important question. Recall that in his letter to Thomas Cadell, Smith describes Part VI as “containing a practical system of Morality, under the title of the Character of Virtue” (Corr. 287, 320).

What can we say about Smith’s “practical system of Morality”? Hanley (2009) describes it as Smith’s contribution to virtue ethics, wherein he lays out his understanding of the path to self-actualization and fulfillment through the practice of prudence, justice, and beneficence, mediated by the virtue of self-command. Part VI emphasizes a higher set of virtues—superior prudence, universal benevolence, the standard of perfection, etc.—as something towards which we can aspire. Smith intimates that it is in the aspiration towards perfect virtue, in the pursuit of the better, that our well-being lies (Garbo 2016; Dickey 1986).
Part VI is Smith’s comprehensive response to moral corruption and the pitfalls of commercialization. On such a reading, Part VI may be seen as a guidebook to virtue in the age of commerce. In the context of the work as a whole, Part VI presents a view of the pursuit of wealth as a contributory element to public happiness, but as underdetermining and sometimes distracting from individual well-being. Wealth may “keep off the summer shower,” but it leaves us exposed to “anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow.” It doesn’t solve life’s problems (IV.i.8). At the same time, however, the individual pursuit of wealth “rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind” leading to “cities and commonwealths … the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life” (IV.i.10). A prudent pursuit of wealth, as elaborated in TMS VI.i, captures the benefits and avoids the personal pitfalls of commercial pursuit (Matson 2020).

Related to the practical virtue ethics of Part VI, along with the emphasis on different conceptions of the impartial spectator, is Smith’s expanded formulation of self-command. In edition 1, self-command is a more unidimensional virtue. It is the virtue of abstaining from present pleasures in favor of greater future rewards. In edition 6, however, Smith introduces “different shades and gradations of weakness and self-command” (III.3.20). Smith speaks of three general types, corresponding to the three kinds of spectators at III.2.31-32: a person of no self-command, a person of “a little more firmness,” and “the man of real constancy and firmness … who has been thoroughly bred in the great school of self-command” (III.3.25). The man of real constancy and firmness is something of an ideal type. He unfailingly seeks the approval of the impartial spectator, “almost becom[ing] himself that impartial spectator, and scarce even feels but as that great arbiter of his conduct directs him to feel” (III.3.26). The road to wisdom and virtue, the road to well-being and self-actualization, lies in the cultivation of such self-command (Garbo 2016, 49).
The shifting formulations of self-command relate to Smith’s expanded treatment of the Stoics in Part VII of edition 6 in which he brings together and adds to material from previous editions. Like many of the Scots, Smith draws from Stoic streams of thought. He accepts parts of Stoic ideas of oikeiosis, a theory of human development. He takes on aspects of the Stoic argument of design. He accepts at least a modified account of the Stoic virtue of self-command. But he criticizes the Stoics on a number of grounds. He dissents from Stoic cosmopolitanism, asserting that it requires a super-human and morally reprehensible suppressing of humane emotions. He asserts, in Part VII, that suicide, paradoxically for the Stoics, shows a lack of self-command and is unnatural (VII.ii.i.34).2

Notwithstanding his skepticism concerning some of the individual benefits of wealth-seeking, Part VI contains a number of powerful, albeit implicit, arguments for liberal commercial society. Some of these insights revolve around issues of knowledge. Drawing on the Stoic account of oikeiosis, Smith argues that the effectiveness of our efforts at beneficence depends on knowledge and familiarity. Love is a matter of habitual sympathy. Habitual sympathy means practicing entering into the situations and sentiments of others. The contextual knowledge of individual situations enables us to beneficially intervene. But that contextual knowledge decreases with social space. We have great knowledge of our family and friends, some knowledge of our community, less of our country, and even less of humanity at large. Our ability to serve the good is usually limited to our local spheres. “The interest of the great society of mankind [is] best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it, which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding” (VI.ii.2.4).
Such insights, combined with his shrewd assessment of politics, feeds into Smith’s powerful indictment in edition 6 of what F.A. Hayek would later call the pretense of knowledge:
The man of system, on the contrary, 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 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 the chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. (VI.ii.2.18)

Some downplay the importance of the changes in editions of TMS. Speaking of edition 6, Dwyer (2005) writes of “Smith’s tortuous, and occasionally convoluted revision” (679). Viner (1927) comments on Smith’s fitness and the coherence of his thought: “When Smith revised his Theory of Moral Sentiments [for the sixth edition] he was elderly and unwell. It is not altogether unreasonable to suppose that he had lost the capacity to make drastic changes in his philosophy, but had retained his capacity to overlook the absence of complete co-ordination and unity in that philosophy” (217). Others see an incongruity in the editions. Dickey (1986) even complicates the traditional Adam Smith problem by asserting three conflicting centers of Smith’s thought: TMS edition 1, The Wealth of Nations (WN), and TMS edition 6.
There surely are important differences between the editions of TMS and between TMS and WN. But those differences do not, I think, evince intellectual dissonance. Rather, they show Smith moving back and forth between—and ultimately blending—different modes of thought. To use Hume’s language, Smith wears the hats of both a painter and an anatomist. If we confine ourselves to the editions of TMS we see Smith, in the first edition, set out largely on a project of moral anatomy. He lays out a novel account of moral judgment through sympathy. But he came gradually to blend his anatomy with painting, to fuse science with art. His contemporary Scotsman George Campbell wrote in 1776 that “all art is founded on science and science is of little value which does not serve as the foundation to some beneficial art” (quoted in Lehmann 1971, 162). Smith surely shared the sentiment. In response to his understanding of the world around him, coupled with his assessment of the great promises and potential shortcomings of a liberal commercial society, Smith turned more in the later editions of TMS towards moral painting—just as he turned in the Wealth of Nations from what we now might call economic modelling to political economy, the science of the legislator. What we see, then, as we study the editions of TMS is the conscious effort of a great mind to bring philosophy to bear on human happiness, to understand the causes and consequences of our judgments, and to seek to improve them through a program of moral education.

Dickey, Laurence. 1986. “Historicizing the ‘Adam Smith Problem’: Conceptual, Historiographical, and Textual Issues.” The Journal of Modern History 58 (3): 579–609.

Dwyer, John. 2005. “Ethics and Economics: Bridging Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.” Journal of British Studies 44: 662–87.

Forman-Barzilai, Fonna. 2010. Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy: Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garbo, Lorenzo. 2016. “Adam Smith’s Last Teachings: Dialectical Wisdom.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 38 (1): 41–54.

Hanley, Ryan Patrick. 2009. Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kennedy, Gavin. 2011. “The Hidden Adam Smith in His Alleged Theology.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 33 (3): 385–402.

Klein, Daniel B. 2012. Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Klein, Daniel B., Erik W. Matson, and Colin Doran. 2018. “The Man Within the Breast, the Supreme Impartial Spectator, and Other Impartial Spectators in Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments.’” History of European Ideas 44 (8): 1153–68.

Lehmann, William C. 1971. Henry Home, Lord Kames, and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Study in National Character and in the History of Ideas. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Levy, David M., and Sandra J. Peart. 2008. “Adam Smith and His Sources: The Evil of Independence.” The Adam Smith Review 4: 57–87.

Matson, Erik W. 2020. “A Dialectical Reading of Adam Smith on Wealth and Happiness.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3266115.

Montes, Leonidas. 2008. “Adam Smith as an Eclectic Stoic.” The Adam Smith Review 4: 30–56.

Otteson, James. 2002. “Adam Smith’s First Market: The Development of Language.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 19 (1): 65–86.

Phillipson, Nicholas. 2000. “Language, Sociability, and History: Some Reflections on the Foundations of Adam Smith’s Science of Man.” In Economy, Polity, and Society: British Intellectual History, 1750-1950, edited by Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore, and Brian Young. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Polanyi, Michael. 1959. The Study of Man. Abingdon: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.Raphael, D.D. 1992. “Adam Smith 1790: The Man Recalled; the Philosopher Revived.” In Adam Smith Reviewed, edited by Peter Jones and Andrew S. Skinner, 93–118. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.———. 2010.

“The Virtues of TMS 1759.” The Adam Smith Review 5: 15–24.

Raphael, D.D., and A.L. Macfie. 1982. “Introduction.” In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith, edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Rasmussen, Dennis C. 2017. The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1982. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.———. 1983.

Lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres. Edited by J.C. Bryce. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.———. 1987.

The Correspondence of Adam Smith. Edited by Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Stewart, Dugald. 1982. “Account of Adam Smith.” In Essays on Philosophical Subjects, by Adam Smith, edited by W.P.D. Wightman and J.C. Bryce. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Viner, Jacob. 1927. “Adam Smith and Laissez Faire.” Journal of Political Economy 35 (2): 198–232.Vivenza, Gloria. 2001. Adam Smith and the Classics: The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith’s Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

  1. This paragraph draws from Klein, Matson, and Doran (2018, 1156–60).
  2. For further analyses of Smith and the Stoics see Vivenza (2001); Montes (2008), Levy and Peart (2008), and Forman-Barzilai (2010).