The Importance of Self-Command

Leonidas Montes

May 5, 2021
The significance of self-command, as a key virtue in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), has been rather neglected. In this short essay, it will be argued that the chief virtue of self-command is important, its meaning original, and its sense, philosophically attractive.
The father of economics dedicated the last years of his life to TMS. Almost one-third of the final and definitive TMS corresponds to Smith’s mature work. For the last and definite edition of TMS, published in 1790, he completely added a new Part VI on virtues and a big new chunk on Part III, stressing the importance of self-command. If this virtue appears 52 times in TMS, over 70% of its appearances correspond to the final additions to TMS (21 times in new paragraphs added to Part III, and 16 times in new Part VI). Adam Smith ruminated on and thought over this virtue.
Self-command was an original and innovative virtue. In fact, the word ‘self-command’ was rarely employed in the eighteenth-century moral discourse. For example, it does not appear in David Hume’s Treatise or his Essays, and it appears only three times in his Enquiries.2 The use of self-control and self-restraint in the neo-Stoic tradition of simple control of passions was much more common.
Throughout TMS, the real meaning of self-command is diverse and complex. In the first appearance of self-command, Smith praises “what noble propriety and grace do we feel in the conduct of those who, in their own case, exert that recollection and self-command which constitute the dignity of every passion, and which bring it down to what others can enter into!” (TMS I.i.5.3, p. 24). This crucial virtue helps the agent to reach the pitch for the concordance of sentiments necessary for mutual sympathy. It plays a role within the sympathetic process. This would be its canonical interpretation.
But self-command had different meanings for Adam Smith. In the former sense, it appears related to control of passions. Smith immediately writes that “we reverence that reserved, that silent and majestic sorrow, which discovers itself only in the swelling of the eyes … that concerted tranquility, which it requires so great an effort to support” (TMS I.i.5.3, p. 24). It is “the awful and respectable, in that degree of self-command which astonishes by its amazing superiority over the most ungovernable passions of human nature.” (TMS I.i.5.6, p. 25), resembling the Epicurean ataraxia, or tranquility of mind that governs the passions of our nature.
For the final edition of TMS, Smith considers “the great school of self-command” in which a young child studies how “to be more and more masters of itself” (TMS III.3.22, p. 145). And it also has a strong sense of classical “manliness” (resembling the Greco-Roman concept of virtus, and the classical republican virtù). It also relates to the cardinal virtue of fortitude as “the man of real constancy and firmness, the wise and just man who has been thoroughly bred in the great school of self-command… has often been under the necessity of supporting his manhood” (TMS III.3.25, p. 146). It is then connected to the martial virtues: “hardships, dangers, injuries, misfortunes, are the only masters under whom we can learn the exercise of this virtue [self-command]” (TMS III.3.37, p. 153). And Smith even refers to the “absolute” self-command of the American savages (TMS V.2.9, pp. 205-6), which implies a complete physical and psychological self-denial. In all these narratives self-command combines the Greco-Roman virtue of courage with the Christian cardinal virtue of fortitudo.
A first reading gives the impression that self-command is related to control of the passions, the cardinal virtue of temperance (temperantia for the Romans and sophrosúne for the Greeks) or even to the classical virtue of courage (fortitude and andreía, respectively). But following the editors of TMS, it has been commonly argued that self-command “is distinctively Stoic” (TMS intr., p. 6).
Although the influence of the Stoics on the Scottish Enlightenment is significant and undeniable, their importance for Adam Smith has been overestimated. The most common argument that has been given for considering self-command as essentially Stoic is, explicitly or implicitly, related to the widely discussed Stoical concept of apátheia. However, Smith plainly and bluntly rejected this notion (see TMS III.3.14, p. 143, also TMS VI.iii.18, p. 245 and TMS VII.ii.1.43, p. 292). Indeed, a closer analysis of the virtue of self-command shows that its meaning diverges and goes beyond the traditional Stoical interpretation.
The importance Smith attributes to the meaning of self-command as a moral basis for his other three main virtues is explicit. In Part VI of TMS, completely added for the last and final edition, Smith delves into his four main virtues (prudence, justice, self-command and beneficence). But more than half of this corresponds to a full section on self-command. In this section he explains how self-command gives moral excellence to prudence, justice, and beneficence:
To act according to the dictates of prudence, of justice, and proper beneficence, seems to have no great merit where there is no temptation to do otherwise. But to act with cool deliberation in the midst of the greatest dangers and difficulties; to observe religiously the sacred rules of justice in spite both of the greatest interests which might tempt, and the greatest injuries which might provoke us to violate them; never to suffer the benevolence of our temper to be damped or discouraged by the malignity and ingratitude of the individuals towards whom it may have been exercised; is the character of the most exalted wisdom and virtue. Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre. (TMS VI.iii.11, p. 241)

This “great virtue,” reinforced in the sixth and final edition of TMS, has a clear and simple etymological connection with the Socratic virtue of enkráteia. The actual etymological meaning of enkráteia confirms this very simple intuition. The Greek word eg-kráteia literally means ‘inner power’ or ‘power within oneself’, making self-command a literal translation of this Greek term.
However, enkráteia has its own intellectual tradition. For example, Xenophon, in his Memorabilia – a text widely read during the eighteenth century – portrays Socrates as referring to enkráteia as the ‘foundation of all virtues’ (X.Mem, I.v.4). Smith, who managed not only Latin but also Greek, follows this interpretation. Therefore, it is quite possible that Smith knew and thought further about the meaning and sense of enkráteia when he wrote about self-command, especially for the last edition of TMS.
The editors of TMS restrict the meaning of self-command to a combination of “[t]he Christian ethic of love with the Stoic ethic of self-command” (TMS I.i.51, p, 23-4, note 1). But if we accept that self-command also reflects the meaning of enkráteia, this Smithian key virtue is not necessarily a Stoic virtue. What really distinguishes Smith’s self-command from simple Stoic self-control is that ‘command’ gives this virtue a sense of direction. It is not a Stoical virtue focused on what not to do. In fact, self-command relates to a moral agent who knows what to do.
Aristotle, for example, refers to enkráteia not only as endurance of pain, but also as “victory over desire” (Ar.EN, VII 1150.a.32), and connects it with the cardinal virtue of temperance (sophrosúne). This idea of “victory” over passions implies that enkráteia has a sense of possession of oneself. But a sense of possession with direction. At this stage, it is worth recalling Smith’s famous passage of the young boy who “… thus enters into the school of self-command, it studies to be more and more master of itself” (TMS III.3.22, p. 145). There is a clear similarity with the meaning and sense of enkráteia.
As motives and effects are related and intertwined in TMS, Smith’s self-command also helps us to understand the morality behind free choice and consequences. In simple words, perhaps Adam Smith could not have fully approved of Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction or division between negative and positive liberty. For Adam Smith self-command adds value to those actions that emerge from proper motives. The significance of this interpretation of self-command as a kind of “enabling” virtue that allows us to do what is appropriate, is explicit in TMS last edition. In Part VI, completely added for the final edition of TMS, Smith delves into his four main virtues: prudence, justice, self-command, and beneficence. But the nature of self-command is different. The final two paragraphs of this Part, that represent Smith’s mature thought, are worth fully reproducing:
The virtues of prudence, justice, and beneficence, have no tendency to produce any but the most agreeable effects. Regard to those effects, as it originally recommends them to the actor, so does it afterwards to the impartial spectator. In our approbation of the character of the prudent man, we feel, with peculiar complacency, the security which he must enjoy while he walks under the safeguard of that sedate and deliberate virtue. In our approbation of the character of the just man, we feel, with equal complacency, the security which all those connected with him, whether in neighbourhood, society, or business, must derive from his scrupulous anxiety never either to hurt or offend. In our approbation of the character of the beneficent man, we enter into the gratitude of all those who are within the sphere of his good offices, and conceive with them the highest sense of his merit. In our approbation of all those virtues, our sense of their agreeable effects, of their utility, either to the person who exercises them, or to some other persons, joins with our sense of their propriety, and constitutes always a considerable, frequently the greater part of that approbation.But in our approbation of the virtues of self-command, complacency with their effects sometimes constitutes no part, and frequently but a small part, of that approbation. Those effects may sometimes be agreeable, and sometimes disagreeable; and though our approbation is no doubt stronger in the former case, it is by no means altogether destroyed in the latter. The most heroic valour may be employed indifferently in the cause either of justice or of injustice; and though it is no doubt much more loved and admired in the former case, it still appears a great and respectable quality even in the latter. In that, and in all the other virtues of self-command, the splendid and dazzling quality seems always to be the greatness and steadiness of the exertion, and the strong sense of propriety which is necessary in order to make and to maintain the exertion. The effects are too often but too little regarded. (TMS VI.concl.5 and 6, p. 264)

In relation to the virtues of prudence, justice, and beneficence, Smith speaks “of their agreeable effects, of their utility.” But the broader and different sense of self-command is linked to our moral conscience, to the inner experience of the supposed impartial spectator who can assess the propriety and praiseworthiness of our behavior before we can evaluate its consequences. Therefore, it is not surprising, as it has been already cited, that for Smith “self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre” (TMS VI.iii.11, p. 241).
According to this analysis, self-command is a distinctively Smithian virtue inspired by the Socratic virtue of enkráteia. And this virtue also embodies the Aristotelian tradition of sophrosúne that complements the more consequentialist nature of prudence, justice, and beneficence. If these three virtues have a proto-utilitarian nuance, self-command has a Kantian overtone and, through the cardinal virtue of sophrosúne, a clear Aristotelian background. It seems that Adam Smith, “the greatest eclectic”, knew well what to choose from the classic tradition when he developed and expanded the meaning and sense of self-command.
The philosophical implications are not inimical: self-command combines negative liberty with positive liberty, motivation and action, and intentions with consequences. If Adam Smith was not a forerunner of utilitarianism, he foresaw the importance of motivations, circumstances, and consequences. In sum, Adam Smith might represent, for the history of philosophy, a moderate middle road between utilitarianism and Kantianism that highlights liberty and autonomy. Traveling this road, human beings and society are the fundamental focus. Smith’s legacy, with its emphasis on virtue ethics, continues to show how humans might navigate this road in the company of their fellows.

  1. This paper relies on Montes, L. (2020). “The Relevance of Propriety and Self-command in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments”, Social Philosophy and Policy, 37(1), 118-137 and chapters 3 and 4 of “Adam Smith in Context” (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004). I will use TMS for “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and and WN for “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” and the standard Glasgow edition citation.
  2. See An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding E 7.19 and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals M 6.14 and M App 4.2. And it also appears a couple of times in his History of England in its vernacular neo-Stoic sense.

Related Links
Daniel Klein, Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin, in Liberty Matters at the OLL
Elaine Sternberg, Ethics in Aristotle and Adam Smith