Father's Day Advice from Adam Smith

sympathy theory of moral sentiments stoics moral sentiments stoicism father's day adaptative philosophy

Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

"[C]ultivating indifference to ourselves and those closest to us causes us not only to fail in our domestic roles in a way that displeases the spectator, but also to lose the ability to feel for the more distant strangers we might come into contact with as travel and technology shrink the world."
It’s almost Father’s Day 2022, which I can tell from the proliferation of spam emails reminding me to buy the paternal figures in my life golf clubs and leather goods. 
 
Of course, it’s easy to sneer at the slew of commemoration holidays in the spring and early summer as a way for American businesses to make money before Black Friday rolls around again, and to feel peeved at the suggestion that gratitude and affection should happen on a particular day in mid-June (and that it is best expressed through golf-related consumer goods). But to tamp down my annoyance at this aspect of modernity, I turn—as I often do—to Adam Smith and The Theory of Moral Sentiments
 
Smith’s most extended discussion of fathers and parents occurs in Book III, “Of the Sense of Duty.” Curiously, it’s a topic that he introduces by way of talking about all of the ways that we can forget that showing any partiality or preference for our own interests over those of others alienates the impartial spectator. To find examples of historical philosophies that were expert at training our insensibility to our own petty concerns, Smith reaches back to the Roman Empire and the Stoics
 
The Stoics were a sect of philosophers who rose to prominence in the period of the late Republic and early Empire. These were turbulent times, and perhaps for that reason, their philosophy centered on self-abnegation and maintaining a sense of inner calm and honor in the face of political, social, and personal adversity. The most famous of the Stoics was Epictetus, who was born a slave in Roman Greece. Epictetus urged us to think about what was in our control and what was out of it, and not worry at all about the things that were outside of it. 
 
Smith clearly has some admiration for this philosophy, probably because it does tutor us to maintain a dignity in the face of suffering that appeals to the impartial spectator. However, he also has serious reservations, and these coalesce around the relationship between parents and children. He (mis)quotes Epictetus’ Enchiridion (a Greek word that means “handbook”) to this effect:
 
“When our neighbor…loses his wife, or his son, there is nobody who is not sensible that this is a human calamity, a natural event altogether according to the ordinary course of things; but, when the same thing happens to ourselves, then we cry out, as if we had suffered the most dreadful misfortune. We ought, however, to remember how we were affected when this accident happened to another, and such as we were in the case, such ought we to be in our own.”
 
In this case, however, Smith’s misquoting serves to soften Epictetus. My translation of the Enchiridion puts it this way: “Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something,’ only ‘I returned it. Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned.” (For another of Adam Smith’s quotation mistakes that can teach us something about him, you can see Sarah Skwire’s Adam Smith’s Slips and the End of Othello)
 
In fact, the Stoics had a bit of an obsession with maintaining their apparent indifference in the face of losing children. A historical exemplar that they cited frequently as the pinnacle of virtue—and one with which Smith was undoubtedly familiar—was Titus Manlius Torquatus, a politician of the early Roman republic whose beloved sons tried to re-institute a monarchy. Torquatus had them banished, and, as was the custom, they committed suicide to preserve the family’s honor. Notoriously, Torquatus showed indifference to their funeral processions as they passed by his house. Smith summarizes the Stoics as exemplifying the philosophy that 
 
“man…ought to regard himself, not as something separate and detached, but as a citizen of the world, a member of the vast commonwealth of nature. To the interest of this great community, he ought at all times to be willing that his own little interest should be sacrificed.”
 
But Smith’s approbation for the generalities of this wisdom begins to fail when it comes to the relationship between members of a family, and between parents and children in particular. Despite the impartial spectator’s approval of forgetting our petty interests under most circumstances, when it comes to family, “the stoical apathy” is “never agreeable.” 
 
To Epictetus’ suggestion that we should imagine ourselves strangers when considering the deaths of our children, Smith makes a characteristic move. Although perfect propriety might not condone our emotional distress,
 
“the man who should feel no more for the death or distress of his own father, or son, than for those of any other man’s father or son, would appear neither a good son nor a good father. Such natural indifference, far from exciting our applause, would incur our highest disapprobation.”
 
In other words, real propriety—the sort of thing that actual spectators might approve of—somehow involves a neglect of perfect propriety when it comes to the loss of a father or son (or, one assumes, any immediate family member). 
 
Why is this? Smith finds an answer in an odd place: his idea that fathers (and parents) have a more natural propensity to care for their children than their children have to care for their parents. “Nature, for the wisest of purposes, has rendered, in most men, perhaps in all men, parental tenderness a much stronger affection than filial piety.” Human children, born small, defenseless, and rather grub-like, rely on the tenderness and affection of their parents to get them through these earlier vulnerable stages, and raise them to maturity and self-sufficiency. And this is why that same capital-N Nature makes it necessary that moralists teach parents how to “restrain” their fondness for their children: the very survival of the species has caused them to feel it in abundance already.
 
Children, on the other hand, must be explicitly taught to raise their level of respect, admiration, and love for their parents. This is why, according to Smith, the Ten Commandments have to contain a specific rule about honoring mothers and fathers, but don’t contain a similar exhortation to parents to love their children. Children are indeed “sometimes…suspected of displaying their piety to their parents with too much ostentation.” (So, in other words, don’t buy too many golf clubs for your dad this year.)
 
This discussion of parents, children, and the approbation of spectators is more generally a part of Smith’s pro-modernity agenda. Instead of looking to ancient philosophy—which he thinks belongs to more politically unsettled times—we need to think about the world that we currently inhabit and the opportunities it gives us to feel sympathy and exhibit “extraordinary sensibility” towards our fellow human creatures. Adversity encourages and makes Stoicism adaptive, but it ceases to make sense for Smith in relatively prosperous and stable times. Indeed, cultivating indifference to ourselves and those closest to us causes us not only to fail in our domestic roles in a way that displeases the spectator, but also to lose the ability to feel for the more distant strangers we might come into contact with as travel and technology shrink the world.
 
So, go ahead and celebrate Dad this Sunday with a clear moral conscience and a sense of the benefits of modernity, as well as its occasional drawbacks. Smith concludes this section on parents and children with the thought that if you really want to learn about how to conduct yourself in the modern world, you should read “the poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections.” Instead of golf clubs, then, maybe buy Dad a novel (Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was a favorite of Adam Smith). And pick one up for yourself, while you’re at it.
 
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