Adam Smith Suggests You Read a Romance Novel (And Have a Laugh At Yourself)

theory of moral sentiments love literature valentine's day smith and literature romance romance novel literary analysis humor

Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

Smith answers in advance a certain criticism that people often start leveling at him around Valentine’s Day: that he thinks love is “ridiculous.” Nope. No more than he finds studies or professions ridiculous. It’s just that they don’t and can’t have the same value to everyone. If they did, the whole world would be in love with one thing or person.
My husband and I have a tradition of picnicking on Valentine’s Day. It started when we lived in a much warmer climate than we do now, so now that we’re in the mountains of New Mexico, it’s an indoor picnic, often on a blanket in the living room. The important thing is the isolation: we do not want to be around other couples making out (or breaking up) in a crowded public place. Because, well, yuck.
 
I’ve always justified this disgust using The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where Adam Smith says that love is among those passions which—although a natural part of life—are “but little sympathized with.” The problem for Smith is that we can’t really put ourselves in the place of the lover. Love is naturally exclusive and baffling. Unlike feeling sorry for our friend when he’s suffering (where we might undertake the process of imaginatively exchanging places with him and determining that his feelings are appropriate to the thing that’s occasioning them), if we did this for the person he loved…well, we’d be in love, too. As Smith puts it, the nature of love entails that “the passion appears to every body, but the man who feels it, entirely disproportioned to the value of the object.” 
 
As is often the case with Smith, what starts in moral philosophy ends in literary analysis. There are a few ways to make love palatable, and both of them involve transforming it into a story. We get bored with Petrarch and Cowley, two famous poets who obsessively anatomized their love for unobtainable women, but “the gaiety of Ovid, and the gallantry of Horace, are always agreeable.” One way to keep company with others even when you’re obsessively in love is to make fun of your excesses, to indicate to your friends that you know that they really can’t understand your passion. For the same reason, Smith says, we maintain a “certain reserve” when we talk to our friends about other things we love, like our studies or professions. It’s important to note here, though, that in analogizing love to the studies or professions, Smith answers in advance a certain criticism that people often start leveling at him around Valentine’s Day: that he thinks love is “ridiculous.” Nope. No more than he finds studies or professions ridiculous. It’s just that they don’t and can’t have the same value to everyone. If they did, the whole world would be in love with one thing or person.
 
The other way to make love palatable to the non-lover is to put all sorts of obstacles in its way. Vex a few lovers, and their predicament becomes less about Romeo and Juliet swooning over each other and more about their expectations of happiness. “The happy passion,” Smith says, “interests us much less than the fearful and melancholy.” We understand on some level the goal of the lovers to get to their moment of bliss—especially if we have ever been in love before and remember our agonies—but the bliss is far less interesting than all of the swordfights that ensue along the way. And the more our imaginations can enter into the distress of lovers, the better. Smith uses Racine’s tragedy Phaedra as his example. Far from being repelled by the “extravagance and guilt” which accompany Phaedra’s forbidden love for her stepson, Hippolyte, we gobble it up. “Her fear, her shame, her remorse, her horror, her despair,” are all naturally interesting to us. They are “secondary passions” to love, and become meaningful through love. We understand that love motivates them. But the love itself doesn’t make sense: we’re not in love with Hippolyte. It’s only the extremes that it leads the lover to that we can understand.
 
I’m not sure I’d go as far as Smith does. Perhaps because I’ve been totally able to enter into sympathy with Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings since Mr. Darcy emerged from that lake in the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? But if I knew them in real life, I’d probably get tired of all of the amorous glances and shy smiles. Maybe that’s why the story ends exactly when it needs to: all obstacles of both pride and prejudice overcome, they ride off happily into the sunset.

Want to Read More?

Janet Bufton's What Would Adam Smith Say About Love on Valentine's Day? | Adam Smith Works
Renee Wilmeth's Adam Smith and Jane Austen | Adam Smith Works
The Counterpoint: Adam Smith on the ridiculousness of romantic love (1759) | Online Library of Liberty (libertyfund.org)
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