Even Homer Nods: My Line-edits to The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks
"Even Homer nods. That is, even the wisest and most perspicacious authors make mistakes." In this post, Klein unpacks some of Smith's.
In Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing, Arthur Melzer says we should bring a certain disposition to the text of a great author. We should begin with an assumption that the author “is…correct in all the major aspects of his thinking and also in perfect control of all the major aspects of his writing” (p. 296). The assumption is provisional only, but the more seriously we take an author, the more we resist rejecting the assumption. In reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), I resist finding flaws. However, even Homer nods. That is, even the wisest and most perspicacious authors make mistakes.
It is proper to suspect the hero-worshipper of putting his hero on a pedestal and reasoning away problems and failings. In presenting himself as exegete—one who expounds on what is in the text—the hero-worshipper is accused of being an eisegete—one who sees things in the text that aren’t there.
The very phrase “hero-worshipper” implies overdoing it. One should not be a hero-worshipper. On the other hand, one should not be too afraid of being accused of being a hero-worshipper.
Were the Adam Smith of January 1790 able, transtemporally, to access me now in 2021 for feedback on TMS before finalizing the work, and were I able to return local line-edits, there are a few I would suggest, enumerated below. As these matters presuppose textual intensity on the part of the reader, I here present the suggested changes with minimal explanation, leaving it to the reader to explore their merits.
Some moments in TMS have prompted conjectures of Smith partaking in esoteric writing; some are listed here. I am sufficiently open to seeing the TMS items listed there as ironic or sly to refrain from suggesting that Smith revise any of them.
I have not thought much about changes beyond local line-edits, such as changes in arrangement and terminology. Sometimes—but only sometimes—I feel that Smith was too subtle and should have spoon-fed more. It seems thus far that he may have overestimated posterity.
The citation 27.1 means page 27, paragraph 1 of the OUP/Liberty Fund edition of TMS.
Item 1.The first line-edit concerns Smith’s presentation of propriety in connection with the word mediocrity (27.1-2), a word that I think is best reserved (in Smith’s moral theory) to signifying the praiseworthy region within a vice/virtue/vice frame (such as cowardice/courage/presumptuous rashness, 270-1.12). At minimum, I would propose that Smith change, “This mediocrity, however, in which the point of propriety consists, is different in different passions” (27.2) to: “This mediocrity, however, which is bound on every side by a point of propriety, is different for different passions.” In conjunction with this change, I would suggest that at 243.14, Smith change “the point of propriety” to something like “the point of perfect propriety.” As this change is something that I have explained elsewhere, I shall not repeat my explanation of it.
I am inclined to regard the unclarity of Item 1 as a “Homer nods” moment. The snarl does not give me much pause about how I interpret Smith on propriety and virtue, nor am I much puzzled that such an unclarity could have occurred and persisted. Item 2, however, is the one moment in TMS that continues to disturb me.
Item 2. When Smith distinguishes between virtues having loose, vague, and indeterminate rules and the virtue that has precise and accurate rules, he says something about the latter that I find very peculiar: “The rules of [commutative] justice are accurate in the highest degree, and admit of no exceptions or modifications but such as may be ascertained as accurately as the rules themselves, and which generally, indeed, flow from the very same principles with them” (175.10). Smith’s remark about “exceptions and modifications” is the part that troubles me. He does not provide an illustration of any such exception or modification, so there is not much for us to go on.
The basic precept of commutative justice is to abstain from what is another’s, or not mess with other people’s stuff. I understand why he would suggest that the rules of that precept are much more precise and accurate than the rules of other virtues. And I understand why, in rare cases of emergency and so on (I’m thinking of equal-equal jural relations, as, I think, Smith is at this point in the text), one should violate the precept—that is, why one should mess with someone else’s stuff. Furthermore, I understand why, in a broad sense, rolling up to universal benevolence, the warrants for an allegiance to commutative justice would also be those for the exceptions. But Smith here seems to suggest that such exceptions “may be ascertained as accurately as the rules themselves.” That does not make sense to me. If he means, implicitly, “may be ascertained by a God-like beholder,” I guess we could go along with the remark. But the whole point of the presentation is to distinguish between precise-and-accurate and loose-vague-and-indeterminate as concerns normal human beings, so suddenly shifting to the capacities of a God-like being would be very incongruous and, so far as I can see, without purpose. I just do not get why he makes the remark.
My suggestion to Smith would be to change the sentence to something like (I italicize what is changed): “The rules of justice are accurate in the highest degree, and admit of no exceptions but such as might be necessary in only extreme and unusual circumstances and which, indeed, flow from the very same principles with them.” (Notice here, by the way, that I have also dropped “modifications,” which differs from “exceptions” in ways that in the sentence exacerbate confusion.)
Item 3. Smith writes: “The first sense of the word [that is, justice] coincides with what Aristotle and the Schoolmen call commutative justice, and with what Grotius calls the justitia expletrix, which consists in abstaining from what is another’s, and in doing voluntarily whatever we can with propriety be forced to do” (269.10). I have two issues here. Is it true that both Aristotle and “the Schoolmen” called something “commutative justice” and, more importantly, if they did (and Aquinas’s Latin makes it reasonable to maintain that he did), did that correspond to what Smith means by commutative justice? I am doubtful that Aquinas’s “commutative justice” corresponds neatly to Smith’s, so I would suggest that Smith pause over that matter.
Second, Smith says that his commutative justice “consists in abstaining from what is another’s, and in doing voluntarily whatever we can with propriety be forced to do.” I think that is basically fine, provided that we are focused on equal-equal jural relations, and the paragraph is, I think, focused upon such. But troubles would arise if the reader extends the sentence to superior-inferior jural relations. I suggest that Smith add “accordingly” (that is, according to the precept of abstaining from what is another’s) to make the ending: “whatever we can with propriety accordingly be forced to do.” That avoids the hazard of stretching commutative justice to include obedience to any governmental law that can with propriety be enforced.
Item 4. In my exposition of Smith’s tri-layered justice, I have denominated the third sense of justice, which he says is “still more extensive than either of the former” (270.10), estimative justice, which is estimating objects properly (and hence acting accordingly). Smith writes: “In this last sense, what is called justice means the same thing with exact and perfect propriety of conduct” (270.10). But, to my mind, the phrasing “means the same thing with” mildly suggests that when it comes to less-than-perfect conduct the notion of estimative justice becomes inapplicable. I would suggest that he reword to: “In this last sense, perfect justice implies exact and perfect propriety of conduct.”
Item 5. Smith writes: “Nature, accordingly, has endowed him [man], not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men” (117.7). Occasionally these words have been quoted (see the treatment of Arthur N. Prior here) to suggest that Smith maintains a sameness of the following two things: (1) a desire on Jim’s part of “being what he himself approves of in other men,” and (2) a desire on Jim’s part of “being what ought to be approved of.” To forestall such erroneous reading and representation of Smith, I would suggest inserting “he feels” into the first clause, making the phrase “what he feels ought to be approved of.” Likewise, where Smith writes: “What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done” (165.5), I would suggest inserting “what we feel is” before “fit.”
Item 6. The final item is more diffusive and pertains to something that Smith may have been guarded or esoteric about, namely, the non-foundationalism of his ethics (which I treat here and here). Were Smith to want to make non-foundationalism more pronounced, he might have highlighted at 159.8 and 319-320.6-7 how “particular instances” and “general rules” each influence the formation of the other, in a bi-directional (or spiraling) way, rather than giving so much more emphasis (at those moments, anyway) to the influence that particular instances have on the formation of general rules. Also, sometimes he speaks of the “origin” or “first” event of a process, when he might have given more of a flavor of picking up in a process underway (e.g., the “first” source and “originally” at 188.3; “first perceptions” at 320.7; “originally” at 320.8).
In The Study of Man, Michael Polanyi explained that reverence is a vital tool in the thinker’s toolkit. To illustrate, he posited reverence toward a particular historical figure: Napoleon. That was to make a point about the hazards of reverence. Heroes are fallible. Even Homer nods.