Beyond Being Lovely

friendship loved and lovely

Shal Marriott for AdamSmithWorks

What does it mean to be lovely though? The word only appears once in the entirety of The Theory of Moral Sentiments." Marriott looks for understanding beyond.
There is a fondness amongst many of us who love Adam Smith for a quote from The Theory of Moral Sentiments that reads “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely…” Boston College professor Ryan Hanley for instance mentions it in Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life where he highlights how “…Smith is using it to refer not to appearances, but to our moral worth.” EconTalk host and Adam Smith enthusiast Russ Roberts calls it his “…favourite sentence in the book.”

What does it mean to be lovely though? The word only appears once in the entirety of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “Loved” and “beloved” are more central. For instance, Smith also writes: “What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved?” 

“Lovely” only having a single use does not mean it is insignificant. It captures an image both “loved” and “beloved” miss. Intuitively, loveliness is an aesthetic quality.  The lovely is associated with the beautiful. One can think of a lovely person but also lovely moments or works of art. The ability to picture what is described as lovely invokes imagination. What exactly is lovely may be subjective or difficult to describe, but it is still something which we all have seen and known even if we can’t put it into words.

Yet what exists beyond being lovely? Smith does not seem to think of love like Plato does. It is “beauty” in the Symposium which allows for one to come to terms with what love is. Plato argues in what is perhaps one of the most important commentaries on love in the history of political thought, through the voice of Diotima, that the highest point we are striving towards is a complete understanding of the beautiful. Indeed, the rhetoric of the lovely in general and its association with the beautiful seems to obscure to some extent what is more fundamental for Smith, which is the desire to be understood and to be worthy of that understanding. 

Longing for understanding is a constant thread throughout Smith’s works, and is evident for instance when Smith notes how 
…taste and good judgment, when they are considered as qualities which deserve praise and admiration, are supposed to imply a delicacy of sentiment and an acuteness of understanding not commonly to be met with…… 
Not only is understanding desirable, but it is difficult to find. Understanding is also importantly present implicitly in the passage immediately preceding the quote on the loved and the lovely. At the end of chapter ii in section ii, Smith writes following his reflections of love that when talking about the things which one is most passionate about, that there is a certain reserve necessary around those who we cannot expect to understand why we care as much as we do. 

Yet, understanding is a difficult concept to define. Although Smithian sympathy serves as a mechanism through which we can understand one another better, especially when we share things in common, it can only get us so far. Sympathy is imperfect. There is also a difference between understanding and the desire for it. Certainly, there are times when one mistakenly thinks they are being understood by the person they are speaking to, or one thinks they understand another person better than they do. Even if philosophers cannot agree on a definition of understanding, the desire for it is one which we can all fundamentally relate to.

It is ultimately not the image of being lovely which is sufficient, but the underlying understanding which is assumed to accompany it and the sense that we are deserving of it which allows us to become the “…proper object of love.” Smith further reminds us that “…flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities.” which echoes again the difficulty in finding such an understanding from others and how seeking it can often be distracted by the appearances of what seems good but is not. 

To be genuinely lovely requires us to be seen in a way which is distinct and reflective of something deeper than how one is merely perceived to be by strangers. We have to be convinced not only that we have found such an understanding in the eyes of another but that what they see is worthy of it. It is also deeply particular to the individuals involved. What I might need to be understood, say the quiet intimacy of reading a book silently with another, is markedly different from the forms of understanding you require. In any case though, it is evident in those moments of being seen that there can be a more profound understanding and sense of worthiness than the ordinary interactions of everyday life allow for. It is in these instances that one can see the real value in being lovely.

With thanks to Dorian Bandy, who unintentionally inspired both the title and contents of this piece.

Related content:  
Ryan Hanley on Our Great Purpose with Amy Willis, an Ask Me Anything video.
Russ Roberts on How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life with Juliette Sellgren, Great Antidote podcast
Graham McAleer's Art's Important Moral Work
More by Shal Marriott: Nobody's Perfect, Not Even Adam Smith, The Unexpected Joy in Sharing Sadness, Adam Smith Visits Downton Abbey, How Professor Smith Helped Me Survive my Undergraduate Degree