Reflections on Smith’s Sympathy and the Dread of Death

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Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks
The grave of Adam Smith in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

According to Smith, we sympathize not only with living human beings, but also with the dead. But as Professor Harpham of the University of Texas at Dallas explains, we sympathize with the dead in a very peculiar way.
Adam Smith dedicates Chapter 1 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to a discussion of the phenomena of sympathy.  Although Smith uses the term in a variety of ways throughout the book, at the outset he specifies “sympathy” to be “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” (TMS: I.i.I.5). Our capacity for sympathy makes it possible for individuals to be interested in the fortune of others and to care for their happiness even though they derive nothing from it “except the happiness of seeing it.” (TMS: I.i.I.1) 
For Smith, the process of sympathy is active: We project what it would be like to experience the situation of others and then imagine how we would emotionally respond to their situation. Throughout the book, Smith seeks to address questions that arise from his understanding of sympathy. How does sympathy work? How do we develop fellow-feeling for other human beings? What does it mean to share feelings, passions, and emotions with other humans? 
Smith’s general understanding of the phenomena of sympathy informs his discussion of one specific passion mentioned in the last paragraph of the chapter on sympathy: “the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” Let us consider what Smith’s notion of sympathy teaches us about our natural fear of death and what solutions he might offer us to manage it.  
Smith begins his discussion of the fear of death with a fascinating statement: We sympathize not only with living human beings, but also with the dead. But we sympathize with the dead in a very peculiar way. Fellow-feeling with living creatures emerges when we project ourselves into their situation and imagine what we might feel in that situation. We bond ourselves to others through the feelings that sympathy enables us to experience.  Fellow-feeling with the dead, however, can bear no relationship to actual feelings of the dead, because they have no corporal feelings as we think of them. At best, we can project what the dead might feel in their condition. Imagining what they have lost as living beings horrifies us. 
As Smith writes: 
It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut
out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave, a prey to corruption and
the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated,
in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest
friends and relations. Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who
have suffered so dreadful a calamity. (TMS I.I.I.13)
The imagined fellow-feeling that emerges with our sympathizing with the dead is complicated by the inability to communicate with the dead in the ways we usually communicate with others. In life, sharing feelings like grief and fear with other living humans helps us cope with the challenges of life. If other people are dealing with difficult emotions, the sharing of similar emotions with them lessens their pain and helps them move forward. In contrast, Smith argues there is no consolation to be offered to the dead through expressions of sympathy. The dead do not know what we feel; they do not feel what we feel about them. On the contrary, sympathy triggers a troubling feedback loop of sorts that we as spectators come to experience as we project our living souls into the inanimate body of the dead person and then try to sympathize. Smith writes:
That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. (TMS: I.i.I.13)
Throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith teaches us how life enhancing is our capacity for sympathy. In his discussion of the dread of death, he reminds us that sympathy also can misfire leaving emotional misery in its wake.