This post is the first instance of a new regular feature here at the Mod Squad, “Sentimental Sundays”. For the time being, the focus will be largely, but not exclusively, on Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.
I’ve previously blogged about Part one, Section one, Chapter one of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (here, here, and here), in which Smith presents the core of his account of Sympathy (and provides a fascinating account of our fear of death rooted in our sympathy for the deceased). Today’s post concerns 1.1.2, “Of the Pleasure of Mutual Sympathy” (all page citations are to the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley).
This chapter seems concerned to account for the mechanism by which the pleasure of mutual sympathy arises, though it is not ultimately clear that Smith actually offers an account of this.
Smith opens the chapter by presenting (and rejecting) an account of the pleasure of mutual sympathy (and pain of antipathy) that purports to derive it from our self-love.
Those who are fond of deducing al our sentiments from certain refinements of self-love, think themselves at no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure and this pain. Man, say they, conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of that assistance; and grieves whenever he observes the contrary, because he is then assured of their opposition. But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration. A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks round and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself. On the contrary, the mirth of the company is highly agreeable to him, and he regards this correspondence of their sentiments with his own as the greatest applause. (p. 18-19)
Smith moves on to consider what we could call the “simple enlivening view”. On this view, sympathetic emotions have a general enlivening tendency. So, the mirth of the audience enlivens our mirth (whereas their silence disappoints us). Smith does not think that this story can be (wholly) correct, though:
The sympathy, which my friends express with my joy, might indeed, give me pleasure by enlivening that joy: but that which they express with my grief could give me none, if it served only to enliven that grief. Sympathy, however, enlivens joy and alleviates grief. It enlivens joy by presenting another source of satisfaction; and it alleviates grief by insinuating into the heart almost the only agreeable sensation which it is at that time capable of receiving. (p. 19)
Smith’s objection to the simple enlivening view is that, if the principal mechanism of the pleasure of mutual sympathy were a general enlivening effect, then sympathetic sadness would then compound, rather than alleviate one’s sadness. Smith then notes that this explains why we would feel a stronger urge to “communicate to our friends” our negative emotions over our positive emotions. While it is nice to transition from a pleasing emotional state to a very pleasing emotional state, it is less urgent than the transition from a very unpleasant emotional state to a less unpleasant one.
This leads Smith to reframe the question: How is it that sharing the details/communicating the causes of one’s miseries with another can relieve one’s suffering? Smith notes that there is something additional puzzling about this, since the act of recounting one’s misfortunes re-awakens and enlivens the remembrance of the circumstances that distressed them in the first place. Smith notes that the mourner gets some pleasure and relief from recounting their misfortunes to a friend, “because the sweetness of his sympathy more than compensates the bitterness of that sorrow, which in order to excite this sympathy, they had thus enlivened and renewed.”
It is worth observing that, for Smith, there is nothing emotionally beneficial to the mere act of verbally or mentally recounting our misfortunes (at least, nothing that has been said indicates any positive outcomes from this). Insofar as there is benefit to doing so, it is only because it enables us to excite sympathy in another, and this sympathetic sharing of emotion is beneficial.
Smith notes another corollary to the observation that there is greater urgency to gain sympathy for our negative feelings over our positive ones: We are more concerned that our friends dislike the same people we dislike, than that they like the same people we like.
We can forgive them though they seem to be little effected with the favours which we may have received, but lose all patience if they seem indifferent about the injuries which may have been done to us: nor are we half so angry with them for not entering into our gratitude, as for not sympathizing with our resentment. They can easily avoid being friends to our friends, but can hardly avoid being enemies to those with whom we are at variance. (p. 20)
This is all well and good as far as it goes, but I noted at the outset of this post that Smith seems to raise a question without really answering it. Smith asks, “how is it that sharing our sadness with someone else can relieve it?” Smith considers and rejects a few views of how this happens, but doesn’t seem to offer his own.
Perhaps I’ve been looking at the question the wrong way, however. If the question is, “How is it that recounting one’s misfortunes can relieve one’s sorrow?” the answer might simply be that sympathy is more pleasing than the recounting is painful. On net, the sharing of one’s sorrow pushes one away from the extremes of sorrow, and closer to a happy state. And this might genuinely qualify as an account: The simple enlivening account doesn’t explain the mechanism it proposes; it simply posits a general intensification due to sympathy. Similarly, Smith’s account is that attaining a state of sympathy is pleasing. This is his account of how the sorrow is lessened, and it is not clear he would need to provide a further explanation of why it is that sympathy is pleasing (i.e. what makes it so). On this way of understanding the chapter, the title itself provides the answer to Smith’s central question: attaining a state of mutual sympathy is pleasing. This explains why our joy is enriched when we see others share in it, as well as why our sorrow is lessened when others share in it.
The end of the chapter transitions nicely into a discussion of what happens when there is a mismatch in intensity (e.g. you find the joke side-splittingly funny, and I find it slightly amusing), which sets up the subsequent chapter, “Of the manner in which we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the Affections of other Men, by their concord or dissonance with our own” (the chapter I’ll be posting about next week).