Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 6, Section 3: Self-command

Section 3: Self-command

1 A man is said to be perfectly virtuous if he acts according to the rules of:

But the perfect knowledge of those rules alone will not enable him to act in this way.


2 Some of the best of the ancient moralists divided those passions into two:

  1. The passions which require a big exertion of self-command to restrain, even for a single moment
  2. Those passions which are easy to restrain for a short time but can mislead into great deviations in a lifetime, by their continual and almost incessant solicitations

3 The first class of passions are made up of fear and anger, together with some other passions which are mixed or connected with them

The second class is made up of the love of ease, pleasure, applause, and many other selfish gratifications


4 The command of each of those two sets of passions has a beauty of its own.


5 A man is very much admired if he preserves his tranquility and acts in perfect accordance with the feelings of the most indifferent spectator while he is in danger, torture, and near death.

Many of the heroes of the past who are remembered most favourably are those who, in the cause of truth, liberty, and justice, have:

If Socrates' enemies had made him die quietly in his bed, his glory might never have acquired that dazzling splendour which all succeeding ages held of it.


6 This magnanimity gives lustre to innocent and virtuous men.


7 War is the great school for acquiring and exercising this species of magnanimity.


8 Great warlike exploits sometimes:

We are interested even in the exploits of the Buccaneers.


9 On many occasions, the command of anger appears not less generous and noble than the command of fear.


10 However, the command of anger does not always appear in such splendid colours.

Vain and weak men often affect to be ostentatiously passionate among their inferiors or those who dare not resist them.


11 To act according to the dictates of prudence, of justice, and proper beneficence, seems to have no great merit where there is no temptation to do otherwise.


12 The command of fear and anger, are always great and noble powers.

Amidst great provocations, apparent tranquility and good humour may sometimes conceal the most determined and cruel resolution to revenge.


13 The command of the less violent and turbulent passions seems much less liable to be abused to any pernicious purpose.


The Point of Propriety

14 I think it is unnecessary to explain self-command further.

As a general rule, the passions which the spectator is most disposed to sympathize with, and in which, on that account, the point of propriety stands high, are those of which the immediate feeling is agreeable to the person principally concerned.


The Unifying and Divisive Force

15  The disposition to the affections which unite men in society, to humanity, kindness, natural affection, friendship, esteem, may sometimes be excessive.


16 The disposition to the affections which drive men from one another tends to break the bands of human society.


Sensibility and Insensibility

17 Our sensibility to personal danger and distress, like that to personal provocation, is much more apt to offend by its excess than by its defect.


18 Our sensibility to our own injuries and misfortunes is generally too strong.

The real man of virtue is alone someone who:

A real man of virtue is the only real and proper object of love, respect, and admiration.


19 The total lack of sensibility to personal injury, danger, and distress would remove the whole merit of self-command.

The individual may behave perfectly well through a great effort.


20 War and faction are certainly the best:

Yet the consequences might not be agreeable if the day of trial comes before:

21 In the same way, our sensibility to the pleasures, amusements, and enjoyments of human life may offend by its:

Of the two, however, the excess seems less disagreeable than the defect.


22 The principle of self-estimation may be too high, and it may likewise be too low.

23 There are two standards which we naturally estimate our own merit or judge our own character and conduct.

  1. Our individual idea of exact propriety and perfection
  2. That degree of approximation to this idea commonly attained in the world
    • Most of our friends, companions, rivals, and competitors, may have actually arrived at this perfection.

24 The wisest and best of us can only see weakness and imperfection in his own character and conduct, as long as our attention is directed towards perfect propriety.


25 The wise and virtuous man directs his principal attention to exact propriety and perfection.


26 The liberal and ingenious arts are painting, poetry,  music, eloquence, and philosophy.

Nicolas Boileau

Boileau was a great French poet.

But to support a whole life's conduct and conversation to some ideal perfection is much more difficult than to create perfection in the ingenious arts.


27 Some people direct most of their attention to the second standard.

However, their attention is always principally directed to ordinary perfection, not to the ideal perfection

The frequent success of the most ignorant civil and religious quacks, demonstrate how easily people are imposed on by the most extravagant pretensions.


28 The following have very seldom been acquired without some of this excessive self-admiration:


Many of the following have been more distinguished for their degree of presumption and self-admiration than their very great merit:

Perhaps this presumption was necessary to prompt them:

When crowned with success, this presumption has often betrayed them into a vanity that approached insanity and folly.


Socrates did not fancy himself a God.

Caesar's head was not so perfectly sound as to hinder him from being much pleased with his divine genealogy from Venus.

The religion and manners of modern times give our great men little encouragement to fancy themselves as Gods or even Prophets.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

It is a characteristic almost peculiar to the great Duke of Marlborough.


29 In the beginning, great abilities and successful enterprise have frequently encouraged undertakings leading to bankruptcy and ruin in:


30 Every impartial spectator admires the real merit of those spirited, magnanimous, and high-minded persons.

It is otherwise with the impartial spectator's admiration for those persons' excessive self-estimation and presumption.

Had Caesar lost the battle of Pharsalia, his character would have been ranked a little above Catiline's character.

  • By this admiration of success we are taught:
  • To all such mighty conquerors, the great mob of mankind are naturally disposed to look up with a wondering but very weak and foolish admiration.

  • Words: 6,550
    Next: Section 4: Pride and Vanity