Adam Smith's Simplified Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 7, Section 2, Chapter 4: Licentious Systems
Chapter 4: Licentious Systems
93 All those systems I have given an account of, suppose that there is a real and essential distinction between vice and virtue.
There is a real and essential difference between:
the propriety and impropriety of any affection,
benevolence and any other principle of action, and
real prudence and shortsighted folly or precipitate rashness.
All of them mainly contribute to:
encourage the praise-worthy disposition, and
discourage the blamable disposition.
94 It might be true that some of them:
break the balance of the affections, and
give the mind an disproportional bias to some principles of action
The ancient systems which place virtue in propriety chiefly recommend the virtues of self-government and self-command.
These are the great and respectable virtues which include:
independence on fortune
all outward accidents
The noblest propriety of conduct is displayed in these great exertions.
In comparison, all the virtues of indulgent humanity are but little insisted on.
These virtues were the soft, amiable, and gentle ones.
The Stoics particularly regarded them as weaknesses which a wise man was not supposed to harbour.
95 On the other hand, the benevolent system very highly fosters all those milder virtues.
It entirely neglects the greater and more respectable qualities of the mind.
It even denies to call them virtues.
It calls them moral abilities.
It treats them as qualities which do not deserve the same esteem and approbation due to virtue.
It treats all those principles of action which aim only at our own interest, still worse.
It pretends that they do not have any merit of their own.
It reduces the merit of benevolence when they cooperate with it.
It asserts that even prudence is not a virtue when it is used only to promote private interest.
96 The benevolent system makes virtue consist only in prudence.
It gives the highest encouragement to the habits of
It equally degrades the amiable and respectable virtues.
the amiable of all their beauty, and
the respectable of all their grandeur.
97 Despite these defects, those three systems generally encourage the human mind's best habits.
It would be good for society if people regulated their conduct by the precepts of any one of them.
We can learn something valuable from each.
If the mind could be inspired with fortitude and magnanimity through precept and exhortation, the ancient systems of propriety would be sufficient.
Or if the mind could be softened into humanity, kindness, and general love towards those we live with through precept and exhortation, the benevolent system might be able to do this.
Epicurus' system was the most imperfect of all three.
We may learn from it how much the practice of the amiable and respectable virtues is conducive to:
our own interest, and
our own ease and safety and quiet even in this life.
Epicurus placed happiness in the attainment of ease and security.
He tried to show that virtue was the best, surest, and the only means of acquiring those invaluable possessions.
Other philosophers have chiefly celebrated the good effects of virtue on our inward peace of mind.
Without neglecting this topic, Epicurus chiefly insisted on the influence of virtue on our outward prosperity and safety.
Because of this, his writings were so much studied in the ancient world by all philosophical parties.
Cicero was the great enemy of the Epicurean system.
He borrows from Epicurus his most agreeable proofs that virtue alone is sufficient to secure happiness.
The Stoics was the sect most opposite to that of Epicurus.
Seneca, a Stoic, quotes Epicurus more frequently than any other.
Dr. Mandeville's System of Vanity
98 Dr. Mandeville's system is another system which totally removes the distinction between vice and virtue.
Its tendency is totally pernicious.
His notions are wrong in almost every respect.
However, some aspects of human nature seem to favour them initially when viewed in a certain way.
He exaggerated these by his lively and humorous, though coarse and rustic eloquence.
This gave his doctrines an air of truth and probability which is very apt to impose on the unskillful.
99 He considers whatever done from a sense of propriety as being done from vanity or from a love of praise and commendation.
He observes that man is naturally much more interested in his own happiness than in that of others.
It is impossible that in his heart he can ever really prefer their prosperity to his own.
Whenever he appears to do so, he is just:
imposing on us, and
acting from the same selfish motives.
Among his other selfish passions, vanity is one of the strongest.
He is always easily flattered and greatly delighted with applauses.
When he appears to sacrifice his own interest to that of his companions, he knows:
that his conduct will be highly agreeable to their self-love, and
that they will give him the most extravagant praises.
The pleasure which he expects from this over-balances the interest which he abandons to get it.
Therefore, his conduct is really just as selfish.
It arises from just as mean a motive, as on any other.
However, he is flattered and he flatters himself, with the belief that it is entirely disinterested.
Since, if he were really disinterested, it would not seem to merit any commendation in his own eyes or in those of others.
Therefore, all public spirit, all preference of public to private interest, is a mere cheat and imposition on mankind.
Human virtue is:
so much boasted of,
so much emulated among men, and
the mere offspring of flattery begot on pride.
100 I shall not presently examine whether the most generous and public-spirited actions proceed from self-love.
The answer to this question is not important in establishing the reality of virtue, since self-love may frequently be a virtuous motive of action.
I shall only try to show that the desire of doing what is honourable and noble cannot be called vanity.
This desire is the love of virtue.
It is the noblest and best passion in human nature.
Even the love of well-grounded fame and reputation does not deserve that name.
The desire for fame and reputation is the love of true glory.
It is a passion inferior to the love of virtue.
In dignity, it appears to come immediately after virtue.
A person is guilty of vanity if he:
desires praise for qualities which are not praise-worthy,
desires praise for something which does not belong to him, and
sets his character on:
the frivolous ornaments of dress and equipage, or
the frivolous accomplishments of ordinary behaviour.
The following are examples of these people:
the empty vain man who gives himself airs of importance which he has no title to,
the silly liar who assumes the merit of adventures which never happened,
the foolish plagiary who gives himself out for the author of what he has no pretensions to,
the person who is not contented with the silent sentiments of esteem and approbation.
He is fonder of their noisy expressions and acclamations than of the sentiments themselves.
He is never satisfied but when his own praises are ringing in his ears.
He solicits all external marks of respect with the most anxious importunity.
He is fond of:
titles and compliments,
being visited, attended, noticed in public places with deference and attention.
This frivolous passion is totally different from:
the love of virtue and
the love of glory.
This is of the lowest passion of mankind, as the love of virtue and glory are of the noblest and greatest.
101 These three passions are widely different:
The desire of rendering ourselves the proper objects of honour and esteem, or of becoming what is honourable and estimable
The desire of acquiring honour and esteem by really deserving those sentiments
These first two are always approved of.
The frivolous desire of praise at any rate
This third desire is always despised.
However, there is a certain remote affinity among them which was exaggerated by Dr. Mandeville through his humorous and diverting eloquence.
This enabled him to impose it on his readers.
There is an affinity between vanity and the love of true glory.
They both aim at acquiring esteem and approbation.
But the love of glory is a just, reasonable, and equitable passion
While vanity is unjust, absurd, and ridiculous.
The man who desires esteem for what is really estimable, desires only what:
he is justly entitled to,
cannot be refused him without some injury.
This man is easily satisfied.
He is not apt to be jealous or suspicious that we do not esteem him enough.
He is seldom solicitous about receiving many external marks of our regard.
On the contrary, the person who desires it on any other terms demands what he has no just claim to.
He is never satisfied.
He is full of jealousy and suspicion that we do not esteem him so much as he desires.
Because he has some secret awareness that he desires more than he deserves.
He considers the least neglect of ceremony as:
a mortal affront,
an expression of the most determined contempt.
He is restless and impatient.
He is perpetually afraid that we have lost all respect for him.
He is on this account always anxious to obtain new expressions of esteem.
He cannot be kept in temper but by continual attention and adulation.
102 There is an affinity too between:
the desire of becoming honourable and estimable, or the love of virtue, and
the desire of honour and esteem, or the love of true glory.
They resemble one another.
Both aim at:
really being what is honourable and noble, and
some reference to the sentiments of others.
In this respect, the love of true glory resembles vanity.
The man of the greatest magnanimity:
desires virtue for its own sake, and
is most indifferent about what actually are mankind's opinions about him.
Such a magnanimous man is still, however, delighted with:
the thoughts of what they should be, and
with the awareness that:
he is still the proper object of honour and applause even if he may neither be honoured nor applauded, and
they would not fail to honour and applaud him if mankind:
were cool, candid, and consistent with themselves, and
properly informed of:
his conduct's circumstances
He despises the opinions actually entertained of him.
But he has the highest value for those which should be entertained of him.
The great and exalted motive of his conduct was that:
he might think himself worthy of those honourable sentiments, and
he always has the highest idea of his own character when he puts himself in the situation of other men to consider what should be their opinion.
There is still some reference to what should be the opinion of others, even in the love of virtue.
There is even some affinity between the love of virtue and the love of true glory.
However, there is a very great difference between them.
A person acts from the most sublime and godlike motive possible in humans if he acts solely from a regard to:
what is right and fit to be done, and
what is the proper object of esteem and approbation.
Though these sentiments should never be bestowed on him.
On the other hand, a person can get mortified by mankind's ignorance and injustice, his rivals' envy, and the public's folly if he:
wants approbation but is anxious to obtain it at the same time, even if he were mainly laudable.
His motives have a greater mixture of human infirmity.
On the contrary, the happiness of the first person is altogether secure and independent of:
the caprice of those he lives with.
He considers the contempt and hatred, which may be thrown on him by mankind's ignorance, as not belonging to him.
He is not mortified by it at all.
Mankind despises and hates him from a false notion of his character and conduct.
If they knew him better, they would esteem and love him.
It is not him they hate, but another person whom they mistake him to be.
If go to a masquerade and meet a friend who is disguised as our enemy, he would be more amused than mortified if we vented our indignation against him while under that disguise.
A man of real magnanimity would feel that way when exposed to unjust censure.
However, it seldom happens that human nature has this much firmness.
Only the weakest and most worthless of mankind are much delighted with false glory.
Yet by a strange inconsistency, false ignominy can often mortify the most resolute and determined.
103 Dr. Mandeville is not satisfied with representing vanity as the source of all virtuous actions.
He points out the imperfection of human virtue in many other respects.
In every case, he pretends that virtue falls short of that complete self-denial which it pretends to.
Instead of a conquest, it is commonly no more than a concealed indulgence of our passions.
Wherever our reserve with regard to pleasure falls short of the most ascetic abstinence, he treats it as gross luxury and sensuality.
According to him, anything beyond what is absolutely necessary to support human nature is a luxury.
There is vice even in the use of:
a clean shirt, or
a convenient habitation.
He considers the sexual indulgence in the most lawful union, as the same with the most hurtful sexual gratification.
It derides that temperance and chastity which can be practised so cheaply.
The ingenious sophistry of his reasoning here is covered by the ambiguity of language, as on other occasions.
There are some of our passions which have no other names except those which are disagreeable.
The spectator is more apt to notice them in this degree than in any other.
He is obliged to attend to his own sentiments when his sentiments:
are shocked, and
give him some antipathy and uneasiness.
He is then naturally led to give his sentiments a name.
When they fall in with the natural state of his own mind, he is very apt to overlook them altogether.
He gives them no name at all.
If he gives them any, it is one which rather marks the passion's subjection and restraint, than the degree which it still is allowed to subsist in after it is so subjected and restrained.
Thus, the common names of 'the love of pleasure' and 'the love of sex', denote a vicious and offensive degree of those passions.
On the other hand, the words 'temperance' and 'chastity' mark the restraint and subjection which 'the love of pleasure' and 'the love of sex' are kept under, than the degree which they are allowed to subsist in.
When he can show that they still subsist in some degree, he imagines that he has entirely:
demolished the reality of the virtues of temperance and chastity, and
shown temperance and chastity to be mere impositions on mankind's inattention and simplicity.
However, those virtues do not require an entire insensibility to the objects of the passions which they mean to govern.
They only aim at restraining the violence of those passions so far as not to:
hurt the individual, and
disturb nor offend the society.
104 His book's great fallacy was to represent every passion as totally vicious in any degree.
He treats everything as vanity which has any reference to what are or to what should be the sentiments of others.
Though this sophistry, he establishes his favourite conclusion that private vices are public benefits.
The following are public benefits if they are regarded as luxury, sensuality, and ostentation:
a taste for:
the elegant arts and improvements of life,
whatever is agreeable in dress, furniture, equipage, architecture, statuary, painting, and music, and
the indulgence of those passions without inconvenience,
the love of magnificence.
He bestows such scornful names on such qualities.
Without those qualities, the refined arts could never find encouragement.
They would languish for lack of employment.
The real foundation of this licentious system was the popular ascetic doctrines before his time.
They placed virtue in the entire extirpation and annihilation of all our passions.
It was easy for Dr . Mandeville to prove:
That this entire conquest never actually took place among men
With this, he seemed to prove that:
there was no real virtue
what pretended to be virtue was a mere cheat and imposition on mankind
That if it took place universally, it would be harmful to society
It would end all industry and commerce and the whole business of human life.
With this he seems to prove that private vices were public benefits, since without them, no society could prosper or flourish.
105 Such is Dr. Mandeville's system.
It once made so much noise in the world.
It perhaps never caused more vice than if it didn't exist.
But it taught vice to:
appear with more rudeness, and
avow the corruption of its motives with a profligate audaciousness, unheard of before.
106 No matter how destructive this system may appear, it could never have imposed on so many people nor have alarmed those who are the friends of better principles, had it not bordered on the truth.
A system of natural philosophy may appear very plausible.
It may very generally be received in the world for a long time, and yet have:
no foundation in nature, and
no resemblance to the truth.
For nearly a century, the vortices of Descartes were regarded by a very ingenious nation as a most satisfactory account of the revolutions of the heavenly bodies.
Yet it has been demonstrated, to the conviction of all mankind, that these pretended causes of those wonderful effects do not actually exist.
They are utterly impossible.
If they did exist, they could not produce the effects ascribed to them.
But it is otherwise with systems of moral philosophy.
An author who pretends to account for the origin of our moral sentiments cannot:
deceive us so grossly, nor
depart so very far from the truth
When a traveler tells an account of some distant country, he may impose on our credulity the most groundless and absurd fictions as the most certain facts.
But when a person pretends to inform us of what happens in our neighbourhood, he might also be able to deceive us in many respects if we are so careless not to examine things with our own eyes.
Yet the greatest falsehoods he imposes must bear some resemblance to the truth.
It must even have a mix of truth in them.
An author who treats of natural philosophy and pretends to assign the causes of the great phenomena of the universe, pretends to give an account of the affairs of a very distant country.
He tells us what he pleases.
As long as his narration keeps within the bounds of possibility, he need not despair of gaining our belief.
But when he proposes to explain the origin of our desires and affections, sentiments of approbation and disapprobation, he pretends to give an account of:
the affairs of the very parish we live in
our own domestic concerns
Here too, we are very liable to be imposed on like indolent masters who trust their steward who deceives them.
Yet we are incapable of passing any account which does not preserve some little regard to the truth.
At least some of the articles must be just.
Even those which are most overcharged must have had some foundation.
Otherwise the fraud would be detected even by our careless inspection.
The author who assigns as the cause of any natural sentiment, some principle unconnected with it, would appear ridiculous to the most inexperienced reader.