In Part III, Chapter 1 of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith unfolds the theory of the ‘spectator’ that was soon take up, in Germany – by such thinkers as von Gentz, Smith’s translator, spy for the British, aid to Metternich, a factotum of reaction and yet, a romantic – and in Russia by Karamzin.
So, what is the moral role of the spectator and how does it relate to sympathy?
First, Smith posits a certain irreducible sociability that is natural to man.
“The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it.”
This is a rather odd way of going about looking at the origin of our moral sentiments – the question that occupies the chapter. Instead of an origin, we have, from the beginning, a circuit of projections, in which the need for a principle of approving or disapproving our conduct is assumed to be already in place. In fact, this principle and society are so bound together that without the latter, the former shatters:
“Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face.”
The mirror is the first moral technology – Smith continually refers to approbation and disapprobation as being formally the same kind of thing, whether it refers to the form of the body or the form of the action. Whether the former is pleasing or not (on what level and to what purpose he does not say - myself, the good freudian, I suspect that we could dive into the blank of sexual desire here and not come out for a long, long time) is a model for the way in which one decides whether an action is pleasing or not. The whole machinery of sympathy can’t get going until we can sympathize with ourselves – that is, in a sense, until we can identify ourselves with our image in the mirror.
The mirror, here, by a quite orthodox metamorphosis of tropes, becomes a theater, and the self a spectator; and Theater then becomes the courtroom, the chamber of judgment.
“We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct. If in this view it pleases us, we are tolerably satisfied. We can be more indifferent about the applause, and, in some measure, despise the censure of the world. secure that, however misunderstood or misrepresented, we are the natural and proper objects of approbation. On the contrary, if we are doubtful about it, we are often, upon that very account, more anxious to gain their approbation, and, provided we have not already, as they say, shaken hands with infamy, we are altogether distracted at the thoughts of their censure, which then strikes us with double severity.
When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion.”
These links – the mirror, the theater, the courtroom – are not new. Shakespeare of course plays with these same tropes, and he gets it from a humanist tradition that goes back to the Roman moralists and to St. Paul. But one remembers that the Pauline tradition shows a proper mistrust of the glass into which one peers; and the stoic tradition used the metaphor of theater as one of the instruments by which the sage divests himself of the delusions he is surrounded with – to know that one is playing a part is an advance towards playing no part at all – for nature is the end, not the beginning, of culture. As in Epictetus’s Discourse:
“…remember that tragedies have their place among the rich and kings and tyrants, but no poor man fills a part in a tragedy except as one of the Chorus. Kings indeed commence with prosperity: “ornament the palace with garlands”: then about the third or fourth act they call out, “Oh Cithaeron, why didst thou receive me?” Slave where are the crowns, where the diadem? The guards help thee not at all. When then you approach any of these persons remember this that you are approaching a tragedian, not the actor but Oedipus himself.”
The Enlightenment philosophes inherited stoicism as the counter-ideology to Christianity, a hidden code developed by the humanists since the time of the Renaissance – and there was a great outcry when La Mettrie, for instance, attacked and mocked that code publicly. But in actual fact that code had been disgarded long before, by the libertines and their salon culture. Oedipus, in Smith’s view, will only find when he approaches himself that he himself is a spectator and an actor (and in deforming himself by tearing out his eyes, Oedipus performs the ultimate anti-social act under the terms of Smith’s moral sentiments – for what could be more morally suspect than to damage one’s face, that very model of the self, and to make it structurally impossible to gaze into the mirror? Nature is not an end, then, and we see in a glass now in order to learn sympathy – caritas – and not pride. Smash the mirror and one smashes society itself.
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