Chapter 1

The Bodily Sensations

by Adam Smith Icon


1 The spectator can go along with our feelings which lie in a certain middle. If it is too high or too low, he cannot enter into it. For example, grief for private misfortunes and injuries may easily be too high in many people. They may also be too low, but rarely.

  • We call excessive grief as ‘weakness’ and ‘fury’.
  • We call the shortage of grief as ‘stupidity’, ‘insensibility’, and ’lack of spirit’.
  • We cannot enter into either and are astonished and confounded to see them.

2 However, this middle is different in different feelings. It is high in some and low in others.

  • There are some feelings which are indecent to express very strongly.
    • These feelings have little or no sympathy from other people.
  • There are others of which the strongest expressions are extremely graceful.
    • These feelings have the greatest sympathy from other people.

All feelings are decent or indecent depending on the sympathy it gets from other people.

Bodily Sensations are indecent to express because the bodies of others might not feel the same sensations

3 It is indecent to strongly express the feelings from the body because others, who are not in the same disposition, cannot be expected to sympathize with them.

For example, violent hunger is natural and unavoidable, but is always indecent. Eating voraciously is universally regarded as bad manners.

However, there is some sympathy even with hunger. We are glad to see our friends eat with a good appetite and it is offensive to dislike it. Our own stomachs lets us have sympathy with the hungry man, and not with the man who hates to eat.

We can sympathize with the excessive hunger of those in a siege or a sea voyage. But we do not grow hungry by reading about them. Even in this case, we do not really sympathize with their hunger.

4 It is the same case with lust. It is naturally the most furious of all the passions. All its strong expressions are always indecent, even between the persons who do them innocently. However, there is some degree of sympathy even with it.

It is improper to talk to a woman as we would to a man.

  • The company of women is expected to inspire men with more gaiety, pleasantry, and attention.
  • An entire insensibility to women renders a man contemptible even to other men.

5 Such is our aversion for all the appetites originating from the body that their strong expressions are loathsome.

According to some ancient philosophers, these are the passions which we share in common with the brutes. These have no connection with the qualities of human nature and are beneath its dignity.

But there are many other passions which we share in common with brutes such as resentment, natural affection, even gratitude. These do not seem so brutal.

The true cause of our disgust for the bodily appetites we see in others, is that we cannot enter into them.

As soon as those bodily passions are gratified, their cause ceases to be agreeable to the person who originally felt them. Even its presence often offends him.

  • He looks for the charm which transported him the moment before, to no purpose.
  • He can now as little enter into his own passion as another person.

After dining, we order the covers to be removed. In the same way, we should remove the objects of the most passionate bodily desires.

6 The virtue of temperance is founded in the command of those bodily appetites.

  • Prudence is to restrain those appetites as prescribed by health and fortune.
  • But temperance is to restrain them with grace, propriety, delicacy, and modesty.

7 For the same reason, crying out with bodily pain, no matter how intolerable, always appears unmanly. This is because I cannot go along with him.

8 It is quite otherwise with those passions originating from the imagination. My body can be little affected by the changes on my companion’s body. But my imagination is more ductile. It more readily assumes the shape and configuration of the imaginations of those I am familiar with.

Love and ambition all arise from the imagination. A disappointment in them will call forth more sympathy than the greatest bodily evil.

A person who has lost his whole fortune suffers from the imagination only. His imagination brings him=

  • the loss of his dignity,
  • the neglect from his friends,
  • the contempt from his enemies,
  • dependence, lack, and misery

We sympathize with him more strongly because our imaginations can more readily mould themselves on his imagination, than our bodies can mould themselves on his body.

9 The loss of a leg may generally be regarded as a more real calamity than the loss of a mistress.

  • However, a tragedy would be ridiculous if its catastrophe was a loss of a leg.

The loss of a mistress is seemingly frivolous.

  • But it has created many fine tragedies.

10 Physical pain is quickly forgotten. This prevents us from entering into our previous anxiety and anguish.

An unguarded word from a friend will bring a more durable uneasiness because it brings an agony which is not over with the word. Our imagination disturbs us, not our physical senses. Its memory continues to make us fret from the thought of it, until time and other accidents erase it from our memory.

11 Pain only brings lively sympathy when accompanied with danger.

  • A painful gout or toothache excites very little sympathy
  • A lethal epidemic excites the highest

We sympathize with the fear of pain, but not with the sufferer’s agony. However, fear is a feeling from the imagination.

  • It represents what we might suffer, with an uncertainty that increases our anxiety.

12 Some people faint and grow sick at the sight of a surgery. The pain of tearing flesh seems to excite the most excessive sympathy.

We conceive more strongly the pain from external causes, than from internal ones.

  • I have no idea of the agonies of my neighbour who has gout or kidney stones.
  • But I have the clearest conception of his pain from an incision, wound, or a fracture.

The novelty of such objects causes them to produce such violent effects on us. One who has witnessed many dissections and amputations sees these operations with great indifference. We are not as sensible of the sorrows of tragedies after we have read or seen more than 500 of them.

13 In some Greek tragedies, there is an attempt to excite compassion through the agonies of bodily pain.

  • Philoctetes cries out and faints from his extreme sufferings
  • Hippolytus and Hercules go through the severest tortures

However, in all these cases, some other circumstances interest us, not the pain.

The solitude of Philoctetes affects us, not his sore foot.

  • His tragedy’s charm and romantic wildness is so agreeable to the imagination.
  • His solitude diffuses over it.

The agonies of Hercules and Hippolytus are interesting only because we foresee death as the consequence.

  • If those heroes were to recover, we would think that their sufferings are perfectly ridiculous.

The pain from colic is severe, yet no tragedy had such a disease as its theme. The Greek theatre is an example of these attempts to excite compassion through bodily pain.

14 The little sympathy which we feel with bodily pain is the foundation of the propriety of enduring it. We admire the man who does not groan under the severest tortures.

  • His firmness enables him to keep time with our indifference and insensibility.
  • We go along with his magnanimous effort
  • From our experience of the weakness of human nature, we wonder how he can act so.

Admiration is made up of approval, mixed and animated by wonder and surprise. Applause is its natural expression.

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