Chapter 2 Part 1 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments Simplified

Corruption of Morality by our admiration of the rich and despise of the poor Icon

January 27, 2022

The similarity between the respect for greatness and respect for virtue corrupts morality.

28 We are disposed to:

  • admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and
  • neglect or despise persons of poor and mean condition.

Both of these are necessary to establish and maintain=

  • the distinction of ranks and
  • the order of society.

However, it is also the most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. Moralists in all ages have complained=

  • that wealth and greatness are often respected and admired when it should be wisdom and virtue that is to be respected and admired,
  • that poverty and weakness is unjustly detested when vice and folly should be the ones detested.

29 We desire to be respectable and to be respected. We dread to be contemptible and to be condemned.

But upon coming into the world, we soon find that=

  • wisdom and virtue are not the sole objects of respect, and
  • vice and folly are not the sole objects of contempt.

We frequently see:

  • the world’s respect strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous, and
  • the powerful’s vices and follies much less despised than the innocent’s poverty and weakness.

The great objects of ambition are to deserve, acquire, and enjoy mankind’s respect and admiration. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to these objects.

  1. The one is by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue.
  2. The other is by the acquisition of wealth and greatness.

Two different characters are presented to our emulation.

  1. The one is of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity.
  2. The other is of humble modesty and equitable justice.

Two different models are held out to us on how we may fashion our own character and behaviour.

  1. The one is more gaudy and glittering in its colouring.
    • It forces itself on every wandering eye.
  2. The other is more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline.
    • It attracts the attention of nobody but the most studious and careful observer.

The few wise and virtuous chiefly are the real admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the disinterested admirers and worshippers of wealth and greatness.

30 Our respect for wisdom and virtue is different from our respect for wealth and greatness. Despite this difference, those feelings resemble each another very closely, but are different in some features. Inattentive observers commonly mistake the one for the other.

31 In equal degrees of merit, everyone respects the rich and the great more than the poor and the humble. To most, the vanity of the rich are much more admired than the solid merit of the poor. It is improper to say that mere wealth and greatness, without merit and virtue, deserve our respect. However, we must acknowledge that they almost constantly obtain it.

In some respects, wealth and greatness may be considered as the natural objects or respect.

  • The rich and the great might be completely degraded by vice and folly.
  • But the vice and folly must be very great before they can completely degrade them.

The extravagance of a man of fashion is less hated than the extravagance of a man of meaner condition. A single intemperance and impropriety by a man of meaner condition is more resented than the constant intemperance from a man of fashion.

32 In the middle and lower ranks, the road to virtue and the road to reasonable fortune are often happily nearly the same. In all the middle and lower professions, success is usually attained by real and solid professional abilities joined to prudent, just, firm, and temperate conduct.

Abilities will even sometimes prevail where the conduct is incorrect. Habitual imprudence, injustice, weakness, or wastefulness, will always cloud and sometimes depress the most splendid professional abilities.

Besides, people in the middle and lower ranks can never be great enough to be above the law. The law must generally overawe them into some respect for the more important rules of justice.

The success of such people, too, almost always depends on the favour and good opinion of their neighbours and equals. Without a tolerably regular conduct, these can very seldom be obtained. In such situations, the good old proverb, That honesty is the best policy, holds almost always perfectly true.

Therefore in such situations, we may expect a considerable degree of virtue. Fortunately because of society’s good morals, these are the situations of most people.

33 In the upper classes, the case is unhappily not always the same. In royal courts, flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities. Success and preferment there depend on the fanciful and foolish favour of ignorant, presumptuous, and proud superiors, not on the esteem of intelligent and well-informed equals. In such societies, the abilities to please are more regarded than the abilities to serve.

In peacetime, when the storm is far, the prince or great man, wishes only to be amused. He is even apt to fancy=

  • that he has no need for anybody’s service, or
  • that those who amuse him are sufficiently able to serve him

A ‘man of fashion’ is an impertinent and foolish thing. His external graces and frivolous accomplishments are commonly more admired than the solid and masculine virtues of a warrior, statesman, philosopher, or legislator.

All the virtues fit for the council, senate, or the field are held in the utmost contempt and derision by those insolent and insignificant flatterers, who commonly figure the most in such corrupted societies. For example=

  • The duke of Sully was called on by Lewis XIII for his advice in some great emergency.
    • The duke observed the favourites and courtiers whispering to one another and smiling at his unfashionable appearance.
    • The duke, an old warrior and statesman said ‘Whenever your majesty’s father,consulted me, he ordered the buffoons of the court to retire into the antechamber.’

34 The rich and the great can set or lead fashion because of our disposition to admire and consequently to imitate them.

  • Their dress is the fashionable dress.
  • Their language of conversation is the fashionable style.
  • Their air and deportment is the fashionable behaviour.
  • Even their vices and follies are fashionable.

Most people are proud to imitate and resemble them in the very qualities which dishonour and degrade them. Vain men often give themselves airs of a fashionable profligacy.

  • They want to be praised for what they themselves do not think praise-worthy.
  • They are ashamed of unfashionable virtues=
    • which they sometimes practise in secret, and
    • which they secretly venerate.

There are hypocrites of wealth and greatness, as well as of religion and virtue.

A vain man tends to pretend to be what he is not, as a cunning man is in the other.

  • He assumes the equipage and splendid way of living of his superiors.
  • He does not consider that their praise-worthiness is in their suitableness to that situation and fortune=
    • which require them and
    • which can easily support the expence.

Many poor men place their glory in being thought of as rich. They do not consider that the duties which that reputation imposes on him, must soon reduce him to beggary.

In the lower ranks, the road to fortune is through virtue, but in the upper ranks, the road is through vice.

35 The candidates for fortune too frequently abandon virtue to attain this envied situation because the road to fortune is sometimes opposite from the road to virtue.

The ambitious man thinks that the lustre of his future conduct will entirely cover the foulness of the steps he used to get there. He flatters himself that while he advances=

  • he will have so many ways to command mankind’s respect, and
  • he will be able to act with superior propriety.

In many governments, the candidates for the highest positions are above the law.

  • If they can reach those positions, they will not be afraid of the consequences of how they acquired it.
  • That is why they often try to destroy those who stand in the way of their greatness by=
    • fraud and falsehood
    • sometimes by murder and assassination
    • rebellion and civil war.

They frequently fail. They commonly gain only the disgraceful punishment for their crimes. Even if they are so lucky to attain success, they are always most miserably disappointed in the happiness they expected.

The ambitious man really pursues a very misunderstood honour and not ease or pleasure.

  • This honour is polluted by the baseness of how he rose to it.
  • He tries to remove this bad memory through=
    • great spending,
    • excessive indulgence in every profligate pleasure,
      • the hurry of public business, and
      • the prouder and more dazzling tumult of war.

The memory of his misdeeds always haunts him. He is still secretly pursued by the avenging furies of shame and remorse=

  • amidst all the gaudy pomp of the most ostentatious greatness,
  • amidst the venal and vile adulation of the great and the learned,
  • amidst the more innocent, though more foolish, acclamations of the common people, and
  • amidst all the pride of conquest and the triumph of a successful war.

Glory seems to surround him on all sides. But in his imagination, he sees black and foul infamy fast pursuing him.

Even the great Caesar could not dismiss his suspicions, even though he had the magnanimity to dismiss his guards.

  • The remembrance of Pharsalia still haunted and pursued him.
  • At the senate’s request, he had the generosity to pardon Marcellus.
  • He told the senate that he was aware of their plot against his life.
  • But as he had lived long enough for nature and glory, he=
    • was contented to die and
    • therefore despised all conspiracies

He had, perhaps, lived long enough for nature. But a man has certainly lived too long for real glory if he felt that he was the object of deadly resentment from his friends.

Notes for this chapter

The feeling of approbation is always agreeable. I based it on sympathy. But people have objected that it is inconsistent in my system to admit any disagreeable sympathy. I answer, that in the feeling of approbation, there are two things to notice=

  1. The observer’s sympathetic feeling
  2. The observer’s feeling (Feeling C) after he sees the perfect coincidence between his sympathetic feeling (Feeling B) and the original feeling (Feeling A) in the observee.

The feeling of approbation is in the last emotion (Feeling C) and is always agreeable. The second emotion (Feeling B) may be agreeable or disagreeable, according to the nature of the original emotion (Feeling A). That second emotion must always retain some features of the original emotion.