Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1 Part 1 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments Simplified

How Our Sympathy Falls much shorter of Sufferer's Sorrow

by Adam Smith Icon
9 minutes  • 1888 words
Table of contents

Our Sympathy with the Sorrow of Others is Stronger than Our Sympathy with their Joy because pain is a stronger sensation than pleasure (which can even be a source of envy)

1 Our sympathy with sorrow has been more noticed than our sympathy with joy. In its most proper and primitive signification, the word ‘sympathy’ denotes our fellow-feeling with the sufferings of others, not with their enjoyments.

Joseph Butler was an ingenious and subtle philosopher. He thought it necessary to prove that=

  • we had a real sympathy with joy
  • congratulation was a principle of human nature

No one else ever thought it necessary to prove that compassion was such.

2 First, our sympathy with sorrow is more universal than our sympathy with joy. We may still have some fellow-feeling with sorrow even if it is excessive. But our feeling does not become a complete sympathy.

  • We do not weep, exclaim, and lament with the sufferer.
  • On the contrary, we know=
    • his weakness and
    • his passion’s extravagance.

Yet we often feel a very sensible concern on his account. But if we do not entirely enter into and go along with another’s joy, we have no fellow-feeling for it. We are annoyed at the man who skips and dances with an intemperate and senseless joy that cannot be accompanied by us.

3 Besides, pain of mind or body is a more pungent sensation than pleasure. Our sympathy with pain falls greatly short of what is felt by the sufferer. It is more distinct perception than our sympathy with pleasure. Our sympathy with pleasure makes us feel the original pleasure more accurately.

4 Over and above all this, we often struggle to keep down our sympathy with the sorrow of others. When the sufferer is not looking, we try to suppress our sorrow as much as we can, for our own sake.

But we never oppose our sympathy with joy.

On the contrary, we are always ashamed of our own envy. When we have envy, we often pretend, and sometimes really wish, to sympathize with the joy of others.

  • We say that we are glad of our neighbour’s good fortune, when we might be really sorry.
  • We often feel a sympathy with sorrow when we don’t want it.
  • We often miss that with joy when we would be glad to have it.

Thus, our propensity to sympathize with sorrow is be very strong while our inclination to sympathize with joy must be very weak.

5 However, despite this prejudice, if there is no envy, our propensity to sympathize with joy is much stronger than our propensity to sympathize with sorrow. Our fellow-feeling for joy feels more like what is naturally felt by those who originally experience the joy, than our fellow-feeling for the painful one.

6 We have some indulgence for that excessive grief which we cannot entirely go along with. We know what an unnatural effort is needed before the sufferer can bring down his emotions to be in harmony with the observer’s emotions.

But we have no such indulgence for the intemperance of joy because we are not conscious that any vast effort is needed to bring it down to what we can entirely enter into.

  • The man who can command his sorrow during the greatest calamities seems worthy of the highest admiration because of the wide gap between our sympathetic sorrow and his own sorrow
  • But he who, in full prosperity, can master his joy in the same way, seems hardly deserving of any praise because of the small gap between our sympathetic joy and his own joy

7 The state of a healthy, debt-free man who has a clear conscience can be called ‘mankind’s natural and ordinary state.’ In this state, all additional wealth is superfluous. Despite the world’s present misery and depravity, this is really the state of most people.

8 Little can be added to this state, but much may be taken from it. There is little difference between this wealthy condition and the wealthiest possible one. Between them is an immense and unnatural distance. Because of this, adversity depresses the extremely wealthy person’s mind more below its natural state, than prosperity can elevate it.

The observer finds it much more difficult to:

  • sympathize entirely, and
  • keep up with his sorrow, than to enter into his joy.

Thus, our sympathy with his sorrow is always less than the sorrow he naturally feels.

9 It is agreeable to sympathize with joy. Wherever envy does not oppose it, our heart abandons itself to satisfaction created by joy.

But it is painful to go along with grief. We always reluctantly enter into it. When we watch a tragedy, we struggle against the sympathetic sorrow that it creates as long as we can. We give way to sorrow only when we can no longer avoid it. If we shed any tears, we carefully conceal them because wWe are afraid that others should regard it as effeminacy and weakness.

The wretch’s misfortunes call on our compassion, yet he is ashamed to fully express his affliction because of the hard-heartedness of mankind.

It is otherwise with the man who riots in joy and success.

  • He expects our completest sympathy wherever envy does not interest us against him.

10 We are more ashamed to weep than to laugh before others because we feel that the observers are more likely to go along with us in the agreeable, than in the painful emotion. It is always miserable to complain, even under the most dreadful calamities.

But the triumph of victory is not always ungraceful. Prudence advises us to be humble in success in order to avoid that envy excited by this very triumph.

11 The non-envious mob heartily congratulate their superior at a triumph.

  • But their grief is commonly sedate at an execution.

Our sorrow at a funeral is generally just an affected sadness.

  • But our joy at a christening or a marriage is always sincerely from the heart.

On all such joyous occasions, our satisfaction is not so durable.

  • But it is often as lively as the satisfaction of the persons experiencing the joy.

Whenever we congratulate our friends, their joy literally becomes our joy.

12 But on the contrary, when we condole with our friends who are suffering, we feel much less than what they feel. We listen to them attentively while they tell us their misfortune. But how close are our languid emotions from his?

At the same time, we might feel that their sorrow is natural and no greater than what we might feel. We might work ourselves up into an artificial sympathy.

  • When raised, this sympathy is always the slightest imaginable.
  • It generally vanishes as soon as we leave the room.

Nature seems to have thought that our sorrows were enough, when she loaded us with them. Therefore, Nature did not command us to more of the sorrow of others than what was necessary to relieve them.

Magnanimity is a virtue because of the natural lack of sympathy during distress

13 Magnanimity amidst great distress always appears divinely graceful because of our dull sensibility to the afflictions of others.

  • A person who can maintain his cheerfulness amidst frivolous disasters is gentle and agreeable.
  • A person who can do the same during the most dreadful calamities is superhuman.
    • We feel that an immense effort is needed to silence those violent emotions which naturally agitate people in such a situation.
    • We are amazed to find that he can command himself so entirely.
  • We are mortified to find that we do not have it. There is=
    • a perfect correspondence between his feelings and ours, and
    • a perfect propriety in his behaviour
      • It is a propriety which we could not expect him to maintain, from our experience of the weakness of human nature.
  • We are astonished at his strength of mind which is capable of so noble and generous an effort.

Admiration is the feeling of complete sympathy and approbation, mixed and animated with wonder and surprise. It was noticed by Cato more than once.

  • He was surrounded on all sides by his enemies, unable to resist them.
  • He followed the proud maxims of that age and killed himself rather than get captured. Yet he=
    • never shrank from his misfortunes
    • never pleaded

On the contrary, he:

  • armed himself with manly fortitude
  • calmly gave all necessary orders for the safety of his friends before he executed his fatal decision
  • showed a spectacle to Seneca, which even the gods might behold with pleasure and admiration.
    • Seneca was that great preacher of insensibility

14 Whenever we meet any examples of such heroic magnanimity in common life, we are always extremely affected. We are more apt to weep for those who seem to feel nothing for themselves than for those who give way to all the weakness of sorrow. The observer’s sympathetic grief appears to go beyond the original passion in the person observed.

Socrates’ friends wept when he drank the poison, while he himself was cheerfully tranquil.

On all such occasions, the observer makes no effort to conquer his sympathetic sorrow.

  • He is not afraid that it is improper.
  • He is rather pleased with his heart’s sensibility and gives way to it.

But it is quite otherwise with the person suffering. He turns his eyes away from whatever is naturally terrible in his situation. He fears=

  • that too serious an attention might make so violent an impression on him, and
  • that he could no longer be the object of the observers’ sympathy.

Therefore, he fixes his thoughts on the applause and admiration he is about to deserve by his behaviour’s heroic magnanimity. He is animated with joy by the feeling=

  • that he is capable of so noble an effort, and
  • that he can still act as he desires, in this dreadful situation.

These help him support his victory over his misfortunes.

15 On the contrary, a man who is sunk in sorrow and dejection from his own calamity always appears despicable.

We cannot sympathize with him so we despise him, perhaps unjustly. The weakness of sorrow is only agreeable when it arises from what we feel for others more than from what we feel for ourselves.

A son, upon the death of his loving and respectable father, may give way to it without much blame. His sorrow is based on a sympathy with his departed father. We readily enter into this humane emotion.

But we do not sypathize with him as much if he indulged in sorrow from a misfortune which affected himself only. He would disgrace himself forever to all gallant people if he showed sorrow while he was:

  • reduced to beggary and ruin
  • exposed to the most dreadful dangers
  • led out to a public execution

Their compassion for him, however, would be very strong and sincere. But they would not pardon him, who has been exposed to the eyes of the world because their compassion would still be less than his sorrow.

  • His behaviour would affect them with shame rather than with sorrow.
  • They would lament the dishonour which he had thus brought on himself.

The intrepid Duke of Biron often braved death in the field. His memory was disgraced when he wept on the scaffold when he saw his condition. He remembered the favour and glory he lost from his own rashness!

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