Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1a

Different Accounts On the Nature of Virtue

by Adam Smith
4 minutes  • 686 words
Table of contents

1 Virtue is the temper of mind in the excellent and praise-worthy character. The nature of virtue may be reduced to three classes=

  1. The proper direction of all our feelings. These feelings may be virtuous or vicious according to:
  • their objects and
  • how much they pursue them.

Virtue therefore consists in propriety.


  1. Virtue is in the judicious pursuit of our own private interest and happiness through our selfish feelings. Virtue therefore consists in prudence.
  1. Virtue is in those feelings which only aim at the happiness of others. Therefore, disinterested benevolence is the only motive for virtue.

4 Virtue must either be:

  • ascribed indifferently to all our feelings when under proper government and direction; or
  • confined to some one class of them.

Our feelings are either:

  • selfish
  • benevolent

Therefore, if virtue cannot be assigned to all our feelings, then it must be confined to those which aim directly at the happiness of:

  • ourselves, or
  • others.

Therefore, if virtue does not consist in propriety, it must consist either in prudence or in benevolence.

Chapter 1: Moral Systems which make Virtue consist in Propriety

5 According to Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno, virtue consists in the propriety of conduct.

Plato’s System

6 In Plato’s system, the soul is as a little republic composed of three faculties or orders.

7 The first is the judging faculty, called ‘reason’. It determines:

  • the proper means for attaining any end
  • what ends are fit to be pursued
  • what relative value we should put on each

He saw it as having the right to be the governing principle of the rest. It lets us judge of:

  • truth and falsehood
  • propriety or impropriety

8 The desires often rebel against reason and have 2 classes:

  1. Those in the irritable part of the soul.


  • These are founded on pride and resentment.
  • These desires rise from what we commonly call ‘spirit’ or ’natural fire’.
  • Examples are:
    • ambition
    • animosity
    • the love of honour
    • the dread of shame
    • the desire of victory, superiority, and revenge
  1. Those in the lustful part of the soul leading to the love of pleasure which includes:


  • bodily desires
  • love of ease and security
  • sensual gratifications

9 We rarely break that conduct prescribed by reason. In our cool hours, we laid down that plan to ourselves as the most proper for us to pursue. We break it when prompted by those two sets of passions:

  • the ungovernable ambition and resentment,
  • the importunate solicitations of present ease and pleasure

These two sets of passions often mislead us. However, they are still necessary parts of human nature:

  1. The first defends us against injuries.


  • asserts our rank and dignity
  • makes us:
    • aim at noble and honourable acts
    • distinguish those who act in the same way.
  1. The second provides for bodily necessities.

10 The essential virtue of prudence was placed in the strength, acuteness, and perfection of reason.

According to Plato, prudence consisted in a just and clear discernment, founded on general and scientific ideas. The ends of those ideas were proper to be pursued. Its means for attaining them were proper.

11 Through reason, the irritable passions formed the virtue of fortitude and magnanimity when reason was strong enough to enable them to despise all dangers in the pursuit of honour.

According to Plato’s system, these irritable passions had a more noble nature than the lustful passions. On many occasions, they were considered as the auxiliaries of reason. They check and restrain the inferior and brutal desires.

He observed that when the love of pleasure prompts to do what we disapprove of, we:

  • are often angry at ourselves.
  • often become the objects of our own resentment.

The angry part of our nature is then called in to assist the rational against the lustful.

12 The 3 parts of our nature are:

  1. reason
  2. the irritable part
  3. the lustful part

The perfect concord of those three is called temperance, good temper, or sobriety and moderation of mind.

This happens when reason:

  • approved of the gratification aimed at by the irritable and lustful parts of the soul, and
  • commanded only what the irritable and lustful parts were willing to perform.

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