Insights from Adam Smith: On the Tempering Power of the Unsympathetic Observer

I’ve brought up Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to the conversation previously.

Smith begins this book by discussing the role of sympathy in society and then moves on to how understanding others’ sympathetic natures tends to temper our own emotional extremes.

“The mind… is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness. The breast is, in some measure, calmed and composed the moment we come into his presence. We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous. We expect less sympathy from a common acquaintance than from a fired: we cannot open to the former all those little circumstances which we can unfold to the latter…We expect still less sympathy from an assembly of strangers, and we assume, therefore, still more tranquility before them, and always endeavor to bring down our passion to that pitch which the particular company we are in may be expected to go along with. Nor is this only an assumed appearance: for if we are at all masters of ourselves, the presence of a mere acquaintance will really compose us, still more than that of a friend; and that of an assembly of strangers still more than that of an acquaintance.”

What Smith is getting at here is that by engaging with someone we don’t know or with whom we share no sympathetic background, we tend to temper the unbridled emotions that might otherwise pervade the interactions with someone who wholly shared in our anger, misery, or laughter.

I suppose this is why social media outlets are such a poor vehicle by which to discuss important topics. That tempering power is absent 1) because our social networks tend to be people we know well and with whom we are already sympathetic; and 2) because there is no face-to-face experience with the unsympathetic critic or participant, and therefore, the tempering nature of conversation cannot truly exist.

This is also the reason why politics is becoming so loud and partisan: we have no reason to move to a political middle where realistic and effective policies are most often discussed because everyone has their sympathetic listeners in their constituency, and everyone is comfortable being as obnoxious as they want.

What my goal with social media is becoming is to give people a few points and counterpoints to consider for when they do have important conversations with unsympathetic participants in real life–so that when emotions are tempered, finer reasoning together can succeed.

But I’m still learning how to do that.

There is also a profound point that he makes.

“Society and conversation, therefore, are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to… equal and happy temper which is so necessary to self-satisfaction and enjoyment.”

In essence, happiness and constancy are not to be found in solitary meditation alone, but are dependent on our relationships.

Much like what is taught in the New Testament–those who hear and do not act on what they learn in the world do not reap the benefits of a relationship with God. Christianity is a doctrine of relationships as is evident in the two Great Commandments: Loving God, and loving our neighbors. Once you have the important relationship in order (God), then comes the obligation to set aright relationships with those around us. By doing so, we become masters of ourselves.

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