It is easy to come away from the first chapter of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” feeling like the account of sympathy for the deceased is intended to be one of the central upshots of his view. The materials in this post and the previous posts are all from that first chapter (“Of Sympathy”), and the final paragraph (TMS 184.108.40.206) of that chapter is entirely about our sympathy for the deceased. That paragraph begins:
We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike on our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave; to be prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations.
First, note that Smith appears to simply be applying the theory already laid out to the case of the deceased. We know that they are buried in cold ground, excluded from conversation and society, and thus, on his account, we are prompted to imagine ourselves being buried in the cold ground, excluded from conversation and society, which generates the emotional response of misery/sadness, and thus, according to Smith, we feel sympathy for the deceased.
Second, because this is an account of sympathy for the deceased, we need to distinguish this from another emotional response we have to the death of another; ordinary sadness at our loss. When someone close to us dies, there is emotional pain and anguish which Smith’s account is not intended to address: the pain we feel for the loss we have endured. Of course, Smith’s account of sympathy is not intended to address such an original emotion, and so it is no problem that such an emotion is absent from this story.
Smith’s discussion continues:
Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity. The tribute of our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive the melancholy remembrance of their misfortune. That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. The happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly, is affected by none of these circumstances; nor is it the thought of these things which can ever disturb the profound security of their repose.
Here Smith alludes to the role of sympathy in consolation, something that he will return to in the next chapter (“Of the pleasure of mutual Sympathy”), and so I won’t say much about it here. The last sentence in that passage, however, is worth commenting on. This is where we can see relatively clearly, that sympathy for the deceased is a case of imagination-reality mismatch for Smith. As we saw in the previous discussion, it is not clear that there really is anything going wrong with feeling sympathy in such cases, though it is worth noting that this case differs from that of, say, sympathetic embarrassment for someone who is oblivious, because, plausibly, we cannot regard the target of sympathy in this case as committing an error of any sort (whereas the target of sympathetic embarrassment can easily be thought of as failing to have an emotional reaction that they should have). One thought that might help to unify both cases is to observe that both the oblivious individual and the deceased individual are not properly aware of being in the situation that prompts the sympathetic reaction. This could account for the mismatch in both cases, without presuming that anyone’s emotional reactions are improper, so long as emotional reactions occur in response to knowledge/belief/awareness, which seems plausible.
The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and then conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it affects and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.
In light of the imagination-reality mismatch in sympathy for the deceased, we have to wonder if sympathy for the deceased is a problematic aspect of the way sympathetic emotions are generated in us, or, if instead, there is something good about sympathy for the deceased coming about in this mismatch-y way. Smith seems to be concluding, here, that there is something good to be said for our sympathy for the dead in this regard. Specifically, it generates in us a fear of death, which he then claims is integral to the preservation of society. Obviously, to see why Smith thinks that fear of death is so integral to the preservation of society, we would need to look to material from later in Theory of Moral Sentiments, something I’ll have to take up another time.
Now, I’ve been excited about Smith’s account of sympathy for the deceased since I started reading TMS, but most people seem to be extremely skeptical when I tell them about it. For me, though, Smith’s account was “confirmed” in a fairly visceral way. When I imagine the things he describes in the opening of this paragraph, I react, and my reaction does seem to be triggered by imagining myself inhabiting the circumstances so-described. I’m not so overconfident in my introspective powers that I think this clinches the case for Smith, but it doesn’t strike me as straightforwardly wrong the way it seems to strike the people I’ve been telling about it (though perhaps the problem is in my telling of it, and not the theory itself).
The last thing I want to observe about this account is that it seems to address something of a puzzle for believers in the afterlife. Suppose one believes in an afterlife, and is reasonably confident that they will be spending it in heaven rather than hell. It seems difficult to say why such a person should fear death. Smith’s account of sympathy purports to account for the fear of death even in such persons, because even knowing that the deceased’s state is unaffected by the corruption of their body doesn’t interrupt the generation of sympathetic misery for the deceased (and this is what generates fear of death, for Smith).
Since I started reading Theory of Moral Sentiments, I’ve become increasingly of the opinion that it is one of the most under-rated works in the history of philosophy. I hope that these posts on Smith’s account of sympathy for the deceased, if nothing else, have conveyed the incredible richness of material in that work, given how much there is going on in just the first chapter.