Adam Smith and the Theatre in Moral Sentiments

  • Laura J. Rosenthal
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions book series (Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions)


In the opening of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith pauses briefly to consider exchange itself. We cannot credit any wisdom for this capacity, he observes; instead, it is part of human nature to ‘truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’.1 Animals can cooperate, but ‘nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog’.2 Smith doesn’t see the need for further evidence or speculate as to why people exchange: ‘it belongs not to our present subject to inquire’.3 By contrast, in his earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith not only explores the equally fundamental operation of sympathy, but devotes considerable attention to demonstrating its existence and character. For Smith, that people sympathise is less obvious than that they exchange; the process thus demands considerable explanation. Smith opens with a similar statement about human nature: ‘How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it’.4 Unlike exchange, however, the evidence for this process demands continual attention throughout the text.


Human Nature Virtual Community Moral Sentiment Literary Genre Greek Tragedy 
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© Laura J. Rosenthal 2016

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  • Laura J. Rosenthal

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