1 - Rhetoric, Method, and System in The Theory of Moral Sentiments  pp. 40-75

Rhetoric, Method, and System in <i>The Theory of Moral Sentiments</i>

By Charles L. Griswold, Jr

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Of all the artificial relations formed between mankind, the most capricious and variable is that of author and reader.

Earl of Shaftesbury

In comparison with other great works of moral philosophy, from the Platonic dialogues to Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is stylistically distinctive. It is obvious at a glance that, for example, the “geometrical” style of Spinoza's Ethics would for Smith completely distort the subject matter. Smith's conception of ethics is fundamentally different from Spinoza's and simply does not lend itself to that kind of articulation. To overstate slightly: just as Spinoza's Ethics is modeled on geometrical deduction, so Smith's book is modeled on literary, indeed “dramatic,” representation. In neither case is the rhetoric of theorizing merely window dressing. The distinctive rhetoric of each is intrinsic to the argument.

Smith's extensive work on rhetoric dates back to his days in Edinburgh, a remarkable fact often forgotten by those who see him merely as an economist. His early and abiding interest in rhetoric signals at the very least an awareness that what one wishes to say or write to others is shaped by the demands of the audience one envisions and by the constraints of the medium in question. But to leave the matter there would be to accord rhetoric a merely instrumental role in the communication of ideas. We have reason to believe that Smith understood that the subject matter itself may require expression of a certain sort if it is to be represented accurately. His work evinces a sophisticated awareness of the problem of the relationship between form, content, and audience.