Charles L. Griswold, Jr
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1998
Online Publication Date:November 2009
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511608964.006
Subjects: Eighteenth-century philosophy
The man of the most perfect virtue, the man whom we naturally love and revere the most, is he who joins, to the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, the most exquisite sensibility both to the original and sympathetic feelings of others. The man who, to all the soft, the amiable, and the gentle virtues, joins all the great, the awful, and the respectable, must surely be the natural and proper object of our highest love and admiration.Adam Smith, TMS III.3.35
Virtue occupies Smith's attention throughout the The Theory of Moral Sentiments and is the chief topic of an entire section (Part VI). Virtue is the “natural object of esteem, honour, and approbation”; it is that on which moral evaluation focuses (VII.i.2). “Virtue is excellence, something uncommonly great and beautiful” (I.i.5.6), and that excellence concerns primarily the perfection of self, though we also speak of virtuous or vicious action or conduct. Morality is to be understood primarily in terms of an ethics of character. In the course of an approving summary of Aristotle's ethical theory, Smith writes: “When we denominate a character generous or charitable, or virtuous in any respect, we mean to signify that the disposition expressed by each of those appellations is the usual and customary disposition of the person” (VII.ii.1.13). This, in turn, means that Smith must place significant weight on excellence of character, on the right “pitch” or “tenor” of the emotions, and on judgment. Smith is unusual, among modern moral philosophers, in according judgment so important a role.