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2 Adam Smiths solution to the
4 paradox of tragedy
6 Arby Ted Siraki
13 Tragedy is a subject that has occupied the thoughts of many theorists since
14 antiquity. Of special interest is the so-called paradox of tragedy the problem
15 of why spectators derive pleasure from viewing distressing scenes which
16 became of central importance during the second half of the eighteenth
17 century. Unlike many of his philosophically inclined contemporaries, Adam
18 Smith never wrote an essay on tragedy. Dramatic theory and the theatre in
19 general were, however, never far from his thoughts. In his biographical
20 memoir of Smith, Dugald Stewart mentions that Smith was especially
21 interested in the history of the theatre, both in ancient and modern times,
22 and that drama and the theatre were a favourite topic of his conversation,
23 and were intimately connected with his general principles of criticism
24 (Stewart 1980, Account III.15). Furthermore, Stewart suggests that these
25 topics were to be included in Smiths completed essay on the imitative arts.
26 The Theory of Moral Sentiments also brims with allusions to the theatre and
27 tragic drama.
28 In his later years, Smith wrote of a work he had upon the anvil, a sort of
29 Philosophical History of all the dierent branches of Literature, of Philosophy,
30 Poetry and Eloquence, which was never realized (Smith 1987, Corr. Letter
31 248 to Duc de la Rochefoucauld, 1 Nov. 1785). Unfortunately for posterity,
32 on his deathbed Smith ordered no fewer than sixteen folio volumes of manu-
33 scripts to be destroyed, a request faithfully carried out by his literary execu-
34 tors, Hutton and Black, and it is impossible to say precisely what was
35 burnt (Campbell and Skinner 1982: 223). Fortunately, in 1795, ve years after
36 Smiths death, Essays on Philosophical Subjects appeared, a collection of
37 Smiths essays on various subjects, of which he apparently thought highly
38 enough to preserve them. In addition, we now possess notes for some of his
39 unpublished works, including his Lectures on Jurisprudence and Lectures on
40 Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. These essays, along with the two major works
41 published in his lifetime, reveal Smiths comprehensive interdisciplinary
42 interests. The pieces in Essays on Philosophical Subjects further demonstrate
43 Smiths interest in aesthetics, a subject he also refers to in his two major
44 works. In fact, some commentators have argued that for Smith, virtually all
45 human endeavour has an aesthetic impulse: the impetus to obtain trinkets, to
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214 Arby Ted Siraki

1 engage in scientic and philosophical speculation, and to sympathize are all
2 fundamentally aesthetic in nature.1
3 Given Smiths interest in drama and aesthetics, it does seem odd that he did
4 not contribute at all to the mid-eighteenth-century debate on tragic pleasure.
5 Scholars have pondered the absence of a Smithean tragic theory. J.C. Bryce
6 asks, why does not Smith of all critics tackle the problem of the pleasure
7 aorded by tragedy? (Bryce 1983: 20). Gloria Vivenza similarly observes that
8 [n]owhere, if I am not mistaken, does Smith adequately treat the problem
9 of the enjoyment aorded by tragedy (Vivenza 2001: 164). This is all the
10 more strange since Smiths close friend, David Hume, contributed a famous
11 solution to the problem, and the period during which Smith ourished was a
12 particularly fecund one for the subject. Perhaps Smiths projected, yet unrea-
13 lized, Philosophical History would have dealt with the problem. Regardless
14 of the reason, we have no explicit statement from Smith on tragedy, apart
15 from a few obiter dicta.
16 Despite this, I argue that we do have Smiths theory of tragedy, including
17 his solution to the paradox of tragedy.2 We need but to draw it out from
18 The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS).3 The central concept in TMS is
19 sympathy, which is also Smiths solution to the paradox of tragedy. More
20 specically, it is the pleasure of mutual sympathy stressed in Smiths for-
21 mulation that overcomes the negative emotions occasioned by distressing
22 scenes. Smith diers from noteworthy eighteenth-century solutions by reject-
23 ing explanations based on self-interest and artice or the consciousness of
24 ction. Smith dissolves the distinction between art and reality: his theory is
25 hence better equipped to explain more immediate tragedies, such as execu-
26 tions; it also derives some of its pleasure from a recognition of moral beauty,
27 which occurs during the ideal sympathetic exchange. This essay will trace the
28 line of thought on the paradox of tragedy beginning with Hobbes, then
29 describe Smiths own theory and situate it in the then ongoing debate, com-
30 paring and contrasting it to those popular in the eighteenth century, namely,
31 those of Addison, Hume and Burke.
32 Though Thomas Hobbes did not directly theorize on tragedy, his views had
33 long been inuential among those who did.4 Hobbes popularized the Lucre-
34 tian return upon ourselves, that is, the pleasure inherent in the spectators
35 consciousness of immunity from perceived danger.5 Lucretius opens the
36 second book of his The Nature of the Universe (De Rerum Natura) thus:
38 [w]hat joy it is, when out at sea the stormwinds are lashing the waters,
39 to gaze from the shore at the heavy stress some other man is enduring!
40 Not that anyones aictions are in themselves a source of delight; but to
41 realize from what troubles you yourself are free is a joy indeed.
42 (Lucretius 1951, II.15: 60)
44 Granted, Lucretius was not writing on tragedy, but this provided the source
45 for one strain of thought on the subject of the paradox of tragedy since the
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The paradox of tragedy 215

1 Renaissance. In a passage in his Human Nature, Hobbes uses the same
2 example as Lucretius:
4 from what passion proceedeth it, that men take pleasure to behold from
5 the shore the danger of them that are at sea in a tempest, or in ght, or
6 from a safe castle to behold two armies charge one another in the eld? It
7 is certainly, in the whole sum, joy; else men would never ock to such a
8 spectacle. Nevertheless there is in it both joy and grief: for as there is
9 novelty and remembrance of our own security present, which is delight;
10 so there is also pity, which is grief; but the delight is so far predominant,
11 that men usually are content in such a case to be spectators of the misery
12 of their friends.
13 (Hobbes 1966, IX.19: 512)
15 Hobbes thus emphasizes the remembrance of our own security as the
16 delightful factor that overpowers the painful emotions. As one modern
17 commentator has succinctly put it, Hobbess solution is of the thank-God-
18 its-not me sort (Feagin 1998: 449).
19 Joseph Addison was the rst British eighteenth-century theorist of note to
20 attempt an explanation of the pleasure derived from tragedy, and in many
21 ways he follows the Hobbesian solution. Addison devoted several papers of
22 The Spectator to tragedy in general,6 but his solution to the paradox of tra-
23 gedy occurs in his ninth paper in the series, The Pleasures of the Imagination.
24 Addison begins by asking why such passions as are very unpleasant at all
25 other times, are very agreeable when excited by proper descriptions. He
26 argues that the spectators pleasure does
28 not arise so properly from the description of what is terrible, as from the
29 reection we make on our selves at the time of reading it. When we look
30 on such hideous objects, we are not a little pleased to think we are in no
31 danger of them. [O]ur pleasure does not ow so properly from the grief
32 which such melancholy descriptions give us, as from the secret compar-
33 ison which we make between our selves and the person who suers. Such
34 representations teach us to set a just value upon our own condition, and
35 make us prize our good fortune which exempts us from the like calamities.
36 (Addison 1982, No. 418: 393)7
38 Like Hobbes, Addison emphasizes the spectators security and secret
39 comparison between his own situation and that of the suerer. However, he
40 argues that distance is necessary for this reection and its concomitant pleasure
41 to occur; the reection would be impossible if the scene in question were too
42 close to us in time or space. Pleasure would be impossible in this case because
44 the object presses too close upon our senses, and bears so hard upon us,
45 that it does not gives us time or leisure to reect on our selves. Our thoughts
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216 Arby Ted Siraki

1 are so intent upon the miseries of the suerer, that we cannot turn them
2 upon our own happiness.
3 (No. 418: 394)
5 What is important for Addison is the assumption that spectators (or readers)
6 are conscious that what they are witnessing is a feigned representation. Thus,
7 Addison tempers the Lucretian/Hobbesian emphasis on the self by arguing
8 for the Aristotelian notion of the inherent pleasure of imitation: regardless of
9 the object imitated, any thing that is disagreeable when looked upon, pleases
10 us in apt description (No. 418: 392).
11 David Hume oered his solution to the paradox of tragedy in his essay Of
12 Tragedy, which was published along with other essays in 1757. Humes
13 solution to the paradox was relatively simple: it is the eloquence or artistry
14 of the drama that converts the unpleasant emotions into pleasant ones.
15 Hume writes:
17 The genius required to paint objects in a lively manner, the art employed
18 in collecting all the pathetic circumstances, the judgment displayed in
19 disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble talents, together with
20 the force of expression, and beauty of oratorical numbers, diuse the
21 highest satisfaction on the audience, and excite the most delightful
22 movements. By this means, the uneasiness of the melancholy passions
23 is not only overpowered and eaced by something stronger of an opposite
24 kind; but the whole impulse of those passions is converted into pleasure
25 The passion, though, perhaps, naturally, and when excited by the simple
26 appearance of a real object, it may be painful; yet is so smoothed, and
27 softened, and mollied, when raised by the ner arts, that it aords the
28 highest entertainment.
29 (Hume 1987: 21920, 223)8
31 Hume oers two exceptions to the view expressed in this passage: rst, like
32 Addison, he argues that the passion cannot be converted if the spectator
33 be too deeply concerned in the events. He oers the example of Lord
34 Clarendon, a royalist, who hurries over the kings [Charles Is] death, without
35 giving us one circumstance of it for this very reason (223).9 The other is
36 Nicholas Rowes drama The Ambitious Stepmother, a play that is too bloody
37 and atrocious, which excites horror as will not soften into pleasure (224).10
38 Though he does not explicitly argue for the requisite consciousness of ction,
39 as Addison does, Humes emphasis on eloquence (or art) presupposes
40 ctional or at least mediated representations.
41 Edmund Burkes Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the
42 Sublime and Beautiful appeared in the same year as Humes essay. A com-
43 prehensive treatise on aesthetics, it nonetheless discusses tragic pleasure
44 briey. Burke begins by noting that we are never indierent spectators and
45 that it is chiey through sympathy that poetry, painting, and the other
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The paradox of tragedy 217

1 aecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are
2 often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself .
3 Burke takes issue with those theories which attribute the pleasure either to
4 relief that the story is no more than a ction or to the consciousness of our
5 own freedom from the evils which we see represented. Burke disagrees
6 because such theorists mistakenly attribute such pleasure to the reasoning
7 faculty when in fact the pleasure arises from the mechanical structure of our
8 bodies, or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds (Burke 1998,
9 I.xiii: 91).
10 Unlike Addison and Hume, Burke maintains the comparative weakness of
11 the imitative arts, and contends that we shall be much mistaken if we attri-
12 bute any considerable part of our satisfaction in a tragedy to a consideration
13 that tragedy is a deceit. In fact, Burke unequivocally states that the nearer a
14 tragedy approaches reality, the more perfect [is] its power. Thus, not only
15 does Burke blur the distinction between art and reality, he privileges the
16 latter. In fact, in a bold passage Burke claims that the announcement of an
17 execution during the most sublime and aecting tragedy would empty the
18 theatre, an idea with which neither Addison nor Hume could agree (I.xv: 93).
19 Burke argues that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the
20 misfortunes and pains of others (I.xiv: 92). He goes further still by suggesting
21 that there is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon
22 and grievous calamity; so that whether the misfortune is before our eyes, or
23 whether they are turned back to it in history, it always touches with delight
24 (I.xv: 93). Though it seems as if Burke is endorsing the Hobbesian/Lucretian
25 view, this is not the case: Burke believes in the benevolent nature of this
26 attraction since it is grounded in providence, and it compels us never to be
27 indierent:11
29 [A]s our Creator has designed that we should be united by the bond
30 of sympathy, he has strengthened that bond by a proportionable delight;
31 and there most where our sympathy is most wanted, in the distresses
32 of others. If this passion was simply painful, we would shun with the
33 greatest care all persons and places that could excite such a passion.
34 (Burke 1988, I.xv: 923)
36 Thus Burkes solution is more benevolent than those of Hobbes and
37 Addison, and it dismisses the role of art and the consciousness of ction in
38 the pleasure of tragedy.
41 Solutions to the paradox of tragedy predicated on self-love were moribund by
42 the second or third decade of the eighteenth century, to be replaced by more
43 sympathetic and benevolent theories, of which Burkes is one (Wasserman
44 1947: 297). Smiths theory follows this benevolent trend of thinking on the
45 subject. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Smiths solution to the paradox of tragic
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218 Arby Ted Siraki

1 pleasure is sympathy, not the (in)famous Lucretian return upon ourselves.
2 Smith begins TMS by explaining the principle of sympathy, which is common
3 to everyone. Like Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry, Smith in The Theory of
4 Moral Sentiments takes as a given that all people, even the most selsh,
5 are possessed of principles which interest them in the fortune of others
6 (Smith 1976, TMS I.i.1.1). We thus have a natural capacity for sympathy,
7 which Smith uses in the broader sense of our fellow-feeling with any passion
8 whatever (TMS I.i.1.5). However, because of the epistemological gap that
9 exists between human beings, we can never know what another person feels:
10 it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are
11 the sensations of, say, our brother upon the rack (I.i.1.2). Thus, this sym-
12 pathy occurs in the imagination as opposed to the body. Further, a spectators
13 sympathy arises from the facts, not the emotions displayed: [s]ympathy,
14 therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passions, as from that
15 of the situation which excites it. Thus, spectators are capable of sympathizing
16 with the dead and mentally challenged, and feeling sentiments of which those
17 suerers are incapable (I.i.1.10).
18 Though Smith uses the term sympathy in a broad sense, he expatiates
19 on manifestations of distress and grief more than anything else: we are
20 more anxious to communicate to our friends our disagreeable than our
21 agreeable passions we derive still more satisfaction from their sympathy
22 with the former than from that with the latter (TMS I.i.2.3). This is because,
23 according to Smith, sympathy is the only balm for one who is aicted with
24 grief or any other unpleasant emotion: the sweetness of his [the spectators]
25 sympathy more than compensates the bitterness of that sorrow. The bitter
26 and painful emotions of grief and resentment more strongly require the
27 healing consolation of sympathy (I.i.2.5). According to Smith, nothing
28 pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the
29 emotions of our own breast [The] correspondence of the sentiments of
30 others with our own appears to be a cause of pleasure (I.i.2.2). Because of
31 the gap that exists between human beings, this sympathy can never be ideal;
32 complete unison between the sentiments of the spectator and those of the
33 suerer can never be achieved (I.i.4.6). Though unison of sentiments is
34 impossible, however, the suerer longs for the closest possible concord
35 (Smiths word) of sentiments, and for this reason attempts to atten his
36 passions so that a spectator may enter into them (I.i.4.78).
37 In TMS, Smith comes very close to saying that our experiences of real-life
38 distress and tragedy are the same, or at least very similar. As Charles Griswold
39 observes, [f]rom the beginning, Smith compares human life to spectacles
40 represented in plays (Griswold 1999: 65). Indeed, very early on in his
41 description of sympathy, Smith implicitly conates the two spheres:
43 [w]hatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person
44 principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought
45 of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator. Our joy for the
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The paradox of tragedy 219

1 deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as
2 sincere as our grief for their distress.
3 (TMS I.i.1.4)
5 Similarly, Smith says later that [o]ur sympathy with deep distress, is very
6 strong and very sincere. It is unnecessary to give an instance. We weep even at
7 the feigned representation of a tragedy (I.ii.5.3). In an energetic passage that
8 articulates his anti-exhibitionist (or stoical) preference, Smith writes:
10 [w]e are disgusted with that clamorous grief, which, without any
11 delicacy, calls upon our compassion with sighs and tears and importunate
12 lamentations. But we reverence that reserved, that silent and majestic
13 sorrow, which discovers itself only in the swelling of eyes, in the quivering
14 of the lips and cheeks It imposes the like silence upon us.
15 (TMS I.i.5.3)
17 This passage resembles something one would expect to nd in a treatise on
18 tragedy. Not only does Smith cite more literary texts than philosophical ones
19 in TMS (with the exception of Part VII), but he frequently claries his moral
20 theory using illustrations from tragedies, even when sympathy is not discussed
21 (see TMS I.ii.1.711, I.ii.2.34, I.ii.3.2, I.iii.1.9, I.iii.2.2, II.iii.3.5, III.6.12,
22 VI.ii.1.212).
23 Although Smith does not use the term tragedy to describe real-life
24 situations, he attenuates or dissolves the distinction between real and feigned
25 spectacles, and stresses the pleasure of mutual sympathy. Thus, for Smith, the
26 consciousness of ction12 and imitation do not account for the pleasure of
27 tragedy, or are at most irrelevant since this pleasure occurs in real life. Smith
28 is compelled to repudiate categorically theories of pleasure centering on the
29 self, and tries several times to demonstrate that sympathy, which, as some
30 would argue, itself may be pleasurable owing to considerations of self-love, is
31 in fact completely seless.13 Smith cannot agree with the argument of self-love
32 advanced by Lucretius, Hobbes and Addison since
34 [w]e run not only to congratulate the successful, but to condole with the
35 aicted The plaintive voice of misery, when heard at a distance, will
36 not allow us to be indierent about the person from whom it comes. As
37 soon as it strikes our ear, it interests us in his fortune, and, if continued,
38 forces us almost involuntarily to y to his assistance.
39 (TMS I.i.19, I.ii.3.5)
41 Like Burke, Smith argues that human beings are never indierent, but are
42 instinctively compelled to be interested in the distresses of others and to
43 attempt to relieve them using the only means available: sympathy.
44 Smiths dialogue with Hume is very fruitful, and claries Smiths position
45 on the subject of tragic pleasure. Not only were they friends in regular
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220 Arby Ted Siraki

1 communication with each other, but Hume made no secret of his objection to
2 Smiths answer. In a letter to Smith, Hume wrote:
4 I wish you had more particularly and fully provd, that all kinds of
5 sympathy are necessarily agreeable. This is the hinge of your system,
6 and yet you only mention it once. Now it would appear that there is a
7 disagreeable sympathy, as well as an agreeable It is always thought a
8 dicult problem to account for the pleasure, received from the tears and
9 grief and sympathy of tragedy; which would not be the case, if all sym-
10 pathy was agreeable. An hospital woud [sic] be a more entertaining place
11 than a ball. I am afraid this proposition has escaped you, or rather is
12 interwove with your reasonings in that place.
13 (Hume Corr. Letter 36, 28 July 1759)
15 It is worth noting Humes invocation of the paradox of tragedy, which
16 could not have been far from Smiths mind in this context. In addition,
17 though Smith never mentions Humes essay on tragedy in his works or
18 correspondence, he almost certainly had read it.14 Smith responded to Hume
19 in his footnote to the second edition of TMS:
21 It has been objected to me that as I found the sentiment on approbation,
22 which is always agreeable, upon sympathy, it is inconsistent with my
23 system to admit any disagreeable sympathy. I answer, that in the sentiment
24 of approbation there are two things to be taken notice of; rst, the sym-
25 pathetic passion of the spectator; and, secondly, the emotion which arises
26 from his observing the perfect coincidence between this sympathetic
27 passion in himself, and the original passion in the person principally
28 concerned. This last emotion, in which the sentiment of approbation
29 properly consists, is always agreeable and delightful. The other may either
30 be agreeable or disagreeable.
31 (TMS I.iii.1.9, n.)
33 Smith devotes the second chapter of Part I (The Pleasure of Mutual
34 Sympathy) to this concept, but Hume is correct to point out that the idea is
35 implied rather than vigorously stated. Smiths footnote thus claries and ela-
36 borates what was already there.15 This footnote in response to the objection
37 of a friend is itself the hinge on which Smiths solution to the paradox
38 of tragedy lies. Thus, regardless of what one is witnessing, the concord of
39 sympathy is always agreeable; disagreeable sympathy is an impossibility for
40 Smith. In the same letter, Hume suggested that Smith respond to the objec-
41 tion only if it appear[ed] to be of any weight (Corr. 36). Smith clearly
42 thought the addition was warranted.
43 Humes solution to the paradox of tragedy, which, as we have seen, hinges
44 on eloquence, assumes that one is witnessing an articial representation.
45 As Alex Neill suggests, Humes essay fails to take into account third-rate
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The paradox of tragedy 221

1 tragedies (Neill 1999: 119). In other words, Humes formula cannot account
2 for plays that are not well written, nor can it account for immediate
3 tragedies, that is, non-ctional tragic representations that are closer to the
4 spectator in time and/or space, such as recent war narratives or documentary
5 tragedies.16 For Hume, eloquence is the catalyst that converts or, to use his
6 own word, overpowers the negative emotions and renders them pleasurable.
7 For Smith, by contrast, art or linguistic considerations do not play a part:
8 the concord of sympathy is what overpowers the unpleasant emotions. The
9 pleasure of mutual sympathy can occur in real life or in a feigned tragedy:
10 Smiths formulation is better equipped to explain the pleasure derived from
11 real-life situations as well as forms that attenuate the distinction between
12 the real and non-real, namely, traumatic narratives which are closer to the
13 spectators in time and/or space.
14 As Smith dissolves the distinction between art and reality, or distance and
15 immediacy, there are no exceptions to the pleasure that sympathy can aord.
16 Addison claimed that the secret comparison spectators make is precluded
17 when a scene is immediately before them, and, as noted earlier, Hume also
18 argued that the painful passions cannot be converted into pleasure if the
19 spectator be too deeply concerned in the events. For Smith, however, we can
20 feel a pleasurable sympathy in practically any circumstance. Many of Smiths
21 examples demonstrating sympathy press very closely, including a brother on
22 the rack (TMS I.i.1.1), and a man whose leg had just been blown o by a
23 cannon shot (TMS III.3.26). Whatever the spectators feelings about the
24 horror of these situations themselves, for Smith, he or she can derive a certain
25 pleasure from observing that the manifested emotions of the suerers in those
26 situations are apt: the concord of feelings between suerer and spectator
27 remains pleasurable even here aords, indeed, almost the only agreeable
28 sensation that the suerer is capable of receiving in such circumstances
29 (TMS I.i.2.2). Like Burke, Smith says that we can feel sympathetic pleasure
30 even at a public execution (TMS I.iii.2.10), something that Addisons and
31 Humes solutions preclude.17
32 It is important to stress that the imagination is central to sympathy in
33 representations and real life: for Smith, real life is judged as a tragedy and
34 tragedies as real life. However, at times it appears that Smith distinguishes
35 between real life and tragedies. Smith argues[t]he loss of a leg may generally
36 be regarded as a more real calamity than the loss of a mistress. It would be a
37 ridiculous tragedy, however, of which the catastrophe was to turn upon a loss
38 of that kind. A misfortune of the other kind, how frivolous soever it may
39 appear to be, has given occasion to many a ne one and [w]hat a tragedy
40 would that be of which the distress consisted in a colic! Yet no pain is more
41 exquisite (TMS II.ii.1.7, I.ii.1.11). However, Smith makes this distinction
42 only to emphasize his claim that spectators cannot sympathize with bodily
43 distress, whether in real life or a tragedy: And this is the case of all the
44 passions which take their origin from the body: they excite either no sympathy
45 at all, or such a degree of it, as is altogether disproportioned to the violence
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222 Arby Ted Siraki

1 of what is felt by the suerer (TMS I.ii.1.5). A person who lost a leg in front
2 of our eyes would not elicit sympathy, unless that person demonstrated a stoic
3 fortitude that we could admire (TMS I.ii.1.12). Smith illustrates this by using
4 the example of hunger: spectators cannot sympathize with the hunger felt by
5 the people they read about in the journal of a sea voyage; since they do not
6 grow hungry by reading the description, [they] cannot properly, even in this
7 case, be said to sympathize with their hunger (I.ii.1.1). However, spectators
8 can sympathize with the distress which excessive hunger occasions [and]
9 readily conceive the grief, the fear and consternation (TMS I.ii.1.1).
10 In other words, spectators can sympathize with the distresses or feelings
11 that take their origin from the imagination (TMS I.ii.1.5). In the same
12 way, a spectator may sympathize with the fears or fortitude of one who is
13 about to be executed, but not that persons potential physical distress (TMS
14 I.iii.2.10).
15 The possible aesthetic relation between The Theory of Moral Sentiments
16 and Burkes Philosophical Enquiry has not been explored in any detail.18 J.T.
17 Boulton,19 Earl Wasserman20 and Walter John Hipple21 all briey mention
18 Smith vis--vis Burke. However, none of these critics, nor anyone since, has
19 gone beyond merely mentioning a possible connection. Burke not only
20 received a gift of TMS from Hume soon after its publication, but he later
21 expressed his thanks for the gift and for the privilege of Smiths acquaintance
22 (Corr. Letter 38, 10 Sept. 1759). In addition, in 1759 in the Annual Register a
23 fulsome review of Smiths work appeared that has been unanimously attrib-
24 uted to Burke. Burke praises Smiths system as one of the most beautiful
25 fabrics of moral theory, that has perhaps ever appeared (Burke 2000 [1759]:
26 778). Unfortunately, neither Burkes letter nor his review makes any
27 connection to his or any other aesthetics. What is signicant, however, is the
28 conclusion of Burkes review: it reproduces the whole rst chapter of TMS,
29 Of Sympathy, so that readers may observe the basis of [Smiths] theory
30 (Burke 2000 [1759]: 78). This makes perfect sense since Burke introduces the
31 term sympathy in his very brief exposition on tragedy in his Philosophical
32 Enquiry. Whereas Burke had spent perhaps two pages on the subject in his
33 discussion of tragedy without going into any detail as to the mechanism of
34 sympathy, Smith expatiates on this concept, which ends up correcting and
35 illuminating Burkes exposition.
36 Though Humes solution to the problem was very dierent from Smiths,
37 Burkes treatment appears at rst glance to be very similar. Hipple
38 groups Burke and Smith together, given their insistence on instinctive
39 delight. This instinctive delight was advocated by Burke and others, but to
40 characterize Smith thus is a little inaccurate since his formulation of sympathy
41 is far more complex. Burkes solution, grounded as it is in sympathy, is very
42 mechanistic: his entire book, in fact, is partly a reaction against Lockeans and
43 rationalists, that is, those who believed that there are no innate ideas and that
44 human beings are ruled by reason and are in conscious control of themselves.
45 It is unclear whether Smith had Burkes aesthetics in mind while he was
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1 writing TMS, although that seems likely.22 Smiths solution to the paradox of
2 tragedy, like Burkes, is the pleasure of sympathy, but his construction of the
3 concept is far more elaborate and less mechanistic.
4 Smith diered from his predecessors by insisting that sympathy, even in our
5 narrower sense of compassion, is not an automatic, knee-jerk reaction. The
6 Abb Du Bos, for instance, who was well-known and appreciated in Britain,
7 wrote that
9 [l]es larmes dun inconnu nous meuvent mme avant que nous sachions
10 le sujet qui le fait pleurer. Les cris dun homme qui ne tient nous
11 que par lhumanit, nous font voler son secours par un mouvement
12 machinal qui prcde toute dliberation.
13 (Du Bos, Rexions Critiques sur la Posie et sur la Peinture,
14 1719, I.39, cited in Marshall 1986: 169)23
16 These theorists argued that, in Smiths words, sentiments are transfused
17 from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge
18 of what excited them in the person principally concerned (TMS I.i.1.6).
19 Conversely, Smiths moral theory is less instantaneous and takes into
20 account the mediating function of the imagination. Sympathy is only possible
21 through an act of the imagination since it is only thus that we can come close
22 to bridging the epistemological gap that exists between human beings.
23 Smiths emphasis on imagination, however, should not obscure the
24 rational component of his construction: Smiths requisite act of the imagina-
25 tion entails a process of determining whether the sentiments on display
26 seem t for their object. As mentioned earlier, Smiths sympathy requires a
27 knowledge of facts and context to reach such a decision, which is more
28 important than any manifestations of emotion. It is for this reason that
29 sympathy, in Smiths sense, is very broad, in a way Smith himself recognized:
30 a spectator is capable of sympathizing with someones grief, for instance, even
31 if the suerer does not really feel any (recall the possibility of sympathizing
32 with the dead). Thus, Smiths construction of sympathy is more deliberate,
33 conscious and mediated than Burkes: it requires an act of judgment and
34 distance.
35 Unlike Burke, Smith aords us an apparatus for judging good from bad
36 articial tragedies. In the same way that a spectator would judge the passions
37 of a real-life suerer, a spectator would likewise judge the passions of, say,
38 Hamlet, and determine whether the sentiments felt and expressed are appro-
39 priate. Approbation is a key component of Smiths construction of sympathy,
40 which Burkes formulation lacks. Smith writes: [t]o approve of the passions of
41 another, therefore, as suitable to their objects, is the same thing as to observe
42 that we entirely sympathize with them (TMS I.i.3.1). As approbation is
43 commensurate with sympathy, it is therefore subject to the same pleasure as
44 sympathy. This perhaps explains Smiths denunciation of the abrogation of the
45 dramatic unities of time and place in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.
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1 He does not complain about their absence on aesthetic grounds, but episte-
2 mological ones:
4 Tis not then from the interruption of the deception that the bad eect of
5 such transgressions of the unity of time proceed; it is rather from the
6 uneasiness we feel in being kept in the dark with regard to what happened
7 in so long a time Many important events must have passed in that
8 time which we know nothing of.
9 (Smith 1983, LRBL ii.867)
11 Smith argues that the violation of the unity of place has the same failing: [i]n
12 this case the distance is so great that we are anxious to know what has happened
13 in the interval betwixt them (LRBL ii.89). As mentioned earlier, Smith
14 stresses that it is not the manifested emotions which lead to sympathy, but a
15 knowledge of the context and facts that occasioned them. Smith here follows
16 his never to be forgotten teacher Francis Hutcheson,24 who remarked that:
18 another strong reason of this [the attraction to tragedies], is the moral
19 Beauty of the Characters and Actions which we love to behold. For
20 I doubt, whether any Audience would be pleasd to see ctitious Scenes of
21 Misery, if they were kept strangers to the moral Qualitys of the Suerers, or
22 their Characters and Actions. As in such a case, there would be no Beauty
23 to raise Desire of seeing such Representations, I fancy we would not expose
24 our selves to Pain alone, from Misery which we knew to be ctitious.
25 (Hutcheson 2004, II.5.8: 160)
27 Hutcheson then argues that it is because of this attraction to moral
28 beauty that people ocked to see the gladiators. A spectator in possession of
29 all the relevant facts viewing a morally beautiful character will be better
30 able to approve of that character and thus feel the sympathetic pleasure.
31 Though Smith dispenses with some of Hutchesons ideas, most notably the
32 moral sense, his debt to his teacher here is clear.
33 Smith stresses the stoical aspect of his construction of sympathy, link-
34 ing sympathy to other peoples reactions to pains rather than to the pains
35 themselves. Admiration, which is complete sympathy and approbation, mixed
36 and animated with wonder or surprise occurs during the ideal sympathetic
37 exchange. Smith illustrates this idea using the example of Cato Uticensis, a
38 tragic hero popular in the eighteenth century, whose fortitude and tranquillity
39 in the face of adversity and the necessity of destroying himself provides a
40 spectacle which even the gods themselves might behold with pleasure and
41 admiration (TMS I.iii.1.14). Smith insists that sympathy is not mere
42 compassion: for sympathy to occur, approbation or admiration must be present.
43 It is for this reason that it is possible to sympathize with a man whose leg has
44 just been blown o by a cannon shot: spectators cannot sympathize with
45 his physical pain, but they can sympathize with and approve of or admire his
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1 reaction to that calamity. Though Burke does not use the word compassion,
2 his use of the word sympathy is roughly synonymous with it. For Smith,
3 sympathy (in our narrower sense) is not enough: Smiths tragic theory of
4 course involves this, but requires approbation, as does his moral theory in
5 general.
6 Like Hutcheson, then, Smith does not merely privilege pity or compassion,
7 but unlike many of his contemporaries, he emphasizes the morally con-
8 structive function of tragedy. As a modern reader, Hathaway bemoans the
9 eighteenth-century
11 patent concern with empirical psychologizing. The average critic then was
12 so intent upon discovering the spectators reaction to a work of art that he
13 lost sight of the work of art itself. Especially he lost sight of moral
14 problems it did not often occur to him that our pleasure from tragedy
15 is somehow connected with our attitudes toward the moral problems to
16 which we are introduced by a tragedy.
17 (Hathaway 1947: 688)
19 Smiths solution, though based on sympathy, avoids this problem by adding
20 a pleasurable moral dimension that was lacking previously.
21 Smiths solution to the paradox of tragedy, whether satisfactory or not,
22 has been overlooked by literary-aesthetic history. Whether his solution was
23 inuential or not is dicult to tell, especially since it seems to have escaped
24 his contemporaries.25 Smith formulated his own theory, which elaborates on
25 Burkes brief exposition, and which also ts into the debate at the time: Smith
26 can be situated in one of two lines of thought on the subject during the
27 century, namely, the benevolent line, which was predicated on sympathy.
28 Smith, however, does not merely follow his predecessors: the uniqueness of his
29 solution lies in his more complex construction of sympathy, which requires
30 the mediation of the imagination and ratiocination. Again, why Smith never
31 wrote a piece devoted to the subject or, if he did write such a piece, why it
32 has not survived remains unclear. What is clear is that such ideas were never
33 far from Smiths mind, and we can infer from the writings he did publish his
34 solution to the paradox of tragedy.
36 Acknowledgements
38 I would like to thank Samuel Fleischacker and Kathryn Sutherland for their
39 useful comments and questions. My thanks are also due to Frans De Bruyn,
40 whose suggestions were instrumental in clarifying some of the ideas
41 presented here.
43 Notes
44 1 Charles Griswold has argued that, for Smith, [a]ll of commerce depends on the
45 love of beauty, and that Smiths pleasure of sympathy is what one might call
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226 Arby Ted Siraki

1 aesthetic, because it consists of the apprehension of harmony [and] symmetry
2 (1999: 331, 111). John R. Harrison similarly concludes that aesthetic considera-
tions and the faculty of imagination played a considerable role in the formation of
3 Smiths philosophical system (1995: 91).
4 2 Though scholars have missed Smiths contribution to tragic theory, this is not to
5 say that they have completely overlooked or neglected the dramatic dimension
6 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Jonas Barish observes that in The Theory of
7 Moral Sentiments, we are in the theater(1981: 245). David Marshall has demon-
strated that Smiths spectatorial morality is structured dramatically (1986: 16892).
8 Charles Griswold also makes several observations on the theatricality of TMS,
9 noting that, at the start of the book, the curtain goes up and the play begins
10 and that [f]rom the beginning, Smith compares human life to spectacles repre-
11 sented in plays (1999: 44, 65; see also pp. 4868). For brief discussions of TMS in
12 a similar context, see the essays by Fludernik (2001) and Murray (2003).
3 Like Smith, Thomas Hobbes never wrote directly on tragedy, but this has not
13 prevented posterity from constructing a Hobbesian tragic theory. See C.D. Thorpe
14 (1940: 1434), and Marvin Carlson, who remarks on Hobbess contributions (1993:
15 129). The reader will discover more of Smiths dramatic theory in TMS than
16 anywhere else. I argue elsewhere for Smiths comprehensive tragic theory, but for
17 reasons of space and coherence, this paper will only examine his solution to the
problem of tragic pleasure.
18 4 Baxter Hathaway traces the rst application of Hobbess ideas to tragic theory
19 to Paul Hameliuss remarks in Die Kritik der englischen Literatur des 17 und 18
20 Jahrhunderts, published in 1897 (Hathaway 1947: 674).
21 5 For the reception and use of the Lucretian doctrine in Europe from the Renaissance
22 onwards, see Hathaway (1947). The Lucretian explanation was adopted as early as
1586 by Malespini, and continued well into the eighteenth century, despite oppo-
23 sition from well-known dissenting voices. Hathaway cites John Dennis, Joseph
24 Trapp, LAbb du Bos, and John Upton, among others, as theorists who subscribed
25 to the idea (1947: 67683).
26 6 See Nos. 39, 40, 42, 44.
27 7 Francis Hutcheson similarly argued that the best tragedies are those that
occasion pity yet never make spectators repine at providence (Hutcheson 1972
28 [1728], I.iii.V.3: 73).
29 8 Though he does not expatiate on tragedy, Alexander Gerard follows Hume in
30 emphasizing the consciousness of ction as a requirement for enjoying tragedy, in
31 addition to the classic Aristotelian/Addisonian emphasis on the implicit pleasure of
32 imitation. See Gerards An Essay on Taste (1759, I.iv: 545).
9 Hume goes on to remark that this same subject would seem the most pathetic and
33 most interesting, and, by consequence, the most agreeable to readers who were not
34 as close in time to it (2234).
35 10 The views of Smith and Hume on tragic decorum fall outside the scope of this
36 essay, but it is worth noting briey that Smith would probably agree with Horaces
famous prohibition (Ne pueros coram populo Medea trucidet [Medea should
not butcher her children in front of the audience]) and Humes objection to the
38 graphic violence in Rowes drama. However, Smiths greatest objection would not
39 be aesthetic: he would merely deem such scenes as unnecessary since we cannot
40 sympathize with physical pain, much less graphic violence. The contextual facts
41 and sentiments of the suering agent are enough.
11 Nearly a decade later, Kames wrote in his Elements of Criticism, sympathy, though
painful, is attractive, and attaches us to an object in distress, the opposition of self-
43 love notwithstanding, which should prompt us to y from it. And by this curious
44 mechanism it is, that persons of any degree of sensibility are attracted by aiction
45 still more than by joy (2005 [1765], 1.447: 309).
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1 12 Samuel Johnsons solution, like those of Addison and Hume, rests on this
2 assumption: [t]he delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of ction; if
we thought murderers and treasons real, they would please no more (Johnson
3 1978 [1765]: 312).
4 13 In a section of the text, in which Smith argues against Mr. Hobbes, and many of
5 his followers (Pufendorf and Mandeville are meant), Smith defends his construc-
6 tion of sympathy from charges of self-love:
[s]ympathy, however, cannot, in any sense, be regarded as a selsh principle.
8 When I sympathize with your sorrow or your indignation, it may be pre-
9 tended, indeed, that my emotion is founded in self-love When I condole
10 with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter into your grief I do not
11 consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suer, if I
12 had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die: but I consider what I
should suer if I was really you, and I not only change circumstances with
13 you, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon
14 your account, and not in the least upon my own. It is, therefore, not in the
15 least selsh A man may sympathize with a woman in child-bed; though it is
16 impossible that he should conceive himself as suering her pains in his own
17 proper person and character.
(TMS VII.iii.1.1, 1.4)
19 14 In one of his many letters to Smith, Hume informs him of the publication of his
20 Dissertations, including the essay on tragedy, and that Smith ha[d] read all the
21 Dissertations in Manuscript (Corr., Letter 22, March 1757).
22 15 In a draft of the footnoted response to Hume, Smith oers a musical metaphor to
clarify the pleasure of mutual sympathy, which again reveals the comprehensive
23 aesthetic basis of his thought: [t]wo sounds, I suppose, may, each of them taken
24 singly, be austere, and yet, if they are perfect concords, the perception of their
25 harmony and coincidence may be agreeable (TMS I.iii.1.9 n.).
26 16 In a recent article, Stacie Friend challenges the assumption that it is a prerequisite
27 of our taking pleasure in tragedy that the story be either ctional or, if non-
ction, then non-transparently represented (as by actors). She argues that
28 documentaries in particular, non-ction lms that do not use actors could
29 produce tragic pleasure (2007: 184). Smiths solution anticipates such arguments.
30 17 I am indebted to Samuel Fleischacker, who helped me tackle this potentially
31 problematic crux of Smiths argument.
32 18 It is worth mentioning Luke Gibbons (2003) who compares and contrasts the
two constructions of sympathy vis--vis colonialism and the Celtic anxiety of
33 conforming to Britishness.
34 19 In his introduction to Burkes Enquiry, Boulton points briey to a possible con-
35 nection, stating that Smiths construction of sympathy echoes Burke, though
36 giving greater prominence to the term imagination (1958: xlii)
20 Wasserman writes: [l]ittle was added to Burkes theory by the other critics of the
eighteenth century, but until the early nineteenth century the doctrine of sympathy
38 was almost consistently called upon to explain the pleasures of tragedy. Burkes
39 explanation was occasionally modied, and sometimes it was blended with others;
40 but it served Adam Smith and many others (1947: 299300).
41 21 Hipple writes that Hume could not assent to an explanation grounding our
enjoyment on an instinctive delight in compassiona notion advanced by Burke,
Adam Smith, Blair, Lord Kames, Bishop Hurd, Campbell, and a host of lesser
43 lights (1957: 50).
44 22 If a letter written by Dugald Stewart to one of Burkes biographers, James Prior, is
45 to be trusted, Smith expressed at Glasgow upon the publication of Burkes book
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228 Arby Ted Siraki

1 on the Sublime and Beautiful, that the author of that book would be a great
2 acquisition to the College if he would accept of a chair (Prior 1824: 37). Bonars
(1932) catalogue of Smiths library lists the ninth edition of Burkes Philosophical
3 Enquiry of 1782. However, this need not prove that Smith was not familiar with the
4 work earlier: Smiths library contains none of the novels of Samuel Richardson or
5 Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, yet he speaks highly of their moral ctions (TMS
6 III.3.14).
7 23 The tears of a stranger move us even before we know what is making him weep.
The cries of a man who is only related to us through common humanity make us
8 y to his aid via a mechanical impulse that precedes all deliberation. The transla-
9 tion is mine.
10 24 Corr. Letter 274 to Archibald Davidson, 16 Nov. 1787.
11 25 It is worth pointing out briey that two German contemporaries of Smith,
12 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Johann Gottfried Herder (2006), incorporated his
ideas into their dramatic theory (Raphael and Mace 1976: 2930). What they said
13 is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that Lessings Laocon
14 (1985) quotes Part I of TMS while discussing dramatic representations.
17 Bibliography
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19 London: Penguin Books.
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23 Boulton, J.T. (1958) Introduction in E. Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin
24 of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
25 Bryce, J.C. (1983) Introduction in A. Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres,
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