Adam Smith: Sympathy and the Slack Rope

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith includes this gem, among his many “obvious observations” on fellow-feeling:

The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation. (4)

The image is marvelous, but the observation on class–notice that the “mob” does this–deserves attention as well. Just so, Smith also observes, when “we” wince if another receives a blow, when those of “delicate constitution” feel itching or or uneasiness on observing sores on a beggar, and when “men of the most robust make” recoil on witnessing diseased eyes (4-5).

At issue is who exactly “we” are. An audience drawn from an elevated class would be less likely to “writhe and twist.” The examples of the “sore eyes,” in case the audience would resist the mob’s sympathetic impulse, thus has an important rhetorical purpose: “that organ [the eye] being in the strongest man more delicate than any other part of the body is in the weakest” (5). While “delicate” constitution is not gendered only female, the “delicate sex” is a common euphemism for female gender. Our humanity unites us, even if what the strongest share with the weakest is only an extremely limited place of contact. In a counter-current to the surface rhetoric of fellow feeling, the connection between humans of widely differing social classes becomes increasingly attenuated as each example builds upon the previous. The eye, its delicacy, allows the strong man to intersect in weakness just to the strongest part of the weak.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969.

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2 Responses to Adam Smith: Sympathy and the Slack Rope

  1. Les says:

    Hey Wesley-

    Love the Smith quote. Came across a useful formulation of the “we” in the quote while reading Poe the other day:

    “It is forgotten that no individual considers himself as one of the mass. Each person, in his own estimate, is the pivot on which all the rest of the world spins round. We may abuse the people by wholesale, and yet with a clear conscience so far as regards any compunction for offending any one from among the multitude of which that “people” is composed. Every one of the crowd will cry “Encore! — give it to them, the vagabonds! — it serves them right” (“A Fable for the Critics, ER 815)

    Both quotes seem to foreground the importance of sympathy/sentiment. Interesting that Smith seems to posit a “mob” that is possessed of sympathy while Poe’s mob, naturally, is more vengeful.

  2. wraabe says:


    Thanks for sharing. Poe really does dissect each member of the we’s vanity so he can jab at each I’s wickedness. With apologies to Topsy,


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