3002: A Response to Adam Smith

I want to introduce you to the German critic and playwright Gotthold Lessing, an important voice of the Enlightenment and a pretty forward-looking guy: in 1779, he wrote a play arguing that Jews, Christians, and Muslims could all get along, a thesis that is still pretty radical in many places. But his great critical work, and a landmark piece of aesthetic theory, was his 1766 book Laocoön, Or, the Limits of Painting and Poetry. And in it he takes on Adam Smith (whom he misidentifies as English) directly. Remember Smith’s contempt for Greek heroes who cry out in pain? Here’s Lessing:

[Philoctetes] whimpers, he cries aloud, he goes through the most frightful convulsions. To this behaviour it is that the reproach of offended propriety is particularly addressed. It is an Englishman who utters this reproach; a man, therefore, whom we should not easily suspect of a false delicacy. . . . All feelings and passions, he says, with which others can only slightly sympathize, are offensive when they are expressed too violently. “For this reason there is nothing more becoming and more unworthy of a man than when he cannot bear pain, even the most violent, with patience; but weeps and cries aloud. Of course we may feel sympathy with bodily pain. When we see that any one is about to get a blow on the arm or the shin-bone, and when the blow actually falls, in a certain measure we feel it as truly as he whom it strikes. At the same time, however, it it certain that the trouble we experience amounts to very little; if the person struck, therefore, sets up a violent outcry, we do not fail to despise him, because we are not at all in the mind to cry out with so much violence.” . . . Nothing is more fallacious than general laws for human feelings. The web of them is so fine-spun and so intricate that it is hardly possible for the most careful speculation to take up a single thread by itself and follow it through all the threads that cross it. And supposing it possible, what is the use of it? There does not exist in Nature a single unmixed feeling; along with every one of there there arise a thousand others simultaneously, the very smallest of which completely alters the first, so that exceptions on exceptions spring up which reduce at last the supposed general law itself to the mere experience of a few individual cases. We despise him, says the Englishman, whom we hear shriek aloud under bodily pain. No; not always; nor at first; not when we see that the sufferer makes every effort to suppress it; not when we know him otherwise as a man of fortitude; still less when we see him even in his suffering give proof of his fortitude, when we see that the pain can indeed force cries from him, but can compel him to nothing further — that he will rather submit to the longer endurance of this pain than change his opinions or his resolve in the slightest, even if he might hope by such a change to end his agony. And all this we find in Philoctetes. With the ancient Greeks moral greatness consisted in just as unchanging a love to friends as an unalterable hatred to enemies. This greatness Philoctetes maintains in all his torments. His pain has not so dried his eyes that they can spare no tears for the fate of his old friends. His pain has not made him so pliable that, to be rid of it, he will forgive his enemies and allow himself willingly to be used for their selfish purposes. And this rock of a man ought the Athenians to have despised because the surges that could not shake him made him give forth a cry?

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