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passage forms part of the wider work, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, published
in 1759. Smith’s concerns regarding slavery may originate in his placement as a
Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1751, at the University of Glasgow. Glasgow
was, of course, influential within the triangular trade – that which propagated
slavery – and which enriched the city. It is unlikely that, owing to the
pertinence of slaves to the city’s wealth, the custom of deriding “savage
nations” would have cause to diminish; thus, Smith’s emotive language –
“nations of heroes” – reveals his strong intent of educating his audience and
overcoming those immoral sentiments.

Smith admired slaves for their “magnanimity” and “self-command”, “assuming the
greatest indifference” (TMS, 205). This, Smith argues, is “almost beyond the
conception of Europeans” who contrarily are prone to an excess of sentiment. He
describes “a young French nobleman will weep in the presence of the whole court
upon being refused a regiment” (TMS, 207) where such excesses of sentiment
might “render a man … the object of hatred” (TMS, 243). Thus, Smith seems to
ascribe a certain nobility and dignity to those slaves, akin to that Stoic
indifference that Smith is so admirable of. Smith’s “nations of heroes” also
bears semblance to Rousseau’s representation of the noble savage, whose
praiseworthiness originates in his “inmost heart and inclinations.”

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use of the word “fortune” in the passage is interesting. It is distanced from
humanism, but also distinct from providence, given how elsewhere in the book,
God’s influence is presented through such monikers as “Nature.” Thus it adopts
a somewhat epicurean mantle where, to put it candidly, those “subjected
nations” are merely the subject of bad luck. Nonetheless, Smith’s observations
throughout TMS elucidate the ill-treatment of slaves. A slave, knowing he will
receive “no sympathy” from “his countrymen”, expresses “insensibility” (TMS,
205) which would not meet the affections of more civilized Europeans. The title
of the passage’s chapter concerns the Influence
of Custom and Fashion upon Moral Sentiments, it follows that the difficulty
in sympathising with a slave would establish and perpetuate the custom of their
ill-treatment. Smith raises himself above the mob in this respect; in the
Wealth of Nations he notes that a philosopher is distinguished by his “custom”
(WN, 29) and thus, he is not liable to the same “hostile passions” (TMS, 154)
that obscure his impartial spectator.

Smith presents those unvirtuous “wretches” as distinctly lacking moral
sentiment, it is somewhat ironic that Smith’s economic theory in the Wealth of
Nations advocates self-actualization, for the individual to “direct … that
industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value”, when
here he condemns that colonial pursuit of gold which, in itself, reflects an
individual’s pursuit of maximum profit. Perhaps it was Smith’s intention to
establish those moral foundations in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, such that
they would regulate his arguments in the Wealth of Nations. 

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