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  • Regarding Others
  • Stewart Justman (bio)

Carefully crafted, lucid, humane, Tzvetan Todorov’s paper argues that as a condition of our being we seek the recognition of others. Like the infant who craves the gaze of the mother, we stand in need of affirmation. Even “masters” do. To be is to lack. In taking grown men back to infancy (the only state of nature we know of) and ascribing to them something like the dependence on the regard of others Rousseau assigns women, Todorov turns the tables on the masculine bias of the Western tradition. The need of recognition does not come down to the desire for glory, although neither does it reduce to vanity, that petty craving for admiration inveterately associated with women. According to Todorov, the discovery of the genuinely social nature of humanity was made in the eighteenth century, most notably by Rousseau and Adam Smith.

In Smith’s view, even in commercial society people are powerfully swayed by factors like sympathy, custom, and habit, and indeed the desire for esteem, not just by narrowly economic calculations. Economic activity itself is traced by Smith to “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” and that inclination in turn, to “the faculties of speech and reason.” 1 Even in our economic transactions it seems we are social beings. Our very nature disposes us to look to others for what we lack. As Todorov claims, we are incomplete creatures.

As a prime example of Smith’s estimation of the power of the social motive—as opposed to mere vanity—Todorov points to his statement: “From whence, then, arises that emulation which runs through all the different ranks of men, and what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it.” Note, however, what Smith says next: “It is the vanity, not the ease, or the pleasure, which interests us. But vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation.” 2 In citing Smith’s statement—up to the punch-line—as evidence of his belief that we are social and not just vain, Todorov may have missed the author’s point. In this case as in so many [End Page 83] others, Smith surveys the human scene with high irony, aware of the way big results spring from trifling motives and blind errors. Hence the mock-heroic tone of his observation: “Of such mighty importance does it appear to be, in the imaginations of men, to stand in that situation which sets them most in the view of general sympathy and attention. And thus, place [that is, eminence or precedence], that great object which divides the wives of aldermen, is the end of half the labours of human life” (TMS 57). “Great” and “mighty” act ironically in these passages, serving to diminish, not magnify. The author writes with a keen sense of the nothingness of our strivings, the vanity of human wishes. The economic competitor who sweats to win some kind of imagined glory; the baron who sells his patrimony for a diamond buckle; 3 the poor man’s son who enslaves himself to a dream of social prominence (TMS 181)—these are characteristic Smithian figures, busying themselves mightily about very little, seeking one end and compassing another. As much of an ironist as Swift or Pope or (given the differences cited by Todorov) Mandeville, Smith views our vanity with a kind of celestial smile. “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

But human vanity isn’t always a laughing matter to Smith, as he makes plain in the last edition of the Theory of Moral Sentiments. For the actor’s vanity plays on the spectator’s corruption: “The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society...

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pp. 83-93
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