Monday, November 14, 2005

Was Smith Religious?

David R. Francis writing in the Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Mass.), 14 November, under Commentary: Economic Scene: A Weekly Column: “It’s true: Churchgoers are wealthier “, discusses recent research into the relationship between attending church (or temples or mosques). You can read the full article at:

Two paragraphs caught my attention:

“Economists have long had an interest in religion. Adam Smith's first book, written in 1759, dealt with human motives and activities under "a beneficent Providence." The Scottish professor of moral philosophy's second book, "Wealth of Nations," published in 1776, is regarded as the basis of capitalism.”

“Given their training, economists tend to think of religion as a type of market (as did Adam Smith) affected by both selfish interests and altruism.”

Apart from the usual problematic misstatement: "Wealth of Nations," published in 1776, is regarded as the basis of capitalism” and my usual comments ‘regarded by who’, and how was a book written in mid-18th century the ‘basis’ of a socio-economic phenomenon a century later?

Books do not create socio-economic systems; these evolves out of the existing socio-economic systems already in place and already undergoing processes that do not read books.
However, it is upon the religious interpolation into Smith’s 1759 Work that I wish to comment.

The case for a religious frame in Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” is not hard to make, given the way Smith wrote it and the language he used. Almost all interpretations of Smith’s Works find only a puzzle: was he a Christian or a Deist? They do not challenge the entire assumption of religiosity in his thinking.

The clearest statement of ‘Smith as a religious Deist’ is to be seen in the recent (brilliant) book by Jerry Evensky, “Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: a historical and contemporary perspective on markets, law, ethics, and culture” (Cambridge University Press, 2005: ISBN 0-521-85247-1).

Almost alone (itself a sign of scholarly risk) I have taken a different tack. I think Smith’s Works must be read in the historical context in which he wrote, in terms of both his family (his mother) and his community (Scottish public life in the 18th century). To read his text solely from the point of view of what the words say, and to disregard known aspects of the world in which he moved, is to miss out important, and ultimately, decisive circumstances that caused him to write in a certain manner.

I made a first attempt to cover this ground in “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” (2005) in chapter 8: “The religious climate”, but space precluded fully developing this theme (it was already 135,000 words in manuscript and the publisher’s limit was 70,000 words – I eventually managed to cut it to 92,000 and in the course sacrificed aspects of my arguments).

Briefly, Smith was not a natural rebel like his friend David Hume. Smith played by the rules, he did not rock the boat, he avoided head-to-head controversy and showed deference to the ‘great orders’ of society, and, advised other prudent men to do the same. He was brought up in an intensely religious household, under the close loving moral guidance of his widowed mother towards whom he was totally devoted.

He had disappointed her by not pursuing his original intention of being ordained into the Church as a Minister to serve in Scotland and instead left Oxford in 1746 to return to his mother’s home and seek employment as a tutor. He remained close to her all his life until she died in his household in Edinburgh in 1784. His mother’s influence can be seen in almost every step in his career from unemployed graduate to his first professorship in 1751, from her family contacts to the men who used their influence to promote his advances.

One necessary aspect of his behaviour throughout all his life was that he did not excite opposition from the religious zealots, of which Scotland had more than its share). These people patrolled the highways and byways of social life seeking signs of dissent and apostasy, and publicly humiliated those who fell foul of their paranoid theology. Smith lived within an intellectual open prison dominated by the clerics and the self-appointed guardians of religious (Christian) Protestantism to a degree seldom appreciated today (Iran is possibly a modern near example of the religious atmosphere in 18th century Scotland).

His works teem with hints that he was writing within this prudent straight-jacket. His public friendship with David Hume was one such broad hint, probably the boldest he made, though he was later to disappoint Hume in not agreeing in 1776 to posthumously publish the dying David’s ‘Dialogues concerning Religion’, but, as ever, the gentle David forgave him.

He carefully preserved, and saved from the fire that engulfed almost all of his unpublished papers in 1790, his own ‘juvenile’ essay on the ‘History of Astronomy’ (1743-48), which is another strong hint of his antipathies towards religion. He did not publish it himself, but It was published posthumously in 1795. In it he attacks ‘polytheism, and that vulgar superstition which ascribes all the irregular events of nature to the favour or displeasure of intelligent, though invisible beings, to gods, demons, witches, genii, fairies.’ Left unsaid is the accusation that the fallacies of Deism and Christian orthodoxy are just as guilty of the same superstitions, but no zealot could make a case to that effect the way it was written.

Each revised edition of “Moral Sentiments” successively diluted aspects of the religious imagery used throughout, most noticeably in the last revision of 1790, some years after his mother had died and his own death was near. Similarly, in “Wealth of Nations”, his last revised edition, completed just before he died, shows increased boldness in his attacks on mercantile political economy, going well beyond the ‘self-command’ he had practised in earlier editions and in his relationships with the men of influence in and around the British government.

Having chosen to make himself ‘busy’ from 1778-1790, in what was a ‘non-job’ for a philosopher as a Customs Commissioner, to avoid having to publish his Lectures in Jurisprudence containing his insights into the consequences of the US Constitution for the governance of Britain, he relaxed his self-censorship of his two great books enough to indicate the restraints he worked under all his adult life.

I have incorporated some of the arguments for these views in ‘Adam Smith’s Lost legacy’ and I will cover the ground more abundantly in my forthcoming book on Adam Smith for Palgrave’s series of Great Thinkers in Economics.


Blogger Rowland said...

This piece was most helpful. I am writing a book on Apocalyptic Prophets, religious and secular. You have confirmed my suspicions that the title 'Wealth of Nations' though a quotation from Isaiah, a Messianic, End Times prophet, was chosen by SMith purely on its merits as a well known and appropriate phrase. Adam SMith did not envisage a free trading New Jerusalem descending from the skies as a convclusion to history.

6:50 am  

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