Friday, November 24, 2006

Probable Sources for Smith's Use of the Metaphor of 'an invisible hand'

While at the Adam Smith conference at Columbia University, New York, in October, I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with Professor Pierre Force, a professor of French and an authority on 18th century literature. He is author of ‘Self-Interest before Adam Smith: a genealogy of economic science’, 2003, Cambridge University Press, which I read recently, and it is a tour de force, if I may say so in this context.

One of its many topics that particularly interested me was a discussion of references to an invisible hand in literature from classical Roman times to the 18th century (pp71-75). Readers will know that I regularly mention Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (3:2) and Daniel Defoe’s ‘Moll Flanders’ as sources for Smith’s inspiration to adopt the metaphor that others had used before him.

Pierre Force lists several other sources, some of which we may assume Smith knew of in copies of the relevant source books he had in his library and one or two of the authors he met.

The list begins with Horace’s Odes (quoted by Smith in his lectures on ‘Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’, p 225) as: ‘The mighty hand of thundering Jove’, of which god Smith mentions in this context in his History of Astronomy.

The invisible hand metaphor was used in Christian literature as the ‘invisible hand of God’. Augustine said that “God’s hand is his power, which moves visible things by invisible means” (The City of God, xii, 24).

Daniel Defoe in Colonel Jack (1723, p 213) says “it has all been brought to pass by an invisible hand”, plus a reference to an invisible hand in Moll Flanders (1722).

Nicolas Lenglet Dufesnoy said that an “invisible hand” has power over “what happens under our eyes” (“L’Histoire justifiee contres les romans”, 1735).

Charles Rollin, whom Pierre Force describes as ‘very well known in English and Scottish Universities’, said of the military successes of Israeli Kings “the rapidity of their consequences ought to have enabled them to discern the invisible hand which conducted them” (Histoire ancienne des Egyptiens, des carthaginois, des Assryiens, des Babyloniens, des Grecs, Paris 1821).

Jean-Baptiste Robinet (a translator of Hume) refers to fresh water as “those basins of mineral water, prepared by an invisible hand” (“De La nature”, 1766; in Smith’s library).

Charles Bonnet (whom Smith befriended in Geneva in 1765) wrote of the economy of the animal: “It is led towards its end by an invisible hand” (“Contemplation de la nature”, 1764: in Smith’s library).

Pierre Force notes that “in the rhetorical tradition, the economy of something is the relationship between the whole and the parts”, an idea pregnant with insight into Smith’s use of ‘an invisible hand’ metaphor in his Work.


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