Friday, November 17, 2006

Was Adam Smith a Believer?

I had intended to discuss a claim that Adam Smith was religious and show why I believe he wasn’t. Unfortunately, I did not save the article properly and I am unable to retrieve it because of fragile French Internet connections. However, I offer a short piece meanwhile.

Among those who claim Smith was a believer is the highly respected Jerry Evensky, whose recent book on Adam Smith is excellent, except for his portrayal of a religious core in Smith’s thinking.

The Acton Institute author attempts to show Smith’s religious thinking and my response is ‘provisional’, in the sense that a detailed rebuttal requires I have the paper with me and can access my library. What follows are general remarks from a single reading of his paper.

The case for crediting Smith with a religious core in Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations rests on his numerous references to God, the author Nature, and the purposes of humankind (self-preservation and propagation of the species). The religious case is by no means flimsy, nor completely without substance. Its proponents are not stretching a few isolated details in a selected parade of quotations to make a tenuous case. Far from it; Evensky and Denis, etc., two respected Smithian scholars, cannot be accused of unfamiliarity with Smith’s oeuvre.

They are simply misled by what they believe to have read, as were the ‘four bishops’ who purchased ‘Moral Sentiments’, believing it was written by a Christian scholar, much to the friendly amusement of David Hume. Other readers search his ‘Wealth of Nations’ for confirmation that his prescriptions are consistent with belief in God.

What is missing is a complete absence of context, as if the 18th century was as protective of free speech as today’s modern secular democracies. To forget context is to assume he published within an environment free of institutional and social interference, when it only protected a permissible singular viewpoint. It wasn’t ‘free’, even for ideas mildly critical of the ruling religious dogma of Christianity. Excommunication from the Church was a real threat to those tempted to risk purveying ideas considered to be ‘dangerous’ to the conventional core beliefs of dominant religious practice.

The last hanging for apostasy occurred in Edinburgh in 1697; the victim was a young theological student, his offence some careless remarks; his sentence to discourage others. Adam Smith as born in 1723; the last ‘witch’ was burned in Scotland in 1727. The enthusiasm for religious-inspired barbarism was only just waning within the living memories of those around him. His loving widowed mother, a devout and practising Christian, contrasted with aspects of his induction as a studious school and college boy (1731-46), and with the institutionalised rigours of Christian belief and practice. This became evident in his uninterrupted six years of absence from his mother’s home during his time at Oxford. He went to Oxford on a 9-year Snell Exhibition, the main purpose of which was to comply to finish his university education with ordination as a Minister in the Episcopalian Church in Scotland.

He did not fulfil his ‘solemn promise’. He suffered some kind of ‘depressive illness’ in 1744-6 and returned home on leave from Balliol College, never to return. Three years later he resigned, received his MA degree, and embarked on an academic career.

What was the nature of his ‘depression’? We don’t know for certain. I surmise that it had something to do with his crisis of faith. For indirect evidence we can read an early composition from those years, particularly the beginning third of it on the ‘Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries’ (known today misleadingly by its short-title, ‘History of Astronomy’).

In pleading the case for the philosophical method, he criticises human credulity in matters of Nature and its phenomena, particularly when under the influence of ‘pagan superstition’ that attributed nature’s ‘mysteries’ to invisible gods. He also mentions, for the first of only three times in all his works, the metaphor for which he has become famous (for all the wrong reasons) of an ‘invisible hand’ (in this case of Jupiter, the Roman god, not the planet). In itself, not much of a ‘smoking gun’, but nevertheless in my view, with all that followed, it is significant. While criticising pagan superstition, he can be read as criticising all religious superstition, given also that his essay reviews the history of those astronomers compelled to follow Christian beliefs about the nature of the Universe, as enforced by God’s Earth-bound interpreters.

Smith’s criticism of the convoluted reasoning offered by philosophers to fit the Universe into the ignorant certainties of the Church is also a critique of any role for religion in deciding on the ‘wonders’ of Nature, all explainable by science. While that is a long way from revealing his atheism, it is a large step towards it, a point underlined by keeping his ‘Astronomy’ locked in his bedroom bureau from the 1750s, when he completed it, for nearly 40 years until he died, and leaving instructions to his literary executors, Professors Black and Hutton, to publish it.

Seventeen years earlier, he had informed David Hume where he kept his unpublished ‘juvenile’ essay with instructions to publish it in the event of his death while away on a visit to London (1773-76). It is clear that he had not shown it to David Hume, or to anybody else, but was determined that it survived his intentions to burn all of his other manuscript notes (duly carried out in 1790). The essay must have had high emotional significance for Smith. I surmise that its significance for him was that it marked his turning away from religious belief, as represented by the Church. Whether he remained a Deist or became an atheist is something he took to his grave.

It is fair to ask why Smith never stated his disbelief explicitly. Why didn’t he publicly reject the supernatural religion within which he was brought up by his mother? That he didn’t do so is taken to confirm his belief in the religious language of ‘Moral Sentiments’ and (less so) of ‘Wealth of Nations’. If he had not been of a religious mind, why didn’t he correct what he published?

Consider his life-long two-fold self-denying ordinance: first, never to embarrass or upset his mother, a deeply religious woman by all accounts (see Dugal Stewart’s biography of Smith, 1793); second, never to give offence to the ‘Great Orders’ of society, which had nurtured and advanced his personal interests of enjoying an academic career that looked bleak after he left Oxford, that enabled him to ‘retire’ on a pension for life to pursue scholarly studies in reasonable comfort and security after his tutorship of the Duke of Buccleugh (1764-66), and that kept him in convivial company at all levels, from street-porters and day-labourers, to the ladies of salons, gentlemen of business, Dukes, Cabinet and Prime Ministers, Judges and personages of the British State, and above all, to his intellectual contemporaries of the Enlightenment, in Scotland and abroad, who shared his passion for knowledge.

Now consider the alternative life if he had opened up on the then solid adherence across all sectors of society to revealed religious belief. He was already well versed in the unattractive consequences of suspected apostasy or a reputation for outright atheism in the mid-18th century, either personally or for all those on whom he relied in two-way exchanges of harmonious relationships, the stuff of his ‘Moral Sentiments’. The treatment of David Hume (who never publicly admitted to atheism) was a salutary lesson on the consequences of challenging deeply-felt beliefs. Denounced as an atheist, abused personally too, and a regular target for more repressive measures to be invoked, Hume was denied Chairs by both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities (to their lasting shame) on popular religious grounds of his ‘unsuitability’, and only survived socially because of his personal qualities by those who knew him, even from within the Church. It was not an encouraging precedent.

What would Smith lose by non-compliance with the accepted norms of prudent discourse, albeit, within the barely tolerable boundaries of religious vigilance against blasphemy? The presence of religious zealots was real, not imaginary. Professor Hutcheson, Smith’s mentor, had suffered the attention of these ignoramuses while Smith was a student. To avoid such treatment, all he had to do was to avoid causing gratuitous offence. Therefore he wrote in code. This is how scientists learned to survive in Soviet Russia and how many qualified people do so in today’s Iran and other places. And, not surprisingly, many scientists (and politicians!) in the United States and Europe today survive quietly in modern secular democracies, where legally they are free to write what they wish, but who also admit privately, but not publicly, to being atheists. Few are prepared to refuse compliance with religious observances, finding it easier to go along with religious norms than take public stances.

In short, observance of certain social habits based on religious practice is the default behaviour of many self-confessed atheists because the social costs of defiance are not worth it. In Smith’s century, the consequences of proclaiming one’s non-compliance were serious, or believed to be, and he considered that observing via coded dissent was a trifling issue in his larger agenda. He knew where he stood and his closest friends who shared his ‘social hours’ knew too.

The Enlightenment revealed the impossibility of the biblical creation and few of the luminaries could have been truthful in their expressed beliefs and default conduct (attending church services, etc.). James Hutton, the geologist, one of Smith’s closest friends, realised that the Earth was many millennia older than the Church believed as an article of faith. As they conversed socially, or walked together on the remains of Edinburgh’s long extinct volcano, he exchanged views on Smith’s ‘Four Ages’ model of society’s origins, of the origin of languages, of the pre-historic origins of the ‘propensity to truck, barter, and trade’ amidst the ‘division of labour’, of the long origins of society’s moral sentiments (of which Hutton also published a book), and the lessons of history following the Fall of Rome. Smith regarded his contributions to the betterment of humankind to be far more important than possible misunderstandings of the religious language in passages of his books.

Indeed, if his books are read carefully he his adroit at the rhetorical art of appearing to say one thing ambiguously while implying the opposite. They call out for the reader to realise he is not quite saying what some might believe him to say. In my longer response to these points, I note the evidence for my assertions in this regard and when I publish the manuscript for my forthcoming Adam Smith for Palgrave’s series, I shall share them with readers.

It is also worth noting that after his mother died, Smith in subsequent editions of Moral Sentiments toned down several religious statements in conformity with release from his self-denying ordinance. Further, that he was concerned that publication of his ‘juvenile’ essay before he died was directed solely at its reception by living humans and not by an omniscient personal god, as taught by the main religions founded on Abraham (Judaic, Christian and Islam), shows beyond doubt that he did not believe in an ‘after life’. If he did so believe, publishing after he died would protect him from the living only, but not from a supernatural god who knew everything and would hold him to account for what he did while alive on Earth. That act itself was his coded demolition of modern arguments favouring his adherence to a belief system associated with religion.

I conclude: Smith was not a believer.

1 Comments:

Blogger jonnymac said...

I don't know how I stumbled upon your blog, but this post was thoughtful.

I agree with you on all counts.

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"Poor David Hume is dying fast, but with more real cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God."

[Adam Smith, on the death of David Hume. In the published version of Smith's introductory letter to Hume's autobiography, these words are tempered to exclude the Whining Christian.]

8:09 pm  

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