Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflective Thoughts on Smith's Essay on the History of Astronomy

I am presently working on the interesting subject of Adam Smith on religion. Some time back, after I had presented my paper, 'The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Religiosity’, in Richmond University in 2009, and engaged in a debate in Sydney Australia in 2010, a friendly (Christian) correspondent remarked that my assertions on the doctrine of atonement betrayed my lack of theological knowledge. My knowledge, such as it was, of Christian atonement was based on a Scottish Presbyterian upbringing – a frightened child told in severe tones of having to account for all my sins, big and small, on the ‘day of judgment’.

Anyway, I asked for some bibliographic references on theology, which I pursued vigorously when received. One such was Alister Mcgrath’s ‘Christian Theology: an introduction (2005, 3rd edition, Blackwell), which is a comprehensive and detailed survey of theology from the early centuries of Christianity through to modern times. In essence, it is a history of the journey from the relatively simple message in the Sermon the Mount through to more complex ideas, such as the Trinity (God the father, Jesus the son, and Holy ghost, the spirit), on to further complications (too many to mention), represented by the ideas of Providence, the Elect, (familiar in Smith’s time), and to the splendours of Liturgy, vestments, religious art, and inevitably to variations of ‘liberation theology’.

I found it all very interesting. It complicates the orthodox picture of Smith’s role in the society he was brought up in. Theology dominated the discourse he had with those around him at the tail-end of several centuries of murderous contests for theological power (and purity), touching all levels of the established societies in Scotland, England, Ireland, and continental Europe.

It was as a young graduate student (1744-48) that Adam Smith began to move way from the shadow of the remaining dogmatic certainties of the time. The main clue of this drift away theologically (in the absence of a reliable literary trail) is available in Smith’s ‘intended juvenile’ History of Astronomy essay (posthumous 1795). Since then, the essay has been read mainly as an essay on the subject of its title alone, with hints at Smith’s youthful early thoughts on natural philosophy. This view does not explain Smith’s extraordinary measures from the physical manuscript when he completed it (c. 1758) to protect the essay from the fate of all of his other unpublished manuscripts which were burned on his direct instructions on his death bed in I790.

It can also be read as a secular challenge to the very core of religious belief (as I attempt to show in my ‘Adam Smith on Religion’, my chapter for a forthcoming ‘Adam Smith Handbook’, Oxford University Press, 2011). I quote from the essay in my book ‘Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy (1st edition, 2010 Palgrave):

Hence, the origin of Polytheism, and of 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” (EPS, 49).

This is normally accepted as a “spirited attack on primitive pagan religion”, or what Smith also called “the lowest and most pusillanimous superstition” EPS, 50). I suggest that it must have occurred to him that not much had changed in respect of the understanding of natural world from within the perspectives of that same “pusillanimous superstition” in the 1700+ years of Christian religion, especially in the bigoted ranks of the zealots.

It is certainly possible to reconstruct in that secular manner in the narrative embedded in Smith’s History of Astronomy essay.



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