Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Problems When Writing About Adam Smith On Religion

As I have reported these last few weeks, I have been writing my draft chapter for the forthcoming Adam Smith’s Handbook (edited by Chris Berry, Maria Paganelli, and Craig Smith, for Oxford University Press). The main writing phase was concluded this weekend, hence, fewer postings on Lost Legacy, you may have noticed. Many thanks for the majority of readers who have been both loyal and patient.

The next phase is to shape the first draft for the editors. I thought it would be interesting to readers for me briefly to go over some of the problems when writing on this subject, ranging from the actual vagueness of Adam Smith on theology and organised religion (with occasional and tantalising hints of his personal views), through to his following his personal agenda of never upsetting his beloved and very religious mother, Margaret Douglas Smith (1694-1784).

In short, Smith deliberately wrote opaquely, and many scholars over the years, including Dugald Stewart and John Rae, his first and second biographers, and many since in the 20th century, have been less than specific about Smith’s religious commitments.

My chapter (literature references removed) opens with:

Some scholars discuss Adam Smith’s views on religion by judging them purely by their apparent theological content without reference to the context in which he wrote. In my view, a more accurate assessment derives his apparent theology from relevant biographical evidence that reveals their context and clarifies Smith’s opaque, because contradictory, writings, and thereby corrects imputations drawn from too narrow a purely exegetical approach.’

From the perspective of the central place of his very religious Mother in his life, plus his biographical details, reveal a lot about his scholarly behaviour at Glasgow and Oxford Universities, where he went from being a talented and traditional student, with a moderate but strict Calvinist upbringing, with the intentions of graduating from Oxford (1740-46) as an ordained priest in the Church of England, committed under the terms of his Snell Exhibition to return to Scotland to practise as a Minister in the Episcopalian Church, to suffering a personal crisis around 1744, in which, I suggest he experienced some sort of a mild-depressive illness from his realisation that he was no longer convinced of the truths of the revealed Christian God. This incident, and a few brief letters to his mother, and other hardly noticed surviving letters about him, add credence to my relatively new interpretation of his biographical details and their overriding influence on how he wrote about religion while his mother was alive (she died in 1784 before he revised the 6th and last editions of both his major works, Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations in 1789-90 (he died a few months later).

We have Smith’s essay, ‘History of Astronomy’, which he began in 1744 and completed around 1750, and then kept hidden in his bureau, showing it only to a few very close friends – he showed it to David Hume, of whom he was an ‘intimate friend’ in 1773, 23 years after meeting him in 1750. It was published posthumously at his instruction in 1795.

If his History of Astronomy is read as Smith’s careful testament from this religious crisis from 1744, in which he is fairly brutal about the ‘supercilious superstition’ of ignorant ‘savages’, as hiding a personal distaste for modern versions of the same ignorant superstitions of ‘invisible beings’ that tormented the beliefs of people in the practices of revealed religion in the doctrines of Catholic, Protestant and the various sects, Smith’s ‘juvenile’ torments become clearer.

That Smith kept his ‘juvenile essay’ is significant. It was his evidence of his secular epiphany and held strong emotional ties for him. He ordered explicitly that all of his other unpublished works be burnt by his executors (Joseph Black and James Hutton) – all 18 paper-volumes of manuscripts, including his long-promised major work on Jurisprudence, which they did reluctantly. He also ordered explicitly that his History of Astronomy be saved and published after he died.

One text, which did not change much after its first edition in 1776, was in Book V of Wealth Of Nations, ‘Of the Expence of the Institution for the Instruction of People of All Ages’. Most commentators step round this 26-page chapter, on grounds of its questionable relevance to their notion of what should be in an economics text (especially one that is supposed, in modern mythology, to be about the economics of a ‘capitalist economy’).

This chapter, about ‘institutions for the instruction of people of all ages … chiefly … for religious instruction’ is largely ignored, yet for understanding what Smith was about theologically, it is an essential read. He made minor changes to it from 1776-90, and for good reason – it underlines his public, though restrained, changes in his presentation of his alleged religious beliefs, heralded subtly and cleverly in his opening paragraph that religious instruction ‘of which the object is not so much to render the people good citizens of this world, as to prepare them for another and a better life to come’ (WN V.i.g.1: 788). His light sarcasm is developed into a fairly damning critique of all Christian institutions in history, with the sole exception of the administrators - though not the doctrines – of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (he had many friends who were Ministers in the Church – though even Hugh Blair protested at his over-indulging the Church with such overly-generous thoughts).

It is when I turn to his religious thinking in Moral Sentiments that my case is developed by comparing the evident changes in his revisions for the 6th edition that clearly illustrate how he felt freer, after the death of his Mother in 1764, to reveal his private scepticism about all matters of religious belief. And he does this in abundance.

I certainly am not the first person to draw attention to his dilutions and omissions, nor will the inevitable rebuttals (and dismissals) from some scholars be the less for my efforts. But by linking Smith’s known biographical details to his changing text as he got older (with his significant unchanged ‘juvenile’ safely essay hidden away in his bureau drawer), I think the rebuttals will have less force than they had when the sole focus was on his texts alone. Though to be frank, many of the ‘Smith was a Deist if not a Christian’ (or a believer in Providence, or Stoicism, God as a final cause, etc.,), still have to show understanding of the limited options open to Adam Smith and others in social and religious environment of 18th-Century Scotland, as captured in my closing quotation:

No doubt many of the religious ways and habits, the old-world theology, have long ago vanished, leaving only memories, humorous, pathetic, or bitter, behind them; curious convictions that once were charged with dangerous force in sectarian polemics are now cold and harmless, like exploded shells on an old battlefield. But it is impossible to understand the character and conduct of the Scottish people without knowing those bygone customs and beliefs which were once full of intense vitality. Nowhere were Church spirit so keen, Church influence so far reaching, and Church affairs so intimate, as in Scotland.’ (Graham, 1899, preface, viii.)



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