Thursday, February 28, 2008

Doug Jones and 'Wacky Mythology'

Doug Jones writes on Blog called Scribblative Agincourting (here)and his post on 27 February is entitled: ‘Adam Smith’s Wacky Mythology’. It could do with the sub-title: ‘where a little knowledge can be dangerous’.

Adam Smith’s first work was on astronomy, and the metaphor adopted by Smith and his followers remains influential in contemporary economics: just as the planets are kept in orbit around the sun by an invisible hand, so will the invisible hand of the market economy automatically find its equilibrium as long as people do not interfere. There is, then, a very fine line dividing the invisible hand of the market and the simple faith in fate and providence.”

Yes, Smith’s ‘History of Astronomy’ was written partly when he was a student at Oxford (1740-46) and partly as a would-be tutor (1746-51), with a possible addendum on Newton’s work after 1773. It was also the last of his works published - posthumously in 1795 (by his executors, Joseph Black and James Hutton).

However, Adam Smith’s reference to ‘the invisible hand of Jupiter’ had absolutely nothing (not even a scintilla) to do with gravity, the planets and orbits round the sun. Where on earth (or the heavens) did Doug Jones get that loony idea from? It most certainly was never gleaned by Doug Jones from reading Adam Smith’s History of Astronomy’.

The essay can be found in ‘Essays on Philosophical Subjects’, edited by W. D. D. Wightman, 1980/82. ‘The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquires; illustrated by the History of Astronomy’, III.2pp 49-50, Oxford University Press/Liberty Fund.

Here is what Adam Smith wrote (he is discussing the ‘origins of polytheism’, ‘vulgar superstition’ and beliefs in ‘invisible gods’):

Fire burns, ands water refreshes; heavenly bodies descend, and light substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters.’

At the end of the paragraph, Smith adds: ‘And thus, in frist ages of the world, the lowest and most pusillanimous superstition supplied the place of philosophy’. (p50)

It seems that Doug Jones had seen the word ‘Jupiter’ and 38 pages later, seen the word ‘Newton’, and assumed there is a connection. There is a connection but not the one drawn by Doug Jones.

The ‘invisible hand of Jupiter’ to which Adam Smith refers is not to the planet Jupiter, but to the Roman god, Jove (Jupiter), who watched over Rome and those within it. His statue was placed on the Capitoline hill of Rome, and glowered over those who would harm the Emperor, ready to strike with thunderbolts anybody of who threatened him harm.

Adam Smith was a classical scholar who demonstrated his classical credentials in both of this books, which are replete with classical references well known to most of his readers (lectures in his day were still given in Latin by the professors, though Smith followed Professor Hutcheson in switching to English; but competence in Latin was a necessary condition for matriculation at all universities then (and was still necessary as late as the 1950s in Scotland).

Roman coins had an image of Jupiter on them casting his thunderbolts. So nobody reading Smith’s History of Astronomy would make such a basic error of confusing Jupiter, the god, with the planet. Nor would they misunderstand Jupiter’s invisible hand with the invisible force of gravity. This makes the identity of the ‘planets … kept in orbit around the sun by an invisible hand’ with the so-called ‘invisible hand of the market economy’ a tenuous and wholly problematic, even 'wacky myth'.

Just as Adam Smith was not guilty of the first allusion about gravity by Doug Jones, he also was not guilty of the second allusion to the market. If I have time today I shall return to the rest of Doug Jones’s article, which is equally tendentious.


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