Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On Adam Smith’s Alleged theism

I am working hard on my chapter for the forthcoming Handbook on Adam Smith (Oxford University Press), edited by Chris Berry of Glasgow University.

Among my notes of scholars who take an entirely different view to mine (roughly that Adam Smith deliberately hid his private and critical views on the religion throughout his adult life because of the existing dominance of the church on all aspects and all levels of life in Scotland and England which made its zealous members censorious and at times violent). I have read closely the views of Brendon Long (PhD from Cambridge in Theology), of which examples can be found at:

Long, B. 2009. ‘Adam Smith’s Theism”, editor, Jeffery T. Young, pp 71-99. Elgar Companion to Adam Smith, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

In Table 4.1 ‘References to scripture in the Smithian corpus,’ pp.75-6, is an example of what I am up against:

Brendon locates one of Smith’s Biblical references in a fairly innocuous remark where Smith complains about some printer’s errors in transcribing his careful words from his manuscript o Moral Sentiments (1759). Smith complains to Strahan, his London printer about the:

manifold sins and inequities you have been guilty of in printing my book. The first six, at least the first third, and fourth and sixth are what you call sins against the holy Ghost, which cannot upon any count be pardoned. The Remainder are capable of remission in case of repentance, humiliation and contrition.’ (Letter no. 54, 73, to William Strahan, Printer, in London, from Smith in Glasgow, 30 December, 1760; Adam Smith's Correspondence, Oxford, 1980.

Brendon Long claims that Smith’s use of a Biblical phrase is evidence of Smith’s religiosity, concluding that:

The reference is not a substantive theological point, more of a whimsical comment to Strahan [Smith’s publisher], but it reveals a strong comfortability with the discourse of a committed Christian’. (Jeffery T. Young pp 71-9). [p 75, Table 4.1].

It is always essential in conducting debates critiquing someone’s assertions to check all references, which I did some time ago and made these notes:

The actual Biblical reference is:

Matthew: 12.31:

‘And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven’.

Brendon Long presumes that this shows is evidence of Smith’s Christian commitment by asserting, first, that Smith writes in a mere ‘whimsical’ tone and, second, that after Smith's ‘whimsical’ remark, he “reveals a strong comfortability with the discourse of a committed Christian”.

I suggest that Smith’s actual words can also be interpreted as showing his ‘strong comfortability when conducting a discourse with a committed Christian in a theological manner’ without it implying anything more. Smith was familiar with Calvinist theology (which his mother ensured he knew about, as part of the normal education and preparation of passing examination by the local Presbyterian minister in Kirkcaldy for his acceptance into the Kirk around 10-11 years old).

In fact, throughout his life he remained familiar with the (moderate) Calvinist doctrine and its interpretation of the Bible that his mother expected from him (he is known to have had an excellent retentive memory) and he demonstrated exactly this in Moral Sentiments, his lectures (including those on rhetoric in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1763) , and his Lectures On Jurisprudence (1762), and, most importantly, in his History of Astronomy (1744-c.48), which generations of readers – and modern scholars – have failed to recognise because, like Brendon Long, they read his Works already convinced that Smith was religious or are in denial about his scepticism.

But strip away that presumption and read his Works as a Calvinist zealot searching for heresy might, and you find more than a few signals that Adam Smith hid his scepticism almost too well for the less accomplished men he was up against. He knew his Bible and doctrine better than most and I attempt to show this in my chapter.

I should point out that I had the great pleasure of meeting and debating with Brendon Long in Sydney, Australia in February 2010 on Smith’s alleged religiosity in front of an audience of about 40 people. He is a fine scholar, but we agreed to disagree in the best possible good taste.



Blogger dunnettreader said...

[Delete if this part of the comment was already posted]
I've been ruminating on your post for a few days, which I found a bit disturbing. I've finally decided to set down some of the reasons why I was bothered. My comments have to be divided in 2 parts for Blogger to accept.

It's all well and good to engage in polite scholarly discourse, but I think you should do more to underscore what strikes me (and it seems strikes you as well) as ahistorical history being performed by Dr Long. Scripture was an important everyday component of the vernacular of Western Europe in the 18thC, shared especially in Scotland by all members of even modestly educated groups (or classes, or orders, or what-you-will). And using apt quotes as part of conversational or epistolary "wit", whether from scripture or poetry or a Latin or French tag, was common place for the urbane and learned, among whom Adam Smith certainly was found. A Whig could quote wittily Alexander Pope or a Tory quote the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury without indicating anything about his personal belief system. A person who didn't believe in particular Providence might nonetheless use a familiar phrase about Providence in lieu of Fate or Fortune. And so on...

I'd go further than your pointing to the fact that Smith's mother, with whom he often lived as an adult, raised him in a (moderate) Calvinist household. Smith's formal education and his teaching responsibilities required he be fluent in the philosophical implications of various niceties of competing Protestant doctrines. According to Phillipson's bio (I'm halfway thru and loving it), Smith raced thru the mandatory theology sessions of the course he gave in Moral Philosophy. But it was essential he cover those topics, and in a way that navigated dexterously among the most sensitive doctrinal issues that were producing massive amounts of both intellectual and political controversy in Scotland at the time. That Smith succeeded in avoiding attacks on his teaching suggests the depth and scope of his knowledge of theology as well as his political savvy, but says nothing about what his personal religious beliefs were.

Dr Long has to demonstrate more than comfort and familiarity with religious language if he is to argue that Smith was (probably) a "committed Christian." That sort of comfort and familiarity was shared by many heterodox intellectuals of the 18thC, whether Socinians or Deists or other sorts of "freethinkers", who were frequently rebels against a grim sort of Christianity they'd been force-fed as children or against the often narrow intellectual, social and political bigotry of the religious establishments, especially though not exclusively in Scotland. [1/2 con't…]

2:12 am  
Blogger dunnettreader said...

[con't 2/2] Not to engage in too much snark, but while Dr Long was at Cambridge, didn't he take any courses from Skinner, which would have challenged the methodology Long has adopted for reading textual evidence? Or for that matter, did he read any of Skinner's oeuvre on Hobbes and note how subsequent writers (e.g. Locke) performed the delicate dance of drawing on Hobbes while avoiding the taint of being called a Hobbist? Even in the mid-18thC, any hint of skepticism was likely to elicit hysterical accusations of "Hobbist" or "Spinozist", which were still potentially fatal labels to be attached to a polite thinker like Adam Smith.

More importantly, does Dr Long suggest Smith took positions in his writings that in any significant way depend on the core doctrines of Christianity (whether Calvinist or other)? Aren't Smith's philosophical priors for his "science of man" more consistent with those of his intellectual companion, David Hume, who was openly skeptical?

I've just finished Paul Russell's The Riddle of Hume's Treatise (which is, btw, a great road-map to the religious controversial literature in England and Scotland during the first half of the 18thC). After Russell's demonstration of a host of irreligious positions Hume developed in the Treatise, I ask myself whether Smith was any more likely than Hume to buy Clarke's physio-theology or Butler's natural religion apologetics for Christianity, to say nothing of Smith's likely rejection of Biblical revelation as "historical" evidence. And doesn't Smith break with Hutcheson's attempts to moderate Calvinist severity pretty much along the same lines as Hume's approach to human nature?

Unlike Hume, Smith doesn't openly dismiss religious beliefs. But it seems to me Smith's thought no more depends on a Christian world-view than Hume's does. Moral obligations are derived neither from the role of God as creator of mankind nor from salvic grace or promises of redemption, and Smith's history of human social development has no clear role for God as an intervening force in directing that history. Smith's moral virtues, adapted for a commercial culture, are derived as much from antiquity as from Christian models. If Smith was a committed Christian, it was a commitment to a Christianity mostly drained of both philosophical and day-to-day significance.

Whatever Adam Smith's private religious beliefs, however, we can say with assurance that for both Smith and Hume, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." And it seems to me that any speculation on Smith's religion has to start from there.

Looking forward to your forthcoming chapter!

2:27 am  

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