Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Adam Smith and Religion

Earlier this week I critcised a piece by James K. Galbraith on Adam Smith and Deism, and James has contributed a comment. Please read it by scrolling down the page and opening the comments box. In case his interesting reply is buried, I am replying to it here because the issues raised are important.

It is not part of my 'mission' on Lost Legacy to castigate anybody for what they write about Adam Smith, though I accept I stray unintentionally into irritation on occasion. When I think I see suspect signs that a person making assertions about his legacy who is not familiar with the whole corpus of Smith’s writings, and also his family background (his mother was deeply religious – as I believe was the wife of Charles Darwin), and his personal experiences at Oxford which ended his ambitions to become a Church Minister, I suggest, emphatically, that he or she should read beyond “Wealth of Nations”. This is sincere advice, not a rude attempt at point-scoring.

That James Galbraith teaches from “Wealth of Nations” and is familiar with it is unusual and much welcomed, and I apologise for any hasty inference that he was not familiar with Smith’s political economy. However, I suggest he reads also Smith’s “History of Astronomy”, “On the Formation of Languages”, “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres”, “Correspondence” and “Lectures on Jurisprudence”, to appreciate the depth of Smith’s attachment to an evolutionary model of society, from the time of the ‘Brutes’ (the various progenitors of human kind – though Smith in common with contemporaries considered wrongly that the North American ‘Indians’ were examples of the ‘brutes’), through to the fourth age (‘at last’) of commerce. By mid-18th century this approach dominated Scottish and French Enlightenment thinking.

That … Smith was a deist is relatively non-controversial. It may be a disputable view--I see that you do dispute it--but it is one held by a great many reputable readers, and I don't think I can be faulted for sharing it.”

Of course James Galbraith cannot be ‘faulted’ for accepting what ‘reputable’ readers of Smith have concluded, that Smith, if not religious, was a Deist. But it is also incumbent on us to read for ourselves what we accept uncritically from reputable authorities. I accepted for years the conventional view of Smith and was somewhat shocked to find he wasn’t anything like he is portrayed.

Since the 1980s all of Smith’s Works have been available in a low priced format from Liberty Fund. Smith was not Darwinian is the sense of natural selection, which operates on the individual in a species, not the species itself, but he was evolutionary in that nobody controls, manages or causes, social changes in languages, societal forms, including economics, or moral consensus. Language and learning enable social evolution to spread much faster than biological speciation. Human societies, from the first humans to the 21st century, are only 150,000 - 200,000 years old.

Further, the Deist language that he used (in the absence of Darwinian science) was coded to avoid controversy with the religious zealots (who also intimidated Darwin 60 years later), who were very much in evidence in the Scotland he lived in. In his private conversations he appears to have been relaxed (he writes in one letter about ‘whining Christians’), but in his public writings he was prudentially circumspect, in part to avoid offending his mother. After she died his revisions to ‘Moral Sentiments’ shows consistent watering down or the removal of statements inserted originally to placate religious readers or forestall religious objections. Remember also he tried, unsuccessfully, when he started teaching at the University of Glasgow to gain for permission to start his lectures without the obligatory prayers.

From his friendship with David Hume he was familiar with his scepticism and his criticism of religion, miracles and all. His knowledge of pagan Greece and Rome was used as a means to mock Deist ideas with impunity. His concerns in being asked by Hume to publish Dialogues Concerning Religion posthumously were more about the damage it might do to his own career and standing, rather than Hume’s. His circumspection regarding his mother’s feelings while alive could not have been a consideration after she had died, nor, if he was a religious believer, would his revision of his two Works and the posthumous publication of his History of Astonomy would protect his ‘soul’ after he himself died and was ‘re-united’ with her in the afterlife, which is a clear sign that he did not believe in such an eventuality. Smith also was a close friend of James Hutton, the geologist, who showed the Earth to be far older than Biblical accounts.

I take up this argument more tightly in my forthcoming book on Adam Smith for the ‘Great Thinkers’ series. For the opposite case against my above views on Smith and religion, see Jerry Evensky's excellent new book, “Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: a historical and contemporary perspective on markets, law, ethics, and culture,” Cambridge 2005. Evensky, however, also makes an excellent case for Smith’s evolutionary model, with which I completely concur.


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