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This paper contests late readings of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' as an essentially secular device. It is argued that Smith's social and economic philosophy is inherently theological and that his entire model of social order is logically dependent on the notion of God's action in nature. It will be shown that far from being a purely secular, materialist or evolutionist approach Smith works from the argument from design to construct a model that is teleological and securely located in the chain of being tradition. His focus upon happiness as the Final Cause of nature renders improbable any claims for proto-evolutionism in his work while his arguments about the deliberate endowment of defects in the human frame make no sense without the supposition of design and purpose in nature.
The hidden theology of Adam Smith*
Lisa Hill
Contrary to late readings of Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ as an essentially secular
device, it is argued here that Adam Smith’s social and economic philosophy
is inherently theological and that its Providentialist underpinnings cannot
be removed without impairing his theor y of social order. This is another
way of saying that my intention here is to recover, defend and extend Jacob
Viner’s contested claim that, owing to the secularization of the disciplines
of economics and ethics, Smith’s system has been stripped of its ‘integral’
Providentialism (Viner 1972: 81–2).1
The hidden or ‘secret’ theology of Smith is revealed by examining and
disclosing the workings of his spontaneous generation or ‘invisible hand’
arrangement and by exploring its most important constituent elements: its
faculty psychology and natural theology. It is argued that, far from being a
purely secular, materialist or evolutionist approach, Smith works from the
argument from design to construct a model that is manifestly teleological.
In a way, then, by endorsing Viner’s claim that Smith’s entire system of
thought is unintelligible ‘if one disregards the role he assigns in it to the
theological elements’ (Viner 1972: 81–2),2I am offering here a kind of
revisionist account of Smith. Though earlier readings of his work insisted
on the role of a Creator (e.g. Bitterman 1940; Veblen 1919; Taylor 1929)
more recent readings have argued that the ‘teleological arguments . . . may
be excised without impairing the cogency of his analysis’ (Kleer 1995: 275).
The argument tends to run along the lines that Smith’s model is a precur-
sor of nineteenth-century Dar winism and is, therefore, fundamentally
modern, sociological and secular. Glenn Morrow claims, for example, that
Smith’s moral world is a totally secular arrangement ‘not the order of a
divine law-giver’ (Morrow 1923: 71). Anthony Flew has decreed that it is
‘totally wrong . . . to construe Smith’s invisible hand as an instrument of
Euro. J. History of Economic Thought 8:1 1–29 Spring 2001
Address for correspondence
Research School of Social Sciences, Political Science Program, The Australian
National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia;
The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought
ISSN 0967-2567 print/ISSN 1469-5936 online © 2001 Taylor & Francis L td
DOI: 10.1080/09672560010015422
supernatural direction’ either in the sense of special interventions or by
reference to the design argument (1987: 200–1; see also Raphael 1975:
72–3; Hamowy 1987: 3–4). K. G. Ballestrem argues that Smith’s historiog-
raphy is purely materialist and non-teleological (1983: 5–7) while Louis
Schneider suggests that the ‘strong theological overtones . . . and . . . per-
functor y pieties’ are not ‘actively operative’(1967: L). Others equate the
invisible hand with secular and scienti c ‘Pareto ef ciency’ or interpret it
as a euphemism for the essentially profane mechanism of equilibrium in
competitive markets (Perskey 1989: 197; Pack 1995: 289: Garrison 1985).
(This is actually half true; the invisible hand is Smith’s euphemism for equi-
librium, but by that he means the equilibrium which derives from Provi-
dentially endowed laws of motion, as will be shown.)
A popular secularist theme is lexical. Irving Kristol, Ralph Lindgren and
D. D. Raphael all assert that Smith’s theological language was employed
merely for rhetorical effect as a ‘stratagem . . . to obscure the unorthodoxy
of his religious convictions’ (Lindgren 1973: 148; Raphael 1975: 36; Kristol
1980: 204). E. G. West suggests that the invisible hand is used ‘in the meta-
phorical sense and not in the sense of supra-natural or divine intervention
(1990: 171) while John Kenneth Galbraith asserts that anyone who reads
the invisible hand as anything more than a ‘metaphor’ does Smith ‘a grave
disservice’ (1983: 112).
Some secularists adopt a perverse form of content analysis by taking a
quantitative approach; for example, ‘the invisible hand is mentioned only
once, twice or three times (depending how well read the exegete in ques-
tion is) therefore it is incidental to his scheme(e.g. Perskey 1989: 196).
Others ignore the overall context for Smith’s use of the phrase and focus
on its etymological pedigree in order to elicit or infer Smith’s putatively
secular meaning (Martin 1990: 274; Spiegel 1976: 489–91; Davis 1990). One
misreading of Smith (in terms of his overall spontaneous generation
scheme) argues that Smith used the term ‘ironic{ ally} ’ because it seems to
insult or impugn the dignity of individual agents acting blindly. The con-
clusion is that in terms of Smith’s overall project, the invisible hand is
merely ‘a sort of trinket’ (Rothschild 1994: 321). But, as will be demon-
strated presently, the idea of agents acting blindly (from a long range per-
spective at least) is extremely important to Smith’s analysis and is perfectly
consistent with his entire approach. Moreover it will be shown that far from
being an aberrant ‘trinket’ Smith’s notion of a Providential invisible hand
is, not only the centrepiece, but the unifying principle or ‘metaphysical
core’ (Martin 1990: 273) of his entire oeuvre without which much of his
thought makes little sense.
Another questionable secularist approach resorts to evidence of Smith’s
character, his circle of acquaintance and his personal religious reputation.
Lisa Hill
On the one hand, authorities like Smith’s biographer John Rae have per-
ceived Smith as someone who ‘lived, in the full faith of those doctrines of
natural religion which he had publicly taught’ (Rae 1965: 430). On the other,
there are those who identify him as an atheist. Edmund Burke and Karl Marx
both regarded him as an ally of Hume who shared in the latter’s atheistic ten-
dencies (Pack 1995: 291–2).3Notwithstanding the unreliability of this type of
‘contagion’ argument, it will be shown that despite Smith’s anti-religious
comments and regardless of any friendship with Hume, Smith made no
attempt to imitate Hume’s decisive excision of rst and Final Causes (leaving
ef cient causes to do all the important ordering footwork) from his own
system. What the reader really needs to concentrate on in an analysis of this
type is whether or not Smith’s order holds up in the absence of a theological
infrastructure. Appeals to the use or absence of theological language should
be ancillary to how important a Providential infrastructure is to the overall
scheme. Although some ‘secularist’ commentaries do recognize that Smith
espoused a form of deism, they also argue that his system still works well
without the external assistance of God. The argument made here is that
Smith’s system does not hold together in the absence of a creative demiurge.
Some secular readings of Smith’s invisible hand betray an insuf cient
knowledge of eighteenth-centur y discourse and the typical responses to
religious dogma which were then popular. It is important to remember that
teleology and the argument from design were still intellectual staples in
Smith’s time,4therefore any reading of Smith as an essentially secular mind
ought to be approached with caution and suspicions of ahistoricity.5Smith
may have thought of himself as a ‘theist’ but this would, at best, commit him
to nothing more than a belief in one God who stands in some kind of direct
or personal relationship with human beings (though, strictly speaking, a
theistic conception of divinity may be also polytheistic). Atheism was a
dangerous but not unknown public position in the eighteenth centur y, par-
ticularly among members of the French enlightenment, but deism was
more common (Hampson 1982: 131). Smith may even have thought of
himself as a sort of Christian given that during the Enlightenment period
‘(f)eeling oneself a Christian no longer entailed acceptance of all the
dogmas established and recognized by the Church. Membership of the
Church committed one only to those af rmations and articles of faith that
one explicitly recognized oneself ’ (Goldman 1973: 57). Given all these con-
siderations, establishing Smith’s precise personal belief system here is prob-
ably an impossible task given the astounding array of categories and
permutations for religious belief which emerged during the Enlightenment
period; accordingly, I have sought to limit the discussion to identifying
aspects of his theory that point to some sort of deistic or theistic bent and
that depend on the design principle.
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
Jacob Viner suggests that the religious aspects of Smith’s thoughts have
typically represented only ‘nuisance value’ for some critics (Viner 1972: 82).
The solution sometimes invoked to dispel this nuisance is a variation of the
‘Adam Smith Problem’ (curiously, a theor y to which Viner subscribed in
his earlier work) which posits a fundamental moral (and hence theological)
shift in outlook between the Theor y of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of
Nations.6I won’t tax the reader’s patience by rehearsing the various argu-
ments here since I endorse D. D. Raphael’s view that Smith’s two main
works, while addressing different subjects are quite compatible (Raphael in
Smith 1976: 20). The deistic theology of the Moral Sentiments is carried
through to the Wealth of Nations with the effect that Smith’s economic views
are informed by the moral and theological assumptions set out in the Moral
1. Adam Smith’s natural theology
It should be noted at the outset that Smith’s natural theology is opaque and
quite dif cult to penetrate without some determined textual effort. His
reader can only speculate as to how much clearer it might have been had
his lectures on ‘natural theology’ been preserved (MacFie 1971: 597).
Smith seems to have been deliberately evasive about his precise personal
convictions (hence the allusion to his ‘hidden theology’); never theless it is
possible to detect a synthetic if somewhat patchwork theology in his
assorted writings.
Smith requires his readers to do some heavy conceptual work of their own;
to glue together mentally into a coherent theological system a constellation
of elements which derive from such various sources as Aristotle, the Stoics,
Christianity and Newton, with the greatest emphasis on Stoicism (or at least
Smith’s perception of Stoic teachings). A consistent impression emerges:
Smith’s natural religion is never pious for the mere benet of a religious
readership, nor in any way profanely ‘ironical’ as has been suggested (Roth-
schild 1994: 321). He leaves no doubt that he nds little attraction in Chris-
tian doctrine except where it coincides with an enlightened and ‘rational’
(i.e. deist) theology and he obliquely identi es himself as a theist in desig-
nating theism, by which is meant a belief and devotion to a single, universal
‘God of all’, as the starting point of the type of natural science he admires
and seeks to promulgate (1980: 112–13). This declaration distances him from
conventional Christianity while at the same time committing him to a belief
in one God who stands in some kind of unique relationship to human beings.
From his writings we can gather that Smith’s belief system seems to
involve the following commitments: a belief in  rst and Final Causes; a
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belief in the existence of a benevolent ‘Providence’; a belief in the limited
extent of human control over events and, nally, an imitation of Stoic
theodicy in his elaborate rationalization of apparently vicious human ten-
dencies as indirectly bene cial. God exists, the world is the product of
design and the observable order of regularity in human affairs is a direct
result of this design and purpose in Nature.
2. ‘Scienti c’ religion
Smith disparaged Christian enthusiasm and asceticism, but was attracted to
the natural theology of Stoicism. ‘The spirit and manhood of { Stoic} doc-
trines’, he opined, ‘make a wonderful contrast with the desponding, plain-
tive, and whining tone of some modern systems(1976: 134, 283). Smith
thought that the only reputable religion is one which has been subject to
the trials and rigours of market forces. The trouble with the Christian
religion is that it has always enjoyed a state protected monopoly whereas a
‘pure and rational’ religion (like Stoic deism) would be the likely end result
of ‘natural’ competition between independent sects. Perfect competition
between a diversity of denominations would yield a culture of tolerance and
mutual respect whereby over time ‘the doctrine of the greater par t of them
(would be reduced) to that pure and rational religion, free from every
mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all
ages of the world wished to see established’ (1979: 792–3; Levy 1978: 674).
It was common for seventeenth- and eighteenth-centu r y deists to per-
ceive God as a creative demiurge who desisted from direct intervention in
human affairs via miracles, visions and so on. On this view, God is the First
Cause, a ‘general’ rather than special ‘providence’ pre-existing the world,
creating it perfect and equipping it with uniform laws of Nature in order
to keep it in motion.7Smith agreed with Isaac Newton that God has
ordained Nature to operate by second causes and that to know the laws of
Nature is to know the decrees of God’s will (McGuire 1968: 202–7). For
Smith, the correct (i.e. ‘scienti c’) apprehension of God is embodied in
Stoic cosmogony and physics which posit the ‘idea of an universal mind, of
a God of all, who originally formed the whole, and who governs the whole
by general laws, directed to the conservation and prosperity of the whole’
(Smith 1980: 113). Although it has been suggested that Smith rejected the
Christian and Greek notion of a God who transcended the world in favour
of one that inhered in its profane details (Fitzgibbons 1995: 29–30), taxo-
nomically speaking Smith’s model is both immanent and transcendent. The
Divine Architect created the universe and yet simultaneously inheres in it.
The design principle dominates the entire scene and Smith’s psychology or
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
‘pneumatics’ is set in the context of a monistic, rather than pluralistic, con-
ception of the universe. Though God never makes special interventions in
human life ‘He’ operates in and through Nature; all the parts of Nature,
including the external environment, were designed to operate in concert
to produce a harmonious, purposive result conceived anthropocentrically
and hierarchically in terms of the happiness and well being of humanity.
Smith was attracted to the ‘scienti c religion’ of Stoicism because of its
organic interpretation of the universe as a designed and integrated system.
Such a vision was, Smith claims, entirely unknown to the early Greeks hence
science proper did not commence until ‘the Universe was regarded as a
complete machine, as a coherent system, governed by general laws and
directed to general ends, viz. Its own preservation and prosperity’ (Smith
1980: 113; 116–17). Scienti c religion is marked by a shift in preoccupation
from ‘irregular’, catastrophic events to ‘regular events governed by pre-
dictable laws’. Accordingly ‘as ignorance begot superstition, science gave
birth to the rst theism’ (Smith 1980: 112–17; Fitzgibbons 1995).8Smith
was not, therefore, hostile to the kind of pure, ‘rational’ or natural religion
proffered by the Stoics.
3. Proof of God’s existence
Smith provides some evidence of a genuine faith in the existence of God,
appealing as he does in passing to four of the most popular Western philo-
sophical defences for the existence of God, these are: the cosmological argu-
ment; the teleological argument; the moral argument; and  nally a fourth,
putatively empirical or ‘anthropological’ defence known as the argument
from universal consent. The cosmological argument supposes the contin-
gent or caused Nature of the world as moved by a rst, non-contingent cause.
Smith seems to approve Aristotle’s (and later Bishop Cudworth’s) (Smith
1976: 318–19) conception of God as ‘an eternal, immoveable, unchange-
able, unextended being, whose essence consists in intelligence . . . the rst
and supreme mover of the Universe’.9He also refers to the teleological argu-
ment, which was a popular Protestant variant on the design argument: the
apparent purposefulness of all created life suggests the existence of a
designer (1976: 87, 166, 170). Another defence is the moral argument. The
moral argument (which is really a component of the design argument) states
that since the universe has produced ethical animals there must be a tran-
scendent moral source for our moral Nature (1976: 116–17, 128–30, 165).
Finally, he invokes the ‘argument from the common consent of
humankind’; since belief in the existence of God is universal, such a belief
must be natural. Accordingly God’s existence is probable.10
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It is important to recognize that when Smith is referring to world order
he does not mean that there is no design or purpose to the universe; rather
his point is that human design is redundant. On the other hand, he is con-
sistently emphatic about the existence of a designing mind, a ‘divine archi-
tect’ who has organized the human world via entelechy. Smith’s entire
vision is underpinned by the design principle and by a belief in Final
Causes; indeed he rejects as untenable any explanation that refers solely
to ef cient causation (1976: 87). Smith augments the Stoic and Aris-
totelian dimensions of his theology with elements of ‘scienti c’ Newtoni-
anism. Smith idolized Newton and consciously emulated the latter’s
approach to scienti c explanation (1980: 98, 104–5, 244; 1983: 124).11
Newton conceived the planetar y system in mechanical terms as ‘a closed,
autonomous system, ruled by endogenous, mutually interdependen t
factors . . . moving towards a determinate, predictable point of equilib-
rium’ (Weisskopf 1979: 870). Like Newton, Smith also found himself con-
fronted with the problem of explaining the original placement of the
miraculously balanced elements of Nature. He needed to ll a gap which
could not be accounted for solely in terms of ef cient laws of motion.
Smith particularly wanted to show how and why it came to be that private
acts (apparently) worked to the good of all. He concluded that this con-
venient arrangement suggested the existence of an order superior to that
of any human contrivance. The introduction of divine intelligence was
necessary to give this structure meaning. Smith imitates the theodicy of
Stoicism (and later of Lord Shaftesbur y) by conceiving the universe in
optimistic ter ms as per fect and self-regulating. Like Marcus Aurelius he
seems to have believed that ‘{ w} hatever happens, happens rightly’ (Marcus
Aurelius 1964: 66; Fitzgibbons 1995).
4. Teleology
In recent decades there has been a rash of readings which assert either that
Smith eschews teleology altogether or that, while teleological arguments
are present in the Theor y of Moral Sentiments, they may be ‘excised without
impairing the cogency of his analysis’ (Kleer 1995: 275). Knud Haakonssen
has argued that for Smith ‘{ n} othing hinges on teleological explanations
and thus on a guarantor of a teleological order’ and that ‘wherever a piece
of teleology turns up in Smith’ its ‘real’ explanation’ may be found in
‘ef cient causes’ (1981: 77; see also, Campbell 1971: 61, 69–73). Milton
Myers agrees: ‘true causes for Smith are ‘ef cient causes (Myers 1983:
104). David Hume’s views are of particular relevance to this part of the dis-
cussion and it would be an oversight to neglect him here given his close
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
relationship to Smith and his important and in uential views on the
problem of causation.
4.1 Smith’s relationship to Hume
Hume, Smith and Ferguson were close friends and mutual admirers, pro-
fessionally speaking. That Hume was a theological sceptic who shared with
Smith an abhorrence of religious enthusiasm does not bear further dis-
cussion here but the common assumption that Smith agreed with him in
all theological matters does (though their mutual approval of a number of
important Epicurean principles should not be disregarded here either).12
A major point of disagreement centres on the question of cause. Hume
associated himself with the Godless and ‘materialist’ system of Epicure-
anism via his denial of Final Causes and the possibility of evincing a Divine
purpose (Kettler 1965: 123). He believed instead that order is achieved
endogenously via inner self-regulation and growth. By contrast, Smith
posits a monistic, externally generated teleology with the universe por-
trayed as a single interdependent and designed unit rather than as a collec-
tion of autonomous mini-systems (which seems to be the case with Hume).
Smith contradicts Hume on the question of cause by invoking Aristotle
and the Stoics. Speci cally Hume outlines the following contentious
general rules regarding cause and effect:  rst, that ‘{ t}he cause and effects
must be contiguous in space and time’ and second that ‘the cause must be
prior to the effect’ (Hume 1962: 173; 1990: 56–7). Hume does not deny
that order derives from design, simply that this can’t be proved and that we
should accept as possible only that which can be observed. But he does note
that all things seem to embody their own inner causal mechanisms and that
there appear to be no causes external to them: ‘A tree bestows order and
organisation on that tree, which springs from it, without knowing the order:
An animal, in the same manner, on its offspring: A bird on its nest’. Why
then, he asks, should order ‘by its Nature’ be ‘inseparably attached to
thought’ rather than ‘matter’? He concludes on a note of nality: it will
never be ‘within the reach of human capacity to explain ultimate causes’
(Hume 1990: 89).
Adam Ferguson, Smith’s contemporary, also contradicted Hume’s claim
that ‘effect is correlative to cause and they are inseparable’ on the grounds
that ‘there may be existence without any cause external to itself’. In other
words, Ferguson postulates the existence of an original unmoved mover
(Ferguson 1792, I: 153). Smith follows suit: God is at work ‘in ever y part of
the universe’ where we may ‘observe means adjusted with the nicest arti ce
to the ends which they are intended to produce’ (1976: 87). Both also reject
Hume’s denial of the possibility of discerning a divine purpose. Hume had
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argued that any attempt to penetrate the mind of God necessarily entailed
a vulgar identi cation of the Creator’s mind and methods with our own. In
addition, Hume was convinced that even if we could evince the Creator’s
purpose this knowledge would be of no practical use to a reasonable person
(1987: 593; Kettler 1965: 122). Smith seemed to hold to the view that such
knowledge is not only supremely useful but also substantially within our
grasp; hence his attempt to investigate and disclose the purposes and inner
workings of the divine blueprint. Though Smith denies that we can ever
gain a truly synoptic view of events in progress, nevertheless we are certainly
enabled to discern God’s decrees by examining our own constitutions, a
move that would, of course, implicate him in the naturalistic fallacy were
he working with secular/scienti c assumptions. It is the manifest task of
philosophy to aid this investigation and in this he seems to be endorsing
the Stoic view that the philosopher’s mission is to discern the laws of Nature
in order that people might conform to them all the better.
Smith replies to Hume with an eloquent defence of teleology, a reply that
seems to have confounded some commentators (see following quote): its
importance to understanding Smith warrants its complete reproduction
In every part of the universe we observe means adjusted with the nicest arti ce to the
ends which they are intended to produce; and in the mechanism of a plant, or animal
body, admire how everything is contrived for advancing the two great purposes of
Nature, the support of the individual and the propagation of the species. But in these
and in all such objects, we still distinguish the efcient from the Final Cause of their
several motions and organisations. The digestion of the food, the circulation of the
blood, and the secretion of the several juices which are drawn from it, are operations
all of them necessary for the great purposes of animal life. Yet we never endeavour to
account for them from those purposes as from their efcient causes, nor imagine that
the blood circulates, or that the food digests of its own accord, and with a view or
intention to the purposes of circulation or digestion. The wheels of the watch are all
admirably adjusted to the end for which it was made, the pointing of the hour. All their
various motions conspire in the nicest manner to produce this effect. If they were
endowed with a desire and intention to produce it, they could not do it between. Yet
we never ascribe any such desire or intention to them, but to the watch-maker, and we
know that they are put into motion by a spring, which intends the effect it produces as
little as they do. But though . . . in accounting for the operations of bodies, we never
fail to distinguish in this manner the ef cient from the Final Cause, in accounting for
those of the mind we are apt to confound these two different things with one another.
When by natural principles we are led to advance those ends, which a re ned and
enlightened reason would recommend to us, we are very apt to impute to that reason,
as to their efcient cause, the sentiments and actions by which we advance those ends,
and to imagine that to be the wisdom of man, which in reality is the wisdom of God.
Upon a super cial view, this cause seems suf cient to produce the effects which are
ascribed to it; and the system of human Nature seems to be more simple and agreeable
when all its different operations are in this manner deduced from a single principle.
(1976: 87)
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
In this analogy humans are the spring – the ef cient cause of the motion
– while God is cast in the role of the watchmaker, the First Cause and archi-
tect of the watch’s Final Cause or purpose. ‘Healone is cognisant of the
full meaning of the events in progress hence the emphasis on the quality
of blindness of the actions of its components. As Smith says: ‘The adminis-
tration of the great system of the universe . . . the care of the universal hap-
piness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God, and not of
man’ (1976: 237). This reliance upon Nature and the invisible hand is a
recognition on Smith’s part that the social order embodies a rationality that
is more than the rationality of human capabilities. Rather than attesting to
Smith’s disavowal of Final Causes, the watch analogy is Smith’s clearest and
most emphatic declaration of their importance.13
For Smith, there is no question of inner self-regulation and growth as the
potential source of order. Order was imposed externally at the moment of
creation in inwrought laws of Nature. He believes that by acting through
immediate and base instincts like thirst, hunger, sexual desire, avoidance of
pain and so on, humans ‘co-operate with the deity’ and serve to ‘advance’ his
‘plan’. But Smith was careful to point out that the respective contributions of
the conspirators were not to be confused, for this would constitute a com-
mission of the gravest intellectual error, that is, the confutation of  nal with
ef cient causes. It is absurd in the extreme to attribute the harmonious order
of human existence to ‘the wisdom’ of mere mortals (1976: 87).
Human existence has a purpose, and that purpose is also its cause. The
Greek term telos is understood here in its fullest sense, not merely as ‘aim’
or purpose but also as the Final Cause of our development, just as the acorn
contains the potential of an oak tree, causing it to become an oak tree and
not an elm (Heidegger 1977: 8; Edel 1982: 64). Smith believes that cause
may in fact be posterior, rather than prior to an event (or even both simul-
taneously), a kind of magnet pulling growth towards it, or alternatively, as
potential unfolding through time. As with Aristotelian entelechy, ‘God’ is
the magnet of the universe, unattainable yet perpetually drawing all things
towards ‘Him’. This is not to imply that free will is a  ction; human beings
are the principal bearers of histor y exercising considerable independence
in the process, yet they are also engaged in ful lling the Creator’s telic plans
for a generalized order and progressivism in human affairs. Hume’s tem-
poral and spatial conditions are therefore dismissed as inadequate for
explaining the causes of phenomena as complex as the in nite equilibria
of the natural world.
Smith thus uses pre-Humean and anti-Humean arguments in expound-
ing his theology. He relies heavily on teleological arguments while his argu-
ment from design embodies an explicit identi cation of God’s mind with
our own in associating the apparent purpose and order of the universe with
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‘thought’ and the type of design evident in human contrivance (Smith
1980: 112–14). When we look carefully at the internal workings of Smith’s
system we begin to appreciate how intimate and necessar y is the relation-
ship between ef cient and Final Causes (1976: 293). Causes are not con-
tiguous in space and time but may be better understood as seeds, gradually
disclosing and unfolding their potential towards a (softly) determined goal.
Note that Smith is no hard deter minist; he takes on board the Christian
doctrine of free will and fuses it with the modern idea of asymptotic
progress. Human development is an in nite upward spiral with its broad
outlines planned stadially but with its precise content contingent on human
variability (to be discussed).
5. Smith’s telos and the naturalistic fallacy
Smith perceives in the miraculous order of Nature a divine purpose. The
human constitution and the entire human environment is designed with a
hedonistic goal in view: our happiness, prosperity, perpetuation and
material comfort. The system of Nature is demonstrably moral because it
promotes human happiness (1976: 236–7).14 That God’s ‘original purpose’
in creating us was to make us happy is made evident ‘by the abstract con-
siderations of his in nite perfections’. This conclusion is later ‘con rmed’
by observing ‘the works of Nature’ which operate together as a coherent
system which has been designed to generate and facilitate human  ourish-
ing. It is clear from the divine plan of life that its benevolent author
‘intended to promote happiness, and to guard against misery’ (1976: 166,
77). The telos of human activity is not, as might be expected, the attainment
of moral perfection, a state of grace or some other desirable point of
repose; Smith rejects these more orthodox understandings of the Creator’s
purpose by replacing them with the de nition of telos in anthropocentric
and utilitarian terms as material abundance and earthly ‘happiness’ (1976:
166, 236).15
The use of the teleological argument, combined with the substitution of
a utilitarian emphasis on worldly prosperity for conventional de nitions of
the divine purpose, underlines Smith’s location in a transitional phase of
the histor y of ideas. Rather than abandoning Providentialism and teleol-
ogy, Smith attempts to ‘modernize’ these categories by displacing con-
ventional understandings of God’s purpose. Christian anthropocentricism
and Stoic theodicy are re-worked to mesh easily with emergent liberalism’s
humanism, utilitarianism and political economy. Were God’s intentions to
be limited to the survival and perpetuation of our species progress beyond
the age of hunters would be redundant it is ‘the happiness of mankind’
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
which ‘seems to have been the original purpose intended by the author of
Nature’ (1976: 166) and for Smith, happiness is a function of material pros-
perity (1979: 96). Witness the ‘serenity and happiness’ of the wealthy com-
pared to the ‘misery and distress’ of the poor (1976: 51); contrast the
forlorn poverty of the ‘savage’ age with the ‘general security and happiness
which prevail in the ages of civility and politeness’ (1976: 205). Smith
describes a universe in which greed (euphemistically cited as ‘self interest’)
is the cause of all growth, improvement and ‘public’, ‘national’ and ‘private’
opulence (1979: 343). Economic activity is no zero-sum game in which only
a privileged few bene t but rather a scene of in nite mutual enablement.16
Smith’s picture of market society is implicitly normative, characterized as it
is by desired and desirable goals: more and more material gain and more
and more commodious innovations.
Another important (though related) telos for Smith (later picked up by
F. A. Hayek and used as a measure of order success) is population growth.17
Smith strikes a Malthusian chord18 by describing population increases as a
spontaneous by-product of material prosperity (1979: 39, 44, 97, 99, 180;
1978: 159). The ‘heterogeneity of ends’ aspect is prominent here. Smith
notes that the propagation of the species is ensured, not by a conscious
desire to secure the continuation of the species, but by the circumscribed
and narrow ‘passion which unites the sexes’, a fact that might tend to
obscure its Providential origin (1976: 77–8). There is also a natural ten-
dency for humans to care more tenderly for the young than the old because
‘parental tenderness’ is always stronger than ‘ lial piety’. Again, Nature has
a clear purpose in view for the ‘continuance and propagation of the species
depend altogether upon the former and not upon the latter’ (1976: 142,
219). In typical laissez-faire fashion Smith insists that ‘regulations that tend
to population { growth} do not always produce that effect’ (1978: 159).
Population levels are subject to the laws of equilibrium, of supply and
demand: ‘the demand for men, like that of any other commodity, necess-
arily regulates the production of men(1979: 98, 566).19 Because human
reason is unreliable, ef cient causes (in this case sexual desire) do all the
survival legwork. This seemingly profane and voluptuous ar rangement in
no way denotes a Godless world; rather, it testi es to God’s love for us and
speaks of our destiny to thrive in prosperity and happiness.
Smith’s insistence here on the benevolence of the social order would only
constitute a commission of the naturalistic fallacy were his system genuinely
profane whereas under a Providential regime there is good cause for
unbounded optimism and a belief that ‘whatever is, is right’. By what other
means could Smith possibly have reconciled his claim that universal hap-
piness and prosperity results from the free play of avarice and other volup-
tuous desires?20 The competitive market only delivers the greatest social
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good because of the ‘invisible hand’ of Providence (Stikkers 1987: 236). In
the absence of an organizing Providence, Smith’s optimism is unwarranted
if not inexplicable.
6. Chain of being and anthropocentrism
Smith seems to be working within a chain of being framework when he sug-
gests that all of Nature was created for the bene t of humanity and for its
telos (happiness). The species are arranged hierarchically with humanity at
its zenith and everything in Nature existing, ultimately, to serve it (Aristotle
1959: 16; Lovejoy 1964). Smith depicts a monistic universe with humanity
at the centre of activity. The world is a coherent system: ‘{ E} ven the small-
est of the co-existent parts of the universe, are exactly  tted to one another,
and all contribute to compose one immense and connected system’ (1976:
289). At the apex of this great system sits humanity, God’s crowning achieve-
ment and most cherished and cosseted creation. Humanity was ‘destined
. . . to be the governing animal in this little world’ with the remaining
‘mean{ er} and weak{ er} ’species designated as our ‘subjects’. This explains
why human beings feel such compassion for other species; we were, Smith
explains, created to serve as God’s agents on earth, the benign despots of
the natural world (1980: 136).
7. Spontaneous generation
Perhaps the best way of understanding Smith’s body of work as a coherent
system is to examine the elements of his best known contribution to social
science: his theor y of spontaneous order. Though he is better known for
his economic conception of spontaneous generation, Smith also applied
the idea of an invisible hand to every aspect of his system of thought, includ-
ing his moral and political theor y, his historiography, his explanation for
the generation of social institutions and his model of human motive forces
(Hamowy 1987: 13–22).
The invisible hand theory is arguably the unifying principle of Smith’s
entire body of work and is his homage to the lauded grand theor y of Plato
and the Stoics (1980: 113). Smith is commonly understood as hostile to
grand theory, but careful readers of his work will notice that he limits his
critique to the products of mortal rationalistic constructivism, to the hubris
of the ‘man of system { who} is apt to be ver y wise in his own conceit; and
is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of
government’ (1976: 233–4; 1979: 687).
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
Smith does accept that the existence of an ultimate metatheory immanent
in God’s plan for the ‘invisible hand’ is his shorthand for the operations of
the law of the heterogeneity of ends and his ideal system of ‘natural liberty’:
the system of spontaneous order.21 The universe is a vast equilibrium gener-
ated and upheld by divinely endued natural laws. In particular, human
social life is supported by laws which inhere in the human constitution.
Sympathy, for example, minimizes vice and moderates all forms of human
interaction in order to render them benign and useful.22 Other examples
(and the following list is far from exhaustive) of natural laws of spontaneous
generation include the following: sel shness and greed inadvertently
produce universal abundance (1976: 183–4; 1979: 456); the division of
labour, which is responsible for so much of human progress and material
abundance, emerges as an incidental by-product of the instinct ‘to truck
barter and exchange’; specialization, in turn, leads to amazing and in nite
technical developments (1979: 21–5; 1978: 527); wealth inequalities are
bene cial due to the trickle-down effect (1976: 184–5); the ‘gradual
improvements of arts, manufactures, and commerce’ destroyed the
undesirable system of feudalism and the power of the medieval Church
(1979: 418–19, 422, 802–4); the consumer’s natural preference for domes-
tic over foreign goods, bene ts her/his own countr y (1979: 456); well-regu-
lated government is the incidental effect of a peculiar aesthetic desire for
‘love of art and contrivance (1976: 185–6); wealth stimulates population
growth (1979: 98, 566); ‘sympathy’ and the need for approbation leads to
spontaneous justice (1976: 130). The uncoordinated, self-regarding acts of
individuals, ultimately form part of a wider bene cent pattern orchestrated
by Providence and geared towards human happiness and material pros-
perity. Smith notes that we often attribute the order secured by our instincts
to temporal rationality simply because their effects are so commodious,
orderly and felicitous whereas nothing could be further from the truth
(1976: 87). Smith’s is a two-tiered model with the rst tier represented by
the individual goal level and the second by the social systems level. There
is a clear line of demarcation between the individual and social systems
realms. Neither private individuals nor the state should attempt to interfere
in the latter sphere of activity which is the realm of Final Causes and there-
fore reserved for God (1979: 687) who has ‘from all eternity contrived and
conducted the immense machine of the universe’. Since human beings
possess only a feeble rational faculty, their sole duty is to respond to
immediate drives and to desist from social engineering and large-scale plan-
ning. As Smith says: ‘To man is allotted a much humbler department, but
one much more suited to the weakness of his powers and narrowness of his
comprehension: the care of his own happiness’. Nature would never leave
her ‘darling care’ (the happiness of human beings) to so  imsy and fallible
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faculty as ‘the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason’ (1976:
77–8). Since ‘God’, for Smith is a ‘General’ rather than ‘Special’ Providence
order appears to derive exclusively from efcient causes whereas these
causes are actually triggered by rst and Final Causes (1976: 165–6). The
explanator y primacy of secondary or ‘ef cient’ causes, is not, therefore,
incompatible with a Providential view of motion.
8. Smith’s faculty psychology
Individual agents represent ef cient causes in Smith’s system; they are
invested with immutable, uniform instincts and even defects in order to
trigger the disclosure of the divine blueprint through time. Smith perceived
all of our psychological apparatus as Providential and therefore in no way
vicious.23 To renounce or disown our internal drives is to misguidedly
‘obstruct . . . the scheme which the Author of Nature has established for the
happiness and perfection of the world, and’ thereby ‘declare ourselves . . .
the enemies of God’ (1976: 166). The resignation dimension of Stoicism is
recovered and modernized as the injunction to obey the dictates of Nature
and allow God to handle the big picture (1976: 236–7, 274; Marcus Aurelius
1964: VI, 10). The grandiose schemes of ‘Great Legislators’ are cast in a blas-
phemous light as heresies against an already perfect, divine order. Truly
pious agents will imitate the ‘perfect con dence’ in God of the Stoics and
concern themselves only with the ‘propriety’ of their own restricted ‘endeav-
ours’ while trusting in the Creator’s ‘superior power’ to ‘{turn} it to that great
end, which he himself was most desirous of promoting’ (1976: 164–5, 277).24
Teleologically speaking, the seeds of spontaneous order are located in
human psychic or biogenetic conditions. Smith constantly emphasizes the
distinction between human and divine agency; he refers to the drives of
‘{ h} unger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleas-
ure and the dread of pain’ on the one hand and their tendency to produce
‘bene cent ends which the great Director of Nature intended to produce
by them’ on the other. Nature has always ‘endowed mankind with an appe-
tite for the end which she proposes but likewise with an appetite for the
means by which alone this end can be brought about, for their own sakes
and independent of their tendency to produce it’. All our drives are con-
ceived, not as evolutionary adaptations to external exigencies, but as pur-
posive and contrived. Some examples follow: Nature ‘formed man for
society’ and accordingly equipped ‘him’ with the instincts which make
social life possible (1976: 77, 84–5, 116–17; 1980: 136); humans were des-
tined for progress therefore they are endowed with progressive drives (1979:
343); humans are destined to command their physical world hence ‘the
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
benevolent purpose of Nature in bestowing upon us the sense of
seeing’(1980: 156). Perhaps his most revealing claim lies in his defence of
the self-regarding passions. Smith builds upon the Stoic view that self-
preservation is the  rst task suggested to us by Nature (1976: 272), re ect-
ing God’s love for us, and ‘His’ desire for our physical safety, security,
prosperity and perpetuation. Such a task must be entrusted to our com-
pletely dependable ‘original and immediate instincts’, in other words, the
self-regarding passions (1976: 77; 1979: 26–7; 1978: 527). Indeed, self-
regarding acts are far more likely to protect the interests of others than
other-regarding acts (1979: 456). Benevolence may be the ‘sole principle
of action in the Deity’ but it could never be relied upon to secure the
welfare of a being so completely dependent on external supports (1976:
304). Benevolence, altruism and acts of charity are super  uous because of
the ‘universal benevolence’ which inheres in the ‘Divine Masterplan’. The
apparent secularism of Smith’s cold calculation is really a product of his
faith in a divine order which infallibly delivers prosperity and happiness for
all. Though Smith admits that this arrangement is apt to ‘shock all { our}
natural sentiments’, he is keen, nevertheless, to reassure his reader that it
was ‘established for the wisest and best purposes’ (1976: 168).25
It is important to remember that although Smith insists on a benevolent
and moral deity he perceives God’s action in the banal and sometimes
voluptuous workings of daily life; in physical and social survival, the per-
petuation of the species, in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of
pain and the pursuit of the ‘natural joy of prosperity’ (1976: 139). Smith
believed that all the apparent vices, ‘errors and evils of men’ are fully
intended by a benevolent Creator, thereby aligning himself with the Stoic
view that:
{ Since} the world was governed by the all-ruling providence of a wise, powerful and
good God, ever y single event ought to be regarded as making a necessary part of the
plan of the universe . . . that the vices and follies of mankind, therefore, made as
necessary a part of this plan as their wisdom or their virtue; and by that eternal art
which educes good from ill, were made to tend equally to the prosperity and perfec-
tion of the great system of nature.26
(1976: 36; 105–6)
The profane tenor of the paradoxes contained in Smith’s passages are,
therefore, initially quite misleading. Rather than attesting to a secular
Smith they may be better understood as his peculiar contribution to eight-
eenth-centur y theodicy.27
Smith regards humanity as God’s favourite creature created in ‘His’ ‘own
image’ and appointed as His agents or emissaries on ear th. Each of us is
invested with a moral sense (the impartial spectator) which Smith describes
in Stoic terms as the ‘demigod within the breast’ partly ‘immortal, yet partly
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too of mortal extraction’. This innate sense generates a kind of spontaneous
moral system which makes social and economic life both possible and
rewarding. Moral conduct is policed, not by God directly, but indirectly via
regulatory principles which inhere in the human mind. We have a mandate
from God ‘to superintend the behaviour of { our} brethren’. The pantheis-
tic deity of Stoicism, the ‘mind- re spirit’ which permeates and unites all
rational souls, is extremely reminiscent in these passages. The necessity for
a direct, personal relationship with God or for special acts of providence are
obviated by the fact that the Creator has made us ‘his vicegerant upon earth’
(1976: 130–1, 165), reliable bearers of his plans and purposes.
The other signi cant, yet commonly overlooked, element of Smith’s
moral system is its ultimate reliance on an absolute rather than relative ethic
standard. This hidden dimension was detected long ago by Adam Ferguson
in his trenchant critique of Smith’s theory of ‘sympathy’. Of course, the
majority of what Smith says about morality leads us to a view that his theor y
is all about contingent values,28 the avoidance of ‘pain and social anxiety’29
and on the need to ‘accommodate and assimilate’ moral principles (1976:
224) rather than on conforming to absolute ethical standards. But Fergu-
son draws our attention to what happens when Smith himself attempts to
deal with cases where sympathy fails to deliver. Smith’s theory is philo-
sophically incoherent, according to Ferguson, because it relies ultimately
on the external moral judgements of ‘a well informed . . . observer when
“actual Sympathy fails” ’. Ferguson seems to be well justi ed in asserting that
Smith derails his own project by conceding that, at the end of the day,
{ v} irtue” itself must be made to stand ‘as the test of Just Sympathy’ (Fer-
guson 1960: 228–9).30
9. Evolutionism versus design
Interpreters of Smith’s as a secular system sometimes detect prescient
strains of evolutionism in his writings. F. A. Hayek, for example, has argued
for a proto-Darwinistic Smith and claims that there is evidence that he in u-
enced Darwin,31 while Flew regards Smith’s edi ce as genuinely Dar winis-
tic,  rst, because Smith does not see order as necessarily and always a good
thing and, second, because the institutions and practices Smith describes
evolve so gradually (Flew 1987: 202). This latter argument does not hold
up well under examination. Smith goes to great pains to show that human
progress is a slow and gradual process but what he continually insists upon
is that it is evolution by design. Flew seems to be unappreciative of the fact
that Smith’s approach varies signi cantly from earlier conceptions of
creationist and great chain of being models in the sense that he conceives
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
creation, not as a single or simultaneous event but as a continuous, asymp-
totic process driven by the unremitting desire in humans for improvement
(Whitney 1934: 151; Smith 1979: 341–3; 1976: 50). As we have seen, he con-
sistently argued that all societies had, or would move through a sequence
of distinct stages of development. Since he perceived a distinct and uni-
versal pattern to this development he concluded that it was Providential.
Smith’s model is therefore evolutionistic only in the nar row ‘gradualist’
sense that practices and institutions develop slowly, ‘insensibly and by
degrees’. His theor y of social development is thus comparable with what
Hayek would later describe as (institutional) social Darwinism (Hayek 1973:
23). But rather than anticipating some kind of open-ended, evolutionary
theor y of progress (as with Hayek), Smith’s model locates itself in the
‘chain of being’ tradition (albeit with a modernist progressive twist)
because it is predicated on the design principle and refers, ultimately, to
Final Causes. In other words: human adaptivity is achieved via entelechy
and is a function of the neat symmetr y and mutual accommodation of a
perfectly designed system.
Flew’s other justi cation for an evolutionistic Smith lies in the well-estab-
lished fact that Smith was often dissatis ed with the effects of the system of
natural liberty. Flew cites as a key example the deleterious effects of the
division of labour (1987: 200–1). But Smith’s views here must be viewed in
context. While he does indeed outline the bad consequences of advanced
specialization in graphic detail in The Wealth of Nations and in his Lectures on
Jurisprudence (1979: V.i. passim; 1978: 539–40) it should be understood that,
on balance, he sees them as far and away outweighed by the bene ts. Smith
repeatedly celebrated the enor mous benets wrought by the division of
labour and attributed to it almost all of the progress and prosperity in the
commercial age (1979: 22). It should also be borne in mind that in Smith’s
universe work rarely has intrinsic value; job satisfaction is rare and the
majority of us  nd that our sole compensation is pecuniary (1979: 266).
The mind-numbing effects of the division of labour are therefore of rela-
tively minor importance in the grand scheme of things; Smith’s entire body
of work testi es to a sanguine belief that, on balance, the world is neatly
and propitiously ordered despite any negative (but generally correctable)
side effects of that order. Accordingly, Smith never recommends any
devolvement in specialization functions but believed that its attendant
problems could be solved within existing social and political arrangements
(that is, through a state funded education programme) (1979: 781–8). Such
a view is consistent with his general faith that the world is imbued with a
multitude of self-governing and self-correcting mechanisms.32
Although Darwin may well have been in uenced by Smith’s remarks on
the amazing adaptive signi cance of all our drives and moral sentiments
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Smith by no means intended them as an argument from evolution.33 Smith
seems to be  rmly convinced that the adaptive capacity of all of created
Nature is a product of intention and design: ‘Nature’, he says, ‘never
bestows upon any animal any faculty which is not either necessary or
useful’.34 ‘Seeing, hearing, and smelling’, for example, ‘seem to be given to
us by Nature’ in order to alert us to any dangers or bene ts present in our
environment (1980: 168). While there are indeed many elements of a
proper theory of evolution in Smith, he made no such link himself. His
insistence on the immutability, distinctiveness and superiority of the species
places him much closer to traditional theological perspectives on the origin
of the human species than with the type of early evolutionism proffered by
Monboddo and later Darwin (Spiegel 1976: 481; Smith 1979: 25–6; 1978:
Even if Smith had intended to promulgate a theory of evolution, this
would not explain why the order he describes delivers happiness and the
good life as opposed to mere survival of the  ttest. Smith’s insistence on
happiness as a telos is itself strong evidence of his Providentialism. As Richard
Kleer suggests:
No evolutionary theory . . . posits a connection between natural selection and human
happiness; yet the latter is one of the purposes which Smith attributes to nature . . .
the moment one argues that the theor y of evolution has something to contribute to
his analysis, my main point is already granted – that the principle of a divine author
of nature cannot be removed without impairment to Smith’s moral theory.
(Kleer 1995: 300)
Demoting the invisible hand to a mere euphemism for a profane com-
petitive/equilibrium mechanism is a complete distortion of Smith’s inten-
tion because, as David Martin notes, it ‘removes the critical coordinating
role of Providence’ from his system and places far too great a burden on
competition as the ‘causal force . . . necessar y to achieving an optimal
outcome’ (Martin 1990: 273). As a social scientist without recourse to any-
thing like a theory of evolution Smith would have resisted ascribing to
chance the sophisticated and perfect calibration of our drives towards the
deliver y of ‘human happiness’; therefore the concept of a benevolent and
designing deity is his only and most logical explanator y resort.
10. Defects
Perhaps the most compelling evidence in support of a Providentialist
reading of Smith is his idea of defects as deliberately incorporated in the
human constitution as a means for realizing the Creator’s ends. In both WN
and TMS Smith depicts human defects in teleological terms; our weaknesses
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
are deliberately endued by the Creator for the express purpose of securing
human happiness and prosperity.35
Smith begins by telling us that it is not basic material needs which lead
individuals to create a distinctively human existence because the needs of
subsistence are relatively few and easily satis ed (1976: 50). The rich and
the poor alike are subject to the same physical limitations, so that in terms
of basic requirements there can be little difference between them (1976:
184–5; 1979: 180). Nor are we led to pursue wealth and social distinction
from the utility to be derived from them. The factor which induces indi-
viduals to labour beyond the satisfaction of these basic needs originates in
the uniquely human preoccupations of aesthetics, conspicuous consump-
tion and vainglory: ‘The pleasures of wealth and greatness’, says Smith,
‘strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of
which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so
apt to bestow upon it’ (1976: 182–3; 1978: 335–6). The desire ‘to be
observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, com-
placency, and approbation and to emulate the rich ‘rst prompted
{ mankind} to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and
commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which
ennoble and embellish life’ (1976: 183). Translated to the economic
sphere, these factors give rise to the unremitting ‘desire of bettering our
condition’ which ‘comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until
we go into the grave’ (1979: 341).
Our entirely natural urge to lord it over our neighbours is satis ed via
the accumulation and consumption of material goods, a process that is the
very engine of progress and which is partly responsible for the transition
from one historical period to the next. Yet, signi cantly, Smith states that
any thoughtful person will appreciate that the objects of material ambition
are ‘in the highest degree contemptible and tri ing’. Our ‘natural’ esteem
of trinkets is a deliberate ‘deception’ engineered by God but one which is
the most important source of human progress. This innate regard for
‘frivolous objects . . . is often the secret motive of the most serious and
important pursuits of both private and public life’ and it ‘is well’, Smith
suggests, ‘that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception
which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind’
(1976: 181–3). Without it our species would be stalled at a stage of indigent
barbarism. The progress of society is not the product of a naturalistic, open-
ended process of adaptive evolution; without this Providential sleight of
hand, our species would never have advanced beyond the age of hunters,
when a basic subsistence was readily procured. In other words, it is not
adaptive necessity that has brought progress, but the providentially
implanted desire to better one’s condition and acquire fundamentally
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useless consumer goods. Humans are endowed with the false perception
that acquisitiveness is meaningful and worthwhile and that those who excel
at conspicuous consumption are entirely deserving of our admiration.
Moral integrity loses out to material acquisition when it comes to estimat-
ing and venerating our ‘fellows’. In designing and creating the human con-
stitution God deliberately incorporated this moral weakness in order to
realize ‘His’ hindermost goals. In this, Smith advises us, we ought to ‘admire
the wisdom of God even in the weakness and folly of man’ (1976: 105–6).
These frivolous values, in turn, feed into another unanticipated but socially
useful effect.
Smith applauds the wisdom of Nature in placing the burden of leader-
ship, not as we might imagine, upon the shoulders of the wise and virtuous,
but upon those of the rich:
Nature has wisely judged that the distinctions of ranks, the peace and order of society
would rest more securely upon the plain and palpable difference of birth and fortune
than upon the invisible and often uncertain determinations of wisdom and virtue.
(1976: 226)
The ‘undistinguishing eyes’ of ‘the great mob of mankind’ are incapable
of distinguishing a ‘wise’ and virtuous person from a foolish and vicious one
but they can easily detect the presence of wealth (1976: 226). God has there-
fore endowed people with a reverence for those qualities immediately
appreciable to even the most unsophisticated among us. We all admire the
rich and cannot help but ‘sympathize’ with them. This ‘disposition’ to sym-
pathize ‘with all the passions of the rich and powerful’ is the foundation for
‘the distinction of ranks’, that is, the system of social strati cation upon
which depends the good ‘order of society’. Smith never suggests that the
rich are in any way innately superior because we are all born with roughly
equivalent potential (1979: 28–9; 1978: 348). He simply feels that it is
preferable for political leadership to fall to those who were ‘bred’ for pos-
itions of authority. The superior education of the rich, their greater famili-
arity with the trappings and protocols of power and privilege, make them
highly suitable candidates for positions of authority. Success in the
restricted endeavour of material gain results in the unforeseen garnering
of the respect requisite for positions of public of ce. The limits of reason
and conscious choice are once again emphasized here.
This aspect of Smith’s analysis (that is, of human defects as deliberately
and purposefully endued) is extremely strong counter-evidence of any
purely evolutionist interpretation and re ects the in uence of Stoicism at
work; all of Nature’s works, including apparent defects, are accommodated
within a vast, purposeful, bene cent perfection.
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
11. Conclusion
Readings of Smith’s oeuvre as a secular or evolutionary enterprise are probably,
in part at least, a product of the late-modern separation of the disciplines of
economics, moral philosophy and theology. Jacob Viner seems to have been
justi ed when he admonished Smith scholars to resist the ahistorical trap
of abstracting Smith’s economics and social theor y from his moral philos-
ophy and theology.36 Whereas modern spontaneous order elaborators like
F. A. Hayek seek to posit the possibility of wholly secular, evolutionistic
systems of spontaneous order, for Smith the logic of spontaneous order
rests on the ‘fact’ that the world with all its miraculous equilibria is the
product of a benign and loving creative demiurge.
Smith’s apparently cold, utilitarian equations are deceptive; although he
initially strikes us as a secular mind, his realism is better understood as a
function of his sincere belief that world order is underwritten by the benef-
icent and guiding hand of God. In this regard we might think of Smith’s
‘invisible hand’ elaboration as his particular contribution to eighteenth-
centur y theodicy.
Smith’s universe is logically dependent upon a divine invisible hand. This
is suggested,  rst by the fact of his insistence upon happiness (as opposed
to sur vival) as the Final Cause of Nature. But the best evidence for this
logical dependence is found in Smith’s inability to evade an absolute ethical
framework and his arguments about the deliberate endowment of defects
in the human frame, neither of which make sense without the supposition
of purposeful design. Far from being incidental to his scheme, it is the theo-
logical constructs the design principle and a teleology which embodies
rst,  nal and ef cient causes – which make the system work.
Canberra ACT, Australia
* The author gratefully acknowledges the comments provided by two anonymous
referees. The usual disclaimer applies.
1 David Martin has suggested that the motive for purging the theological content from
Smith’s invisible hand is purely ideological, motivated by a desire ‘to retain Smith’s
progressive harmony by excluding the view that the economy needs EXTERNAL
ASSISTANCE (sic.), either by Divine or human management’ (Martin 1990: 273).
2 I am in the company of several other scholars here: Richard Kleer has written an
authoritative article on the subject of  nal causes in Smith in which he concludes
that the latter’s ‘commitment to a natural teleology seems omnipresent and genuine’
(Kleer 1995: 300; see also Martin 1990: 272; Baumol 1991: 31–3; Oswald 1995; Fitz-
gibbons 1995: 25–44).
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3 According to Camic: ‘Like his beloved friend Hume, Smith allowed Providence no
role in the explanation of the causes of human action and granted God no direct
entry whatever into the natural sequence of earthly event’ (Rae 1965: 63; Campbell
1971: 61).
4 Indeed, the design principle was probably the unit idea of the eighteenth century.
‘Unit ideas’, as Arthur Lovejoy de nes them, are ‘endemic assumptions’ which
control ‘the course of { our} re ections on almost any subject’ (cited in Myers 1983:
3; see also, Lovejoy 1964: 10–15).
5 Repudiating Tawney’s claim that teleology had been exiled from moral philosophy
by the eighteenth centur y, Jacob Viner says: ‘Eighteenth-centur y British social
philosophy was in fact soaked in teleology. I know of no British writer before
Bentham who frankly renounced teleology, and of no important writer except
Mandeville and David Hume – and perhaps also Thomas Hobbes – who could
plausibly be interpreted on the basis of their actual writings as not honestly accepting
it. There is no logical con ict between teleology and automatism if ends or design
have been built into the automatic mechanism itself, as was universally af rmed’
(Viner, 1972: 60). Taylor supports such a view (Taylor 1929: 211).
6 Peter Minowitz, for example, posits just such a shift between TMS and WNS by
arguing that Smith moves from deism in the former to atheism in the latter. Smith’s
system in WNS apparently ‘operates without an “administrator”, “Director” or
“Author”. Smith’s political economy transcends his moral philosophy by offering a
picture of order without design’ (Peter Minowitz, Pro ts, Priests, and Princes: Adam
Smith’s Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion, Stanford: Stanford
University Press 1973: 132). An exhaustive literature on the subject has left me uncon-
vinced of any discrepancy between Smith’s major works; they simply focus on
different subject matter but are in all other respects compatible.
7 The distinction between ‘General’ and ‘Special Providence’ is that the former ‘refers
to God’s action in the original creation of Nature. In the beginning God created the
material frame of Nature and He structured it to function in obedience to the laws
of Nature which He also created’ whereas Special Providence denotes ‘a particular
act of direct divine intervention that cancels or contravenes the ordinar y course of
natural operations’ (Force 1984: 519).
8 Spinoza had earlier made an almost identical contrast between primitive and scien-
ti c (i.e. theistic) conceptions of God. He wrote: ‘the vulgar believe God’s power and
Providence do most plainly, appear when they see anything strange and unusual
happen in nature { whereas} . . . I take God’s disposing or direction, to be the  xed
order and immutable course of nature’ (cited in Ahmad 1990: 142). Like Spinoza,
Smith’s natural history was ‘scienti c’ in the sense that it dealt with immutable ‘laws’
of ‘universal application’ (Skinner 1967: 46).
9 Nevertheless, Smith is sceptical about other aspects of Aristotle’s cosmogeny (1980:
10 Smith regards theism as a natural effect of intellectual progress (1976: 163–4).
Smith’s contemporar y, Adam Ferguson also used this universal consent argument,
refusing to countenance any claims to relativism on the subject, (1978: 114–16). For
a summary of all these types of theological argument see Richardson and Bowden
(1983: 237–9).
11 Ferguson also modelled his theology on aspects of Newton’s thought (792, I: 200,
312). See also Redman 1993: 210–20,
12 It should be noted however that Smith and Hume did share some Epicurean beliefs
in common. For all the Stoic allusions, there is much of the Epicure in Smith; he
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
describes the Epicurean system as the ‘most imperfect’ of all the ancient schools
(Smith 1976, VII.ii.4.5: 307) yet the central place accorded to the ‘virtue’ of
‘prudence’ in Smith’s moral system is a direct imitation of Epicureanism like
Epicurus, Smith preaches that our ‘passions’ are frequently ‘constrained, not so
much by a sense of their propriety’ (a Stoic vir tue) ‘as by prudential considerations
of the bad consequences which might follow from their indulgence’ (TMS, VI.3:
263). He endorses the statement that ‘pleasure and pain are the great objects of
desire and aversion’ (1976: 320) suggesting that the ‘plan and system which Nature
has sketched out for our conduct seems to be altogether different from that of the
Stoical philosophy’ (1976: 292) As for the ‘system which places virtue in utility’
(Hume’s) Smith says ‘the only difference between it and that which I have been
endeavouring to establish, is, that it makes utility, and not sympathy . . . the natural
and original measureof virtue (1976: 305–6). Smith also despised Stoic apatheia
believing as he did in the importance and desirability of personal liberty (1976: 143).
13 As Kleer rightly notes: ‘{ f}ar from stating that  nal causes should be removed from
scienti c explanations, the general thrust of the passage is to stress their importance’
(Kleer 1995: 298). Reisman also argues for a teleological Smith (1976: 84–5).
14 The happiness of mankind, as well as of all other rational creatures, seems to have
been the original purpose intended by the Author of Nature, when he brought them
into existence (ibid.: 166). Since human happiness is the  nal end of spontaneous
order, Smith’s approach could be described as a kind of ‘system-utilitarianism’, a
term used by John Gray to describe Hayek’s work (Gray 1989: 92). The term is also
used by Campbell and Ross (1981: 73–92).
15 Both Reisman and Campbell also suggest that Smith’s God is a ‘utilitarian’ (Reisman
1976: 85; Campbell 1971: 219).
16 As Daniel Bell notes: Smith gave us a ‘proposition that was almost entirely new in the
history of civil society: in a free exchange, both parties to a transaction could gain
. . . under the conditions laid down by Smith, economic life could be a non-zero-sum
game’ (Bell 1973: 303).
17 Smith declares ‘self-preservation and the propagation of the species’ to be ‘the great
ends of human existence (1976: 77).
18 Signi cantly, Malthus’ views on population were also of a theological bent (Pullen
1981: 39–54).
19 Malthus agreed that state interference in population control was unnecessar y and
would only exacerbate any existing problems (Malthus 1960: 37).
20 As Martin points out, once the ‘Intelligent Author of the Universe’ is expunged from
Smith’s thesis ‘the entire bene cent schema loses its necessar y character’ (Martin
1990: 283).
21 In contrast to Smith’s, later, secular theories of spontaneous order describe a universe
that only appears to be underwritten by a Creative demiurge. As Barr y observes: ‘What
is important about the theory of spontaneous order is that the institutions and practises
it investigates reveal well-structured social patterns which appear to be the product of
some omniscient designing mind yet which are in reality the spontaneous co-ordinated
outcomes of the actions of, possibly, millions of individuals who had no intention of
effecting such overall aggregate orders’ (Barry 1982: 8).
22 Kleer provides a substantial list of other moral equilibria among which he includes:
‘agents are led to perform actions good for themselves and society as a whole and
are dissuaded from actions with harmful consequences . . . there is a natural
tendency to a ‘distinction of ranks’ by which political order is maintained . . . human
beings are compelled by their nature to act with justice, but not to be benevolent . . .
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people have a genuine desire actually to be, rather than merely to appear, virtuous
. . . the expression of self interest is kept within bounds suited to the maintenance of
societal relations . . . the inability of the majority of mankind to form well-considered
moral judgements is compensated by the emergence of an authoritative code of
social mores . . . the rich “make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life,
which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among
all its inhabitants”. . . agents are induced to express that precise degree of every
different kind of sentiment which is most to their bene t’ (Kleer 1995: 281–2).
23 Viner asserts that Smith’s understanding of human motive forces is in fact ‘partly
Providentialist and teleological, and is so expressly, deliberately and repetitively
(Viner, Role of Providence, p. 79).
24 This reasoning did not, of course, lead Smith to a strictly non-interventionist view of
the state. He realized that some things could not be achieved via the self-regarding
act of individuals, hence the famous three functions of government: defence, justice
and public works (1979, V, passim). Smith’s further acknowledgement that govern-
ment intervention was sometimes necessar y for the correction of market behaviour
errors (usury laws, monopolies) also presents a problem for his theodicy which is
dif cult to reconcile.
25 ‘We may observe that these principles of the human mind which are most bene cial
to society are by no means marked by Nature as the most honourable. Hunger, thirst
and the passion for sex are the great supports of the human species. Yet almost every
expression of these excites contempt’ (1978: 527).
26 As also noted by MacFie (1971: 597–9) however, Mac e seems to limit a genuine Prov-
identalism to the Theor y of Moral Sentiments.
27 That is, attempts to explain the puzzle: if God is good, why evil?
28 The virtues associated with the practice of propriety are contingent because they are
socially determined behaviours shaped and moderated by our inherent love of praise
and concomitant aversion to ‘offend’ (1976: 116).
29 To use Nicholas Phillipson’s phrase (in I. Hont and M.Ignatieff, p. 185).
30 See also 1792, II: 126: ‘But, in this reference to a supposed well informed and
impartial observer, there is an implied confession, that there is some previous
standard of estimation, by which to select the judge of our actions’. It was David
Kettler who  rst drew attention to this criticism of Smith by Ferguson (Kettler 1965:
31 ‘{ R}ecent examinations of Charles Darwin’s notebooks suggest that his reading of
Adam Smith in the crucial year 1838 led Darwin to his decisive breakthrough’ (1976:
32 For example, all our ordering drives are offset by other deliberately endued counter-
forces (see above). Similarly, the ‘political body’, like the human body, is capable of
both ‘preventing and correcting . . . the bad effects; of bad public policy. Even the
‘folly and injustice’ of ‘partial and oppressive’ economic policy will be corrected by
the overpowering drive of self-interest, a provision which has been ‘fortunately made’
by ‘Nature’ (1979: 674).
33 The biologist Michael Ghiselin has noted: ‘The fact that our moral sentiments have
an adaptive signi cance was clearly grasped by Adam Smith, although, being a man
of his times, he thought they exist for the good of the species’ (Ghiselin 1974: 257).
34 He also makes reference to ‘the providential care of Nature’ which has ensured that
every species is born with the necessary ‘tubes and canals’ for survival (1980: 163, 165).
35 Thanks go to Sacha Moran for his invaluable help in the development of this idea.
36 A view with which Martin agrees unreservedly (1990: 284, 273).
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This paper contests late readings of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ as an
essentially secular device. It is argued that Smith’s social and economic phil-
osophy is inherently theological and that his entire model of social order is
logically dependent on the notion of God’s action in nature. It will be
shown that far from being a purely secular, materialist or evolutionist
approach Smith works from the argument from design to construct a model
that is teleological and securely located in the chain of being tradition. His
focus upon happiness as the Final Cause of nature renders improbable any
claims for proto-evolutionism in his work while his arguments about the
deliberate endowment of defects in the human frame make no sense
without the supposition of design and purpose in nature.
Adam Smith, invisible hand, teleology, spontaneous order, self-interest,
The hidden theology of Adam Smith
... He adds a takedown of what David Hume calls the Christian "monkish virtues" of humility and asceticism (TMS III.2.35). Complicating matters further is the fact that Smith deploys additional theological concepts in the final edition of TMS (Forman- Barzilai 2010, 93;Klein, Matson, and Doran 2018), using those concepts to advance an 8 For studies that find evidence of conventional eighteenth-century Presbyterian theology and British natural theology in Smith see Viner (1927); Kleer (2000); Hill (2001); Alvey (2004);Oslington (2011;2012); Van der Kooi and Ballor (2020). For studies that read Smith as a religious skeptic of some kind see Minnowitz (1993); Kennedy (2011);Rasmussen (2017). ...
... The Impartial Spectator approves of my purchase of the woolen coat in large part because she observes the complex network of production and exchange to which that purchase contributes-a network that no human observer can comprehend. More conventional theological readings are quite plausible (Kleer 2000;Hill 2001;Oslington 2011;Viner 1927;1977). But one might also sustain an allegorical-theological reading of Smith and come to similar interpretations (Klein 2012, 213-39;Klein, Matson, and Doran 2018). ...
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Smith’s discourses aim to encourage mores, practices, and public policies in service to the common good, or that which a universally benevolent spectator would approve of. The Wealth of Nations illustrates how in pursuing our own happiness within the bounds of prudence and commutative justice we may be said, literally or metaphorically, to cooperate with God in furthering the happiness of humankind. The Theory of Moral Sentiments elaborates an ethic, here called “focalism,” that instructs us to proportion our beneficent efforts to our knowledge and ability. The relationship between political economy and focalism is bidirectionally reinforcing. In one direction, the ethic of focalism contributes to the moral authorization of self-love, thereby invigorating and dignifying honest commercial activities. In the other direction, the insights of political economy reinforce the ethic of focalism by elaborating how through prudent commerce and focal beneficence we cooperate, even if only metaphorically, in a grand social enterprise.
... In theological terms, WN helps illustrate how, in organizing our affairs along the lines of focalism, we may be said to "co-operate with the Deity" in serving the happiness or common good of humankind (TMS III.5.7;cf. Viner 1927;Hill 2001;Alvey 2004). 8 WN and TMS together are "intended to persuade us to view things in a certain light, to refine the ways in which we judge and feel, and perhaps to encourage us to act in a certain manner" (Griswold 1999, 49). ...
... It connects to Stoic and Christian Stoic ideas in Hutcheson and Butler, ideas relating to the language of universal benevolence. A theological reading is quite plausible (Kleer 2000;Hill 2001;Oslington 2011;cf. Viner 1927;1977). ...
In one sense benevolence does not play a significant role in Adam Smith’s political economy. But in another sense, it does. The Wealth of Nations illustrates how in pursuing our own happiness within the bounds of commutative justice we further ends that a benevolent spectator would approve of. Drawing on Smith’s discussion of “universal benevolence” in the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I elaborate a principle of “focalism.” Focalism obliges us to proportion our beneficent efforts to our knowledge and ability, which depend upon habitual interaction and sympathy. The relationship between focalism and Smith’s political economy is bidirectionally reinforcing. Focalism contributes to the moral authorization of self-love, thereby dignifying and invigorating honest economic activities. In the other direction, the discursive analysis of Smith’s economic philosophy reinforces the ethic of focalism by showing how in focusing on our humble departments we cooperate, if only metaphorically, in a grand social enterprise. A unifying theme of Smith’s discourse is the encouraging of focal beneficence and honest commerce, on his understanding that those activities are among the most effective ways of serving the common good in the modern age.
... For different perspectives on Smith and theology see(Hill 2001;Alvey 2004;Oslington 2011;Kennedy 2011). ...
Full-text available
By the middle of the eighteenth century the word “liberal” had had multiple non-political meanings. Adam Smith famously advances “the liberal plan” of political economy. In The Wealth of Nations he indicates several ways that his liberal plan is “liberal” in a non-political sense. The liberal plan leads to economic growth, which, through extending the division of labor, leads to a rise in real wages and population. The liberal plan facilitates market integration, leading towards a distribution of food supplies that could be called liberal and generous if it was brought about by design of a distributor. The liberal plan entails a generous view of the person that dignifies the mundane and elevates ordinary work. Considering ways in which Smith’s liberal plan is “liberal” shines light on the soul of classical liberal political economy, and the extent to which his thought looked to dissolve tensions between freedom and markets, on the one hand, and human dignity and need on the other.
... The prospect of an eschatological state in which virtue and felicity coincide, moreover, provides further moral motivation. (Ferguson 2007, 6) Such sensibilities, intermingled with ideas from Stoicism (which influenced many Scots, especially through the ideas of Francis Hutcheson), pervade TMS and to some extent WN (Hill 2001). Smith emphasizes that our instincts and moral faculties have been designed by Nature to lead to the propagation and happiness of humankind (TMS III.5.6). ...
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This chapter presents ethical and theological perspectives on commerce in Adam Smith through the lens of Bishop Joseph Butler. After discussing the context of Butler's political economy and Smith's and Butler's overlapping theological and psychological frameworks, I focus on three issues. The first is self-love. Against Hobbes, the French Jansenists, and then especially Mandeville, Butler rehabilitates self-love, framing it as morally legitimate, interrelated with conscience, and consistent with the good of our neighbor. Smith follows suit. Second is the dialectical relationship between self-love and benevolence. Butler is clear that the affections of self-love and benevolence interrelate on a psychological level. But the objects of self-love and benevolence--private and public good--also coincide. In pursuing our own happiness, we very often further what a benevolent onlooker would approve of; in knowledge of that coincidence, we may derive a deeper satisfaction from the pursuit. Third, Smith follows Butler's sensibilities about effective benevolence and the limits of knowledge. Both thinkers warmly regard charity and distributive justice. But they see that to pursue distributive justice in an impersonal, abstract fashion is to reach beyond our comprehension. Commercial activity and local beneficence within the bounds of our knowledge appear as principal ways in which we can cooperate with God in serving the good of humankind.
Adam Smith’s discourses aim to encourage mores, practices, and public policies in service to the common good, or that which a universally benevolent spectator would approve of. The Wealth of Nations illustrates how in pursuing our own happiness within the bounds of prudence and commutative justice, we may be said, literally or metaphorically, to cooperate with God in furthering the happiness of humankind. The Theory of Moral Sentiments elaborates an ethic, here called “focalism,” that instructs us to proportion our beneficent efforts to our knowledge and ability. The relationship between political economy and focalism is bidirectionally reinforcing. In one direction, the ethic of focalism contributes to the moral authorization of self-love, thereby invigorating and dignifying honest commercial activities. In the other direction, the insights of political economy reinforce the ethic of focalism by elaborating how through prudent commerce and focal beneficence, we cooperate, even if only metaphorically, in a grand social enterprise.
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En este artículo se ensaya el análisis e interpretación de la conocida expresión de Adam Smith “conducido por una mano invisible”. Se propone como base metodológica la necesidad de considerar integralmente todos los componentes de la expresión, sus contextos textuales y retóricos y la relación entre sus tres apariciones. Hecho esto, se interpreta que “conducido por” se refiere al interior humano en dos de sus condicionantes: la pasión de la vanidad y la racionalidad deliberativa; que “una mano” solo es una manera metafórica de apropiarse, en un contexto mundano, de la tradición de la teología natural; y que “invisible” hace referencia no metafórica a la invisibilidad, que es un elemento crucial en la obra de Smith. Tras esto se concluye que Smith quería que comparásemos las distintas apariciones de la expresión, tratando de sugerir el mayor interés del sistema moral, político y económico republicano con respecto al del Antiguo Régimen.
Adam Smith was one of the most important seminal social philosophers of modern times. Although his great masterpiece - the Wealth at Nations - is most frequently associated with the field of economics, it has exer­ cised a profound and abiding influence not only in that but in all areas of social theory and practice as well. In view of this it is not a little puzzling that after nearly two centuries there does not exist a single reliable account of the full range of his social philosophy. The "circumstances which have contributed to this void in the literature are easily identified. All who are at all familiar with Smith's life and writings recognize that he was a philosopher by profession and that all his writings were conceived and executed as works of philosophy. During his lifetime his work was viewed iIi that perspective. At about the time of his death in 1790, however, Smith's work was eclipsed in the field of philosophy by Hume and Reid in Great Britain and Kant on the conti­ nent. Thereafter the interpretation of his writings was taken up by those who were profoundly interested in only one aspect of his work, viz. , his political economy. In the process of explicating that feature of his thought the social philosophy upon which his political economy was based and of which it was but one application was at first ignored and then represented as rather simplistic.