Prudence and precedents that fostered sense of duty

Adam Smith and the Classics
January 23, 2003

In 1990, ten Nobel laureates in economics opened an exhibition on the life and works of Adam Smith at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. All declared ignorance of the extent to which Smith's moral philosophy underpinned his work in the Wealth of Nations , a work that none had read in its entirety. The division of intellectual labour had begun in Smith's day, but had the distinguished guests read Gloria Vivenza's book their embarrassment might have been less.

First published in Italian in 1984, this brilliant translation by Clive Cheesman (and Nicola Gelder for chapter five) is most welcome, and will enable readers of both Smith and the Enlightenment to appreciate the roots and subtleties of Smith's moral philosophy.

The book focuses on Smith's texts. It concentrates on elements of his thought that have possible or acknowledged classical roots. It does not pretend to discuss all of Smith's work, nor to provide an extensive commentary on any single work. There are separate chapters on Smith's essays on the history of astronomy and ancient physics, his moral philosophy, his jurisprudence, his lectures on rhetoric and a chapter titled "Labour and value", which examines primarily Plato and Aristotle for the roots of Smith's economic thought.

Aristotle provided Smith with many of his foundations, but the writer dominating his thought is Cicero. Vivenza rightly states that Smith's ethical theory, based on reciprocity of sentiment, is social in character.

And, like Hume, who was his closest immediate inspiration, Smith found many of the philosophical underpinnings he needed in Stoicism, as mediated through Cicero.

Smith assimilated only what he needed from his sources, and Vivenza herself frequently interprets Cicero differently from Smith. Without becoming trapped in theories of interpretation, she recognises a perennial historical challenge: how to distinguish between a writer's anachronistic interpretations and his self-conscious departures from an implicitly agreed reading. Occasionally, she projects modern terminology into an alien context - "science" and "scientific enquiry" did not mean for Smith what they mean for us.

The selected references to Smith's Scottish context reveal the only recurrent weakness of the book, which the author has partially redressed in more recent articles. For 30 years, extensive study has been undertaken on the nature and origins of Scottish Enlightenment thought, with particular reference to medicine and the burgeoning physical sciences - on the one hand, to the institutional influences on inquiry and, on the other, the philosophical underpinnings of morality and civic society. Such work was largely unavailable to Vivenza, but it is surprising to find no acknowledgment of Smith's philosophical debts to Hume, whose ideas are firmly rooted in Cicero. More important is a matter Vivenza notes but stresses insufficiently: the subordination, by most Scottish thinkers of the time, of all theoretical speculation to practical goals.

The context in the 1740s during which public lectures on rhetoric became popular, the various discussion societies to which Smith belonged in the following decade, the political and religious institutions with which he had to work in Scottish society up to the 1780s - all influenced in subtle ways his interest and emphasis. For example, John Pringle's 1740 lectures in Edinburgh on Cicero, in which he discussed suicide, signalled an issue of concern.

Vivenza rightly states that Smith's advocacy of the virtues of prudence, justice, benevolence and self-command is not an endorsement of the cardinal virtues of Christianity. Indeed, recent biographers of both Smith and Kant argue convincingly that neither subscribed to Christian doctrine, and both in essence agreed with Hume. Both believed, however, that their positions required them to accept the Ciceronian rubric that whatever one's personal convictions, one's public duties to those for whom one was responsible were of greater civic importance.

Peter Jones recently retired as director, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh.

Adam Smith and the Classics: The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith's Thought

Author - Gloria Vivenza
ISBN - 0 19 829666 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £48.00
Pages - 240

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