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Portrait of Adam Smith (1723-1790), 1795. Found in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.How often can writers pretend to discover some well-known thing for “the first time ever?” With poor Adam Smith it has happened again, but commercial promotion inadvertently raises an important matter that only begins with the great First Economist’s religion or lack thereof.

A prominent newspaper starts its book review by insulting its audience: “As any Financial Times reader can tell you, Adam Smith was the original Gordon Gekko, insisting greed is good…” No, they all do not. But if you are hyping a tome that mocks our intelligence, what better way to start than with even more balloon juice?

The book author’s claim to fame is having discovered Smith’s only other volume, which preceded The Wealth of Nations, namely A Theory of Moral Sentiments. Let us take a quick and merry diversion, because Washington Irving saw it coming.

Irving (1783-1859) wrote a clever short-story, The Art of Book Making, that seems forgotten. That many Americans know Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow but no more, suggests that they only read them in an anthology because all three appeared in the same volume, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. If so, more is the pity. Irving wanders into:

The great British Library—an immense collection of volumes of all ages and languages, many of which are now forgotten, and most of which are seldom read: one of these sequestered pools of obsolete literature to which modern authors repair, and draw buckets full of classic lore, or pure English, undefiled wherewith to swell their own scanty rills of thought.

Living writers, famous and fledgling, are crammed together, scribbling furiously, plagiarizing the works of legitimately great authors now safely dead. Today’s theft is tomorrow’s best-seller. Suddenly, the ghosts of Shakespeare and Jonson and all climb down from their portraits and beat the daylights out of the literary thieves. It is bliss, and Irving wrote it more or less as he began publishing simultaneously in Britain and America, ensuring that similar tricks were not pulled on him.

Smith’s modern “discoverer” is no plagiarist, but he deserves a similar thumping for profiteering on the obvious. As the author and all other educated people know, Smith never championed greed. Yes the great man, whom Professor Deirdre McCloskey hails as “Blessed Adam,” wrote of self-interested butchers and bakers, but also warned that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The best analysis of Smith’s life and thought, and how his two books complement one another, is Eamonn Butler’s Adam Smith – A Primer; it is short, free, and downloadable here.

smith 1The new author contends that Smith’s “’great insight…’ was that ’our behaviour is driven by an imaginary interaction with an impartial spectator’. We do not judge ourselves by our principles but by what this finger-wagging companion would think of our actions. Deviations from our moral code are noted, which keeps (sic) us more or less in line… There are limits, of course. Smith knew the average ’man of humanity in Europe … would not sleep to-night’ if his little finger were cut off; but if hundreds of millions of Chinese people were to die, ‘provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security.’”

The “finger-wagging companion” is never identified, by Smith or his modern defender, as being a Guardian Angel or a conscience provided by God. Meanwhile, “’Smith wrote as eloquently as anyone ever has on the futility of pursuing money with the hope of finding happiness,’ claiming that such ‘seductions will never satisfy.’ What matters instead is ‘the consciousness of being beloved,’ the meaning of which has weathered through the ages…” As Australians say, “fair dinkum,” or rightly so.

The question unasked by the reviewer, by the modern author or Smith, is why. Smithophilic libertarians tell me that morality is innate and universal; evolved over eons and encoded in the human genome. More than two centuries ago, long before Darwin, this was chewed over aplenty.

In 1756, Edmund Burke satirised the recently published letters of the late Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a politician who was brilliant, ambitious, and unreliable in equal measure. A radical republican much-loved in the American Colonies, Bolingbroke and his letters, said Burke, saw “every Mode of Religion attacked in a lively Manner, and the Foundation of every Virtue, and of all Government, sapped with great Art and much Ingenuity.”

Burke’s satire, pretending to support what it mocked, started on the human mind, which “every Day invents some new artificial Rule to guide that Nature which if left to itself were the best and surest Guide.” Bolingbroke seemed to anticipate Rousseau’s belief that the primitive or natural was corrupted by civilisation, attracting Burke’s magnificent outrage a generation later. But here he applied Bolingbroke’s antireligious animus in a Bolingbrokian assault on government, deploying the same arguments. The result, were it sincere, was madness and treason.

So many readers missed the joke that Burke explained it in a preface. Still some readers were no wiser, or had no wish to be. At the end of the eighteenth-century, the British radical William Godwin still thought it the first and best defence of anarchy, as the anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard did recently. Mr. Rothbard even argued that Burke’s added preface was a much later and politically convenient recantation; presumably unaware that the preface came only a year after the first edition, and many years before Burke entered politics.

The atheist philosopher David Hume had another go, with his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, finished in the year of his death and only first published, anonymously, three years later in 1779. There three philosophers, with Greek names, champion various defences for God’s existence, which are found wanting. If there is a charitable conclusion, God is beyond Reason.

Today the defence of Natural Religion, renamed universal morality, goes much further than Darwin dared. Happily we can test this theory, although I have never seen it done before.

Let us begin by presuming a genetic reason for protecting one’s family and valuing the respect of one’s relatives. Why, still, ought we to value even distant human lives, as remote from us as Smith’s Chinese? We grew empathetic long before the emotional intensity of television. Is it innate or, perhaps, is it inculcated by religion?

To test this perfectly and look for consistent morality, we would need to contrast an atheistic civilisation with religious ones, but that is impossible. Historian Christopher Dawson found that all civilisations are rooted in religions, apart from atheist subcultures that are too recent to include, which absorb values from the Judeo-Christian culture enveloping them. But we can contrast a respect for human life between the world’s religions, in order to see if they are similar. If they are not, then morality cannot be universal. If a common genetic trait were to be suppressed by a religion, one doubts that the latter would last for long. Hereafter, our experiment becomes fun.

Before we hear from any Bigots’ Chorus, the Abrahamic religions are similar on human life. Proper Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians oppose abortion, and, apart from Christianity’s New Testament, the sacred books of the other two faiths advocate similar quantities of slaughter and love, under similar circumstances. Only the Buddhist texts are consistently pacifist. In my limited knowledge, the Bhagavad Gita stands alone.

smith 2The newest of Hinduism’s ancient texts, dating from 500 to 200 BC, tells of the Pandava brothers vanquishing their foes with the help of Krishna, a powerful god. On the eve of the great battle a brother named Arjuna has second thoughts. He knows that victory is assured because of Krishna’s support, but after considering the lives to be lost, he suggests that they abandon their war and continue to suffer from enemy harassment. Krishna rebukes him, saying that the loss of human and animal life does not matter, because the dead will all be reincarnated instantly. So let ‘er rip.

Justifications for such violence are situational in the Old Testament and the Koran, and nowhere to be found in the New Testament. To my knowledge, only in the Gita is the principle so universal and thus shocking. Unlike in the Old Testament, neither is losing a war punishment for disobeying God, nor is killing so divorced from one-off divine approval.

Krishna ranks among Hinduism’s favorite three gods, and the Gita best-loved among their holy books. This is not to say that modern Hindus lack respect for life beyond family—India and Nepal have many indigenous charities—but the vast majority emerged after contact with Christianity; first via missionaries and then by a global culture significantly inspired by Christianity. Many arose recently, accelerated by Gandhi who was a nationalist and a devout Hindu, but also a British-educated barrister who worked hard to spread Western-style social-conscience among fellow Indians. The legions of modern Indian volunteers, among whom I have worked, are far more inspired by Gandhi than by their Hindu religion.

Confucianism reveres order and sees morality as primarily supporting the family and the state, rather than being religious: The Analects make few references to religion, apart from an ill-defined Heaven endorsing good rulers and abandoning bad ones. In China private charities seemed rare, even before Communism, apart from those organised by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth-century. In both China and India—comprising much of human population then and now–respect for life and comfort seems to have been a family affair. How different from the Abrahamic faiths: from Judaism, where God’s Chosen People are burdened with responsibility to Mankind made in God’s image; from Islam, to which charitable giving is one of its five central Pillars; and for Christianity’s New Testament, in which faith and good works co-determine admission to Heaven.

Adam Smith’s father was a church-goer, but there is no indication of the son’s belief. The Acton Institute says “Under appreciated is his view of religion and morality,” but offers no discussion of his religion; only his practical explanations for morality and empathy. The late Nobel economist, Ronald Coase, took a strong stand on Smith’s alleged disbelief, and:

…challenged the view that Smith was (even) a deist, based on the fact that Smith’s writings never explicitly invoke God as an explanation of the harmonies of the natural or the human worlds. According to Coase, though Smith does sometimes refer to the “Great Architect of the Universe”, later scholars… have “very much exaggerated the extent to which Adam Smith was committed to a belief in a personal God,” a belief for which Coase finds little evidence…

unnamed“The Great Architect of the Universe” is a phrase favoured by Freemasons, and many of Smith’s largely irreligious friends in the Scottish Enlightenment belonged, so he may have too. Modern Masons, especially in the Anglo-sphere, cite a required belief in God unrestricted by denomination or religion overall, which, if true, replaces a vitriolic anti-Catholic and anti-monarchical past. In the absence of further scholarship, this is no more informative than the assertion that Smith must have been an atheist because he was close friends with the avowedly atheist philosopher David Hume. How many of us,devout Christians or Jews, have atheist friends? In Georgian Edinburgh, how many were as worth talking to, or were such good company, as Hume?

Had Smith lived 150 years, he would have read Darwin and we would know his thoughts on natural selection and morality. But we are left to wonder whether Smith was content with the natural explanation that he provided, or if he was reluctant to espouse Judeo-Christian arguments for fear of alienating his Enlightenment friends, or if he avoided taking an atheist position because it would have offended so many others, just as his friend Hume did. I say he believed what he wrote.

Today the study of comparative religions grows less popular and more arcane, having little utilitarian effect on banking, designing better gadgets or obeying Progressive diktats; just as the notion that morality is structurally universal grows more common. Yet the ancient beliefs of India and China suggest otherwise.

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*See the book review here.

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Published: Feb 20, 2015
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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