Reading Between the Lines in Adam Smith

rhetoric history of astronomy esotericism irony

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks

April 7, 2021

Isn’t It Odd?

21 Prompts to Reading Adam Smith between the Lines

Up to about 2010, little scholarship on Adam Smith delved into his esotericism. A writer writes esoterically when her text affords both an obvious meaning and, “between the lines,” a nonobvious meaning. The nonobvious meaning need not be in conflict with the obvious meaning, but sometimes it is, in which case the obvious meaning should be discounted. For a lecture by me on esotericism see here and the slide-deck here.
Eso- means interior (from Greek) and exo- means exterior. When the text has two meanings, the obvious meaning is called the exoteric meaning.
Here I compile 21 items that might represent esoteric moments in Smith’s texts. Each item prompts thought of a nonobvious meaning, sometimes just a bit of humor or irony. Calling attention to the punchlines of a set of jokes is not particularly agreeable. But perhaps it is useful. Esoteric writing calls for esoteric reading.
But sometimes esoteric readers see esotericism where they should not. Sometimes the obvious meaning is all there is. Sometimes an oddity or irregularity in the text is not intended by the author. Sometimes “Homer nods,” as the saying goes.
But surely most of the following 21 instances from the writings of Adam Smith involve multiple meanings or irony. Readers need to be prepared to read Smith esoterically.

Essays, Lectures, and Other Works
Page citations for quoted words are not provided, but they are easily found by searching the indicated Smith text. Most entries below are followed by a link or two to secondary materials that speak to the esotericism of the passage.
Items pertaining to Smith’s early essays:

1. Isn’t it odd that Smith should conclude a long essay on how surprise, wonder, and admiration prompt scientific inquiry by expressing his own surprise at how he himself has “been insensibly drawn in” to speaking and talking in a manner directly contrary to that in which he had set out to treat his subject, the history of astronomy? (Links to further discussion: 1, 2) And isn’t it odd how the question that ends the essay ends with a period, not a question mark?

2. Isn’t it odd that in the second of a seeming series of twelve rhetorical questions—a series uncharacteristic in its rabidness—Smith would seemingly suggest that Aristotle, “that great philosopher,” “appears to have been so much superior to his master [Plato] in every thing but eloquence,” when Smith shows greater preoccupation with and affinity to Plato? Might the phrasing “that great philosopher” and “his master” signify, not Aristotle and Plato, but Plato and Socrates? And isn’t it odd that among the twelve apparent rhetorical questions, this one, and this one only, does not end with a question mark?1 (Link: 1, 2)

3. Isn’t it odd how Smith writes:
I shall only add, that the dedication [of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality] to the republic of Geneva, of which Mr. Rousseau has the honour of being a citizen, is an agreeable, animated, and I believe too, a just panegyric; and expresses that ardent and passionate esteem which becomes a good citizen to entertain for the government of his country and the character of his countrymen.
directly after quoting Rousseau saying that for today’s “man of society” everything is “reduced to appearances, every thing becomes factitious and acted,” that “we have nothing but a deceitful and frivolous exterior; honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness”? (Links: 1, 2, 3)
4. Isn’t it amusing that, in illustrating how Samuel Johnson might have undertaken his Dictionary so as to better illustrate the polysemy and multiple uses of a word, Smith should furnish model entries for the words but and humour, and say at the end of his review that “those who are under any difficulty” in determining the use of a word have recourse to Johnson’s Dictionary “but by which the determination is rendered easy”?

The Wealth of Nations (WN)
5. Isn’t it odd that, when Smith endorses the status-quo policy of a ceiling on interest rates, saying that without such ceiling “[s]ober people...would not venture into the competition” for loans, he then immediately says that under the status-quo policy “sober people are universally preferred, as borrowers, to prodigals and projects”? If creditors can discern soberness with the ceiling, why wouldn’t they be able to discern soberness without a ceiling? (Links: 1, 2)
6. Isn’t it odd that Smith saw blooming dynamism in the Glasgow of the 1750s and yet in the Wealth of Nations tends to portray market forces as rather placid? Isn’t it odd that he remarks repeatedly on how free markets enkindle discovery of the previously unthought-of, bringing new markets and downward shifts in costs, but never highlights the dynamism of market forces? (Links: 1, 2)
7. Isn’t it odd that in the midst of propounding that “the quantity of labour commonly employed in acquiring or producing any commodity, is the only circumstance which can regulate the quantity of labour which it ought commonly to purchase, command, or exchange for,” Smith should explain that labour varies by its severity, dexterity, skill, ingenuity, and esteem, heterogeneities that not only mark the “advanced state of society” but that “must probably have taken place in its earliest and rudest period”? Isn’t it odd, then, that Smith should theorize using some homogeneous-unit-of-labor concept when he says that labor has from the very start been heterogeneous? (Links: 1, 2)
8. Isn’t it odd that Smith should write of the degenerate state into which “the labouring poor” must descend “unless government takes some pains to prevent it” and seem to endorse some government financing of schooling, and yet in his final words on the subject say that the expense for schooling “might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other”? (Links: 1, 2, 3)

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS)
9. Isn’t it odd that, in recounting a story about Antimachus discoursing before an audience including Plato, Smith should replace Antimachus with Parmenides, even though Smith knew that Parmenides could never have addressed Plato? (Links: 1, 2)
10. Isn’t it odd that Smith should treat commutative justice as justice simpliciter, as though commutative justice is the only proper meaning of “justice” and yet go on to use “justice” pervasively also in two other senses, and in the final part of the book to affirm all three senses of “justice”? (Link: 1)
11. Isn’t it odd that Smith should mention reputation as something covered by commutative justice, but make no mention of reputation just two pages later when he elaborates the “most sacred laws” of commutative justice? Isn’t it odd that he would sometimes include reputation, even though he knew that reputation did not fit the hallmark of commutative justice, namely that its laws are “precise and accurate”? (Links: 1, 2)
12. Isn’t it odd that Smith should say that we labor under a “deception” that wealth will make us happy, while he justifies self-approval for our having done deeds that augment our wealth? (Links: 1, 2)
13. Isn’t it odd how Smith ends that same disquisition by referring to “the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway,” without identifying the particular beggar alluded to? (Links: 1)
14. Isn’t it odd that Smith should introduce “a trite example: a highwayman, by the fear of death, obliges a traveller to promise him a certain sum of money,” devote fully two and half pages to “Whether such a promise, extorted in this manner by unjust force, ought to be regarded as obligatory,” and then conclude the penultimate paragraph of the section (and of the book, apart from the appended essay on language): “Systems of positive law, therefore, though they deserve the greatest authority, as the records of the sentiments of mankind in different ages and nations, yet can never be regarded as accurate systems of the rules of natural justice”? (Link: 1)
15. Isn’t it odd that in expositing the error of introducing “frivolous accuracy” into “subjects which do not admit of it” Smith should make as his target the books of casuistry of “the Roman Catholic superstition”? (Link: 1)
16. Isn’t it odd that in representing his friend’s moral theory Smith should obscure half of it, the agreeableness half, as opposed to the usefulness (or “utility”) half, especially as Smith’s enhancement, fittingness or propriety, is so frequently couched by Smith as a species of agreeableness? (Links: 1, 2)
17. Isn’t it odd that in illustrating, when it comes to “particular usages,” that people can accept and even endorse a most “horrible practice,” Smith should highlight a practice of ancient Greece, infanticide, a practice he even finds justification for in certain circumstances, while just a few pages earlier he rebuked an ongoing atrocity perpetrated by his fellow countrymen in his own time? (Links: 1, 2)
18. Isn’t it odd that the seemingly distinct sources of vice, corruption, and disorder mentioned in TMS should reach to nine and yet each be so eminent?
  • one “the great and most universal cause,”
  • another “the cause of...all the rapine and injustice,”
  • another “the foundation of the most ridiculous and contemptible vices,”
  • another almost the only cause “which can occasion any very gross perversion of our natural sentiments,”
  • another “by far the greatest” of all corrupters,
  • another “[t]he great source of both the misery and disorders of human life,”
  • another “the source of half the disorders of human life,”
  • another the source of half the ill company we make to one another,
  • and yet another that makes it most apt that “[t]he propriety of our moral corrupted.”
And isn’t it odd that four of these nine remarks were new to Ed 6 of 1790? (Link: 1)

19. Isn’t it odd that Smith, in noting that we use “reason and philosophy” to defend ourselves “against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast,” should say, and at the very opening of his moral philosophy, that we do so “in vain”?
20. Given the connection in David Hume between speculation and practice (“philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected;” “The end of all moral speculations is to...beget correspondent habits”), and given Smith’s own emphasis on the moral duty to estimate ideas properly, and on rooting principles in “particular instances,” and on habitual practice as essential to virtue, and given his presentation of “men of speculation” as practicing a “business or a particular trade,” isn’t it odd that Smith should say that the determination of a certain philosophical issue (namely, by what power or faculty in the mind is virtuous conduct recognized and recommended to us) is “of the greatest importance in speculation” but “none in practice”? (Links: 1, 2)
21. Isn’t it odd that at just about the dead-center of the first edition of the volumes containing WN and of the last edition of the volumes containing TMS there appears the same 6-gram, “led by an invisible hand to”? (Links: 1, 2)
  1. I think of the sentence in Hume’s Conclusion to Book I of the Treatise, beginning “But does it follow...,” which seems at first to be a question and likewise lacks a question mark (the editors of the 2007 Clarendon edition, D.F. Norton and M.F. Norton, changed Hume’s punctuation to a question mark—wrongly, I feel).