Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor – with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith – by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society

Allan Ramsay, by William Aikman 1722, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

In 1754, the portrait painter and antiquarian Allan Ramsay had an idea. He took it to his friends David Hume, philosopher and historian, and Adam Smith, moral and political philosopher, and they liked it. Together, they founded the Select Society, first a discussion club then shortly thereafter a debating club for the intellectual elite of Edinburgh. Besides these three eminent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, other members who attended that first meeting in the Advocates’ Library on November 12th, 1754 were gentry, clergy, advocates (lawyers), eminent physicians and lawyers, professors, and distinguished well-known men of letters. Yes, men, they were all men, as was customary in eighteenth-century Scotland. Later on, as the Society grew, it welcomed bankers, merchants, and other men of diverse talents who had gained prominence in their fields.

The purpose of the club, according to Rev. Alexander Carlyle, was ‘philosophical inquiry and the improvement of the members in the art of publick speaking.’ The latter, especially, was an important skill for these men, all leaders in academia, religion, business, professional bodies, or public life. Rosalind Carr writes in Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,

In March 1755, ‘An Account of the Select Socieit [sic] of Edinburgh’ was published in The Scots Magazine, informing the public that: ‘The intention of the gentlemen was, by practice to improve themselves in reasoning and eloquence, and by the freedom of debate, to discover the most effectual methods of promoting the good of the country.’

As the Society grew, it gained renown, though with each growth phase they kept it small enough to remain exclusive. While it never lost its requirement that all members be from the upper crust of society, especially by 1755 they could afford to be very choosy. Being a member of the Select Society gave you instant cachet, and men building a career and establishing a place in society were keen to join. So having a title, money, or an important post wasn’t enough: prospective members had to demonstrate that they were talented and better yet, adept at public speaking and interesting conversation.

David Hume, by Allan Ramsay, 1766, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

To make the Society seem extra-Select, I suppose, the rules were very formal; historian  Roger L. Emerson describes them as ‘cumbersome.’ Young up-and-comer James Boswell, who joined in the late 1750’s, approved of the ‘politeness’ in such systems of rules, but Hume preferred the ‘plain roughness’ of the Poker Club, another of the gentlemen’s societies he belonged to. Over time, it seems that many of the Society’s members leaned towards Hume’s view. Attendance began to slip considerably throughout the later 1750’s, and by the end of 1758 the Society had dwindled to a very low and not nearly so distinguished membership. Only the most dedicated members, it seems, were willing to travel to meetings and put up with the old formalities.

By the time of decline and last recorded meeting in early 1764, the Select Society had helped many men build their social and professional circles and establish their reputations as learned and able men. Other clubs and societies directly branched off from this club or were formed by some of its members separately or after this Society ended as well. One was the aforementioned Poker Club, a political group dedicated to establishing a Scottish militia. Others had similar structures and aims as the Select Society but were more dedicated to the arts, the sciences, or general improvement of Scottish life.

Laigh Hall under Parliament Hall, which served as the Advocates Library in the 18th century, Edinburgh, Scotland.

‘Devils May Sit Here’ in Laigh Hall, now an extension of the Advocates Library under Parliament Hall. A ‘devil’ is a trainee. For example, Mark Twain refers to himself during his time as a newspaper office apprentice as a ‘printer’s devil’

As I am wont to do, I decide to follow the Select Society to their meeting places in Edinburgh. All opportunities to poke my nose into interesting buildings, closes (narrow lanes or passageways between buildings), and archives are worth creating, I think, especially those related to the Scottish Enlightenment! So I begin with the Advocates Library in the old Parliament House, their first meeting place. I’ve been to the current Advocates Library, designed by William Henry Playfair in 1830 and completed with Robert Matheson’s alterations in 1856. (Playfair was one of Edinburgh’s most important architects, and his name and image are to be found all over this city). In response to my inquiries, Senior Librarian Andrea Longson met me at the current Advocates Library door and escorted me under Parliament Hall to Laigh Hall. She told me that this was the home of the Advocates Library during the period I’m looking into, which is when Ramsay, Hume, Smith, and the other members of the newly formed Select Society first met in 1754. Hume was the keeper of the Library at the time, so no doubt it was on his suggestion that the Society meet here, at least at first. The Advocates Library was founded in 1689 and housed in a rented house near Parliament Hall, but as it was with the United States’ Library of Congress and its original collection, the original library building burned down, reducing some of the collection to ashes and leaving some of the surviving books scorched. ‘Laigh,’ Andrea informs me, is Scots for ‘low.’

Northwest corner of Parliament Hall, with communicating door to the Signet Library

Signet Library, the main first-floor hall called the Colonnades

After she shows me around the old hall and its stacks, I ask Andrea about two neighboring sites I’m looking for. She’s able to help me most with one of them, doing so by introducing me to a neighbor, James Hamilton, Research Principal at the Signet Library next door. This is perfect: seven of the advocates which belonged to the Select Society were ‘writers to the signet.’ Then, they were senior members of the Court of Session. According to The Society of Writers to the Signet’s website,

Today, most Writers to the Signet are solicitors in law firms or in-house within the public or private sector. Writers to the Signet take a special oath before an officer of state, the Keeper of the Signet, signifying a personal commitment to the exceptional standards of competence and integrity expected of those associated with the historic seal of Scotland’s kings and queens, known as the Signet. Writers to the Signet belong to Scotland’s College of Justice along with the nation’s senior judges, known as Senators, and its advocates, the equivalent of barristers.

The Signet Library’s lobby is reached by a communicating door at the northwest corner of Parliament Hall, which opens to a receptionist desk. Once a lady at the desk confirms that Mr. Hamilton has an opening in his schedule to see me, I’m taken through a handsome, very large and grand hall that now appears to be used as a daytime tea room, and dining and meeting area. Turns out, it’s now called the Colonnades and can be rented as a venue for special occasions; weddings are often held here.

An upstairs research room and office at Signet Library, Parliament Square, Edinburgh. It’s not over the lobby so it’s not at the site of old St Giles’ Hall, but it is at the same upper level near it.

The William Playfair-designed grand staircase at the Signet Library, across from the lobby and reception desk over where the old Laigh Council House once stood.

The receptionist takes me to an upstairs office lined with books and filled with worktables and desks, where I meet Mr. Hamilton. I tell him of my quest and I’m glad to see he’s interested. In fact, I spend nearly two hours with him. He speaks enthusiastically of the history of Edinburgh and of the library, its architecture and collection. Hamilton finds old maps and records for me, takes me on a tour of the Signet Library rooms upstairs and down, discusses the history of the buildings and closes in and around Parliament Square, helps me find online resources, and even makes me a cup of hot white coffee. What a gracious host!

The handsome Signet Library was built in 1810. Its lobby, into which I first entered from Parliament Hall, rests on the site of the old Laigh Council House. The Select Society held meetings in a room over Laigh Council House after that initial meeting in the Advocates Library, leading to more than a little confusion when I first asked around in the course of my search. Remember, the Select Society held its first meetings in the old Advocates’ Library which is now called Laigh Hall. The room over Laigh Council House where the Select Society met was called St Giles’ Hall, the meeting hall of a Freemasons’ Lodge.

Plan of buildings from an early-mid 1800’s session book in the Signet Library archives, catalog number SP 300.10. ‘Libraries’ shows the site of the Signet Library.

Bookshelves among the colonnades and balconies of the ground floor of the Signet Library

The Signet Library holds at least tens of thousands of volumes and documents, I’ve forgotten exactly how many. In the lower archive rooms, there are session books by the hundreds, among which we find a plan for a proposed new close in Parliament Square, and rows upon rows of other old books of every description. I wish I had hours to dig through them.

Later, as we tour the library, Mr. Hamilton points out that where the colonnaded central hall of the Signet Library had to be redesigned in parts because of an early design flaw: its upper windows, which let in plenty of necessary light, also didn’t allow much space there for books! Above the interior balconies, I can see the somewhat awkwardly, partially obscured upper windows by the re-designed book alcoves and shelves around them. However, seeing it all with a non-architect’s eye, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. The room looks graceful to me.

Upper hall of the Signet Library. The windows on the north side are covered over with bookshelves to hold more of the Library’s massive collection, leaving only one side well-lit enough to see the volumes them by day.

‘The Heart of Midlothian, Restored from Original Drawings, Models, etc, After the Print Published in 1852 by Mssrs W. & A. K. Johnston’, from Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh. The Old Tolbooth is in the center, St Giles with its crowned spire just beyond to the right.

At the time that the Select Society met here over the old Laigh Council House, Parliament Square was much more densely built up than it is today. The Old Tolbooth prison and place of torture, once an early meeting place of Parliament, narrowed the Royal Mile where it passed near St Giles and Parliament Square. Today, you can see the outline of the horrible Old Tolbooth marked out in the cobblestones in metal squares, and a heart outlined in stone indicates the spot where criminals were executed first by guillotine, then by hanging. Tenements crowded the winding closes, and little wooden booths and makeshift shops were built right up against the sides of old St Giles.

Detail of an early eighteenth-century(?) drawing of the old Parliament House, St Giles, the Tolbooth, and the surrounding area hanging on a corridor wall of the Signet Library. The Laigh Council House, which would have stood near the northwest end of Parliament House, does not appear to have been built yet when this drawing was created.

1854 plan featuring Parliament Square and St Giles, with annotations in pen and pencil, courtesy of Dawn Webster. You can see that scores of surrounding tenements have been cleared away, the Old Tolbooth torn down (1817), and the square opened up.

Royal Exchange and John’s Coffee House, Edinburgh, by Green ca. 19th c., Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC), free to use CC BY-NC-ND. This was not the same location as the original one where committee meetings of the Select Society met decades earlier. The Royal Exchange location is shown in a plan printed in Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh.

We also discuss the likely location of John’s Coffeehouse at Parliament Square, a favorite haunt of many of the Select Society’s members and meeting place for the committee devising and discussing its aforementioned ‘cumbersome’ bylaws. I have not yet been able to nail down its exact site. I’ve found many, many references to it, including in primary sources from that time and not long afterward. Without exception, however, these sources refer to the coffeehouse as if everyone already knows where it is. According to Robert Chamber’s Traditions of Edinburgh page 112, it was ‘situated in the north-east corner of Parliament Close,’ which would place it somewhere across from the east end of St Giles. According to my sources, it was not only a popular social hangout, it was also a meeting place for advocates to discuss cases and arrange for the public sales of estates lost to debt.

John’s Coffeehouse may have moved to the Royal Exchange, now the City Chambers, which was completed in 1760; some sources list a John’s Coffeehouse at that nearby location just across the High Street after the time the Select Society committee would have met there. I suspect that many of its later and former members would have continued to hang out at John’s if it did indeed move to that location. Or, perhaps, the proprietors of that later John’s just wanted to lend the historical pastiche of its predecessor to their establishment.

UPDATE: Joe Rock, Edinburgh historian, helpfully referred me to the painting The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, painted by or in the style of John Kay. James Hamilton and others had referred me to the painting as well, but the image published online at ArtUK. org is not high-resolution enough to see what Rock identified in the painting: the sign indicating the location of John’s Coffeehouse in one of the arched doorways to the right of the painting. The view is looking north at St Giles, across the square and the pedestrian statue from the colonnade of Parliament House. This agrees with what I learned about the location of John’s Coffeeshop from Chambers’ Traditions. Since the image of the Kay painting is credited to ‘City of Edinburgh Council, I contacted them. Curator of Fine Arts Dr. Helen Scott let me know that the painting is now at the Museum of Edinburgh and kindly gave me permission to share the images here. Here’s the painting:

John Kay (style of), The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, (Museum of Edinburgh, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh)

and here’s the relevant section of the painting:

John’s Coffeehouse sign, from John Kay (style of), The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, (Museum of Edinburgh, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh)

Signet Library at Parliament Square in the evening light

Niddry’s Street rising to the north from Cowgate, with the modern St Cecelia’s Hall extension to the right

St Cecilia’s Hall original front on Niddry Street, just up the hill from the Cowgate.

The next morning, I go to one more Select Society meeting place, which Emerson identifies in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article as the ‘Mason’s Hall (Mary’s Chapel) in Niddry Wynd.’ I find that Niddry Wynd is no longer there, but Niddry Street is, which follows the line of the old Wynd a little to the east. The overpass of the South Bridge, built 1785-1788, made it necessary to move it over that way, which explains why St Cecilia’s Hall crowds the narrow street on its east side.

Most of the information I find about Mary’s Chapel and Mason’s Hall is in entries about St Cecilia’s Hall. It was built as a concert hall for a musical society who met in one of the rooms adjoining Mary’s Chapel. Joe Rock, consult historian for Scottish material culture, writes in his ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall,’

St Cecilia’s Hall was built from 1760 for a group of wealthy gentlemen and aristocrats, members of the Edinburgh Musical Society. The Society dates officially from 1728 but research for this article has shown that they met in Mary’s Chapel, a building a few yards north of the Hall owned by the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons, from April 1725.

When I initially read Emerson’s article stating the Select Society met in Mason’s Hall, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, Freemasons!’ since they met in the Freemasons’ room over Laigh Council House. But as we see here, this was a room where builders in stone met.

Looking north on Niddry’s Street. Mary’s Chapel stood to the right, about where the pale midcentury building stands now

City of Edinburgh map showing Niddry’s Wynd with Mary’s Chapel and St Cecelia’s Hall, Edinburgh

A bookshelf in the lower archives of the Signet Library

Thus ends my hunt for the Select Society’s haunts in the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. For more about the Select Society and other Scottish clubs and societies, I especially recommend Carr’s book. You’ll find this and other excellent resources listed below. In all, they contain a wealth of detail about the history, the beauties and rich culture of this ancient city from its birth on a rocky hill. Enjoy!

~ Special thanks to Dawn Webster at the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service; Andrea Longson, Senior Librarian of the Advocates Library at Parliament House; and James Hamilton, Research Principal of Signet Library,  for your time and assistance with my site research!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Barker, Robert. Panorama of Edinburgh from St Giles (exact title unknown) late 1700’s-early 1800’s

Campbell, Donald. Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, Signal Books, 2003

Carr, Rosalind. Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. 2014.

Chambers, Robert. Traditions of Edinburgh. New ed. Edinburgh; London: W. & R. Chambers, 1955.

Edinburgh, 315 High Street, Writers’ Court.‘ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland

Edinburgh, High Street, Tolbooth.’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland

Emerson, Roger L. ‘Select Society (act. 1754-1764)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Fleischacker, Samuel, ‘Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Grant. James. Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. London: Cassel, Petter, Galpin, & Co. 1880’s.

Hannay, R. K. and G.P.H. Watson. ‘The Building of the Parliament House.’ Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 1924, 13

Ingamells, J. ‘Ramsay, Allan, of Kinkell (1713–1784), Portrait Painter.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Longson, Andrea. ‘The Advocates Library.Legal Information Management, 9(1), 2009, 35-37

Masson, Rosaline, and John Fulleylove. Edinburgh. New Edition, Revised and Entirely Reset.. ed. London: A. & C. Black, 1931.

Palmer, Claire. ‘Edinburgh Vaults‘, The History Magazine by Historic UK (online)

Parliament Square, Advocates’ Library, Including Wall and Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website

Parliament Square, Signet Library, Including Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website

Rock, Joe. ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall‘ and ‘St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh – Chronology of the Building History‘, Joe Rock’s Research Pages (online)

Saint Cecilia’s Hall in the Niddry Wynd, Chapter I: The Locality’ and ‘Saint Cecilia’s Hall in the Niddry Wynd: Chapter II The Building, and the Name.’ ElectricScotland.com

Sher, R. ‘Poker Club (act. 1762–1784).Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Who We Are,’ The WS Society website by The Signet Library

William Henry Playfair.Dictionary of Scottish Architects (online)

OP Recommends: The Best Philosophy Books of 2017, Recommended by Nigel Warburton at Fivebooks

A view of Edinburgh Central Library’s Reading Room

Now that my papers are done and I have five weeks or so to choose my own reading, I’m heading to Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Library to pick up some books I’ve been itching to get into. One of them was already on my list: Dennis Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (one of my goals for the year is to learn as much about Scotland’s intellectual history as I can while I’m here). Nigel Warburton has made a list of his five favorite philosophy books of 2017, and Massimo Pigliucci’s book is among them. These are two excellent philosophers in the public square I’ve been following for a long time, and their philosophy podcasts are among my favorites.

Looks like I have four more books to add to my list; better get to it!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Enlightenment Scotland: Adam Smith’s Grave at Canongate Kirkyard

Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

Here in Edinburgh, where I’ve returned to University to earn my Master’s degree, I love to visit sites and monuments associated with the Enlightenment. As a lover of philosophy, the rich intellectual history of this city first brought me here: I followed (and still do) in the footsteps of David Hume for my first traveling philosophy/history of ideas series for O.P. I think it’s high time I share more of my explorations with you!

I’ll start with my visit yesterday afternoon to the great moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith‘s grave in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile. The lovely Kirk of the Canongate was built form 1688-1691, and is quite different in style than the other buildings on the Royal Mile. The graveyard behind it, however, is very like many others to be found behind kirks all over and around this great city, and includes the gravesites of many great Scots.

Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile with Adam Smith’s grave center-left, Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of Adam Smith’s moral and political theories, and his ideas on trade and economics, were developed from the ideas of his great friend and mentor David Hume.

Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

List of famous people buried at Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel, by Dennis Rasmussen

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Dennis Rasmussen is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume a few years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford, and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy. And, I think there are enough people promoting his Wealth of Nations as, like, the best thing ever; you can find plenty to read about that on the internet.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who is by no means an expert. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are (including himelf, he’s an excellent and compelling writer), and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) – Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy – by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth – Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like – Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Enlightenment – William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism – Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith – Dennis C. Rasmussen, Jun 9, 2016 for The Atlantic

The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith, first published in 1759

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