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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2012

Department of Political Science, University of Chicago E-mail:


Adam Smith's lectures present a bleak theory of history in which the innate human “love of domination” results in the perpetuation of increasingly repressive slave societies. This theory challenges common conceptions about the philosophical and historical foundations of Smith's thought, and accounting for it requires moving beyond traditional dichotomies between an “economic” sphere grounded on asocial wants and a “political” sphere grounded on sociability. For Smith, under the influence of earlier thinkers like La Rochefoucauld, Mandeville, and Rousseau, all human behavior is rooted in our esteem-seeking social nature, and the dominant form of esteem-seeking is a “corrupt” one based on external superiority. Understanding these foundations explains why Smith views both European commercial society and its central motive of economic self-interest as historically contingent, the product of a long series of unintended historical consequences.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 All citations from Smith's work refer to the Glasgow editions: Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L. (Oxford, 1976)Google Scholar, henceforth “TMS,” with references in the main text; idem, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, and W. B. Todd (Oxford, 1976), henceforth “WN,” with references in the text; idem, Lectures on Jurisprudence, ed. R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael, and P. G. Stein (Oxford, 1978), henceforth “LJ,” with references in the main text; idem, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce (Oxford, 1978), henceforth “EPS,” with references in the main text; idem, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. J. C. Bryce (Oxford, 1983), henceforth “LRBL.”

2 On the four stages theory see especially Ronald L. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (Cambridge, 1976).

3 This point has been made in what is perhaps the only work to examine the broader implications of Smith's theory of slavery: Forbes, Duncan, “Sceptical whiggism, commerce, and liberty,” in Skinner, Andrew S. and Wilson, Thomas, eds., Essays on Adam Smith (Oxford, 1975), 179201Google Scholar.

4 While Smith distinguishes the behaviors of frugality (saving money) and prodigality (spending it), he emphasizes that at root the desire for money is no different from the desire for purchasable goods (LJ(A) vi.145–6). It is thus possible to speak of a unified “economic interest.”

5 The term “social” is a crucial but ambiguous one; I use it in the minimal sense of specifying any motive or behavior that can only be understood given the presence of other people. Thus it includes, but is broader than, “political” motives and behaviors. For example, envy, unlike physical hunger, is a “social” drive, in that it is incomprehensible in isolation, but it need not necessarily be “political.”

6 Cropsey, Joseph, Polity and Economy: An Interpretation of the Principles of Adam Smith (The Hague, 1957), 71CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Hont, Istvan, “The Language of Sociability and Commerce: Samuel Pufendorf and the Theoretical Foundations of the ‘Four-Stages’ Theory,” in idem, Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 159–84Google Scholar.

8 See especially Cropsey, Polity and Economy; and idem, “Adam Smith and Political Philosophy,” in Skinner and Wilson, Essays on Adam Smith, 132–53. For an overview of more recent examples see Ryan Patrick Hanley, Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue (Cambridge, 2009), 6 n. 13.

9 Classics of this scholarship include Winch, Donald, Adam Smith's Politics: An Essay in Historiographic Revision (Cambridge, 1978)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Haakonssen, Knud, The Science of a Legislator: The Natural Jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith (Cambridge, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See, for instance, the generally helpful analyses of Holmes, Stephen, “The Secret History of Self-Interest,” in idem, Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago, 1995), 4268Google Scholar; and Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, “Self-Interest and Other Interests,” in Haakonssen, Knud, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith (Cambridge, 2006), 246–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 There are notable exceptions, many of which touch on points made in this essay. See especially Force, Pierre, Self-Interest before Adam Smith: A Genealogy of Economic Science (Cambridge, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rothschild, Emma, Economic Sentiments: Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA, 2001)Google Scholar; Kalyvas, Andreas and Katznelson, Ira, “The Rhetoric of the Market: Adam Smith on Recognition, Speech, and Exchange,” Review of Politics 63/3 (Summer 2001), 549–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lewis, Thomas J., “Persuasion, Domination and Exchange: Adam Smith on the Political Consequences of Markets,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 33/2 (June 2000), 273–89Google Scholar.

12 While Smith uses the term “utility” in a way that is consistent with the term's present-day meaning in colloquial English, his usage does not correspond precisely to the more abstract technical usage in economics.

13 Smith gives an analogous account of language in the Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages. While noting that language must have begun from a desire to satisfy “mutual wants” (LRBL 201), he suggests that aesthetic considerations quickly superseded utilitarian ones in driving linguistic development, so that it is not functionality but “love of analogy and similarity of sound, which is the foundation of by far the greater part of the rules of grammar” (211). Smith's thought is marked by a persistent refusal to reduce human motivation to considerations of utility, whether the subject is economic consumption or language.

14 Lovejoy, Arthur O., Reflections on Human Nature (Baltimore, 1961)Google Scholar.

15 As TMS I.ii.3–5 makes clear, we must distinguish “selfish” passions, such as joy, which do not presuppose the existence of others, from “unsocial” ones, such as resentment, which do.

16 This theme was a recurring one in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought. Cf. Lovejoy, Reflections, 207–15.

17 Cf. Force, Self-Interest, 47, 246–7, 261–2.

18 Smith's relation to Rousseau has been intelligently treated in two recent books: Force, Self-Interest; and Rasmussen, Dennis C., The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith's Response to Rousseau (University Park, PA, 2008)Google Scholar. While I agree with most of their claims, my own argument differs in emphasis. Specifically, I take Smith's most fundamental debt to Rousseau not to be the account of amour-propre or vanity in modern commercial society, important as this may be, but rather the account of amour-propre as the fundamental fact of all human societies, commercial and otherwise, and the foundation of distinctively human personality in general.

19 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, in idem, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch, Victor (Cambridge, 1997), 187Google Scholar.

20 Ibid., 214, Note XV.

21 Ibid., 171. Not coincidentally, this passage—like the just-cited contrast between savage and sociable man—is among the passages of the Discourse that Smith translated in his review of the work (EPS 252–3).

22 TMS VII.ii.4. In the final edition Smith removed La Rochefoucauld's name from the chapter at the request of one of the moralist's descendants.

23 For background on La Rochefoucauld and the broader French moralist tradition see especially Force, Self-Interest; and Keohane, Nannerl O., Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Mandeville and his relation to Smith see Hundert, E. J., The Enlightenment's Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (Cambridge, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Smith may, however, be slightly unfair in ascribing this position to Mandeville, who would not deny that norms can be internalized. Rather, he simply argues that even acting to gain self-approbation remains a form of egoism. Cf. Mandeville, Bernard, The Fable of the Bees, ed. Kaye, F. B. (Indianapolis, 1988), I, 57Google Scholar.

25 Smith states this explicitly in a passage inserted into the second edition of the Theory (and later replaced in the sixth). Although the “tribunal within the breast . . . can reverse the decisions of all mankind . . . yet, if we enquire into the origin of its institution, its jurisdiction we shall find is in a great measure derived from the authority of that very tribunal, whose decisions it so often and so justly reverses” (TMS III.1.12).

26 See especially TMS IV.i.4 (emphasis added): “Our rank and credit among our equals . . . depend very much upon, what, perhaps, a virtuous man would wish them to depend entirely, our character and conduct, or upon the confidence, esteem, and good-will, which these naturally excite in the people we live with.”

27 It is here that I differ with the generally excellent account in Rothschild, Economic Sentiments, 7–51, which correctly notes the ways in which economic behavior for Smith is social rather than atomistic. While economic actors in commercial society may be formally equal, and forced to rely on persuasion rather than domination, I would suggest that Smith nonetheless sees their motives as rooted primarily in a drive for vertical superiority rather than horizontal relations of sociability of the sorts that Rothschild describes. Put in Smith's terms, we are in agreement that economic behavior is not “selfish,” but whereas Rothschild appears to see it as primarily “social” I would see it as primarily “unsocial” (cf. TMS I.ii.3–5).

28 Here we can see a clear echo of the distinction between utility and authority that Smith took from Hume and that figures prominently in the Lectures. The benefit that government provides to individuals is not, as Locke had argued, the only reason for their loyalty to it; alongside it is the fact that “every one naturally has a disposition to respect an established authority and superiority in others, whatever they be” (LJ(A) v.119). The result is that rulers command an allegiance that is greater than what, strictly speaking, they deserve (TMS I.iii.2.3).

29 Cf. Force, Self-Interest, 47, although—as noted below—it is not merely “civilized” or commercial behavior that Smith sees as rooted in vanity.

30 This usage is close to, but slightly broader than, the definition given at TMS VI.iii.36, where vanity is defined as the attempt by an agent to receive approbation that he himself knows that he does not deserve. I use it more generally to refer to esteem-seeking through undeserving means, whether or not the agent understands them as undeserving.

31 Smith first describes his proposed discourse on law and government in the original 1759 edition of the Theory (TMS VII.iv.37). For a fuller account of the details of Smith's history see Daniel Luban, “Slavery and Self-Interest in Adam Smith,” unpublished MPhil dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2008.

32 Hont, Istvan, “Adam Smith's History of Law and Government as Political Theory,” in Bourke, Richard and Geuss, Raymond, eds., Political Judgement: Essays for John Dunn (Cambridge, 2009), 131–71, 165CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 In the Lectures, he gives a different explanation centered on the role of the clergy (LJ(A) iii.118–121).

34 See, for example, Campbell, T. D., Adam Smith's Science of Morals (London, 1971), 81–2Google Scholar; Winch, Adam Smith's Politics, 163–4; Haakonssen, The Science of a Legislator, 181–5.

35 See especially Stigler, George J., “Smith's Travels on the Ship of State,” History of Political Economy 3/2 (Fall 1971), 265–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hirschman, Albert O., The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton, 1977), 105Google Scholar.

36 Cf. Rasmussen, Problems and Promise, 142–50. Less convincing is the description of Smith's theory of history as one in which “society progresses as a result of people's innate abilities and propensities rather than through a series of accidents” (95).

37 In many ways this story is similar to the one traced by Hirschman in The Passions and the Interests. While not expressed in terms of passions and interests, it is similarly about the ways in which a set of potentially destructive human capacities come to be expressed in the comparatively constructive drive for economic advancement. Hirschman, interestingly, does not see Smith himself as a part of this story, instead arguing that he puts an end to it by “collapsing these other passions into the drive for the ‘augmentation of fortune’” and proposing a reductionist psychology in which all other passions merely “feed into the economic ones” (Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, 108–9). Yet the passage that Hirschman cites in support of this conclusion (TMS I.iii.2.1, cited above at 283–4) does not support this conclusion. It claims that economic interest is part of the approbation drive, but not that it is the only form of behavior that satisfies this drive; Smith in fact suggests here that approbativeness results in the pursuit of “power” and “preeminence” as well as wealth. This is more than a textual quibble insofar as Hirschman's argument is representative of the common claim that Smith explains economic behavior by radically simplifying human psychology. On the contrary, I have tried to argue, Smith is keenly aware of the ways in which approbativeness can result in destructive behavior, and he explains its manifestation in economic interest not through psychological reductionism but as part of a historical account of norms and institutions.

38 Smith is not blind to the fact that power still plays a role in economic relations in commercial society (see, for example, the discussion of labor conflicts at WN I.viii.11–14), but he does differentiate such phenomena from the direct dependence and domination of the precommercial economy. Of course, one might legitimately argue that Smith underestimates the continued scope and importance of power and force in the commercial economy.

39 On this distinction see especially TMS II.ii.3.5; and the discussion in Campbell, Adam Smith's Science of Morals, 205–20.

40 Cf. Hirsch, Fred, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge, MA, 1976)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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