Life of Adam Smith

Rae, John
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London: Macmillan and Co.
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1st edition.
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A REVISION of the Theory of Moral Sentiments was a task Smith had long had in contemplation. The book had been thirty years before the world and had passed through five editions, but it had never undergone any revision or alteration whatever. This was the task of the last year of the author's life. He made considerable changes, especially by way of addition, and though he wrote the additions, as Stewart informs us, while he was suffering under severe illness, he has never written anything better in point of literary style. Before the new edition appeared there was a preliminary difference between author and publisher regarding the propriety of issuing the additions as the additions to the Wealth of Nations had been issued, in a separate form, for the use of those who already possessed copies of the previous editions of the book. Cadell favoured that course, notwithstanding that it would obviously interfere with the sale of the new book, because he was unwilling to incur the charge of being illiberal in his dealings with the public. But Smith refused to assent to it, for reasons quite apart from the sale, but connected, whatever they were, with "the nature of the work." He communicated his decision through Dugald Stewart, who was in London in May 1789 on his way to Paris, and Stewart reports the result of his interview with Cadell in the following letter, bearing the post stamp of 6th May 1789:—

DEAR SIR—I was so extremely hurried during the very short stay I made in London that I had not a moment's time to write you till now. The day after my arrival I called on Cadell, and luckily found Strachan (sic) with him. They both assured me in the most positive terms that they had published no Edition of the Theory since the Fifth, which was printed in 1781, and that if a 6th has been mentioned in any of the newspapers, it must have been owing to a typographical mistake. For your farther satisfaction Cadell stated the fact in his own handwriting on a little bit of paper which I send you enclosed.


I mentioned also to Cadell the resolution you had formed not to allow the Additions to the Theory to be printed separately, which he said embarrassed him much, as he had already in similar circumstances more than once incurred the charge of illiberality with the public. On my telling him, however, that you had made up your mind on the subject, and that it was perfectly unnecessary to write to you, as the nature of the work made it impossible for you to comply with his proposal, he requested of me to submit to your consideration whether it might not (be) proper for you to mention this circumstance, for his justification, in an advertisement prefixed to the Book. This was all, I think, that passed in the course of our conversation.


I write this from Dover, which I am just leaving with a fair wind, so that I hope to be in Paris on Thursday. It will give me great pleasure to receive your commands, if I can be of any use to you in executing any of your commissions.—I ever am, dear sir, your much obliged and most obedient servant,



In the preface to the 1790 edition the author refers to the promise he had made in that of 1759 of treating in a future work of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they had undergone in the different ages and periods of society, not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns policy, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law; and he says that in the Wealth of Nations he had executed this promise so far as policy, revenue, and arms were concerned, but that the remaining part of the task, the theory of jurisprudence, he had been prevented from executing by the same occupations which had till then prevented him from revising the Theory. He adds: "Though my very advanced age leaves me, I acknowledge, very little expectation of ever being able to execute this great work to my own satisfaction, yet, as I have not altogether abandoned the design, and as I wish still to continue under the obligation of doing what I can, I have allowed the paragraph to remain as it was published more than thirty years ago, when I entertained no doubt of being able to execute everything which it announced."


The most important of the new contributions to this last edition of the Theory is the chapter "on the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by our disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition." In spite of his alleged republicanism he was still a sort of believer in the principle of birth. It was not, in his view, a rational principle, but it was a natural and beneficial delusion. In the light of reason the vulgar esteem for rank and fortune above wisdom and virtue was utterly indefensible, but it had a certain advantage as a practical aid to good government. The maintenance of social order required the establishment of popular deference to some species of superiority, and the superiorities of birth and fortune were at least plain and palpable to the mob of mankind who have to be governed, whereas the superiorities of wisdom and virtue were often invisible and uncertain, even to the discerning. But however useful this admiration for the wrong things might be for the establishment of settled authority, he held it to be "at the same time the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."*106


But the additions attracted little notice compared with the deletions—the deletion of the allusion to Rochefoucauld associating that writer in the same condemnation with Mandeville, and the deletion of the passage in which the revealed doctrine of the atonement was stated to coincide with the repentant sinner's natural feeling of the necessity of some other intercession and sacrifice than his own. The omission of the reference to Rochefoucauld has been blamed as a concession to feelings of private friendship in the teeth of the claims of truth; but Stewart, who knew the whole circumstances, says that Smith came to believe that truth as well as friendship required the emendation, and there is certainly difference enough between Rochefoucauld and Mandeville to support such a view.


The suppression of the passage about the atonement escaped notice for twenty years, till a notable divine, Archbishop Magee, in entire ignorance of the suppression, quoted the passage from one of the earlier editions as a strong testimony to the reasonableness of the Scriptural doctrine of the atonement from a man whose intellectual capacity and independence were above all dispute. "Such," he says, "are the reflections of a man whose powers of thinking and reasoning will surely not be pronounced inferior to those of any, even of the most distinguished champions of the Unitarian school, and whose theological opinions cannot be charged with any supposed taint from professional habits or interests. A layman (and he too a familiar friend of David Hume), whose life was employed in scientific, political, and philosophical researches, has given to the world those sentiments as the natural suggestions of reason. Yet these are the sentiments which are the scoff of sciolists and witlings."*107


The sciolists and witlings were not slow in returning the scoff, and pointing out that while Smith was, no doubt, as an intellectual authority all that the Archbishop claimed for him, his authority really ran against the Archbishop's view and not in favour of it, inasmuch as he had withdrawn the passage relied on from the last edition of his work. Dr. Magee instantly changed his tune, and without thinking whether he had any ground for the statement, attributed the omission to the unhappy influence over Smith's mind of the aggressive infidelity of Hume. "It adds one proof more," says his Grace, who, having failed to make Smith an evidence for Christianity, will now have him turned into a warning against unbelief,—"it adds one proof more to the many that already existed of the danger, even to the most enlightened, from a familiar contact with infidelity." His intercourse with Hume was at its closest when he first published the passage in 1759, whereas Hume was fourteen years in his grave when the passage was omitted; besides there is probably as much left in the context which Hume would object to as is deleted, and in any case, there is no reason to believe that Smith's opinion about the atonement was anywise different in 1790 from what it was in 1759, or for doubting his own explanation of the omission, which he is said to have given to certain Edinburgh friends, that he thought the passage unnecessary and misplaced.*108 As if taking an odd revenge for its suppression, the original manuscript of this particular passage seems to have reappeared from between the leaves of a volume of Aristotle in the year 1831, when all the rest of the MS. of the book and of Smith's other works had long gone to destruction.*109 It may be added, as so much attention has been paid to Smith's religious opinions, that he gives a fresh expression to his belief in a future state and an all-seeing Judge in one of the new passages he wrote for this same edition of his Theory. It is in connection with his remarks on the Calas case. He says that to persons in the circumstances of Calas, condemned to an unjust death, "Religion can alone afford them every effectual comfort. She also can tell them that it is of little importance what men may think of their conduct while the all-seeing Judge of the world approves of it. She alone can present to them a view of another world,—a world of more candour, humanity, and justice than the present, where their innocence is in due time to be declared and their virtue to be finally rewarded, and the same great principle which can alone strike terror into triumphant vice affords the only effectual consolation of disgraced and insulted innocence."*110 Whatever may have been his attitude towards historical Christianity, these words, written on the eve of his own death, show that he died as he lived, in the full faith of those doctrines of natural religion which he had publicly taught.

Notes for this chapter

Original in possession of Professor Cunningham, Belfast.
Theory, ed. 1790, i. 146.
Magee's Works, p. 138.
Sinclair's Life of Sir John Sinclair, i. 40.
Add. MSS., 32,574.
Theory, ed. 1790, i. 303, 304.

Chapter XXXII

End of Notes

34 of 35

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