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From Civil to Political Economy: Adam Smith’s Theological Debt

Pabst, Adrian (2011) From Civil to Political Economy: Adam Smith’s Theological Debt. In: Oslington, Paul, ed. Adam Smith as Theologian. Routledge Series in Religion . Routledge, London, pp. 106-124. ISBN 978-0-415-88071-8. (KAR id:37474)


The present essay contends that progressive readings of Smith ignore the influence of theological concepts and religious ideas on his work, notably three distinct strands: first, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural theology; second, Jansenist Augustinianism; third, Stoic arguments of theodicy. Taken together, these theological elements help explain why Smith’s moral philosophy and political economy intensifies the secular early modern and Enlightenment idea that the Fall brought about ‘radical evil’ and a ‘fatherless world’ in need of permanent divine intervention. As such, Smith views the market as divine regulation of human sinfulness and an instrument to serve God’s providential plan. Indeed, the ‘invisible hand of the market’ represents a nominalist realm where human cooperation intersects with divine providence, blending private self-interest with the public commonweal.

I will also argue that Smith’s conception of a morally neutral market is ultimately incompatible with creedal Christianity, in particular orthodox catholic Christian ideas of the common good in which all can share and the practice of charity for those most in need who have been abandoned by state bureaucracy and the marketplace. The main reason is that Smith, not unlike Calvin, tends to divorce human contract from divine gift by dividing the theo-logic of gratuitous reciprocal giving from the economic logic of contract – a dualism that bears an uncanny resemblance with Suárez’s Baroque scholasticism of which Smith’s friend David Hume was rightly critical. In particular, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation theology of Calvin, Luther and Suárez sunders ‘pure nature’ from the supernatural and develops a ‘two ends’ account of human nature, according to which human beings have a natural end separate from their supernatural finality. So instead of participating in the divine oikonomia of asymmetrical gift-exchange, human society and the economy operate autonomously and are ordered towards a purely natural end.

Smith conceptualises the market mechanism as both a fundamental precondition for interpersonal relationality and at the same time separate from the sociality it engenders. Smith’s anthropology hovers half-way between Machiavelli and Mandeville’s homo œconomicus in search for maximal profit, on the one hand, and the diametrically opposed conception of man as a gift-exchanging animal striving for mutual social recognition, on the other hand. By viewing market exchange as separate from the private virtues of benevolence, justice and prudence, he introduces a split between the exercise of moral virtues and the operation of commercial society. Such a divide is wholly foreign to the project of an overarching civil compact in the writings of Smith’s contemporary Antonio Genovesi and other members of the Italian schools of civic humanism and civil economy. In consequence, Smith’s œuvre marks a decisive shift from civil to political economy.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
H Social Sciences > HB Economic Theory
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
Depositing User: Adrian Pabst
Date Deposited: 10 Dec 2013 20:58 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 10:14 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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