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History of Political Economy 32.2 (2000) 412-414

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Book Review

Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment

Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment. By Charles L. Griswold Jr. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiv; 412 pp. Cloth $59.95; paper $21.95.

According to its own promotional description, this book is the first comprehensive philosophical study of Adam Smith's moral and political thought. Professor Griswold is to be congratulated on producing a highly stimulating, closely reasoned, elegant contribution to the still growing body of literature on Smith. Smith scholars and general historians of economics will greatly profit from a careful reading of this book. It is of the same high caliber of scholarship as such recent "classics" as Donald Winch's Adam Smith's Politics (1978) and Knud Haakonssen's The Science of a Legislator (1981).

The book opens with the paradoxical observation that Enlightenment ideals of freedom, personal rights, and private property--in short democratic capitalism--have been embraced progressively throughout the world, and yet these same ideals continue to come under strong attack both inside and outside of academia. By [End Page 412] showing that Smith both embraced the Enlightenment while also sharing and thinking deeply about its shortcomings (e.g., the tendency of people in commercial society to substitute the pursuit of wealth for that of virtue, the dehumanization of work in modern industrial establishments, etc.), Professor Griswold is able to offer Smith as a valuable resource in the modern debate.

This, then, leads into the central theme of the book. Griswold argues that Smith's philosophy must be understood against the backdrop of the fundamental problems of political philosophy--namely war, conflict, and social disintegration--particularly, of course, how to prevent them. Thus, central to Smith's conception is the problem of social order, how well existing society serves to enhance the well-being of the ordinary citizen. Running throughout the book is this vision of Smith as "a devoted and resourceful defender of the standpoint of ordinary life" (13). In contrast, the view of the philosopher, spinner of systems, founder of first principles, stands in opposition to that of the agents engaged in the business of daily life. Indeed a common criticism of Smith's was that systems of moral philosophy tended to force daily practice into the mold of theory, thereby elevating abstract principles above agents' feelings of sympathy toward one another (126). Taken to the extreme, philosophy produces the man of system who wishes to control people as if they were pieces on a chessboard.

Central to Smith's purpose, then, is a belief that ordinary life is sufficient for the emergence of morality and virtue, which make social life possible, even pleasant, for the common person. However, the result is a utopia of the imperfect, to use Griswold's language (302), but not the perfection of high virtue as would be found, say, in Smith's description in The Theory of Moral Sentiments of the great general, statesman, or legislator. It is an attainable utopia in the sense that it depends on the exercise of the virtues of justice, prudence, benevolence, and self-command at a level which Smith believes is within the reach of everybody, not just a virtuous elite. Out of this emerges a higher-order good, thanks to the invisible hand.

If philosophy distorts the moral sentiments by discarding the feelings and sympathies of actual people in actual contexts, the moral sentiments themselves are prone to corruption as evidenced by the deception associated with wealth getting, the dehumanization of work, and the rise of religious fanaticism. In reality, ordinary life cannot be left to get on without philosophical intervention. Moral education is of prime importance, as is the structure of social institutions. For example, Griswold investigates Smith's arguments for a free market of religious sects to illustrate the important role philosophers can play in shaping institutions to enhance moral education. In general, the utilitarian, holistic viewpoint of the philosopher is necessary to recommend institutional changes and promote moral education for the...


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pp. 412-414
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Archived 2005
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