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  • Adam Smith and the History of the Invisible Hand
  • Peter Harrison

Few phrases in the history of ideas have attracted as much attention as Smith’s “invisible hand,” and there is a large body of secondary literature devoted to it. In spite of this there is no consensus on what Smith might have intended when he used this expression, or on what role it played in Smith’s thought. Estimates of its significance range from the laudatory—“one of the great ideas of history,” to the dismissive—“an ironic joke.”1 Commentators are also divided on whether Smith’s “invisible hand” has teleological or providential connotations, or whether it is simply a rhetorical device. John Kenneth Galbraith declared that we do a grave disservice to Smith if we insist on understanding his invisible hand as a kind of “spiritual force.”2 Spenser J. Pack maintained that the invisible hand was “a rhetorical device which Smith made up, and knew he made up” and certainly “not [End Page 29] a theological underpinning for Smith’s social and/or economic theory.”3 Others have adopted the opposite view. Jacob Viner contended that Smith’s economic theory becomes unintelligible if “the invisible hand” is evacuated of its theological significance.4 For David A. Martin, Smith’s use of the phrase pointed to the foundational role played by divine wisdom in Smith’s thought, while for Andy Denis, “the invisible hand concept in Smith was entirely and unambiguously theological.”5

Surprisingly, given this situation, a systematic study of the uses of the expression before Smith has yet to be made.6 Indeed, it is not unusual to find claims that Smith invented the expression himself, or that it was primarily owing to his influence that the phrase first became widespread.7 Those who have made perfunctory efforts at a history of the phrase generally point to a few scattered literary references with a view either to judging them irrelevant to Smith’s oeuvre, or to suggesting that Smith’s (admittedly meagre) uses of the phrase are empty metaphors. This paper seeks to remedy this deficiency, offering a history of “the invisible hand” with a particular focus on the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. What clearly emerges from this survey is that the concept was relatively common by the time Smith came to use it. Moreover, while “invisible hand” was used in a variety of contexts, by far the most common involved reference to God’s [End Page 30] oversight of human history and to his control of the operations of nature. Almost certainly, then, when readers encountered the phrase in Smith, they would have understood it as referring to God’s unseen agency in political economy. Whether Smith was himself committed to such a view is more difficult to determine, but the history of the expression and the contexts in which it appears in Smith’s writings offer some support for providentialist readings.

Hidden and Invisible Hands

The expression “invisible hand” was not commonly used before the seventeenth century. It does not occur in classical literature (although some have suggested that the phrase may be found in Ovid).8 Neither does it appear in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.9 The earliest reference that I have found occurs in a Greek liturgy which invokes God’s “invisible right hand which is full of blessing.”10 The liturgy was used by the Alexandrian Church and its origins date back (probably) to the second century. However, [End Page 31] the expression is relatively rare in subsequent patristic and medieval writings. In one of his Old Testament commentaries, Alexandrian Church father Origen (185–254 ce) attributed the Israelites’ defeat of the Amalekites, recorded in Exodus 17, to the agency of God’s hidden hand.11 Some later sources made reference to the work of a “hidden” or “invisible” hand of God in restoring individuals to health. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 ce) thus spoke of the hidden hand of God which heals and makes whole.12 A medieval source refers similarly to a wound being healed by the touch of an invisible hand.13 French Benedictine Petrus Cellensis (1115–83 ce) alluded to the action...