David Hume's Tomb in Edinburgh
The best objection to my claim that Adam Smith proposed a liberal moral anthropology that does not depend on a transcendent moral theology is that Smith sometimes invoked God as the ultimate enforcer of the moral law by punishing the bad and rewarding the good in the afterlife. In some previous posts (here, here, and here), I have answered this objection by arguing that Smith shared the atheism or skepticism of his best friend David Hume, but that to avoid persecution, Smith engaged in esoteric writing to hide his skepticism from his Christian readers.
The best evidence for this is in Smith's letter on the death of Hume--the Letter to William Strahan of November 9, 1776--in which he publicly and explicitly endorsed Hume's skepticism by praising him as a wise and virtuous man, indicating that religious belief was not indispensable for morality, and suggesting that he no longer saw the necessity for esoteric writing, because he lived in a society that was liberal enough to tolerate freedom of thought and speech for philosophers like Hume and himself. He thus became the last esoteric writer and signaled the success of the liberal Enlightenment in making esoteric writing unnecessary and undesirable. (On Smith's esotericism, see Klein 2021 and Klein and Merrill 2021.)
Previously (here, and here), I have written about the Straussian account of how philosophers have had to employ esoteric writing to protect themselves from persecution. But I have also noted that Leo Strauss and the Straussians contradict themselves on this when they concede that the success of the liberal Enlightenment--beginning around 1800--has freed philosophers and scientists from the need for esoteric writing. I have also argued (here) that contrary to the Straussians, the philosophic friendship of Adam Smith and David Hume shows how a liberal commercial society promotes freedom for the philosophic life.
Now I want to indicate how Smith's Letter to Strahan confirms all of this. My thinking about this has been stimulated by my reading of Dennis Rasmussen's The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017).
By January of 1776, Hume's health had become so poor that he foresaw that he would have only a few months to live. His symptoms indicate that he was probably suffering from ulcerative colitis and colon cancer. He drew up his will, and he named Smith as his literary executor. He asked that Smith oversee the posthumous publication of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume had worked on the Dialogues since the early 1750s, and he made a few final changes in 1776. Smith refused to carry out his friend's request, saying that he did not want the book to be published during his lifetime. Some scholars have wondered whether Smith's denial of his friend's dying wish tarnished their friendship.
The primary theme of the Dialogues is debating two arguments for the existence of God. First, there's the argument from design--that the order of the world implies the existence of God as the supremely wise, powerful, and benevolent designer. Second, there's the argument for a first cause--that everything in the world must have a cause, and if we trace back the string of causes, we must arrive at the First Cause of the universe, which must be God. One of the leading characters in the dialogue--Philo--is a skeptic who presents seemingly devastating refutations of these arguments, although at the very end of the book, Philo seems to accept a very limited version of the arguments from design and first cause as suggesting that "the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence." But this "remote analogy to human intelligence" doesn't look like the Biblical God, so this appears to be some kind of Deism (Hume, Writings on Religion, edited by Antony Flew [La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1992], 291).
Philo suggests that this debate reaches an impasse in the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that cannot itself be explained. All explanation presupposes the observable order of nature as the final ground of explanation. To the question of why nature exists or why it has the order that it does, there are only two possible answers. We can say this is a brute fact of our experience: that's just the way it is! Or we can move beyond nature to nature's God as the cause of nature, but then we cannot explain what caused God, or why God is the way He is. Thus, it seems that in looking for ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused nature or an uncaused or self-caused God. Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, why not? We might say that God caused something to come out of nothing. But this is nonsensical, because surely God is something not nothing! (Hume, Writings on Religion, 57, 103, 222-24, 241-42). (I have written about this in some previous posts, and I have written about Hume's religion.)
When this book was finally published in 1779, three years after Hume's death, it was widely condemned for promoting atheism and thus denying the religious beliefs in immortality in the afterlife with divine rewards and punishments that provide the essential support for morality. One reviewer warned that according to Hume's teaching, "the wicked are set free from every restraint but that of the laws; the virtuous are robbed of their most substantial comforts; every generous ardor of the human mind is damped; the world we live in is a fatherless world; we are chained down to a life full of wretchedness and misery; and we have no hope beyond the grave" (quoted in Rasmussen, 193).
Anticipating that Hume's book would provoke this kind of popular denunciation explains why Smith did not want to be associated with its publication. Smith said that he was "uneasy about the clamour which I foresee [the Dialogues] will excite." He said that the Dialogues "tho' finely written I could have wished had remained in Manuscript to be communicated only to a few people" (quoted in CAS, 211). After all, even Hume must have seen this problem, because he refused to have this book published during his lifetime, to avoid the "clamour" its publication would excite, while circulating the manuscript privately among a few of his friends.
After Smith refused to publish the book, Hume asked William Strahan, his publisher, to take on the work of seeing it through to publication after Hume's death. Hume changed his will to give the manuscript of the Dialogues to Strahan, but he also stipulated that if Strahan did not have the book published within two and a half years of Hume's death, the manuscript would be passed to Hume's nephew, David, who would have the duty of having it published. Hume wrote to Strahan that "I often regretted that a Piece, for which I had a particular Partiality, should run any hazard of being suppressed after my Decease."
As an extra security, Hume asked Smith to hold a copy of the manuscript for safe keeping: "It will bind you to nothing, but will serve as a Security." He also observed to Smith: "On revising them (which I have not done these 15 Years) I find that nothing can be more cautiously and more artfully written. You had certainly forgotten them." That Hume saw his text as "cautiously" and "artfully written" probably indicates that Hume thought that having Philo accept a Deistic theology at the end of the book was enough to soften the harshness of Philo's skepticism for Christian readers.
Philo concedes that "the whole of Natural Theology" might be reduced to one simple proposition: "That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence" (Writings on Religion, 291). But the reader should note that this "remote analogy to human intelligence" must be very remote, because Philo has pointed out that all intelligent designers (human and animal) of our experience are embodied intelligences (230). We have had no direct experience of how a disembodied divine intelligence designs a universe. This is the sophistical equivocation at the foundation of all "intelligent design theory"--the equivocation in "intelligent design" that infers divine intelligent design (of which we have no experience) from our experience of human intelligent design. I have written about this as the problem in Stephen Meyer's intelligent design argument.
Apparently, Smith did not think that Hume's Philo was "artful" enough to hide Hume's teaching from readers who would see it as blasphemous atheism or at least skepticism. Strahan must have agreed with Smith, because after Hume's death Strahan decided he could not supervise the publication of the book. So the manuscript was passed to Hume's nephew, who had it published in 1779. And just as Smith foresaw, it provoked a "clamour."
Some scholars have said that since Smith was a Christian or at least a believer in a natural theology in which God is the "Author of Nature," he must have been offended by Hume's skepticism, and for that reason Smith refused to supervise the publication of the Dialogues. But that cannot be true, because if it were true, there would be no way to explain the deep intellectual friendship of Smith and Hume and the fact that Smith never expressed any disagreement with Hume's views of religion. Moreover, Smith's Letter to Strahan is his most emphatic public endorsement of Hume's life as a skeptical philosopher.
Hume's reputation for being an infidel who denied the immortality of the soul, the eternal afterlife, and divine providence made his declining health and approaching death a matter of general curiosity, because religious believers assumed that he would become so anxiously fearful of death and eternal judgment that he would be forced to repent of his infidelity and ask for divine forgiveness. Hume was aware of this, and he was determined to show that a skeptic could face death with calm equanimity.
In the last eight months of his life, up to his death on August 25, 1776, at the age of 65, he had jovial conversations and parties with his friends, he played his favorite card game whist, he traveled around England, and he worked on revising his collected writings. He also wrote a short autobiography My Own Life that he wanted published after his death as the preface of his collected works that would be his final message to his readers. In all of this, he wanted to show the world that a philosophical skeptic could live and die well.
Smith offered to reinforce this message by composing a letter to Strahan that would give an account of Hume's last days that would be published after his death along with Hume's My Own Life. Smith asked Hume's permission to do this. In Hume's final letter of his life, written two days before his death, he gave Smith "entire liberty" to write whatever he wished about Hume's life. His last words in that letter were "Adieu My dearest Friend" (CAS, 208).
In a letter to Alexander Wedderburn, on August 14, eleven days before Hume's death, Smith wrote: "Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God." He added: "Since we must lose our friend, the most agreable thing that can happen is that he dyes as a man of sense ought to do" (CAS, 203-204).
Smith seemed to have liked the word "whining" as describing Christians. In his sixth and last edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published only weeks before his death on July 17, 1790, Smith added some references to "whining" Christians, references that had not appeared in the previous editions. He identified "those whining and melancholy moralists, who are perpetually reproaching us with our happiness," and he mentioned Pascal as an example (TMS, 139, 283).
After Hume's death, Smith wrote his Letter to William Strahan, with the date November 9, 1776, which began: "It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behavior of our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness" (CAS, 217-221). The theme of friendship begins with this first sentence. Hume is described as engaged in frequent conversations with his friends. The word "friend" appears 17 times in this six-page letter.
Even as his symptoms became violently painful, and as the approach of death became ever more certain, Hume is said to have "submitted with the utmost cheerfulness, and the most perfect complacency and resignation." After he returned to Edinburgh from a trip to England, Hume's "cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist."
Smith relates that Hume had been rereading Lucian, an ancient Greek writer who satirized ancient superstitions and religious practices. He had read Lucian's account of Charon, the Greek mythic ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly deceased across the river Styx to the world of the dead. Hume said he was imagining what excuses he could give Charon to delay his transport to Hades. One excuse was "Have a little patience, good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition." But Charon would retort: "You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue."
Actually, Smith toned down Hume's attack on religion in this story. In his letter to Alexander Wedderburn of August 14, 1776, Smith recounted Hume's story this way: "at last I thought I might say, Good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of people; have a little patience only till I have the pleasure of seeing the churches shut up, and the Clergy sent about their business; but Charon would reply, O you loitering rogue; that wont happen these two hundred years; do you fancy I will give you a lease for so long a time? Get in the boat this instant" (CAS, 204).
Was this Hume's jocular way of suggesting that the Humean Enlightenment of the people, so that the churches would be shut up would take at least 200 years to succeed? Has that prediction proven true, at least in many parts of Europe today, where most of the churches are either shut up or mostly empty?
The last paragraph of Smith's Letter to Strahan was elegant, perhaps one of the best passages in all of Smith's published writing:
"Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeale source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit."
Rasmussen says that last sentence was "one of the most fateful sentences he ever wrote" (220). There is an echo here of the last sentence of Plato's Phaedo in which Phaedo finishes his eulogy for Socrates after his death: "Such, Echecrates, was the end of our friend, a man who, we may fairly state, was of all those we know in our time the most virtuous, and on the whole the wisest and most just" (118). Like Hume, Socrates was accused of atheism and skepticism. But unlike Hume, Socrates died not from natural causes but from being sentenced to death by the Athenian Assembly. (Despite the execution of Socrates in Athens, I have written about the argument that Athens was remarkably liberal in the freedom of thought and speech that it gave to philosophers.)
In this last sentence of his letter, saying that Hume conformed to "the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man," Smith identified him as achieving what Smith had understood to be the peak of human perfection in the moral and intellectual virtues (see TMS, 246-48; LJ, 338-39). This was Smith's public challenge to the claim of religious believers that religious belief was indispensable for moral conduct--that one could not be good without God--and that a skeptic like Hume could not possibly live a good life or face death without fear of eternal damnation.
This was also a clear indication that when Smith spoke in The Theory of Moral Sentiments of how religious belief in God, immortality, and eternal judgment supported morality, he was writing esoterically to hide his true teaching that while religious belief might enforce morality among many people, it was not necessary for "wise and virtuous men" like Hume.
Here then in his Letter to Strahan, Smith was no longer writing esoterically, perhaps because he thought that the liberalism of the modern commercial society in Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century was reaching the point where there could be freedom of thought and expression for philosophers without their fearing persecution.
Nevertheless, the Letter to Strahan, and particularly the last sentence, did provoke widespread public denunciation of Smith. For example, John Ramsey of Ochtertyre wrote that the Letter to Strahan "gave very great offence, and made [Smith] henceforth be regarded as an avowed skeptic, to the no small regret of many who revered his character and admired his writings" (Rasmussen 223). Smith was denounced by some of the most prominent people of his day, such as Samuel Johnson and John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement). They all argued that an atheist or skeptic like Hume could not possibly be truly virtuous and free of guilt in facing death; and therefore they accused Smith of lying because surely Hume could not have lived and died well as Smith claimed--surely Hume in his last days must have felt anguish, fear, and remorse as he faced the eternal judgment of God in the afterlife, although he might have hidden this from those who visited him.
Later, in a letter he wrote in 1780, Smith said: "A single, and as, I thought a very harmless Sheet of paper, which I happened to Write concerning the death of our late friend Mr Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made [in The Wealth of Nations] upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain" (CAS, 251).
Even if he was troubled by this "abuse," Smith never answered any of his critics, probably because he knew that he was living in a new liberal era of history in which philosophers who wrote openly in favor of skepticism might be criticized, but they would not be coercively persecuted.
Later, in 19th century Victorian England, as the new liberalism of Charles Darwin and his friends gained influence, the freedom to publicly debate the most controversial topics--including reason versus revelation--became ever more pervasive, as English culture moved from "confessional values" to "liberal values." That reason/revelation debate manifested the same problem of ultimate explanation identified by Philo in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: the proponents of reason assumed the uniformity of nature, while the proponents of revelation assumed the reality of supernatural miracles, and thus both sides begged the question at issue: Is the ultimate ground of explanation uncaused nature or uncaused God? (I have written about this here and here.)
Klein, Daniel, and Thomas W. Merrill. 2021. "Adam Smith, David Hume, Liberalism, and Esotericism." Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 184: 712-716.
Klein, Daniel. 2021. "Reading Between the Lines in Adam Smith." AdamSmithWorks, April 7. www.adamsmithworks.org/documents/daniel-klein-reading-between-the-lines-adam-smith.
Rasmussen, Dennis. 2017. The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Adam. 1987. The Correspondence of Adam Smith. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.