Adam Smith (1723-1790): Often called the father of modern economics, Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a nineteenth-century moral philosopher who played a key role in the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith studied moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow — where he later obtained a professorship — and at Oxford University. During his lifetime, Smith was best known for his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but he earned lasting fame with his 1776 magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, a comprehensive defense of the division of labor and laissez faire economics (www.victorianweb.org).
In "Signs of the Times," Carlyle contrasts Adam Smith's theories to those of older philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Hooker, and Taylor. While ancient philosophy focuses on conscience and internal goodness, Carlyle points out, more recent ethical discourse, such as that of Smith and his contemporaries, seems overly preoccupied with the external, material aspects of life. According to Carlyle, Smith believed that "the strength and dignity of the mind... is itself the creature and consequence of [external circumstances]," and that if a nation's economic, legal, and legislative structures all operate "in good order," — however such a position might be defined — internal morality will "take care for itself." In a second reference to Smith, Carlyle paraphrases the reasoning behind The Wealth of Nations while implicitly rejecting it: "to the eye of a Smith . . . all is well that works quietly."
Although Carlyle's point stands on its own, his choice of Adam Smith as a punching bag for rebuttal — when considered in the context of all of Smith's works, and not just The Wealth of Nations — seems somewhat dubious, as Vivienne Brown suggests in her book Adam Smith's Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce and Conscience. The driving metaphor of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, according to Brown, is that of the "impartial spectator" (Brown 24), a thought device by which a person attempts to leave the first-person and judge his or her own actions from the position of an impartial arbiter. In this way, the internal attempts to emulate the external in order to assess moral goodness; the mind's inner workings and outside circumstances both play an important role in ethics. A close reading of Smith suggests a much more nuanced argument than the one Carlyle cites in "Signs of the Times."
Brown, Vivienne. Adam Smith's Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce, and Conscience. London: Routledge, 1994.
Last modified 2 April 2009