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Unveiling Nature

Adam Smith and 18th Century Ideas


by Albertus Kerkhof  b. Vnd.


Adam Smith's book Wealth of Nations (1776), thought by many to mark the birth of economics, the first branch of "moral philosophy" to become called "science", got generally known in intellectual circles and public opinion soon after its first appearance. Not only Adam Smith himself, but the intellectual world generally seemed to have been "ripe" for his ideas. To explain why, this article is a depiction the gist of learned literature generally read and appreciated in Adam Smith's time, a guided tour through 18th century thinking concerning the social fabric, involving the influential authors at the time in Europe, like Montesquieu, D' Espiard, Rousseau, Turgot, Helvetius in France, Verri and Beccaria in Italy, and of course Adam Smith's remarkable Scottish surroundings: Kames, Ferguson, Locke, Hume, Robertson and Millar.

The French contribution: Montesquieu, D' Espiard, Helvetius

The 18th century marks the birth of the social sciences, as the 17th had done for the natural sciences.. Everywhere in Europe, authors set out to write about society in the way Galileo and Newton had done concerning the laws of nature. And, as the early scientific physicists, they typically were not academic professors. Most universities were still stuck in an atmosphere of maintaining traditions and book-wisdom of the old days. Fact finding and observing social change was often the hobby of university outsiders. They did convene in learned societies or informally in circles of friends sharing the hobby. Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu was born Bordeaux, 1689, where he studied law. He entered the "Académie de Bordeaux" (1716), a learned society, had a go on physics for a while, but keeps studying and discussing political and moral issues. In his Académie, differences of national character were a fashionable subject. He traveled a lot and his notes show his interest in different people's habits: eating, drinking, art, architecture, street life, government finance, political institutions and social relations.

Montesquieu was entertaining himself. Not only in travel: he read a lot: history, books about countries and peoples, and about travel, a very popular genre in the 18th century. And, it goes without saying, to be a worthy member of the "republic of literature", he writes. In 1721, the publication of Lettres Persanes makes him famous at once. This is an elegant little book full of false bottoms. It is an imaginative exchange of letters between some Persians traveling in Europe and their families at home, forming a brilliant satire on European society, especially life in Paris, but at the same time on Persian society as well. It holds much of the core of the political views Montesquieu maintained during his life, notably his fear of the degeneration of the French monarchy to a kind of "Asiatic Despotism". The idea of looking at your own society as though through the eyes of a stranger is a new one, which in the 18th century quickly became a popular style.

Montesquieu started writing his Esprit des lois (first appearing 1748) after his travels and got more and more occupied with it. Its full title is: Concerning the spirit of the law, or concerning the relations laws should have with the structure of every government, morals, climate, religion, trade etc. It is based upon a recognition of the existence of an "infinite variety of morals and laws". In the traditional approach of "natural law", it would be a matter of relating this variety to a single "natural" standard, but Montesquieu does not wish to come to such a judgment. He aims at explaining, finding the causes of those differences. He distinguishes three basic types of government: the republic (aristocracies and democracies), the monarchy and the despotism.  Not all laws, institutions and morals work with all these types. Which ones work with which types is Montesquieu's concern in the first thirteen books. This leads to some feasible combinations of types of government, laws institutions and morals. Which of those will prevail at some place depends on climate, geographical position and size of a country, but also the morals prevailing among the population, as revealed by the type of economic system, religion, mentality, etc. These factors mutually influence each other, except things like climate and other geophysical circumstances. As a result, climate and geography are dominant in Montesquieu's explanation of which system of government, morals, etc. you find where. He does not get tired of stressing that these are explanations, not justifications: "I only give the reasons". In the preface he writes he does not intend to "disapprove the order that established itself in whichever country", "every country will find its own reasons for its rules".

Yet, Esprit des lois contains moral judgments, for instance when Montesquieu writes about "love disapproved of by nature". And "nature" can not only disapprove, but also condone: in countries where more females are born than males, polygamy is "less against nature", than in Europe, where it was believed the ratio's were equal. These are no pure incidents, lapses into morality. Doing away with the moral point of view in explaining which system you will find where allows Montesquieu to get back to it, albeit casually, in other domains where he seems to have strong messages about what should be done and what should be avoided. He even morally rejects one of the main types of systems of which he explains the existence: despotic rule.

All types of government get a neutral definition at first: in a republic (mainly the Greek and Roman republics of Antiquity), people govern as a whole (democracy) or part (aristocracy). When one person rules, this rule can either be founded on laws or not. When founded on law this is called monarchy, like in Western Europe of the time, where not: despotic rule, like in Russia, China, and countries of South Asia. The republic is morally based on virtue (Machiavelli's virtu): being ready to serve the common cause; in monarchy it is honour, associated with a position in society. In despotic rule it is fear.

Those living under despotic rule, like the Chinese "governed by the stick", and the Russian, whose expulsion to Siberia is not a big deal since "Moscow is not much better", find in  Esprit des lois sound reasons for their plight: it is according to the "nature of things": caused by the local climate and geology, the sizes of the country. Russians and Chinese would even be in a "state of violence" if they would not be slaves.

Despotic rule, thought natural under certain conditions, turns out to be counter-natural: it "mutilates human nature in a horrible way", and "every evil it limits is a good". Man, has a "natural love of freedom", hence, not fearing to seem inconsistent, he writes: "one has to say that slavery, though in some countries based upon nature, is against nature". This widespread use of the concept "nature" as a panacea, both in factual explanation (where nature shows itself) and in the pointing and diagnosing of social "diseases" (where nature is perverted), typical for the period of the period of the Enlightenment, and Montesquieu is not the only one using and mocking the concept at the same time.

Though he abhors it, Montesquieu considers despotic rule to be even more natural than monarchy. Proper monarchy, rule not by sheer personal power but by law, requires, in order not, as is its natural tendency (!) to lapse into despotism, a lot of subtle social and governmental arrangements and equilibria, such as

In the Lettres Persanes, a Persian remarks that the French live in a pretty violent state, torn between a principle of honour prescribing such things as duels, and their religion, which prohibits them. Hence it is "natural" for a monarchy to disintegrate and lapse into something else, possibly a republic, but most naturally despotic rule: "As rivers into the sea, monarchies flow into despotic rule".

Monarchy is an unstable, if not even unnatural balance, hence its proper explanation requires more efforts. The general causes (geography, climate, country size) do explain why monarchy is possible, but not why it indeed established itself. The explanation of that requires detailed historical research, to which Montesquieu devotes the last  chapters of Esprit des lois. The advent of the German tribes form a key element "the freedom of the English is born in the German forests" (Voltaire will later comment "and their reverends' sermons too"). It resulted in an ideal monarchy, that unfortunately later degenerated and found its absolute lowest ebb in Louis XIV's form of government. In Lettres Persanes one of Montesquieu's protagonists remarks about Louis XIV: that "of all sorts of of governments in the world, the one of the Turks, of our sublime Sultan pleases him most".

Montesquieu, now chiefly known as the first clear reference to the separation of powers that became so central in our Western thinking on proper structuring of government, hence easily mistaken to be a man of his future, in fact is a nostalgic. He longs for the original ideal monarchy, in which the noble man is not yet degraded onto being a mere courtier, even for the Roman republic, impossible in Europe given the circumstances. And he is a pessimist: Europe, especially France, is in a natural  process of degeneration, and he has little hope that the recommendations of his Esprit des lois will get enough support to turn the tide.

In its own time, the Esprit des lois appealed to the public for its account of world wide culture differences. This was a fashionable subject, suitable for mundane conversations. Also it invited adducing of counterexamples, which were not difficult to find. Helvetius, in his book De l' Esprit, reacts in his preface: "...we should treat moral science like other sciences and make it a science like experimental physics". As its basic law he proposes the law of self interest. Morals have different utilities in different circumstances and this should explain the difference between cultures. It is the "voice of pleasure" suggesting the antique Roman to feed his fish with slaves, thus nursing a delicacy of meat satisfying his "barbaric epicurism". And is it more strange of the Chinese to drown girl babies than of Europeans to lock girls up in convents?Helvetius does not come up with many interesting explanations. His De l' Esprit is especially interesting as a formulation for a program of moral science.

A lot of issues dealt with in Montesquieu's Esprit des lois are also dealt with in D' Espiard's work, now known under a title it later got, Esprit des nations. It originally appeared 5 years before Montesquieu's Esprit des lois as "Essays concerning the spirit [g�nie] and character of Nations". His social background is remarkably similar to Montesquieu's. It shows again that the subject was generally discussed at the time, even in Germany, where Johann Gottfried Herder will later extensively deal with them in his Ideas concerning the Philosophy of History (1784-91), although he makes a shift from the French environmental explanation to differences in the genetic make up of peoples (Volker) as transpiring from their looks: the "small eyes, flat nose and forehead, little beard, big ears and a thick belly" that, he holds, show there is no hope for the Asian to better himself.

The Italians: Verri, Beccaria, Ortes

In 1761 in Milan, capital of Lombardy, a group of progressive young people gathered to form a kind of literary-scientific group with Pietro Verri as the main mover and Cesare Beccaria as a brilliant follower. In 1764 they founded a journal, Il café, that would exist two years. Beccaria would publish in it, not only a plea for rehabilitation of the smelling organ in esthetic and scientific matters ("Who knows, if not one time a Newton of odours shall be born"), but also a Tentativo analytico sul contrabandi ("Analytical Essay on Smuggle"), an economic analysis of trade and smuggle along mathematical principles to be introduced in economics only a century later. In the founding year of Il café Beccaria writes, urged by Verri, the book Dei Delitti e delle Pene (Concerning Crime and Punishments). In 1767 it is already available in French, in 1768 in English, in Dutch and later in several other European languages. Smuggle and other crimes are considered as choice options with advantages and disadvantages. The actor weighs them against legal options, and good government tries to shift the balance and make legal options be in the interest of the actor. Government has instruments: in smuggle, it can lower trade tariffs or increase policing (raising the chance to being arrested) cost. In crimes generally, punishment and policing. The whole thing now to everyone, actors and government becomes a quantitative calculus of advantages (utility, yield) and disadvantages (nuisance, risks, cost), a clear promise for the possibility of a mathematics of society, to replace the philosophical approach of the past era which consisted largely of a boring enumeration of human passions and the virtues one needs to control them. This idea of a calculus of social behaviour, the weighing of "pain" against "pleasure", is in Montesquieu and the French authors about "esprit", it is in the Italians, and it will, after the glorious breakthrough of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as a cornerstone of economic and political thinking shape and keep reshaping our society until today.

Beccaria refers to "the immortal Montesquieu" already in the introduction of Crime and Punishment. In Esprit des lois the subject would already have been touched upon in passing. Beccaria  announces "to follow the shining track of this great figure", but the thinking part of mankind, for which he claims to write, "will be able to discern my steps from his". His stress is not on Montesquieu's culture differences, but on the general laws of human behaviour and the general type of justice proper to it. He uses a stylized model of man. a "natural state figure". Hobbes, in his Leviathan (1651) was the first to come up with this abstraction of a utility maximizing subject. As Beccaria puts it: he deals only with man's indestructible feelings, and a faculty called "reason", capable of ordering feelings and detecting causal chains, which man employs to strive for feelings of pleasure. Humanity, seen as a raw crowd of such natural state figures is then put - not, for example in a state of abundance, but - in a state of scarcity and competition. This situation, Hobbes is the first to point out, requires a state ruling the individuals. But also: property rights, property protection, and the reinforcement of other social arrangements without which human social intercourse would become a bloody business. All those institutions are the result of rational behaviour, so their existence is at once their justification. Wherever they do not work properly, the philosopher can point at "the human imbecility and passions that caused the design failure", and to the need for their rational reconstruction.

When still being a raw crowd of "natural state figures", humanity features no power relations yet. Why at such a starting point would anybody give up power? Beccaria's answer (following Hobbes): to enjoy in peace what remains to himself. In this imaginative initial massive procedure of free collective negotiation and trade the state is formed as a result of everybody following exactly his self interest. "Paying" for a government is "buying" peaceful happy enjoyment of the endowments remaining yours after you paid your price.

The basic principle is, as in Helvetius, the weighing of the balance of pleasure and pain in choosing among different options, a force which, "analogous to gravity leads to our own well being". In Italy the Essai de philosophie morale by the French physicist Maupertuis (1749) was widely known. There, pleasure and pain are treated as addable and deductible quantities. Happiness, defined simply as pleasure minus pain, is what we maximize in choosing among the options for action available to us. Maupertuis stylizes epicurism as maximizing pleasure at a given level of pain, and stoicism as minimizing pain at a given level of pleasure. Both strategies are held unviable, epicurism the more because pleasure becomes painful when the dose gets too large. Mathematically the optimal stoic solution of minimal pain is suicide, assuming an afterlife is assumed nonexistent. A mathematical complication of religions like Christianity is that it changes you in deriving pleasure from making others happy.

In Italy Ortes, in his Calcolo sopra i piaceri e i dolori della Vita Humana (Calculus of pleasure and pain in human life), redefines happiness to be the speed by which we succeed to make an end to pain (for instance if we suffer the pain of being hungry, eating fast makes us happier than eating slowly). Thus pain is a necessary start for any happiness. Ortes endeavours to prove that there is always more pain than pleasure in your life. Pietro Verri in his Discorso sull' indole del piacere e del dolore (1773) follows Ortes, but adds that nevertheless by acting prudently according to the calculus, you can have less pain than otherwise. "Every action is like a purchase", we pay a price because the result is worth it.

The sovereign's natural tasks follow from the way he was "negotiated" into existence: what the people "pay" him to do is the maintenance of every single individual's happiness, to protect basic individual freedom, property and power (including the power to decide about your own life, hence Beccaria's rejection of the death penalty), and to prevent any type of trespassing of the laws and rules required for such maintenance (all type of crimes from theft to tax evasion). This requires a system of sanctions, "punishments" that make illegal behaviour an irrational option. Thus criminal action is seen as just as rational where sanctions are to weak as legally proper action is where sanctions are strong enough. Rational choice of options, the calculation of ensuing pleasure and pain became the basic principle. Interests, pleasure, pain, negotiations and exchange were the fashion concepts paving the way for the Adam Smith and other to help giving birth to economics. Moral values got degraded to secondary phenomena resulting from the calculus rather than entering it.

The Scottish School: civilization, savagery and barbarism

Think of the conditions in which a specific people finds itself and deduce what will happen if everybody individually does what is natural for a man to do under these conditions. If you do that properly, you will understand the type society resulting from this, and you thus will have explained it. Then consider the gradual and irreversible build up in society of awareness and techniques of subsistence (hunting, gathering, herding, agriculture, industry and commerce), analyze how this changes the individual interests, and you will even explain how this will change a society, that is, its historical development. This not only Adam Smith, this the 18th century generally, and that becomes even more clear in the Scottish version. In Scotland, a number of scholars was active in such similar vein, and, though not in local isolation, differing from elsewhere, that it is rightly called a "school". Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is a product of this school, though it features some departures from its principles, more strictly adhered to by Smith in his earlier, also famous works, such as The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In the Scottish school the main tendency is to explain social phenomena by the way history brought them, step by step, stage by stage, into existence. One of the school's protagonists was Henri Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782), stimulating Scottish cultural life by means of organising public lectures in Edinburgh,  featuring also Adam Smith. He wrote Historical Law Tracts (1758) and Sketches of the History of Mankind (1774). He pleaded for an historical approach in the study of law. The scope of that approach was widened by others, such as Adam Ferguson (1723-1785), a Highlander, professor in moral philosophy at Edinburgh, writing his An Essay on the History of Civil Society in 1767, and History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1784), translations of both of which spread quickly through all Europe. A similar role played William Robertson (1721-1793), a Presbyterian reverend, high in church, wrote History of America (1777), History of the Reign of Charles V (1769), with histories of the modern European nations, preceded by View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the sixteenth century (1769), compulsory literature on French national schools until the middle of the 19th century.

John Millar (1735-1801) a disciple of Adam Smith, professor, like Smith for some time, in Glasgow. Wrote Observations concerning the distinctions of ranks (1771), 1779 revised with title extension ; or an inquiry into the circumstances which give rise to influence and authority in the different members of society. This work got instantly known all over Europe, vanished from memory for a while and then, in 1923(!), got rehabilitated by the authoritative sociologist Sombart as "one of the best and most complete sociologies we have". Other important figures on the background were Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), the teacher of Adam Smith, professor in Glasgow and David Hume (1711 - 1776) a Scot who acquired a towering position in the general history of philosophy.

During the 18th century, Scotland got wealthy and one of its results was a cultural surge. In 1707 Scotland got united with England, unwillingly, but the good economic results reconciled the Lowlanders with the political facts. In the more isolated Highlands catholic clan chiefs kept refusing to recognize the House of Hanover and stuck to their old traditions, culminating, in 1745 in a bizarre and spectacular short military invasion of England, "naked and unarmed" as Adam Smith puts it, showing how a warlike tradition can compensate lack of modern tools of war when fighting against a country "enervated by cultivating arts and commerce...". After their defeat, Highlander clan structure was thoroughly destroyed and Highlanders moved en masse to the Scottish coastal industry area's to get themselves a way to survive, but abroad the admiration of their military achievement as underdogs triggered a Highlander-fashion trend in England, even spreading over Europe. Highlander James McPherson is pressed by Lord Kames to publish Fragments of ancient poetry collected in the highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic and Erse Language which speeds itself into France by a quick translation from the hands of Turgot. When Adam Smith goes to Paris, everybody there seems most interested in Highland culture and customs. From Paris Mme Riccoboni, a famous novelist at the time, wrote to her English friend, as if this concerned the main contribution of Smith to the conversations: "O how I would love to stay in this curious society".

Sudden bizarre Highland fashions abroad or not, the demise of traditional Highland culture and the blossoming of the commercial society of the Lowlands looms large in the background of the Scottish social thinking of the time, including indeed an element of nostalgia for what was vanishing. Smith, for instance, held that peoples ruled by industry and commerce loose their personal courage and power: it was only discipline and technical superiority which had allowed the professional army of England to push back  a handful of barbaric Highlanders. In a commercial society, Smith adds in Wealth of Nations, personal qualities are fading to irrelevance. There is a general tendency of citizens to "effeminate", "enervate", but the lower classes are worst affected: the increase in division of labour renders the labourer "As stupid and ignorant as is possible for a human being". This tendency is worst in the most advanced countries: in England they are more stupid than in Scotland, but Holland surpasses everything. And the nostalgia does not end there. "Not long ago", Smith writes in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, "in the Highlands of Scotland the clan chief regarded his poorest clan member as a close relative", as we see, according to Smith among Tartars, Arabs and Turks, who find themselves in roughly the same "state of society". In commercial society, people part and spread easily if their self interest requires it. Ferguson stresses this with even more dejection: only in the commercial state one finds man as a "detached and solitary being". In this modern society he deals with his fellow human beings as with cattle, only considering loss and profit.

Most remarkable and well worth keeping in mind is that that Scottish school generally rejects concepts fashionable among 18th century European scholars of "nature", "natural", and "natural state of man", culminating in the Hobbesian concept of a "natural state figure". Ferguson notes that the concept of "natural" man as usually defined at the time invites to abstract from history, which makes any claim untestable and purely speculative, hence unsuitable for those who wish to make scientific progress. Moreover, what makes human actions or creations "unnatural"? Either they are all unnatural, the palace as well as the hut, the subtlest refinements of political and moral insights as well as the first workings of feeling and reason, or, being human, they are all "natural". Ferguson proposes to redefine to concept of the "natural state" of man as something to be sought in perfection and happiness, to the attainment of which nature has given him the capacity.

Neither does the Scottish school accept self interest as universal principle of explanation. It is there, but always in some setting which itself should by explained by other means. The way cultures, forms of society, laws, states etc. come about cannot be explained by self-interest, but only by principles prior to any consciousness of different choice options involving different balances of pain and pleasure. Quite some eloquence is invested in stressing this point: people are concentrated on self-interest but not naturally averse of society. It is an historical fact that exactly where society yields the most limited advantages - it is hard to escape the impression that the Scottish Highlands are the subject here -, the ties between people are the strongest.  The machinery of self interest only divides people, and it is only useful to coordinate societies of stages after personal emotional ties have been destroyed. The one who wishes to explain everything from self interest is like a stranger watching Othello and concluding the man is so angry because he lost a handkerchief.

This brings the Scottish school closest to Montesquieu, who its hailed as source of inspiration, playing down the differences: Montesquieu mainly compared different great, established cultures while the Scots concentrated on the differences between modern day civilizations and primitive cultures far away and in the past. The Scots' models are not Montesquieu's Persian, Chinese, Muscovite, but the Indian, the Scythe, the Hottentots and the old Germans. This subject of (technically) primitive cultures was one that had easily caught the interest of the enlightened 17th century intellectual circles. Classical authors had already noted that there were striking similarities between the barbarians at their borders and their own ancestors as they new them from for instance the works of Homer. After the period of overseas discoveries in the 16th century, reports concerning the Africans and Indians also got due attention in the salons. In the middle of the 16th century, Jean de Levy, a French Calvinist, ventured a mission operation into Brazil which was to pitifully founder, but his travel logbook was a success. It appeared 1578. He notes that the respect of the Tupinamba Indians for the elderly is similar to that of the antique Spartans. As far as burial ceremonies are concerned he notes that "many parallels with antiquity could be adduced", then quoting Flavius Josephus on the burial ceremonies of king David.

That turned out good enough to set ambitions in motion to prove that all humans descend from the sons of Noach. In his Moeurs de Sauvages Ameriquains Compar�es aux Moeurs des Premiers Temps (1724), the Jesuit  Father Lafitau wishes to hold the Europeans a mirror. North American Indian civilization has its own "beauty and grace". Like Jean de Levy he notes the same similarities with the European "morals of the first times" (that is, those of the barbarians as described by the classical authors) and those of the Indians. This inspires him to conclude that in a series of early migrations the Indians moved to the Americas out of the Mediterranean. "Lo the convincing argument" writes Voltaire in his Essay des moeurs (1769), "the first Greek knew fables, the Indians know them, the first Greeks hunted and danced, so do the Indians, hence the Indians descend from the first Greek". And Voltaire stages a discussion between a savage and a theologian: "What jesters you seem to me, gentlemen dwellers in Europe, when you assume that we cannot have anything without you: with as much reason we can believe to be your ancestors as you believe to be ours".

But Lafitau's book was generally read, and used, even by Voltaire, and by the Scots. It was the first systematic classification of Indian tribes, according to religion, marriage, education, politics, war, trade, language, games, death and mourning. He recognizes the structural differences between nomadic hunter communities and sedentary ones that start agriculture. And, apart from the admitted wildness of the conclusion of European ancestry, the idea that study of primitive Indian communities can teach Europeans about their own ancestors had followers like the Scot Ferguson: "in is in their present situation that we, as if in a mirror, can see traits of our own ancestors"

In Scotland, Robertson mentions five similarities of North American Indians and the primitive Germans of the past as described by Tacitus in his Concerning the Morals of the Germans. He ends the passage writing that 17th century theologians like Bochart who "with more erudition than science have tried to trace migrations", would have concluded to a relation of descent, but a philosopher will merely conclude that "the structure of different nations depends on the state of society in which people live and of the political institutions that exist among them; and that the human spirit on the most different times and places, whenever it is placed in similar circumstances, will assume the same form and be characterized by the same morals".

That may may considered as the mission statement of the 18th century philosophy of society, but the Scots differ from Montesquieu in that for instance climate does not play a key part in determining the structure of a nation. Climate is considered, though, when it is thought to focus Northern European peoples on drinking and Southern ones on sex, which in turn is thought to have some effects on social structure. Neither do they turn, like Hume and Helvetius, to the form of government, the system of political institutions. Montesquieu even ranks high in the list of determining factors the personalities of great lawgivers like the Spartan Lycurgus. But for the Scots, the economic circumstances are the ones that primarily matter. Robertson: "In every inquiry into the actions of people united in a society, the first object of out attention should be their modes of subsistence". This leads to a distinction between hunting, pastoral, agricultural and finally commercial societies, in which "everybody lives by exchanging, or in some sense become a trader, en society itself becomes commercial in its essential meaning" (Adam Smith).

These four types of society are regarded as stages in the progress of history: "naturally" there is a tendency of progress, starting from hunting, proceeding to the taming of animals and herd keeping, from there to agriculture and then to trade. Known societies today and in the past can be scaled on this line of historical progress, the Scots hold. Nothing alike can be found in Montesquieu. This idea of societies with more primitive modes of subsistence being earlier stages of commercial societies reached Marx and Engels through the publication of Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, Morgan (1877). Morgan truly rediscovered the Scottish ideas at the time: to most major authors of the century between the Scots and Morgan, non-Western societies were phenomena "outside" history. 

In the Scottish view, hunting is the main economic activity of the savages. Savages have no notable inequality of property, hence no ranks and classes and no clear and permanent political hierarchy. The paradigm example are the American Indians. Barbarism starts with herding. The Tartars are the prime example. In this stage there is an initial inequality in the distribution of property and political hierarchy. Civilization is exemplified by the developed agricultural societies like China and commercial societies like Holland, England and Scotland.

Progress from hunting society to the commercial state coincides with the progress from savagery to civilization. But this does not been everything is better in a civilized society. Robertson and Millar stress the blessings of progress, but Ferguson warns for generalizing a notion of "happiness" favouring life in a commercial society. In whatever society people are raised, the usually would do not desire to swap societies once they learned about other forms. Hunting nations at the fringe of Siberia wish their enemies a "Tartar life": "may they get possessed by the folly to breed cattle and guard them". "We" westerners can not imagine to be happy living a Tartar or Irokese life. But the truth is that every culture, every era has its own consolations and evils. In Ferguson's writing, progress has the neutral meaning you often find in 18th century works: development from one to the other, not necessarily from the worse to the better. Doubts whether progress may not partly  be a turn to the worse permanently accompany the mainstream 18th century belief in social improvement through time. Ferguson dwells on the portrait of a savage wandering depressed through the streets of a busy city, not even finds rest on the cultivated fields surrounding it, and flees back into the forests where he can enjoy "delightful freedom of worries, attractive company, and no other rules than those prescribed by the heart". Onwards, dealing with division of labour and social stratification, he lets an imaginary savage return to the forests "with surprise, aversion and disgust" when he discovers that in the civilized world "the mere fact that you are a human being does not qualify you for whatever position in society".

That illustrates again how the Scots use primitive societies to mirror their prime interest: the civilization as it forms itself in mature commercial society as they see around them in the Scotland of their time. But to fully understand and explain this society, the "commercial stage" idea has to be supplemented by historical details: the heritages of the Roman era and the Middle Ages. However dark the Middle Ages were believed to have been, "our law is not intelligible without knowing feudal law", writes Kames. Ferguson finds two medieval chivalric traits of civilization elevating the modern European civilization above that of the Romans: the existence of rules of war, and the veneration of women.

In the Scottish view of history, ideas and actions of heroes and great figures have no role to play. History is not the result of the intentions of people, not even of powerful people. Feudal lords did not intend to loose power, but after the feudal system had brought security and order, the lords started to consume their wealth instead of supporting serfs and soldiers which formed their power base. Crusades may have been started from religious zeal, and not be intended to stimulate the rise of towns, but money and hardware had to come from the towns, hence the main effect was a shift of the balance of power and hence wealth to the towns.

Progress or Decay?

The idea of 18th century Enlightenment as based on a belief in the improvement of the human condition through history is too simple, and partly a product of later intellectual developments in which this belief became dominant. In the 18th century, the rise and fall of civilisations in the past, most notably the Roman empire, fed the idea of a cyclical movement of history, from poverty, primitiveness and bellicosity to wealth, civilization and effeminacy and back, as the Romans had to experience during the invasion of the Germanic tribes. This was also paramount in Montesquieu's work. Mainstream European Enlightenment, regarding its own society as civilized and endowed with all the weaknesses of such civilization, was observing decay all around and expected even more in the future. Montesquieu's idea of a proper nobility is that of a class thinking of warfare only. But he notes with worry that in England nobility engages in trade. Also Helvetius sees "the military spirit as inconsistent with the spirit of trade". Will Europe's wealth not make it too weak to defend itself? Progress and decay are even seen as going together: trade liberates the citizen, but at the same time trade corrupts. This is in Smith and Ferguson. Diderot notes that trade and liberty are mutually reinforcing until you reach the stage of the Dutch: "Batavians, the fate of a trade nation is to be rich, craven, rotten and subjected".

More radical types of scepticism concerning historical development were also widely spread: ideas implying that every type of civilization leads man away from its natural origin, and hence obscures and perverts. This may remind primarily of Rousseau, but he is only one of many. Locke depicts the human mind as an empty table, to be written on through experience and learning. There are no innate ideas, just observe Indians and children and see that they are not there...The problem is to write as little nonsense as possible on the empty table. Locke's project in epistemology is to establish rules for such sound writing. Dangers are the "restless imagination" of the human brain, starting a folly, turning it into a fashion and sanctifying it into a habit. And so "We have all reason to think that the woods and forests, where irrational and uneducated dwellers keep the right track by following nature, are more suitable to provide us with the rules than the towns and the palaces where those calling themselves civilized deviate from the right path because they follow the authority of the example". The idea is to erase all false ideas of civilized society and carefully build in your mind a new edifice of knowledge, starting - as it where, or even literally - from the irrational and uneducated mind. Turgot, minister of finance in France, author of a book on economics, production and wealth independently matching Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, talks about markets as "nature", to be helped without disturbing it, and refers to Rousseau on the issue: once government ceases to tamper with markets, natural intuitions of market parties concerning their own interests will fuel them to create wealth. Ideas and intentions of market interfering policy makers are irrelevant at best, just as in the Scottish view historical development never results from great men's intentions in acting, but from the great mass of people individually following their own preferences without realizing, let alone intending the effects in the large. Locke wants us to fill our tabula rasa step by step, in the small, passing completely the established "great" ideas we have been taught to cherish. But the more you load, the bigger is the danger of spiritual pollution. Hume will later claim that reason is unsuitable in general to soundly establish any belief in any causation. Lop off established learned ideas of the past, stay close to Nature, travel light!

But Nature fools Man to reach what Smith calls its "favourite ends". For that purpose Nature has endowed man with "passions". Hume studies the human mind and Adam Smith the market economy as the unintended effects of natural intuitions, inclinations, urges, in short: passions. Smith: "nature did not trust to the uncertain and slow determinations of our reason to find the right means to attain these goals. Nature largely led us there by primary and immediate instincts". Science can help us understand how actions governed by primary and immediate instincts "automatically" lead to Nature's favourite ends, which are, due to Nature's "motherly care" (Adam Smith), at the same time states beneficial to Her children, "the happiness of the species", as Adam Smith puts it repeatedly. But even this is ambiguous: Nature leads man to follow what he thinks is his own interests, to accumulate wealth, but this is only an illusion, he keeps labouring, and if he gets rich and the time of enjoyment has come, it is not what he expected. "And", Smith writes, "Nature does well to impose this upon us. It is this deceit that stimulates the industry of people and keeps them on them on the move".

"O, Nature", sighs the romantic poet Leopardi, "why don't you give to you children what you promised first, why do you so deceive your children?".

Adam Smith 

In Adam Smith's first famous book Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, reported, from Paris, to be very popular, "especially among the ladies", is an attempt to explain the moral convictions and actions that help shape society, by the axiom that man is by nature (hence not by religion, culture or education!) endowed with a basic instinct to relate to others around him. Someone bringing benefit to another is sympathised with, someone doing this on purpose, is sympathized with even more, and most of all when it was done without any personal advantage. It is a "natural", innate, human sympathy which is triggered in us, not a moral principle in the world of ideas handed over to us from great prophets or philosophers but something that we empirically observe as factually essential to the human natural instinct. A person benefiting another we call good and we want to be sympathized with in the same way as we do with such a good person. Thus we are led to follow his example and take similar "good" actions. As another example: poor people long to be as a rich man they see because they long to be that kind of rich person that those around him long to be like. Once a poor has become rich he learns that his "sympathy" for the rich was misguided because as a poor he did not have the means to properly identify with the rich. He discovers that being rich is not as rewarding as he thought when he still was poor. Such types of deceit by Nature abound and they are Her motherly care for humanity, meant to keep industry and society moving.

Here, "Nature", does not stand opposed to culture, in the way of Hobbes and Rousseau. A commercial society is, in this sense, as "natural" as any other. Basic "sympathy" laws of human nature are the same in every culture, "Nature" simply refers to the way things work, independently of human management of even human consciousness. "Nature", and this harmonizes with ideas prevalent mainly in contemporary Scotland but also elsewhere, refers to the mechanisms that a philosopher can try to disclose: man is naturally sympathizing, hungry for sympathy himself and even fearing to go short of it. This fuels and moves the society as a whole and historical change in a way none of the millions of sympathizers can be sure about and surely nobody could achieve these big goals by consciously taking them as a guideline for action: it just happens by itself, as by an invisible hand. But a philosopher can work out the gross consequences of all this sympathizing, and put that invisible hand on display. That was Smith's intention in writing the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In his lasting and resounding success, Wealth of Nations, 1776, Smith concentrates on how the individual people's search for material betterment, their wealth, their own interest or "utility" shapes "markets" where we all can rely on to exchange the produce of our labour and hence - again, by an invisible hand - contribute not only to our own wealth, but to the wealth of the nation as a whole. Now, we are told to expect our dinner "not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker", but "from their regard to their self-love" and "never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.". We do so not because we want to promote the wealth of the Nation, but, again, motherly Nature makes us seek our individual interest to unconsciously bring about a state desirable to all. Compassion with neighbour's needs, however sympathetic they may be, are not the passions that keep the economy going, but Smith does stop short of Mandeville's claim in his Fable of the Bees, well known at the time and abhorred except by the greatest minds, that if man would really acquire the strength of conscience to let the needs of others rule his acts, mankind's demise would come on short notice! (more about Mandeville)

Bringing self interest to the fore of passions (the word "sympathy" assumes no central importance in the Wealth of Nations) does not only handsomely stylize Smith's analysis of the operation of society as compared to the boring plethora of "sympathies" in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, it also brings him at more distance from the idea of history prevalent among his fellow Scots, in which self interest it not a basic axiom of human behaviour, but a passion surfacing only under special historical conditions, and even in different shapes under different conditions. Smith, on the contrary, now, in the Wealth of Nations introduces a "timeless" self interest in an imaginary primitive hunters' context: if a hunter catches one beaver in the same time as another catches two dear, any exchange rate other than 1:2 would make it in the (labour time saving) self interest of one of the two hunters to catch, when needed, the other beast himself, instead of procuring it through exchange. The beaver hunter may endeavour to get more for his beaver, the dear hunter may like to get more for his dear, but negotiation inevitably leads to no exchange or 1:2, the natural price, whatever the aspirations of the two individuals.

That otherworldly abstraction ignores how people in real primitive hunter societies where known, even in Smith's time, to acquire and distribute their necessities. In the context of the Scottish school, that is, together with the claim that such a "natural" price is a timeless, super-historical essence of distribution no less than a heresy. But there is a "Scottish" use of the analysis, namely in explaining historical change by the increased use of capital and the increase of the market. These lead to a historical process of specialization and division of labour. Society becomes more complicated by the introduction of ownership of land and capital, resulting in a three-class structure of labourers, land lords and capital owners, bound, if no one interferes improperly, together by nature in a web of markets directing human action, as by an invisible hand, to create the wealth of the nation.

Thus God and Nature link'd the gen'ral frame,

And bade Self-love and Social be the same.


Go To: Creating a Science, The Way of Adam Smith, by Bert hamminga

Summary & time table

During the 19th century the public was confronted with a continuous stream of news concerning industrial innovations, too many to allow for an attempt to insert them systematically below.

1517 Machiavelli Il principe (The Prince), specifying the general rules for leaders to maintain and extend their state and power..
1578 Jean de Levy's report of his failed mission to the American Indians
1651 Hobbes Leviathan, explaining the rise of states from the initial supply to the state of some individual assets in exchange for safely enjoying the rest.
1687 Newton Principia Mathematica, Classical physics, mechanics on the basis of the idea of gravity.
1690 Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Belief should not be based on transition but on sound rules for acquiring knowledge
1704 Boston News Letter, first ever American newspaper
1705 England: Mandeville Fable of the Bees. Nature supports wicked behaviour because it has good effects for society at large. Good behaviour generally leads to disaster. More about Mandeville.
1707 Scotland united with England. Sharp acceleration of  the development of the Scottish Lowlands to the state of a commercial society.
1721 Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes Introduction, French torn between principles, Sultan "most pleased by Louis XIV's type of government".
1724 Lafitau Moeurs des sauvages Ameriquains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps
1743 D' Espiard's work, now known under a title it later got, Esprit des nations. It originally appeared as Essays concerning the Spirit [Fr.:génie] and Character of Nations.
1745 Scottish Highlander invasion of England, seen as a ridiculous clash between barbarism and civilization, also causing a fashion of romantic longing for "purity" of primitive Highlander life all over Europe.
1748 Montesquieu, Esprit des lois, explaining world wide and historic differences in culture, morality and government from external factors like geography, climate and size of territory.
1749 Maupertuis Essai de philosophie Morale, French physicist. Calculus of pleasure and pain allows choice of what is the best action. 
1751 First volume of the Encyclopédie by Diderot and d'Alembert: "Batavians, the fate of a trade nation is to be rich, craven, rotten and subjected"
1754 Ortes  Calcolo de' piaceri e de' dolore della vita umana (Calculus of Pleasure and Pain in Human Life)
1758-9 Helvetius  De l' esprit
1758 Henri Home, Lord Kames Historical Law Tracts
1759 Adam Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments, explaining moral sentiments by the natural instinctive desire of people to sympathize with others and to be sympathised with
1760 First ever shoe factory (Massachusetts)
1762 Rousseau published two major books, first Du contrat social, principes du droit politique (in English, literally Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right) in April and then Émile, or On Education in May.
1764 -6  Verri and others founded the journal, Il caffé, in Milan. It would exist two years and published Beccaria,  Tentativo analytico sul contrabandi (Analytical Essay on Smuggle), an economic analysis of trade and smuggle along mathematical principles to be introduced in economics only a century later. In the founding year of Il café Beccaria writes, urged by Verri, the book Dei delitti e delle pene (Concerning Crime and Punishments).
1765 James Watt's steam engine
1766 Turgot, Formation et distribution des richesses, written by France's minister of finance, contains, independently,  most essential elements of Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations, which was to be published 10 years later.
1767 Adam Ferguson An Essay on the History of Civil Society
1769 William Robertson  History of the Reign of Charles V
1769 William Robertson View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the sixteenth century
1769 Voltaire Essai des moeurs (Essay Concerning the Morals)
1771 John Millar Observations concerning the distinctions of ranks, 1779 revised with title extension ; or an inquiry into the circumstances which give rise to influence and authority in the different members of society.
1773 Pietro Verri
Discorso sull' indole del piacere e del dolore
1774 Henri Home, Lord Kames Sketches of the History of Mankind.
1775-83 American war of independence, 1776 Declaration of Independence, contains many of the ideas published the same year in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations
1776 Adam Smith Wealth of Nations, plea to allow individual people to freely choose how to make a living on the basis of their economic self interest, by means of an explanation of how such a freedom naturally leads to enhancement of the wealth of the nation as a whole.
1777 William Robertson History of America
1784 Adam Ferguson History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic
1789 Declaration Des Droits De L'homme Et Du Citoyen (French Revolution) on liberal principles, influenced by American constitution   
1790 Johann Gottfried Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, Dritter Teil (Ideas concerning the Philosophy of History)
1877 Morgan Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, a rediscovery of the Scottish view on history, Rediscovery of  Scottish school. Makes it source of inspiration for Marxist dialectical materialism.