A Foreword to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Martin Pánek asked me to write a foreword to a new edition of a Czech translation of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He gave me permission to post my original English-language text here. The book will be published in 2023 by the Liberální Institut, edited by Pavel Chalupníček, and translated by Hana Rogalewiczová & Vladimír Rogalewicz. 


Have you noticed? Now you hear a lot about Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). I think that’s good. Of all the books I’ve ever read, TMS is my favorite (I’ve never read the Bible).

Did you know that from about 1800 to, say, 1976, TMS was consigned to oblivion? During Smith’s life, TMS was quite favorably received. Then, after 1790, it was widely disparaged and fell into “oblivion,” as the exceptional Glenn Morrow observed in 1927. Now, it’s back in a big way. How many other books are there that resided in oblivion for so long—about 175 years—and then came back in a big way? Curious, no?

TMS is a curious work, even mysterious. I think it is great that Czech readers have the present resource to get acquainted with the work. TMS abounds in illustrations, so the book does not lack concreteness. Still, it is a complex work. Multi-layered, you might say; and when there are layers beneath the surface, even between the lines, readers will puzzle over just what it is that is down there. (Or should we say “up there”?) Scholars continue to disagree.

Something about TMS is indisputable: the breadth of its votaries. Admirers of TMS range across academic and scholarly fields and disciplines, across countries and continents, and, most remarkably, across landscapes of political ideology. Today, Smith’s ghost is surely pleased to see us meeting to converse over how his text should be interpreted. 

Today, Smith scholars agree on some important things. They generally agree that The Wealth of Nations (WN) should be seen as an extension of, or annex to, TMS. They also generally agree that, although the two great works differ greatly in certain aspects, such as the language used and the distance or warmth of the author’s voice, there is no underlying tension between the two works. The two works emphasize different things, and to some extent treat different things, but there is no inconsistency between them. Indeed, most of the Smithian contrarieties—that is, seeming contradictions—that have engaged scholars are either intra-TMS or intra-WN.

For the reader of the Czech translation, the subtlety and richness of TMS means that reading the work in translation may not work. My feeling, however, is that reading the translation can help one to get to a good understanding of TMS. But achieving a good understanding will require moving on to Smith’s words, as he wrote them in English. I have spent many decades studying TMS. Spending a year with the Czech translation is a good way to get acquainted with TMS. Indeed, it might be the best way for Czechs to get acquainted.

As for Smith’s words, as he wrote them: Scholars and editors properly emphasize that the work changed considerably from the first edition of 1759 and the sixth edition of 1790. The TMS of 1790 is a larger and richer work than the TMS of 1759. Smith died in 1790, a couple of months after the final edition appeared. The changes made in 1790, taken together, exceed all the changes made in all of the previous editions, in extent and significance. Did the changes ever reverse, or retract, what was said in an earlier edition? I would say, basically, no; Smith never exactly reversed or retracted what he meant in the earlier edition. (Some argue that later editions substantially retract the evident theism of the first edition, but the evidence is somewhat ambiguous.) Smith’s thinking surely evolved somewhat between 1759 and 1790, but I think it plausible that if the 1790 Adam Smith and the 1759 Adam Smith were to meet privately and converse, the 36-year-old Smith would have found little in the conversation of the 67-year-old Smith with which to disagree. On the changes to TMS through the six editions, see Erik Matson’s article in the Journal of Markets and Morality (2021).

I made a getting-started-on-TMS video you might find helpful (you can watch at 1.5 speed.):

One other thing to keep in mind, that commentators do not say enough: Don’t take Smith’s representations of what other thinkers thought too seriously. That is, where Smith says that Hume or Hutcheson or the Stoics or “the books of casuistry” said X, assume that he is positing a foil. He uses that foil to provide a contrast to his own thinking. In associating X with some thinker, Smith is not necessarily to be trusted—though perhaps he makes the association in a way that he supposes his reader will come to see as not entirely without irony or playfulness. 

I suspect that in personal interaction, Smith carried himself with less playfulness than his best friend David Hume. But something said about Hume perhaps also had Smith in mind. Smith’s younger contemporary Dugald Stewart wrote: “Dr. [William] Robertson used frequently to say, that in Mr. Hume’s gaiety there was something which approached to infantine; and that he had found the same thing so often exemplified in the circle of his other friends, that he was almost disposed to consider it as characteristical of genius.” When reading TMS, we commune with a companion who mastered an equipoise between gravity and playfulness.

Daniel B. Klein is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute, and Chief Editor of Econ Journal Watch.
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