“Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.” -- John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

Adam Smith and the Classics: The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith's Thought

Adam Smith and the Classics: The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith's Thought - Gloria Vivenza A fascinating read (for anyone who is seriously interested in Adam Smith and his thoughts).


This is a painstakingly-researched, meticulously-documented study on one aspect of Adam Smith's cultural heritage which has eluded many people: his formidable grounding in the classics, which did not seem exceptional at all in the 18th century but nonetheless was one of the linchpins of his economic theories.

This book was originally written for a non-specialist, Italian readership, which explains the numerous references to Italian intellectuals, and the copious summaries of Smith's texts (skip those if you are already familiar with his work), as well as certain details (e.g., on classical studies in England or the Scottish legal system).

Although Adam Smith himself and his works had been studied widely, his relationship with the classical scholars had not. Until the publication of this book, only scattered observations could be found in articles which discussed in-depth Smith's debt to the classics.

Traditional intellectual history has sarcastically been defined as "a kind of foxhunt for ideas through the centuries (which usually ended with Aristotle and Plato)," but clearly this type of search would be idle if the sole aim were to demonstrate that nothing new existed under the sun. [I]t would be rather hazardous to maintain that it is pointless to learn as much as possible about the cultural background of a man of ideas, since his thought, new and important for the development of future knowledge, does not spring from nothing, but consists, at least in part, of personal reflection on and critical elaboration of what he has received, and of the use of the logical tools from the distant and recent past.

The author goes back to Smith's years at the Glasgow College (where Smith entered at age 15 and stayed for 3 years) to examine the earliest form of Smith's predilection that would last his entire life.

Francis Hutcheson, “the never to be forgotten Dr. Hutcheson,” was the man responsible for sowing that seed. He introduced and revitalized the study of the classics at Glasgow, and Smith caught the bug there. This early classical education is present in nearly all of Smith's writings.

The classical heritage that underlies the corpus of Smith's work falls into two groups: direct influences and indirect influences.

Within direct influences are two types of reminiscence:
1) the explicit and conscious, including all the express references, quotations, recounted episodes, parallels, etc.
2) the inexplicit and unconscious, observed when Smith echoes classical phrases or passages that he has clearly read over or studied so much that they stick in his memory and re-emerge as his own expressions.

Indirect influences are more a matter of ideas, concepts, kernels, or trains of thought of classical origin which, passing through a lengthy process of transformation, adaptation, and "rediscovery" from century to century, had finally arrived, somewhat modified, in the Age of Enlightenment. In Smith's time, these ideas were common currency in learned circles, and Smith allowed himself to be influenced by these ideas only to the extent that they could broaden his mind and stimulate its capacity for independent thought. These were motives that prompted him to analyze and discuss specific problems: while he also derived the technical capacity for doing so from classical civilization, with its rational and logically appropriate division of distinct and interrelated subjects.

This study focuses on the indirect type of classical influence in Smith's work, since the author considers it to be more important.


The author concludes that the classical influence in Smith's thought appears as
[...] a composite set of elements, among which is a Stoic theoretical principle (universal harmony, which upholds the principle that the interests of the individual are not opposed to those of the community), with which Aristotelian, Epicurean, or again Stoic elements intertwined to regulate individual behavior so that harmony could be reached.
Smith's classical perspective was influenced (or partially distorted) not only by humanistic, Renaissance, and Baconian interpretations, but also by his own philosophical concepts (above all his concepts of sympathy). But it constituted a constant reference point for his ethical, political, and even scientific thought. His spirit was exercised and nourished by the classics, in complete freedom, and he maintained a stance with respect to these influences which is summed up in the phrase attributed by Politian to Cosimo de' Medici: "Rare talents are celestial forms, not carrier donkeys."

Smith always considered TMS to be his most authoritative work.

I reveled in this fabulous intellectual journey with the author through Adam Smith's classical world.

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