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

Author(s):Vivenza, Gloria
Reviewer(s):Montes, Leonidas

Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

Gloria Vivenza, Adam Smith and the Classics: The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith’s Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. x + 240 pp. $85 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-829666-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Leonidas Montes, School of Business, Universidad Adolfo Ib??ez, Santiago, Chile.

Henry Mackenzie, author, amongst others, of the once famous novel The Man of Feeling (1771), and many essays in the periodicals The Mirror and The Lounger, reportedly began his account of Adam Smith’s last day as follows: “Mr. Smith was an exception. He had twice Dr. Johnson’s learning — who knew one language well, the Latin — though he had none of his affectation of it” (Clayden, 1887, p. 166-67). One reason underlying this judgment reflects Smith’s proficiency both in Latin and Greek. At that time only knowledge of Latin was common, and the classics were widely read and discussed. A reading of Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres reveals a great command of both classical languages. A quick look at Smith’s Library (Bonar, 1966) shows an important collection of the classics. His works are permeated by a deep knowledge of the classics. Adam Smith would read, and foster his students in reading the classics either in Greek or Latin. His letters to Lord Shelburne about his son’s education are a great example; Smith would personally help him out two and three hours a day in “Greek, Latin and Philosophy” (Corr., p. 29), and especially noteworthy is the list of books he orders for Lord Shelburne’s son (Corr., p. 58).

During the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith’s interest in the classics was not an aberration. Cicero, for example, was widely read, and David Hume recalled in his My Own Life (1777) that during his youth “Cicero and Virgil were the authors which I was secretly devouring.” Though Smith was no exception on this setting, he was exceptionally well versed on the classics.

If Smith’s command of the classics has long been acknowledged, the extent and implications of this fact have not been an active source for research. Gloria Vivenza’s Adam Smith and the Classics: The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith’s Thought (2001, reprinted in 2003), not only fills this gap, but also delves into this fascinating subject confirming that the classics’ influence on Adam Smith is more significant than has been generally granted.

Twenty years ago, Gloria Vivenza published Adam Smith e la cultura clasica, a book that was only known to a few scholars, and accessible to those few proficient in Italian. Fortunately, in 2001, Oxford University Press published, with few variations, an English translation, to which the author added a postscript that mainly confirms her previous findings. During the 1980s not much was written on Smith and the classics (however, one notable exception, Waszek (1984), should be mentioned), and except for the Stoics’ influence, much of this rich field of research remained practically unexplored for English readers. During the 1990s a renewed interest in Smith and the classics emerged (e.g., Berns (1994), Brown (1994, especially chapter 4), Calkins and Werhane (1998) and Heise (1991, 1995)), especially through two very influential books, Charles Griswold’s Adam Smith and the Virtues of the Enlightenment (1999) and to a lesser extent Samuel Fleischacker’s A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgment and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith (1999). Vivenza’s English translation of her book with her new postscript is a timely and much needed contribution to uncover and foster the importance of the classics’ influence.

A brief introduction justifies the importance of the subject matter, and sets out the structure and methodology of the book. After it, five chapters, some conclusions and a postscript follow. The first chapter, “The Natural Philosophy in Smith’s Essays,” analyses the classical influences on Smith’s famous essay “The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy” (hereafter HA, in Essays on Philosophical Subjects (hereafter EPS), pp. 31-105), and on the following two essays “History on the Ancient Physics” (hereafter HAP, in EPS pp. 109-127) and “History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics” (hereafter HALM, in EPS pp. 118-129). Vivenza interprets Smith’s attitude towards science (and philosophy) as much influenced by Aristotle. But if Aristotle would search for truth as the ultimate end, “Smith sees it as no more than a temporarily satisfactory solution to the problems thrown up by the real world in its various manifestations” (p. 18). How Smith saw the reality of scientific endeavors is a subject that has attracted much attention. Its psychological underpinnings with “wonder, surprise and admiration” as the process to find the “connecting principles,” involve a view of the progress of scientific knowledge that, in certain ways, could anticipate Popper and Kuhn. Vivenza analyses this important feature finding some interesting connections with the classics, concluding that to “read this essay (HA) is to become conscious of the high degree of awareness that Smith had of ancient astronomy” (p. 26). Vivenza’s observation of Smith’s emphasis on economic well-being previous to philosophical enquiries, which permeates all three essays, is very interesting. Then, after briefly analyzing HAP and HALM, this chapter closes with the view that Smith’s position is hypothetical and relativistic, and that he “‘historicised’ the various manifestations of Greek thought” (p. 37).

In chapter 2, “The Classical Heritage in Adam Smith’s Ethics,” Vivenza explores the classical influences on Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). She emphasizes the importance of the historian, Polybius, and his possible influence on Smith’s concept of sympathy. Though the link between Polybius and Smith on sympathy is very interesting, the word sumpatheia and, more strictly related to Smith’s meaning of sympathy, the Greek word empatheia, has a long pedigree before Polybius that the author could have explored. More noteworthy are the connection between Smith’s impartial spectator and Aristotle’s phronimos (p. 48), a brief analysis of Smith’s concept of justice and its Aristotelian background, a suggestive conclusion (in my view correct) that Smith’s prudence is both “partly Stoic and partly Epicurean” (p. 57), and an illuminating discussion of Smith’s account of benevolence. Moreover, Vivenza underlines some important differences between the Stoics and Smith. According to the former, men live in accordance with nature and human beings are valued as part of the whole. On the contrary, Smith develops a model of individual behavior. Stoic philosophy seeks to curb, and even eradicate passions; Smith’s ethics relies on passions. He would even laugh at the Stoics’ defense of suicide, criticizing their concept of apatheia. Vivenza’s reader can learn how the classics’ influence on Smith’s thought, mainly Plato, Aristotle, the Peripatetics, the Epicureans, the Stoics and Cicero, are intertwined, many times forming the basis of his own original thought. The latter underpins Vivenza’s book. Certainly the Stoics’ influence on Smith is widely accepted, and perhaps over-emphasized; anyone interested in discovering some important differences and the complexities of this issue should read this chapter 2.

However, there are two points on which I disagree with Vivenza. The first is that she completely confines Smith’s self-command to the Stoics. For her, Smith’s virtue of self-command has “undeniably Stoic characteristics” (p. 57). In my opinion self-command for Smith is much more complex than simple self-control. Smith chose the phrase “self-command” carefully, otherwise he would have simply referred to self-control. Self-command is the most important virtue in Smith’s system; it relies on the Socratic virtue of enkrateia, which literally corresponds to self-command. Furthermore, it has a sense of direction that makes it peculiarly rich in its philosophical and historical context, and one can find in Smith’s self-command conspicuous vestiges of civic humanism (see chapter 3, in Montes, 2004). Second, I agree with Vivenza that Aristotle’s influence on Smith is very important, and I welcome her attempt to uncover this rather neglected connection. However, she goes too far by linking Smith’s propriety to Aristotle’s mean. Propriety has been traditionally linked to decorum, but my interpretation is that this concept can also be read as related to officium, the closest Latin word for the Greek word kathekon, which can be understood as “appropriate action” (on this interpretation see Montes, 2004, pp. 122-28).

Chapter 3, “The Lectures on Jurisprudence and Roman Law,” analyzes the classical influences on Smith’s jurisprudence. The influence of Grotius, and his ablest disciple Pufendorf, is well known to Smith scholars, but Vivenza persuasively contributes to this debate. Chapter 4, “The Division of Labour and the Theory of Value,” investigates the debate around the classical background of the division of labor, and the theory of value. Both chapters do not only summarize the debate, finding possible connections, but they add many important details that reflect the author’s own original position. Chapter 5, “Adam Smith and Ancient Literature,” finishes Vivenza’s research with a reassessment of the classics’ influence on Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. A brief conclusion reminding us of the complexities inherent to the subject matter and the aim of this book follow.

A final postscript was added to the English edition. In it, Vivenza reconfirms her previous findings, principally taking into account Waszek’s “Two Concepts of Morality: A Distinction of Adam Smith’s Ethics and Its Stoic Origins” (1984). The latter is a very suggestive article that states Smith’s reliance on two levels of morality: one for the wise few, and one for the common man. But I am afraid, as I already mentioned, that I do not share Vivenza’s thesis that Smith’s propriety relates to Aristotle’s medietas, nor does Waszek (1984, p. 596). The author also mentions other recent works, most notably Young (1997) and Griswold (1999), and tackles the important theme of oikeiosis, which was absent in her previous Italian edition. In this subject Vivienne Brown (1999, pp. 95-97) discussed the concept of oikeiosis and its relationship with self-love in the Stoic context. The conundrum of Smith and the Stoics remains open, but at the same time Vivenza has opened another spring by uncovering possible connections of Smith and Aristotle, a subject that will certainly foster further debate (for example see Ryan Hanley’s Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2002).

Vivenza’s book is much more than a simple exposition of different connections between the classics and Smith. It suggests, by also taking into account the Scottish Enlightenment context, important philosophical implications for our understanding of Adam Smith, and it uncovers links that will trigger academic interest in this subject. Through this book, Smith’s understanding of the classics allows us to better understand his own thought.


Berns, L. (1994) “Aristotle and Adam Smith on Justice: Cooperation between Ancients and Moderns,” Review of Metaphysics, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 71-90.

Bonar, J. A. (1966) Catalogue of the Library of Adam Smith, New York: Augustus M. Kelley.

Brown, V. (1994) Adam Smith’s Discourse: Canonicity, Commerce and Conscience, London: Routledge.

Calkins, M. J. and Werhane, P.H. (1998) “Adam Smith, Aristotle, and the Virtues of Commerce,” Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 32, pp. 43-60.

Clayden, P. W. (1887) The Early Life of Samuel Rogers, London: Smith, Elder, & Co.

Fleischacker, S. (1999) A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgment and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Griswold, C. L. (1999) Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hanley, R. (2002) Magnanimity and Modernity: Self-love in the Scottish Enlightenment, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Heise, P. A. (1991) “Stoicism in Adam Smith’s Model of Human Behavior: The Philosophical Foundation of Self-Betterment and the Invisible Hand,” ?konomie und Gesellschaft, vol. 9, pp. 64-78.

Heise, P. A. (1995) “Stoicism in the EPS: The Foundation of Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy,” in The Classical Tradition in Economic Thought: Perspectives on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 11, edited by I.H. Rima, Aldershot: Edward Elgar.

Montes, L. (2004) Adam Smith in Context: A Critical Reassessment of Some Central Components of His Thought, London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Waszek, N. (1984) “Two Concepts of Morality: A Distinction of Adam Smith’s Ethics and Its Stoic Origins,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 45, no. 4.

Young, J. T. (1997) Economics as a Moral Science: The Political Economy of Adam Smith, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient