The Theory of Moral Sentiments Summary

Adam Smith


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Adam Smith, a leading member of the late eighteenth century movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment (a period of intellectual questioning in which a Scottish humanism developed), is best known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776; commonly known as The Wealth of Nations), which more than any other work created the modern intellectual discipline of economics. Much earlier, in 1759, however, Smith published another work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, while he was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow; he produced a revised edition of this work in 1790, well after publishing The Wealth of Nations.

Most of the subsequent study of Smith’s work has been conducted by economists. Some have suggested inconsistency between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, with the former giving much more attention to the sources of virtues such as benevolence, while the latter allegedly praises self-interest. In fact, both books give much attention to the unintended consequences of actions, with The Theory of Moral Sentiments giving much more praise to good intentions. Smith inherited from the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers the idea that social affairs manifest the workings of natural laws that produce beneficial and harmonious results, even when people’s motives are less than virtuous.

Although Smith was apparently a Presbyterian, The Theory of Moral Sentiments does not contain many overtly Christian points of reference. Smith did not take the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or other obvious biblical references as his basis for discussion. Emphasis in The Theory of Moral...

(The entire section is 720 words.)