Chap 31: Revision of the ‘Theory’

Chap 31: Revision of the “Theory”


  • Smith had long contemplated revising the Theory of Moral Sentiments.
    • The book had been around for 30 years.
    • It had five editions.
    • But it never went through any revision.
  • This was the task of the last year of his life.
    • He made considerable changes, especially by addition.
    • He wrote the additions while he was under severe illness.
    • It was his best writing in point of literary style. (Stewart)
  • Before the new edition appeared, there was a preliminary difference between author and publisher regarding the propriety of issuing the additions.
    • The additions to the Wealth of Nations had been issued in a separate form for those who already had copies of the book’s previous editions.
  • Cadell favoured that course, even if it would obviously interfere with the new book’s sale.
    • Because he was unwilling to incur the charge of being illiberal in his dealings with the public.
  • But Smith refused to assent to it because of “the nature of the work,” and not the sale.
    • He sent his decision through Dugald Stewart.
    • Stewart was in London in May 1789 on his way to Paris.
      • He reports the result of his interview with Cadell on May 6, 1789:

[Pg 426]

Dear Sir

  • I was so extremely hurried during my very short stay in London that I could not write you until now.
  • The day after I arrived, I called on Cadell.
    • I luckily found Strachan (sic) with him.
  • They assured me most positively that:
    • they had published no Edition of the Theory since the Fifth, which was printed in 1781, and
    • if a 6th has been mentioned in any of the newspapers, it must have been owing to a typographical mistake.
  • For your farther satisfaction, Cadell stated the fact in his own handwriting on a little bit of paper which I send you enclosed.


  • I mentioned also to Cadell your decision not to allow the Additions to the Theory to be printed separately.
    • He was much embarrassed by this as he had already, in similar circumstance, been charged of illiberality with the public before.
  • He asked me if you could mention this in an advertisement prefixed to the Book, for his justification after telling him that:
    • you had made up your mind and
    • it was unnecessary to write to you because the nature of the work made it impossible for you to comply with his proposal.
  • I write this from Dover.
    • I am just leaving it with a fair wind, so that I hope to be in Paris on Thursday.
  • It will give me great-pleasure to receive your commands, if I can be of any use to you in executing any of your commissions.—
  • I ever am, dear sir, your much obliged and most obedient servant,

Dugald Stewart.[359]

  • In the preface to the 1790 edition, Smith refers to the promise he had made in 1759 in treating in a future work of:
    • the general principles of law and government, and
    • the different revolutions they had undergone in the different ages of society on justice, policy, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law.
  • He says that in the Wealth of Nations he had executed this promise so far as policy, revenue, and arms were concerned.
    • But the remaining task, the theory of jurisprudence, he had been prevented from executing by the [Pg 427]same occupations which had until then prevented him from revising the Theory.
  • He adds:
    • “Though my very advanced age leaves me, I acknowledge, very little expectation of ever being able to execute this great work to my own satisfaction, yet, as I have not altogether abandoned the design, and as I wish still to continue under the obligation of doing what I can, I have allowed the paragraph to remain as it was published more than thirty years ago, when I entertained no doubt of being able to execute everything which it announced.”


  • The most important of the new contributions to this last edition of the Theory is the chapter “on the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by our disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition.”
    • In spite of his alleged republicanism, he was still a sort of believer in the principle of birth.
  • To him, it was not a rational principle.
    • It was a natural and beneficial delusion.
  • In the light of reason, the vulgar esteem for rank and fortune above wisdom and virtue was utterly indefensible.
    • But it had a certain advantage as a practical aid to good government.
  • The maintenance of social order required the establishment of popular deference to some species of superiority.
  • The superiorities of birth and fortune were at least plain and palpable to the people who have to be governed.
    • Whereas the superiorities of wisdom and virtue were often invisible and uncertain, even to the discerning.
  • But however useful this admiration for the wrong things might be for the establishment of settled authority, he held it to be “at the same time the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”[360]


  • But the additions attracted little notice compared with the deletions:
    • The deletion of the allusion to Rochefoucauld associating Rochefoucauld in the same condemnation with Mandeville.
    • The deletion of the passage in which the revealed doctrine of the atonement coincided [Pg 428]with the repentant sinner’s natural feeling of the necessity of some other intercession and sacrifice than his own.
  • The omission of the reference to Rochefoucauld has been blamed as a concession to feelings of private friendship in the teeth of the claims of truth.
  • Stewart knew the whole circumstances.
    • He says that Smith came to believe that:
      • truth and friendship required the emendation and
      • there is certainly difference enough between Rochefoucauld and Mandeville to support such a view.


  • Archbishop Magee was a notable divine.
    • The suppression of the passage about the atonement escaped notice for 20 years until Magee quoted the passage from one of the earlier editions, in entire ignorance of the suppression.
      • It was part of a strong testimony to the reasonableness of the Scriptural doctrine of the atonement from a man whose intellectual capacity and independence were above all dispute.
  • He says:
    • “Such are the reflections of a man whose powers of thinking and reasoning will surely not be pronounced inferior to those of any, even of the most distinguished champions of the Unitarian school, and whose theological opinions cannot be charged with any supposed taint from professional habits or interests.
    • A layman (and he too a familiar friend of David Hume), whose life was employed in scientific, political, and philosophical researches, has given to the world those sentiments as the natural suggestions of reason.
    • Yet these are the sentiments which are the scoff of sciolists and witlings.”[361]


  • The sciolists and witlings were not slow in:
    • returning the scoff, and
    • pointing out that while Smith was as an intellectual authority in all that the Archbishop claimed for him, his authority really ran against the Archbishop’s view and not in favour of it, inasmuch as he had withdrawn the passage relied on from the last edition of his work.
  • Dr. Magee instantly changed his tune.
    • Without thinking whether he had any ground for the statement, attributed the omission to the unhappy influence over[Pg 429]
  • Smith’s mind of the aggressive infidelity of Hume.
    • “It adds one proof more,” says his Grace, who, having failed to make Smith an evidence for Christianity, will now have him turned into a warning against unbelief,—
    • “it adds one proof more to the many that already existed of the danger, even to the most enlightened, from a familiar contact with infidelity.”
  • His intercourse with Hume was at its closest when he first published the passage in 1759.
    • Hume had been dead 14 years when the passage was omitted.
    • There is probably as much left in the context which Hume would object to as having been deleted.
    • Smith’s opinion about the atonement was not different in 1790 from what it was in 1759.
    • Smith mentioned to certain Edinburgh friends that he thought the passage unnecessary and misplaced.[362]
  • As if taking revenge for its suppression, the original manuscript of this passage  reappeared from between the leaves of a volume on Aristotle in 1831, when all the rest of Smith’s other works had long been destroyed.[363]
    • So much attention has been paid to Smith’s religious opinions.
    • that he gives a fresh expression to his belief in a future state and an all-seeing Judge in one of the new passages he wrote for this same edition of his Theory.
  • It is in connection with his remarks on the Calas case.
    • He says that to persons in the circumstances of Calas, condemned to an unjust death:
      • “Religion can alone afford them every effectual comfort.
      • She also can tell them that it is of little importance what men may think of their conduct while the all-seeing Judge of the world approves of it.
      • She alone can present to them a view of another world,—
      • a world:
        • of more candour, humanity, and justice than the present,
        • where:
          • their innocence is in due time to be declared and [Pg 430]
          • their virtue to be finally rewarded, and
          • the same great principle which can alone strike terror into triumphant vice affords the only effectual consolation of disgraced and insulted innocence.”[364]
  • Whatever may have been his attitude towards historical Christianity, these words, written on the eve of his own death, show that he died as he lived.
    • He was in the full faith of those doctrines of natural religion which he had publicly taught.



[359] Original in possession of Professor Cunningham, Belfast.

[360]Theory, ed. 1790, i. 146.

[361] Magee’s Works, p. 138.

[362] Sinclair’s Life of Sir John Sinclair, i. 40.

[363] Add. MSS., 32, 574.

[364]Theory, ed. 1790, i. 303, 304.



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