Enigma #2: Why did Adam Smith instruct his literary executors to destroy most of his unpublished works upon his death?
As I mentioned in my previous post, I am writing up a new series of blog posts devoted to the many mysteries still surrounding the life of Adam Smith, puzzles and paradoxes that remain open to this day. Today’s post is devoted Smithian Enigma #2: why did the Scottish philosopher instruct his literary executors, Joseph Black and James Hutton (pictured below), to destroy his unpublished manuscripts, correspondence, and other private papers? (See, for example, Ian Simpson Ross 2010, pp. 404-405; see also page 149 of my peer-reviewed paper “Adam Smith in Love”, which is available here, by the way.)
In summary, Adam Smith was reportedly working on, in his own words, “an account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions which they had undergone in the different ages and periods of society; not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns police, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law.” But this great work never saw the light of day, for it was presumably destroyed on Smith’s orders by his literary executors. Among the possible reasons or motives the Scottish philosopher may have had are these:
- Smithian prudence. Most Smith scholars, like Ian Simpson Ross (2010, p. 405), lay the blame on “Smith’s prudence” as the main motivating factor. In other words, maybe Adam Smith, who like Charles Dickens was “shocked by the misuse of private letters of public men”, just wanted to minimize the potential for such misuse.
- Literary reputation. Simpson Ross (ibid.) also singles out Adam Smith’s “concern for his literary reputation” as another motivating factor. On this view, the Scottish philosopher was simply a punctilious literary perfectionist who would rather have his unfinished works thrown to a bonfire than saved for posterity.
- Bayesian updating. Perhaps Smith’s grand theory about “the general principles of law and government” had changed over time, or maybe he even renounced his views about these matters. Either way, it might make sense to destroy one’s work if that work no longer reflects one’s true views.
- A Smithian secret? Above and beyond Smith’s lost manuscript on “the general principles of law and government”, perhaps Smith also had something to hide, a secret so surprising and salacious that it would inflict lasting damage to his reputation as a moral philosopher, a possibility I consider in my 2021 paper “Adam Smith in Love”.
Perhaps the truth is some combination of all these reasons. Also, what other Smithian mysteries remain unsolved? In my next post, I will attempt to provide a comprehensive list of all the “Adam Smith enigmas” that I have encountered in my researches.
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