We are Not the Center of the Universe: The Role of Astronomy in the Moral Defense of Commerce in Adam Smith

History of Political Economy 2017 Volume 49, Number 3: 451-468, DOI: 10.1215/00182702-4193033

22 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2017

Date Written: October 26, 2017

Abstract

Adam Smith's account of commercial societies as societies of strangers may be read as a moral defense of commercial societies. A society of strangers can be a fostering environment for moral development. Smith's account of moral development echoes his contemporaries' accounts of the move from geocentric to heliocentric understandings of the solar system. If we imagine ourselves at a distance from our own position, we humble the arrogance of our self-love as we realize we are not the center of the universe. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith describes the realization that we are not the center of the moral universe. In contemporary presentations and popularizations of astronomical theories the realization is that literally we, on Earth, are not the center of the physical universe. Adam Smith's theory of moral development, and therefore his moral defense of commercial societies, seems indebted to astronomical theories in general, rather than just to Newton, as it is commonly assumed.

Keywords: Adam Smith, astronomy, morality, commercial society, Fontenelle, Copernican system, gravity

Suggested Citation

Paganelli, Maria Pia, We are Not the Center of the Universe: The Role of Astronomy in the Moral Defense of Commerce in Adam Smith (October 26, 2017). History of Political Economy 2017 Volume 49, Number 3: 451-468, DOI: 10.1215/00182702-4193033 , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3059415

Maria Pia Paganelli (Contact Author)

Trinity University ( email )

Dept. of Economics
One Trinity Place
San Antonio, TX 78212
United States

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