The Infidel or the Professor?
By Amy Willis
Longtime EconTalk listeners have had much occasion to consider the influence of Adam Smith. In this week’s episode, discussion of Smith takes an interesting turn as host Russ Roberts welcomes political scientist Dennis Rasmussen to the show. Rasmussen’s new book, The Infidel and the Professor, explores the deep and enduring friendship between Smith and philosopher David Hume, twelve years Smith’s senior. How did their friendship and works influence each other? What circumstances of time and place have made their influence so profound? And how were the two men able to sustain such a meaningful friendship when they spent practically no time together?
1. We’re used to thinking of Adam Smith as a champion of commerce and exchange. Yet Rasmussen argues that Hume may in fact be the greater champion. Have a look at Hume’s essay, “Of Refinement in the Arts” On what moral grounds does Hume make the case for commerce? To what extent do you find his case convincing, either on its own or in comparison to Smith?2. Why does Roberts suggest that it would not have been possible for Smith to romanticize the entrepreneur?
3. How do Hume’s and Smith’s account of the origins of our sympathy for our fellow man differ? Whose do you find more convincing, and why?
4. What does Rasmussen mean when he says that Adam Smith regarded religion not as a pillar of morality, but as a buttress? What sort of practical benefits does religion provide to society?
More than any of this other published works, Smith was criticized for this letter he wrote in response to his friend Hume’s death. Why was Smith so plagued by this piece, and to what extent is this unique to the time and place in which he lived? Can you think of any similar analogies today?