Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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Adam Smith

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of
the Wealth of Nations


Smith's Book is briefly referred to as The Wealth of Nations, and informally as “the bible of capitalism,” though “capitalism” wasn’t in currency as a word in 1776.

Questions for Early American Literature:

1. How does Smith's text or system conform to the Enlightenment or Age of Reason? How does it contrast with the Seventeenth Century (or with later Romanticism)?

2. What should or can we do with the fact that Wealth of Nations is published the same year (1776) as the founding of the USA? How does this fact affect the origin story that America was created for religious freedom, or that America was founded on Christian principles?

Question for Utopian literature: Objective 3b. Are utopian impulses limited to socialism and communism, or may freemarket capitalism and democracy also express themselves in utopian terms and visions? Is utopia “progressive / liberal” or “reactionary / conservative?”

Adam Smith (1723-1790) of Scotland was associated with “Scottish Enlightenment” of 1700s, which influenced the USA's Founders.

See also Profit Motive as motivation to labor in contrast to Utopian motives like honor, altruism, paternity, general good or commonwealth.

Selections from The Wealth of Nations:

From Book 1 concerning self-interest or profit motive and “the invisible hand”:

As every individual, therefore, endeavors as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (Book 4, Chapter 2)

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. (Book 1, Chapter 2)


From Book 5 concerning taxation: (Freemarket fundamentalists read Smith's Bible of Capitalism as selectively as Christian fundamentalists read the Holy Bible. Below, Smith makes an argument for progressive taxation, which American conservatives typically oppose [e.g. "flat tax."])

The necessaries [necessities] of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation.

Utopian literature . . . questions for discussion: Can aspects of these passages be discussed as utopian, anti-utopian, or both?

How much does utopia align with socialism, and anti-utopian with capitalism?

(Compare Plato's Republic, book 2)

Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves?

And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war. . . .

But, said Glaucon, interposing, you have not given them a relish to their meal.

True, I replied, I had forgotten; of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.

Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I [Socrates] replied.

Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries [necessities] of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured. . . .