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The Celtic Mind

How Adam Smith and Edmund Burke saved civilization

One contemplates the power, depth, and breadth of the finest 18th-century minds only with some trepidation and humility. Or at least, one should.

The favorite study of the great men of that day, famed editor of The Nation E.L. Godkin explained in 1900, was the glorification of the person against political power. In “opposition to the theory of divine right, by kings or demagogues, the doctrine of natural rights was set up. Humanity was exalted above human institutions, man was held superior to the State, and universal brotherhood supplanted the ideas of national power and glory.”

But the world changed profoundly in the 19th century. The immensely complex theories of Friedrich Hegel, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud deconstructed Western man, breaking him into categories, boxes, longings, desires, and bits. The ideologues of the 19th century not only subverted thousands of years of finely honed ideas, dating back to Socrates, they also provided the means by which to seize, strangle, and suffocate the men of the West.

English historian Christopher Dawson presented the change with startling starkness:

The history of the nineteenth century developed under the shadow of the French Revolution and the national liberal revolutions that followed it. A century of political, economic and social revolution, a century of world discovery, world conquest and world exploitation, it was also the great age of capitalism; and yet saw too the rise of socialism and communism and their attack upon the foundation of capitalist society. … When the century began, Jefferson was president of the United States, and George III was still King of England. When it ended Lenin already was planning the Russian Revolution.

In that short century, man and men went from wholeness to pieces.

Yet a remnant survived in the form of classical liberalism and conservatism. Each preserved much of the best of the past, arguing in favor of a complex, even unknowable individual person. The keenest minds of these salvaging philosophies had flourished in the late 18th century and shared deep Celtic origins: Adam Smith (1723–1790), often regarded as the father of classical liberalism, and Edmund Burke (1729–1797), holding the same position within modern conservatism.

It is now possible to see Burke and Smith as fighting a rear-guard action at the end of their age, synthesizing and defending the best thought each had inherited—much as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle came at the end of classical Athens; Cicero at the end of the Roman Republic; St. Augustine at the end of the Roman Empire; or Thomas More at the end of what scholar Stephen Smith has called the English springtime.

Labeling either man as this or that, however, does a disservice to their brilliance and obscures the important fact that Smith and Burke were close friends and even closer allies. Rooted in the intellectual and spiritual traditions of the West, each sought to understand the complexities of man not by narrowing our understanding to the merely biological, economic, or psychological but by expanding man into a whole yet mysterious being, each person unique from every other, never to be repeated in time or space.

While Smith might be regarded as a Stoic with Christian longings, Burke was a Christian with a love of Stoicism. Yeshiva University’s James R. Otteson II has produced several excellent works that have become the standard by which all other scholarship on Adam Smith, if not the 18th century as a whole, must be measured. In his 2011 volume Adam Smith and in 2002’s Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life, Otteson not only reveals the continuity in Smith’s thought throughout his lifetime but also explains the mutual influence of Burke and Smith upon one another. On the Burke side, perhaps the most insightful scholar of the last half-century has been the late Peter J. Stanlis. One should especially see his Edmund Burke and the Natural Law. Otteson and Stanlis each argue that while Smith and Burke arrived at the same conclusions, they did so through very different means: Smith relied upon a common-sense utilitarianism, while Burke engaged traditional natural-law theories.

Christian and Stoic West

For learned men of the 18th century, education meant “liberal education.” They studied Greek, Latin, and the great thinkers of antiquity. Other forms of “education” served merely as training. This intellectual formation allowed Smith and Burke to see themselves as members in continuity with traditions of the West stretching back to the pre-Socratics.

Throughout his work Smith cites many authorities, but he seems to have had a special penchant for Stoic thought, including the elements of it to be found in the highest of Roman Republicans, Cicero. In a famous passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith struck a notably Stoic chord when he stated that nothing existed higher than brotherly love:

And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature, and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety. As to love our neighbours as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbor is capable of loving us.

Smith’s ultimate authority did not seem to be the Christian God. While he never expressed the skepticism of his friend David Hume, he also never proclaimed orthodoxy. Instead, Smith understood man and nature in terms of what can only be described as Stoic. The very idea for which Smith is best known, “the invisible hand,” has Stoic origins.

In Volume I of An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith presented what Otteson claims is his most important contribution to our understanding of the individual person:

… 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 publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick 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 not part of his intention.

While Smith’s reference to “an invisible hand” might merely be a classical allusion, it must be noted that the concept derives from the Stoic understanding of Providence. In its first form, it is the “Invisible Hand of Jupiter,” gently guiding and maintaining order in the universe, meshing personal choice with societal necessities.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith expressed another key Stoic concept. Every person wished to be a citizen of something more elevated than his immediate society: “Man, according to the Stoics, ought to regard himself, not as something separated and detached, but as a citizen of the world, a member of the vast commonwealth of nature,” Smith wrote. “To the interest of this great community, he ought at all times be willing that his own little interest should be sacrificed.”


Burke too received a liberal education. In his writings, beginning with his first philosophical work, a masterpiece of aesthetics, the Irishman cited Aristotle, the Stoics, Cicero, and the medieval Scholastics with approval, drawing his own ideas of natural law from thinkers who came before him. In a passage similar to those presented by Smith above, Burke described his own belief in the order of the cosmos and man’s role within it:

Taking it for granted that I do not write to the disciples of the Parisian philosophy, I may assume that the awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence—and that, having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has in and by that disposition virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice.

Unlike his friend Smith, Burke was a Christian first and a Stoic second. His parents had raised their daughters as Roman Catholics and their sons as Anglicans. In a private letter, however, Burke offered attenuated praise for Smith’s Stoicism. “The style is everywhere lively and elegant, and what is, I think equally important in the work of that kind, is it is well varied,” Burke noted of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “It is often sublime too, particularly in that fine Picture of the stoic Philosophy towards the end of your first part which is dressed out in all the grandeur and Pomp that becomes that magnificent delusion.”

Magnificent delusion, indeed—one that has inspired such varied figures as St. Augustine, Petrarch, Thomas More, and Russell Kirk. Burke happily considered Smith’s book more akin to a painting than a staid work of scholarship.

Burke so firmly proclaimed his Christian faith and principles in almost every work and speech that those studying him can without any trepidation declare him a “Christian Statesman,” as Russell Kirk did in 1955. Smith never made clear whether his belief in Stoicism was a “delusion” or not. Instead, he appeared to hold a faith somewhere between that of Hume and that of Burke, neither orthodox nor heretical, but heterodox.

Christian and Stoic were not so far apart. The two Celtic minds described here readily embraced the Platonic, Stoic, Ciceronian, Pauline, and Augustinian understanding of a reality beyond this world, a republic greater than any commonwealth on earth. Even if our mortal republic has slipped from our grasp, another, more real republic existed beyond the confines of time. This is owing to man’s very nature. In the Western tradition, Cicero explained this most succinctly. A person, he wrote, is

endowed by the supreme god with a grand status at the time of its creation. It alone of all types and varieties of animate creatures has a share in reason and thought, which all the others lack. What is there, not just in humans, but in all heaven and earth, more divine that reason? When it has matured and come to perfection, it is properly named wisdom … reason forms the first bond between human and god.

Cicero’s form of reason is more Platonic and mystical than is the reason of either Rousseau or Bentham—or Jefferson, for that matter.


Once he has recognized the two worlds—the higher world of reason, the lower one of earthly being—a man finds himself “not bound by human walls as the citizen of one particular spot but a citizen of the whole world as if it were a single city.” His citizenship moves from the mundane to the transcendent, to what the Stoics labeled the “cosmopolis,” what St. Augustine named “The City of God,” and what the Inkling Owen Barfield knew to be a “commonwealth of the soul in which there is no copyright.”

One might also call this elaborate view of the eternal cosmos a form of Justice, at least as understood by the ancients. Properly defined, virtue lies in each man knowing his place in the order of existence, giving each person his due. In multiple lectures and books, Smith claimed Justice as the highest end of government. In his 1762 Lectures on Jurisprudence, he wrote, “The first and chief design of every system of government is to maintain justice; to prevent the members of a society from incroaching on one anothers property, or siezing [sic] what is not their own.” Not surprisingly, Burke agreed. Civil society, he argued many times, existed for the sake of promoting justice in society.

For Smith and Burke the greatest threat to liberty, justice, and order came from those who would soon be known as ideologues. Probably influenced by Burke, as Otteson has argued, Smith fought vehemently against the “Man of System,” the close-minded and cocksure would-be tyrant, petty bureaucrat, or public-school administrator.

“Amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction, a certain spirit of system is apt to mix itself with that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity, upon a real fellow-feeling with the inconveniences and distresses to which some of our fellow-citizens may be exposed,” Smith feared.

“This spirit of system commonly takes the direction of that more gentle public spirit; always animates it, and often inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism,” he continued in his revised Theory of Moral Sentiments, published prior to the French Revolution. “The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

A true man, Smith continued only a few pages later, understood that the only concrete system in the universe was the “good government of the great republic of Gods and men, of all rational and sensible beings.”

To do justice to the thought of Smith and Burke a final similarity should be noted. Each embraced the Old Whig desire for the freedom of the American colonies. Much of Smith’s Wealth of Nations dealt with the discovery and resources of the Americas, noting, in particular the astonishing birthrates and economic growth of the English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. Their importance, Smith claimed, could never be exaggerated.

Burke, as is well remembered, served as the single greatest defender of the American character and American liberties in all of Great Britain. From his opening speech in Parliament against the Stamp Act, a rigorous call for immediate repeal, to the end of the conflict, Burke regretted George III’s war against men and women who so clearly—at least to his mind—defended proper notions of the English tradition. From the commencement of hostilities in the spring of 1775, Burke thought of the conflict as a civil war, with little hope for the restoration of a peaceful empire. He sympathized with the colonists’ claims that Parliament had innovated against them, depriving them of their Anglo-Saxon liberties.

“These things depend on conventions real or understood, upon practice, accident, the humour or Genius of those who Govern or are governd, and may be, as they are, modified to infinity,” he wrote in July 1775. “No bounds ever were set to the Parliamentary power over the Colonies … but the reason and nature of things, and the growth of the Colonies ought to have taught Parliament to have set bounds to the exercise of its own power.”

Many Englishmen, in and out of power, despised the conflict in North America, but none would stand up against the king. It was, Burke argued, a “collective madness.” Burke held feasts and parties when the king declared fast days to support the war, and he even briefly seceded from Parliament in protest. Perhaps most surprisingly, in a speech before the House of Commons Burke equated the king, as the head of the Anglican Church, with the king of the fallen angels.

Why the Celtic Mind?

But why the “Celtic Mind”? What explains how one of the most remote areas of Europe produced such fine intellects in so short of a time?

Of the various so-called Enlightenments of the 18th century, the Scottish Enlightenment proved to be the least like the others. The French Enlightenment attempted to take man back to a state of nature through the teachings of Rousseau and others—to erase civilization and start again—while the English Enlightenment promoted the bizarre and inhumane “pleasure and pain” calculus of Jeremy Bentham. The American Enlightenment really consisted only of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, and a few other famous eccentrics.

Despite the religious skepticism of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Scots hoped to find the “common sense” of things, to discover universal principles of man without destroying the specific manifestations of men’s peculiarities. In the American colonies, one could find some of the best proponents of the Scottish Enlightenment in such diverse figures such as Charles Carroll, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon. Perhaps the answer to the “whys” and “hows” of the Celtic Mind is ultimately rather simple. Of the European Enlightenments, only the Celtic Mind attempted to engage the Western tradition without overthrowing it.

The Celtic Mind recognized and extended the Western vision of man. It sought not, like those of the other Enlightenments, to put man in a box as this or that. Even in its skepticism, the Celtic Mind embraced humility, not ego. If those of us who love order and liberty, labeling ourselves either conservatives or libertarians, did the same, we might have a chance to reclaim the field now possessed by the heirs of those darker Enlightenments—the neoconservatives, the militant liberals, and their legions of corporatist allies feeding Leviathan at home and bloody imperialism abroad.



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