Adam Smith's Campaign against the Sublime

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This essay explores Adam Smith's The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries; illustrated by the History of Astronomy, written in the early 1750s, and unpublished in his lifetime, though, near the end of his life, he suggested that it might have some merit. It was published amongst other posthumous papers in 1795. Smith's Astronomy arises from the most intellectually riveting aspect of natural philosophy in the first half of the eighteenth century, Newtonian celestial mechanics and its analogies in the social and political worlds, and it explicitly engages with the most riveting cultural question of the same period, the theory of the sublime. Written shortly before Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Smith's essay produces an aesthetics of the astronomical universe: it is, in part, a celebration of Newtonianism and, in part, a polemic against the unruly or un-masterable imagination of the Romantic sublime.

In 1726, Newton's Principia Mathematica was translated into English, though his major theoretical insights and his mathematical inventions had over the previous twenty years already become part of polite conversation and salon demonstrations (Waters 121-154). The natural philosophy of Newtonianism served as a model for social and moral theory, a "Social Newtonianism" whose central cultural claim was the correspondence between Newtonian simplicity and system, and social relations: the beauty of the universal arrangement of gravitational attraction, "by whose simple power / the universe exists" (Glover 1. 176), made everything else explicable, either as an effect or an analogy. Having reconciled the enormity of space with the orderliness of its system, why should Newton's system not found social happiness as well? J.T. Desaguliers, the optimistic experimental demonstrator for the Royal Society, puts forward such an analogy in the preface to his The Newtonian System of the WORLD, the best Model of Government: An Allegorical Poem (1728): "The Limited Monarchy, whereby our Liberties, Rights, and Privileges are so well secured to us, as to make us happier than all the Nations round about us, seems to be a lively Image of our System; and the Happiness that we enjoy under His present Majesty's Government, makes us sensible, that ATTRACTION is now as universal in the Political, as in the Philosophical World." His poem, which, like other introductions to Newton published in the first half of the century, aimed to entertain and teach, is written with confidence that the newly explicable universe would teach us not only how to make sense of the heavens, but also how to live on earth. The Newtonian System of the WORLD, celebrating the new King George II, offers not only a history of astronomy (hinged to the poem through a series of explanatory footnotes), but of the parallel worlds of cosmic knowledge and good (that is, British) government. Desaguliers dismisses Descartes' theory of celestial vortices as dumbed-down science. "An easy, probable, Philosophy; / No conjuring Terms or Geometrick Spells; / His gentle Readers might be Beaux and Belles" (ll. 97-9). The "bold Britons," on the other hand, "who all tyrants hate, / In sciences as well as in the State" (ll. 100-1) condemn Descartes' theory. Gravitational attraction is the principle of balance at work, Desaguliers writes, maintaining the equilibrium of the planets through a law that "Directs but not Destroys, their Liberty" (ll. 17-20).

Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, Newton's universe provided an image for an equanimous social coherence underpinning the apparent disorderliness of human endeavour. Richard Glover, who became a respected poet and member of the political world (rumoured at one time to be the author of the "Junius" letters), had as a sixteen-year-old described Newton in his "Poem on Isaac Newton" as having "open'd nature's adamantine gates, / And to our minds her secret powers expos'd" (ll. …