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HIST3142 Passions and Profits: Wealth, Freedom and Virtue in the Age of Adam Smith (Pt. 1: Texts)

Module Overview

Adam Smith's 1776 book Of the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations coined the phrase 'the invisible hand' to describe how the removal of state regulation sets individuals free to specialise and pursue their own self-interest - resulting in a level of wealth that could not, he insisted, be achieved by even the most Enlightened politicians. Smith is hailed and derided by turns as the prophet of profit, of an amoral, 'greed is good' approach. Is this charge fair? Does the free market encourage selfishness and indifference to inequality? Far from seeking to draw a distinction between the "public man" and the "private man", Smith sought to root the trading instinct in human psychology, in our moral sense. Virtues emerged from our "social passions", and depended on our ability to balance co-operation and competition with others. States had to achieve the same balancing act using taxation and regulation, both within their own realms and across empires.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

The aims of this module are to: - Introduce you to a key figure in the history of capitalism. - Encourage you to consider the ways in which commerce, freedom, consumption and virtue interact.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Eighteenth-century moral philosophy
  • The Scottish Enlightenment and its institutions
  • The origins of the discipline of economics
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Take an informed part in a range of contemporary debates surrounding inequality, identity, the role of the financial sector, consumerism, wealth and happiness.
Cognitive Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Analyse how an economy allocates scarce resources
  • Consider micro- and macro-economic questions from a human- as well as market-centred perspective.


In part one of this module we will be looking closely at Adam Smith's writings on virtue, wealth and society, in particular his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776), as well as writings by David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Edmund Burke, William Paley and Thomas Malthus. One of the two weekly seminars will be devoted to close reading of a passage from Smith; the other to key secondary works on philosophy, economic thought and Enlightenment culture. Part two will set these arguments and debates in the social, cultural and imperial contexts of Britain in the years 1750-1800.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • two weekly seminars of two hours each Learning activities include • two double sessions per week in a seminar format • tutor-led sessions designed to develop skills of source analysis • preparing and delivering presentations • class discussion of sample essays to hone technique

Wider reading or practice30
Completion of assessment task52
Follow-up work20
Preparation for scheduled sessions80
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Ryan Patrick Hanley (2009). Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. 

Henry C. Clark, ed (2003). Commerce, Culture and Liberty: readings on capitalism before Adam Smith. 

Gloria Vivenza (2001). Adam Smith and the Classics: the Classical Heritage in Adam Smith’s Thought. 

Jonathan B. Wight (2002). Saving Adam Smith: a Tale of Wealth, Transformation, and Virtue. 

Knud Haakonssen, ed (2006). The Cambridge Companion to Smith. 

Jerry Evensky (2005). Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: A Historical and Contemporary Perspective on Markets, Law, Ethics and Culture. 

Nicholas Phillipson (2010). Adam Smith: an Enlightened life. 

Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff (1983). Wealth and Virtue: the Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment. 

Adam Smith (1976-87). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 

Adam Smith (1976-87). Of the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 

Jonathan Conlin (2016). Adam Smith. 





MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (4000 words) 50%
Take-away task 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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