Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

“The natural progress of opulence”: Adam Smith’s rhetorical theory of history

Okan Ecem, University of Lorraine

In focusing on the brief history of Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Smith's Wealth of Nations, the present paper shows that there are sufficient grounds to argue that Smith constructs the “natural progress of opulence” as a pure rhetorical device: (i) the inverted presentation of history creates emotional unease in readers thereby requiring a theoretical explanation, (ii) which Smith provides in the simplest and most satisfactory manner possible in his historical account. (iii) The resulting motivational power of theoretical beauty reflects Smith’s attempt to foster reform —deter mercantile policies and legislations favoring foreign commerce while emphasizing the importance of liberty and security in bringing about opulence. (iv) The resulting admiration for theoretical beauty helps, in turn, to distract readers’ attention away from the content of the book —which attests that the origins of the mercantile system explain also unprecedented progress and liberty.


Keywords: Adam Smith, liberty, progress, profit, rhetoric