But there are sad celebrations as well, whose object is either to meet a calamity, or else merely to commemorate and deplore it. These rites have a special aspect, which we are going to attempt to characterize and explain. It is the more necessary to study them by themselves since they are going to reveal a new aspect of the religious life to us.
We propose to call the ceremonies of this sort piacular. The term piaculum has the advantage that while it suggests the idea of expiation, it also has a much more extended signification. Every misfortune, everything of evil omen, everything that inspires sentiments of sorrow or fear necessitates a piaculum and is therefore called piacular. So this word seems to be very well adapted for designating the rites which are celebrated by those in a state of uneasiness or sadness.--E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Translated by J. Swain, p. 389.
Adam Smith's views on moral luck have received steady interest from excellent philosophers and scholars, including Thomas Nagel, Paul Russell, Aaron Garrett, Chad Flanders, and Keith Hankins. Even so, I felt that the full significance and weirdness of his views were not fully grasped because his account of the piacular -- "A man of humanity, who accidentally, and without the smallest degree of blamable negligence, has been the cause of the death of another man, feels himself piacular, though not guilty" (recall) -- had received little attention. So, I worked out my view in a paper on Smith and the piacular, which I presented at a conference and then published in a fine edited volume. The paper had a companion piece, which I also presented at a conference, and then published in another fine special issue. The two papers were put together within a larger argument in my book, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker (OUP, in press, available for pre-order here!). That book received two extensive referee reports. I turned in the final, corrected proofs on Monday. As it happens, an earlier version of my book had also been refereed by two excellent referees at Routledge (see here for what it would have looked like). So this material has been read carefully by more than half-dozen referees and learned editors.
A few weeks ago, in Oxford, I gave a talk at Blackwell's where they were running their usual 3 for the price of 2 sale on Oxford classic paperbacks. One of the discounted books I bought was Durkheim's Elementary Forms. At Chicago, as a graduate student, I knew plenty of PhD students in sociology, religion, anthropology, and social thought who had read Durkheim (for comps, etc.). But while I taught Comte and Weber, I never got around to study him seriously (although I am pretty sure I read him on suicide). Yesterday, I decided to try to read it.
As an aside, when I had more time or was younger (or both), I would happily read several books alongside each other. But nowadays, I prefer to focus on one book at a time. When I don't have an obligation to read a particular book (because of research, a deadline, some social reason, etc.), I find that I can aimlessly pick up a book, read a bit in it, and then put it down--this can be repeated several times with different books in a row; a book needs to grab me before I settle into it.
Yesterday, I started reading Durkheim's introduction: "...to study the most primitive and simple religion which is actually known, to make an analysis of it, and to attempt an explanation of it... in the first place, when it is found in a society whose organization is surpassed by no others in simplicity." This surprised me because Durkheim shows here, at once, his debt to eighteenth century Scottish social theory with its idea that societies develop from simple to complex, and that the simple societies can reveal something characteristic about the nature of a social practice. (The previous sentence simplifies the Scottish social theory methods, but let's leave that aside.) And while some of the Scots would have looked at Scottish Highlander culture or American Indians, Durkheim promises to draw on field work done among Australian aboriginals.
At that point -- I am still on Durkheim's first page --, I put the text down, and start looking for references to Hume, Ferguson, Millar, or Smith. I knew from Durkheim's other work (on the division of labor) that he was familiar with Adam Smith. In fact, when I first conceived my monograph, I had intended to compare Durkheim to Smith because, originally, my book was going to include a major reception history of Smith (up to Rawls and Foucault). But I came to recognize that executing this would be an excuse never to finish my monograph. Much to my surprise Durkheim does not mention any of the Scots in his religion book. (In fact, his explicit treatment of Smith is rather thin in the division of labor book, although I think Durkheim is quite indebted to Smith's social theory.)
Then I flipped to Durkheim's table of contents, and to my horror I noticed that one of the chapter titles is called: "Piacular Rites and the Ambiguity of the Notion of Sacredness." I then checked the French version on-line: Les rites piaculaires et l'ambiguïté de la notion du sacré with a footnote to Pliny. (I have traced Smith's use to Livy and the poet Lucan.) Durkheim does not mention Smith or The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), but he does mention another (once) famous book, Religion of the Semites, by another (nineteenth century) Scot, William Robertson Smith, which has a whole chapter on piacular sacrifice among the Ancient Hebrews. Robertson Smith's chapter mentions Lucian (Hume's and Smith's favorite author) en passant, but no Smith nor TMS. Now, I would be amazed if Robertson Smith was unfamiliar with Adam Smith's TMS, but that requires further research. I did find this gem, which ought to be the motto for us scholars, in William Robertson Smith:
Before I close, an autobiographical remark. Parts of my monograph can be traced back directly to my dissertation which I defended in 2002. But the dissertation did not hang together as a book, and I published a few chapters as papers and wrote a few occasion pieces inspired by my earlier research. When later, I moved to Europe, and entered the research grant environment, several grant reviewers complained that I did not have a monograph. (To make matters worse: I was being recruited for a prestigious chair, and then at the last minute was told that my lack of a monograph disqualified me.) While I was contemplating what I should write my book about, I read a draft of Ryan Hanley's terrific book on Adam Smith. Ryan and I had overlapped in graduate school (and one of my first publications was a criticism of one of his first papers), and I had edited one of his other papers. Even so his book was an eye-opener. After we left graduate school, Ryan had clearly re-read Smith with a fresh eye. And so, with a generous and much appreciated invitation from Brian Leiter (really!), I decided to re-read Smith and also work up a book on Smith for his series. This took me another seven years to produce. That is to say, when I turned in the final, corrected proofs, I had been researching Smith on-and-off for almost twenty years.
While I am pretty pleased with how my monograph turned out (except for the total lack of humor--I blame Adam Smith, who really was not funny), I am depressingly sure there are typos and ungrammatical sentences left in my monograph. It is what it is, I try to console myself. While I do not expect to do more original, scholarship on Adam Smith, I also know that my book won't be the last word on Smith (or public philosophy, the history of liberalism, etc.).
Then, last week, prompted by a very fine, draft paper by Maria Pia Paganelli and Michelle Bee, I wrote a blog post on material and insights that are only partially incorporated in the monograph. That post connects to the central argument of the book, and I am annoyed with myself for not discerning it more fully before I turned in the book. Even so, the vain scholar in me is even more annoyed for not catching the piacular connection between Smith and Durkheim; that would have made a fine note invisible to most readers, but impressive to the discerning.
Then, as I was musing about my missing footnote and debating if I should write a post about it, Google teaches me that another scholar, Christopher M. Driscoll (previously unknown to me, I think), has put together my treatment of Adam Smith on the piacular with Durkheim's in a fascinating context I did not foresee at all. And not for the first time, I feel blessed that I can participate in an intellectual enterprise beyond my control and which reaches unexpected and surprising, temporary resting spaces that cause wonder.