Lectures on Jurisprudence

This was Adam Smith's final, and incomplete, piece of work: a projected book on politics and law. 

Jurisprudence, Smith suggests, is the marker of a complex and sophisticated society. 

This was Smith’s final, and incomplete, piece of work was a projected book on politics and law. The Lectures on Jurisprudence as currently published are comprised of student lecture notes and reports, dating from 1752-1764, preceding the Wealth of Nations. When we consider Smith's habit of extensively editing his work, it is perhaps unfair to suggest that Smith would have wanted us to see his Lectures on Jurisprudence.

Jurisprudence, Smith suggests, is the marker of a complex and sophisticated society. Laws, regulations, and rules are required to improve the standard of living and protect the rights of citizens. Smith produces a historical analysis of the development of law in human societies.

Smith seeks to identify the rules governments should adopt to perform their core function. The purpose of government, Smith argues, is to maintain justice, and protect the individual's rights to their person, property, reputation, and relationships. However, Smith acknowledges that while a certain amount of trust should be afforded to the government to act in our best interest, its power is not absolute. The people’s acceptance of government sits upon a scale, which can easily tip when faced with adverse conditions, such as significant tax increase.​


Injury is defined by Smith as the injustice experienced by one body - person or collective such as state or country - from another. There are obvious links here to sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he discusses how we put ourselves in the situation of another and resent the harm done to them.

Injury can be experienced in several ways. Injury can be committed against the individual, their property or their reputation. Smith argued that over time, the resentment felt by the injured party would dissipate or lessen.


When someone has received an injury, they seek justice. The party who performed the injury must experience the consequences which the law dictates. This law is objective, but also reflects the social norms and values of the society who created it. If a law is not supported by the general public, they will not support the punishment.

The law must also be fair and an adequate response for the injury incurred. This is especially important for the prevention of vigilantism, which exists beyond the law, and ultimately destabilises society.

Common 'measure' of value

In Lectures on Jurisprudence, we see emerging discussions of commerce and the economy which would be further developed in the Wealth of Nations.

Smith discusses the importance of having an object that provides some intermediary value (such as money) through which two or more commodities or objects can be processed and exchanged (exchange value). His lectures on jurisprudence focus on the role of governing bodies to devise regulatory mechanisms and the importance of consensus for the development of legal tender.

Stages of development

Smith famously adopted a four-stage theory of development of societies. He believed in a stadial (or 'stage') view of history, which Smith centres on social provisioning.

These stages are hunting, shepherding, agriculture, and commerce.

In each type of society, the institutions of government and law differ and are shaped by the conditions of that society. For example, there is very little concept of property in a hunting society, but a clear idea of ownership of herds in a shepherding society, and of land in an agricultural society. Commercial society is the most recent and complex form of political and legal order during the time Smith was writing.​