Although Adam Smith was responsible for coining one of the most popular slogans for describing how a market economy operates, its semantics are determined by two further aspects. On the one hand, if we follow the tangled history of the “invisible hand” metaphor, we can see how through this metaphor theological and cosmological questions were deposited in the field of social ontology. A century before Adam Smith, for instance, the metaphor referred to something secretly at work in relations between natural things, a cosmological phenomenon that, like the mechanism of a clock, hides behind the clearly visible hands and dial: “For Nature works by an Invisible Hand in all things.” […] The manus gubernatoris of Scholastic philosophy, the guiding hand of God invisibly directing all Creation, returns as an influential theological metaphor for the Providence manifest in the natural order, the oeconomia naturae. And before the “invisible hand” appeared in Wealth of Nations as a topos for the law-governed activity that turns self-interest and the striving for gain to the general good, this expression occurred in Smith himself in an entirely different yet equally significant context.
In his History of Astronomy, probably written around 1758, not only did Smith attempt an apologia for the Newtonian world system, with its laws of gravity and inertia; he also casually remarked on the inability of polytheistic religions to trace irregular events in the natural world — events in which they saw the miraculous power of the ancient gods at work — back to regularly occurring patterns. While it is only natural that “fire burns and water refreshes,” or that “heavy bodies descend and lighter substances fly upward,” extraordinary phenomena such as lightning, thunder, or storms call for explanation — and for this the ancients would in the end simply turn to Jupiter’s “invisible hand.” […] Here too the invisible hand is treated as a cosmological fact; and just as an invisible hand will later bring the unpredictable inclinations of self-seeking subjects to order, so too here an invisible hand shows how irregular natural events manifest the workings of divinely ordained laws. As a result of such supernatural intervention, earthly matters are brought into conformity with Providence, irregularities are translated into order, and diffuse forces and movements [p.26] are made to bear witness to an invisible power linking them together. All this activity by invisible hands indicates that hidden manipulations — in the most literal sense — intervene both in the natural course of events and in the dynamics of social interaction.
On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that Smith presented another version of his concept of the “invisible hand” in the first volume of his 1759 essay on moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And here homo economicus is defined by more than his failure to see the whole situation, his lack of a comprehensive overview. Economic beings can only function to the extent that they are always missing something even more fundamental. […] Despite or precisely because of their “natural selfishness and rapacity,” the rich share their wealth with the poor. In Smith’s words, this means that […] “they are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distributions of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus without intending, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society and afford the means for the multiplication of the species.”
Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp.25-26.