I’m note sure how I hadn’t come across this before (one need only read the Wikipedia entry “invisible hand”), but Adam Smith used the phrase “invisible hand” three times. It is used once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776) – both of those I knew. The third time comes from a posthumously published (1795) essay The History of Astronomy, written before The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith wrote:
For it may be observed, that in all Polytheistic religions, among savages, as well as in the early ages of heathen antiquity, it is the irregular events of nature only that are ascribed to the agency and power of the gods. Fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter every apprehended to be employed in those matters. But thunder and lightning, storms and sunshine, those more irregular events, were ascribed to his favour, or his anger. Man, the only designing power with which they were acquainted, never acts but either to stop, or to alter the course, which natural events would take, if left to themselves. Those other intelligent beings, whom they imagined, but knew not, were naturally supposed to act in the same manner; not to employ themselves in supporting the ordinary course of things, which went on of its own accord, but to stop, to thwart, and to disturb it. And thus, in the first ages of the world, the lowest and most pusillanimous superstition supplied the place of philosophy.
In this case, the invisible hand of Jupiter is the explanation that “savages” and those in “the early ages of heathen antiquity” apply to otherwise unexplainable irregular events. It isn’t much help in interpreting the other two uses.
HT: Jag Bhalla