Adam Smith is one of those figures that flits in the background of modern life. His work impacts us all, but how many know his name? His profile adorns the textbooks of eager university students, but ask them what he contributed. Even amongst those who know of Smith and his work, who can tell us what inspired and shaped him? What twigged that led him to become the prime mover of modern economics? The stories of comparable men in other fields – Aristotle and biology, Galileo and astronomy, Humbolt and geography; are common knowledge. Their fame and name so dwarf their contemporaries that they all but stand alone in our imaginations. Adam Smith has no such legend. Nevertheless, the story of his quest for a theory of everything deserves to be told.
“The Wealth of Nations is the greatest and most enduring monument to the intellectual culture of the Scottish Enlightenment. It contains a theory about the behaviour of human beings when they are seen through the lens of Scottish politeness, about agents who are deeply committed to the improvement of mind, manners and property, and are able to believe that in following what seems to be the path of nature they are acting in a way that will serve the public good.”
Unfortunately, Adam Smith did not leave a paper trail. He lived with his mother for most of his life, wasn’t much of a correspondent and forced his friends to destroy his personal papers. Really, if it weren’t for David Hume, his few loyal students and his published work, we wouldn’t be left with anything at all. As a result, ideas are all that survive of Smith, and the narrative Phillipson has managed to piece together is entirely an intellectual one. The source material for the tale Phillipson tells is the world that surrounded Smith. Through the courses he took at Glasgow and Oxford, and the notes of his own students, we see a man indebted to Classical Philosophy and Rhetoric. From his friendship with Hume and the set with which he roamed, we find a tireless intellect. And out of his lectures and books we see a theorist drawing from all that surrounded him — from the coffers of Scottish merchants, to the work habits of Oxford dons and the writings of French academics — in the quest to develop a theory of everything.
“Rousseau once famously remarked that while men were born free, everywhere they were in chains. In Smith’s view the chains were those of the imagination, chains could be loosened by a common sense, sceptical awareness of the processes by which the moral personality was formed, but never altogether thrown off.”
Although what we end up with is a jagged silhouette in the middle of a busy canvas — as Phillipson is able to paint around the subject but little more, perhaps the reader is not the worse for wear. The key points of any good biography are more than met. We are introduced to the world in which Smith lived; where Western Philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment were in full bloom. We encounter both that which inspired Smith, and the full cohort that he in turn inspired. We meet his contemporaries, and accompany him on the better-documented journeys in his later life. All without the emotional baggage of your average biography. I am almost of a mind to thank Smith for removing his personal details from the occasion, it’s much cleaner this way. If you are someone who really wants to learn and benefit from Smith’s intellectual journey, and can stand a rigorous biography, this book is definitely recommended. Maybe if more read this book Smith wouldn’t be flitting in the background.
“For in the last resort, the Wealth of Nations, like the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the lectures on which it drew, was a call to his contemporaries to take moral, political and intellectual control of their lives and the lives of those for whom they were responsible. It is in such contexts that the Wealth of Nations needs to be read by historians. The rest can be left to his disciples and critics.”