Adam Smith : An Enlightened Life, Paperback
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Adam Smith is celebrated all over the world as the author of The Wealth of Nations and the founder of modern economics.

A few of his ideas - such as the 'Invisible Hand' of the market - have become icons of the modern world.

Yet Smith saw himself primarily as a philosopher rather than an economist, and would never have predicted that the ideas for which he is now best known were his most important.

This book, by one of the leading scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment, shows the extent to which "The Wealth of Nations" and Smith's other great work, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", were part of a larger scheme to establish a grand 'Science of Man', one of the most ambitious projects of the European Enlightenment, which was to encompass law, history and aesthetics as well as economics and ethics.

Nicholas Phillipson reconstructs Smith's intellectual ancestry and formation, of which he gives a radically new and convincing account.

He shows Smith's interactions with the rapidly changing and subtly different intellectual and commercial cultures of Glasgow and Edinburgh as they entered the great years of the Scottish Enlightenment. Above all he explains how far Smith's ideas developed in dialogue with those of his closest friend, the other titan of the age, David Hume.

This superb biography is now the one book which anyone interested in the founder of economics must read.




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This book sorely tested my knowledge of Scottish history. Phillipson assumes his reader’s familiarity with the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Glorious Revolution and the 1705 Act of Union in such a generous way, that one feels complimented. He speaks to one as an equal. But soon you have to set the book aside and catch up on some serious background study. When Adam Smith wrote that the end of government “is to secure wealth and to defend the rich from the poor”, he was not making a disapproving statement. It was a commentary on the society he was living in. Adam Smith is recruited today as the patron of all manner of right wing causes, by people who highlight words that he wrote but have no knowledge of the context within which he wrote them. Smith was not an early participative democrat, and perhaps he would associate eagerly with the present promoters of free trade, free markets, lower taxes and less government interference. But the period in which he wrote was so different from our own that it is not possible to use his words as an early authority for such views. This happens, however, because Smith was writing for modern times when trade, monopoly, colonisation and taxation were gaining their modern meanings. (This is not the case with the Greek and Roman authors who were the foundation of Smith’s own education and also of his own teaching.) Smith walks through this book much more as a philosopher than as the founder of economics. He himself rated his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” as superior to the more well-known “Wealth of Nations”.Smith burned all his private papers just before he died in 1790 so the modern prying biographer is at a disadvantage. But Phillipson convincingly puts Smith in his historical context. It lays out his intellectual antecendents (in Pufendorf, Hutcheson and Hume) and describes the way he was bought out of his professorship in Glasgow by a wealthy family who wanted a tutor to accompany their noble 19 year old son on a two year tour of Europe. Many parties and engagements, but also a lot of Greek and Latin. After Smith published the Wealth of Nations, the same family arranged for a well-paid job for Smith on the Customs Board. This was, however, also a lot of work and Smith was prevented from completing his planned philosophical writings before he died at the age of 67.As an alleged intellectual fore bearer of the tea party movement, one is surprised to discover that Smith was no covenanter but privately an infidel, eager to keep well away from matters of religion. There is a doubly telling story on page 246 on what a dying David Hume imagined saying to Charon to delay his journey over the Styx – and how Smith altered his report of this to lessen controversy. As a customs official, Adam Smith “was enraged by parliament’s willingness to encourage the importation of [cheap] foreign linen yard regardless of its consequences for domestic producers and the wages of the poor.” (p.264) South Africa’s tyre and textile manufacturers and unions may be overlooking a patron saint.

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