Adam Smith

This article is about the Scottish moral philosopher. For other persons of the same name, see Adam Smith (disambiguation).

Adam Smith

Full name

Adam Smith

Born

16 June 1723
(OS: 5 June 1723)
Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland

Died

17 July 1790 (aged 67)
Edinburgh, Scotland

Era

Classical economics
(Modern economics)

Region

Western philosophy

School

Classical economics

Main interests

Political philosophy, ethics, economics

Notable ideas

Classical economics,
modern free market,
division of labour,
the “invisible hand”

Influenced by

Aristotle · Butler · Chydenius · Hobbes · Hume · Hutcheson · Locke · Mandeville · Petty · Quesnay

Influenced

Belgrano · Chomsky · Comte · Darwin · Engels · Friedman · Hayek · Keynes · Marx · Malthus · Mill · Montesquieu · Rand · Ricardo · US Founding Fathers

Signature

Adam Smith (baptised 16 June 1723 – died 17 July 1790 [OS: 5 June 1723 – 17 July 1790]) was a Scottish moral philosopher and a pioneer of political economics. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith is the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The latter, usually abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. Smith is widely cited as the father of modern economics.

Smith studied moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford. After graduating, he delivered a successful series of public lectures at Edinburgh, leading him to collaborate with David Hume during the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith obtained a professorship at Glasgow teaching moral philosophy, and during this time he wrote and published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his later life, he took a tutoring position that allowed him to travel throughout Europe, where he met other intellectual leaders of his day. Smith returned home and spent the next ten years writing The Wealth of Nations, publishing it in 1776. He died in 1790.

Biography

Early life

Smith was born to Margaret Douglas at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. His father, also named Adam Smith, was a lawyer, civil servant, and widower who married Margaret Douglas in 1720 and died six months before Smith was born.[1] Although the exact date of Smith’s birth is unknown, his baptism was recorded on 16 June 1723 at Kirkcaldy.[2] Though few events in Smith’s early childhood are known, Scottish journalist and Smith’s biographer John Rae recorded that Smith was abducted by gypsies at the age of four and released when others went to rescue him.[N 1] Smith was close to his mother, who likely encouraged him to pursue his scholarly ambitions.[4] He attended the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy—characterised by Rae as “one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that period”—from 1729 to 1737.[3] While there, Smith studied Latin, mathematics, history, and writing.[4]

A commemorative plaque for Smith is located at Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy.

Formal education

Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson.[4] Here, Smith developed his passion for liberty, reason, and free speech. In 1740, Smith was awarded the Snell exhibition and left to attend Balliol College, Oxford.[5]

Smith considered the teaching at Glasgow far superior to that at Oxford, which he found intellectually stifling.[6] In Book V, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: “In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” Smith is also reported to have complained to friends that Oxford officials once discovered him reading a copy of David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, and they subsequently confiscated his book and punished him severely for reading it.[3][7][8] According to William Robert Scott, “The Oxford of [Smith’s] time gave little if any help towards what was to be his lifework.”[9] Nevertheless, Smith took the opportunity while at Oxford to teach himself several subjects by reading many books from the shelves of the large Oxford library.[10] When Smith was not studying on his own, his time at Oxford was not a happy one, according to his letters.[11] Near the end of his time at Oxford, Smith began suffering from shaking fits, probably the symptoms of a nervous breakdown.[12] He left Oxford University in 1746, before his scholarship ended.[12][13]

In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith comments on the low quality of instruction and the meager intellectual activity at English universities, when compared to their Scottish counterparts. He attributes this both to the rich endowments of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, which made the income of professors independent of their ability to attract students, and to the fact that distinguished men of letters could make an even more comfortable living as ministers of the Church of England.[8]

Teaching career

Smith began delivering public lectures in 1748 at Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames.[14] His lecture topics included rhetoric and belles-lettres, and later the subject of “the progress of opulence”. On this latter topic he first expounded his economic philosophy of “the obvious and simple system of natural liberty”. While Smith was not adept at public speaking, his lectures met with success.[15]

David Hume was a friend and contemporary of Smith.

In 1750, he met the philosopher David Hume, who was his senior by more than a decade. In their writings covering history, politics, philosophy, economics, and religion, Smith and Hume shared closer intellectual and personal bonds than with other important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.[16]

In 1751, Smith earned a professorship at Glasgow University teaching logic courses. When the head of Moral Philosophy died the next year, Smith took over the position.[15] He worked as an academic for the next thirteen years, which he characterized as “by far the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honourable period [of his life]”.[17]

Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, embodying some of his Glasgow lectures. This work was concerned with how human morality depends on sympathy between agent and spectator, or the individual and other members of society. Smith defined “sympathy” as the feeling of moral sentiments. He bases his explanation not on a special “moral sense”, as the third Lord Shaftesbury and Hutcheson had done, nor on utility as Hume did, but on sympathy. Following the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith became so popular that many wealthy students left their schools in other countries to enroll at Glasgow to learn under Smith.[18] After the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith began to give more attention to jurisprudence and economics in his lectures and less to his theories of morals.[19] For example, Smith lectured that the cause of increase in national wealth is labor, rather than the nation’s quantity of gold or silver, which is the basis for mercantilism, the economic theory that dominated Western European economic policies at the time.[18]

François Quesnay, one of the leaders of the Physiocratic school of thought

In 1762, the University of Glasgow conferred on Smith the title of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.). At the end of 1763, he obtained an offer from Charles Townshend—who had been introduced to Smith by David Hume—to tutor his stepson, Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch. Smith then resigned from his professorship to take the tutoring position, and he subsequently attempted to return the fees he had collected from his students because he resigned in the middle of the term, but his students refused.[20]

Tutoring and travels

Smith’s tutoring job entailed touring Europe with Scott while teaching him subjects including proper Polish.[20] He was paid £300 per year plus expenses along with £300 per year pension, which was roughly twice his former income as a teacher.[20] Smith first traveled as a tutor to Toulouse, France, where he stayed for a year and a half.[20] According to accounts, he found Toulouse to be very boring, and he wrote to Hume that he “had begun to write a book in order to pass away the time”.[20] After touring the south of France, the group moved to Geneva, where Smith met with the philosopher Voltaire.[21]

After staying in Geneva, the party went to Paris, where Smith came to know intellectual leaders such as Benjamin Franklin,[22] Turgot, Jean D’Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius and, in particular, Francois Quesnay, the head of the Physiocratic school, whose academic products he respected greatly.[23] The physiocrats believed that wealth came from production, in contrast to mercantilism, which was the dominating economic theory at the time. They also believed that agriculture produced wealth, and that merchants and manufacturers did not.[22] While Smith did not embrace all of the physiocrats’ ideas, he did say that physiocracy was “with all its imperfections [perhaps] the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy”.[24]

Later years

In 1766, Henry Scott’s younger brother died in Paris, and Smith’s tour as a tutor ended shortly thereafter.[24] Smith returned home that year to Kirkcaldy, and he devoted much of the next ten years to his magnum opus.[25] There he befriended Henry Moyes, a young blind man who showed precocious aptitude. As well as teaching Moyes himself, Smith secured the patronage of David Hume and Thomas Reid in the young man’s education.[26] In May 1773, Smith was elected fellow of the Royal Society of London,[27] and was elected a member of the Literary Club in 1775.[28] The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and was an instant success, selling out the first edition in only six months.[29]

In 1778, Smith was appointed to a post as commissioner of customs in Scotland and went to live with his mother in Panmure House in Edinburgh’s Canongate.[30] Five years later, he became one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh,[31] and from 1787 to 1789 he occupied the honorary position of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow.[32] He died in the northern wing of Panmure House in Edinburgh on 17 July 1790 after a painful illness and was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.[33] On his death bed, Smith expressed disappointment that he had not achieved more.[34]

Smith’s literary executors were two friends from the Scottish academic world: the physicist and chemist Joseph Black, and the pioneering geologist James Hutton.[35] Smith left behind many notes and some unpublished material, but gave instructions to destroy anything that was not fit for publication.[36] He mentioned an early unpublished History of Astronomy as probably suitable, and it duly appeared in 1795, along with other material such as Essays on Philosophical Subjects.[35]

Smith’s library went by his will to David Douglas, Lord Reston (son of his cousin Colonel Robert Douglas of Strathendry, Fife), who lived with Smith. It was eventually divided between his two surviving children, Cecilia Margaret (Mrs. Cunningham) and David Anne (Mrs. Bannerman). On the death of her husband, the Rev. W. B. Cunningham of Prestonpans in 1878, Mrs. Cunningham sold some of the books. The remainder passed to her son, Professor Robert Oliver Cunningham of Queen’s College, Belfast, who presented a part to the library of Queen’s College. After his death the remaining books was sold. On the death of Mrs. Bannerman in 1879 her portion of the library went intact to the New College (of the Free Church), Edinburgh.

Personality and beliefs

Character

James Tassie’s enamel paste medallion of Smith provided the model for many engravings and portraits which remain today.[37]

Not much is known about Smith’s personal views beyond what can be deduced from his published articles. His personal papers were destroyed after his death at his request.[36] He never married,[38] and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived after his return from France and who died six years before his own death.[39]

Smith, who is often described as a prototypical absent-minded professor,[40] is considered by historians to have been an eccentric but benevolent intellectual, comically absent-minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait, and a smile of “inexpressible benignity”.[41] He was known to talk to himself,[34] a habit that began during his childhood when he would speak to himself and smile in rapt conversation with invisible companions.[40] He also had occasional spells of imaginary illness,[34] and he is reported to have had books and papers placed in tall stacks in his study.[40]

Various anecdotes have discussed his absent-minded nature. In one story, Smith took Charles Townshend on a tour of a tanning factory, and while discussing free trade, Smith walked into a huge tanning pit from which he needed help to escape.[42] Another episode records that he put bread and butter into a teapot, drank the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he ever had. In another example, Smith went out walking and daydreaming in his nightgown and ended up 15 miles (24 km) outside town before nearby church bells brought him back to reality.[40][42]

Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790

Smith, who is reported to have been an odd-looking fellow, has been described as someone who “had a large nose, bulging eyes, a protruding lower lip, a nervous twitch, and a speech impediment”.[8] Smith is said to have acknowledged his looks at one point, saying, “I am a beau in nothing but my books.”[8] Smith rarely sat for portraits,[43] so almost all depictions of him created during his lifetime were drawn from memory. The most well-known portraits of Smith is the profile by James Tassie and two etchings by John Kay.[44] The line engravings produced for the covers of 19th century reprints of The Wealth of Nations were based largely on Tassie’s medallion.[45]

Religious views

There has been considerable scholarly debate about the nature of Smith’s religious views. Smith’s father had a strong interest in Christianity and belonged to the moderate wing of the Church of Scotland.[46] In addition to the fact that he received the Snell Exhibition, Smith may have also moved to England with the intention of pursuing a career in the Church of England. At Oxford, Smith rejected Christianity and it is generally believed that he returned to Scotland as a deist.[47]

Economist Ronald Coase has challenged the view that Smith was a deist,[48] stating that while Smith may have referred to the “Great Architect of the Universe” in his works, other scholars have “very much exaggerated the extent to which Adam Smith was committed to a belief in a personal God”.[49] He based this on analysis of a remark in The Wealth of Nations where Smith writes that the curiosity of mankind about the “great phenomena of nature” such as “the generation, the life, growth and dissolution of plants and animals” has led men to “enquire into their causes”.[50] Coase also notes Smith’s observation that “[s]uperstition first attempted to satisfy this curiosity, by referring all those wonderful appearances to the immediate agency of the gods.”[50] Smith’s distant friend and colleague David Hume, with whom he agreed on most matters, was described by contemporaries as an atheist, although there is some debate about the exact nature of his views among modern philosophers as well.[50]

Published works

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Main article: The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In 1759, Smith published his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He continued making extensive revisions to the book, up until his death.[N 2] Although The Wealth of Nations is widely regarded as Smith’s most influential work, it is believed that Smith himself considered The Theory of Moral Sentiments to be a superior work.[52] It was in this work that Smith first referred to his famous “invisible hand” to describe the apparent benefits to society when people behaved in their own interests.[53]

In the work, Smith critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from social relationships.[54] His goal in writ Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: