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Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life

(Yale University Press; US: Apr 2010)

Very near the outset of Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life Nicholas Phillipson acknowledges the central difficulty facing any biographer of the 17th century Scottish philosopher—namely that Smith, despite the acclaim his work gained him, was a modest man who maintained a relatively low and self-effacing profile in the larger social and cultural life of his age and in his somewhat slender correspondence with friends.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that Smith’s life is not particularly interesting. He enjoyed a long period as a successful academic, then a stint as a private tutor, then a government customs official. In each capacity he dispensed his duties with great attention and unimpeachable responsibility. He never married, remained devoted to his mother throughout his life, and was temperate in his habits and lifestyle.

As for Smith’s idiosyncrasies—absent-mindedness, some social awkwardness—they were of the gently eccentric sort and generally a source of bemusement rather than condemnation among his contemporaries (though the famously acerbic Samuel Johnson found Smith “dull” and “disagreeable”).  Moreover, Smith was carefully circumspect in his more radical beliefs—he was very likely an atheist—and generally avoided the controversy that sometimes surrounded his close friend and mentor, David Hume. 

What to do then with this quiet and humble man who composed two seminal works of philosophy—Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations (as it is generally known)?

Though the Phillipson’s biography pays much attention to the external facts of Smith’s life, relatively unremarkable as they are, its real focus is the life of the mind: “[because] Smith is to be found in his published and unpublished texts, this means that his biography must be, first and foremost, an intellectual biography, one which traces the development of his mind and character through the making of those texts.” 

The aim, in other words, is to trace the development of Smith’s thought from his schoolboy days to the unfinished work on aesthetics that preoccupied him in his last years. This aim necessarily entails conjecture, at times. For example, though some of the texts Smith read as a student in the grammar school of Kirkcaldy, where he spent his boyhood, are preserved, the full extent of his reading matter is unknown. Phillipson speculates that, under the aegis of the school’s reforming schoolmaster David Miller, Smith would have been exposed to the work of classical moralists such as Epictetus and Cicero as well as contemporary publications such as Addison and Steele’s Spectator magazine.

The biography finds itself on firmer ground as it examines the curriculum and changes in university culture at Glasgow University, where Smith continued his academic life after leaving Kirkcaldy. Academic controversy and trends in intellectual fashion may not be the most exciting subject matter for some, but Phillipson is adept at guiding the reader through the milieu in which Smith spent his formative years and which provided the foundation for his lifelong interests and the work born of them.

From Glasgow Phillipson follows Smith to Oxford where he encountered Hume, whose influence was of the utmost significance in Smith’s life: “David Hume was to be the decisive event in [Smith’s] development.”  Indeed, Phillipson maintains throughout the volume that specter of Hume’s philosophy hovers over all of Smith’s work, even when it seems most at odds with the arguments of the older man.

This is not to say, though, that Hume was the sole influence on Smith. Phillipson does an admirable job of placing Smith and his thinking in the context of ever-expanding concentric circles of interest and influence: Scottish educational culture; British academia; European Enlightenment thought.  In his intellectual predilections and ambitions Smith was very much a man of his time and in a very real sense Phillipson’s biography is as much a portrait of European social theory in the 18th century as it is a study of Smith.

At the same time, by placing Smith in that context Phillipson is able to establish a convincing consistency between Smith’s thinking as it appears in Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations—two works that scholars have often seen as at odds with one another in their depictions of human nature and the underpinnings of society. And while The Wealth of Nations clearly enjoys greater present-day esteem—it is widely regarded as the first work of modern economic theory—it participates in a larger “science of man” that preoccupied Smith, Hume, and many of their contemporaries.

For scholars and readers interested in Smith and his work Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life should prove a very valuable resource. For more general audiences there is much to appreciate here—fine prose, erudite consideration of Enlightenment thought, and a consistently engaging narrative spun from less than copious materials.


James Williams is a freelance copywriter and editor living in St. Louis.

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