Nicholas Phillipson's 'Adam Smith' Sheds Light on a Seminal but Obscure Philosopher

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.

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life

Price: $32.50
Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 368 pages
ISBN-10: 0300169272
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-04

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unremarkable as they are, its real focus is the life of the mind: “[because] Smith is to be found in his published and unpublished texts, this means that his biography must be, first and foremost, an intellectual biography, one which traces the development of his mind and character through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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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