Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life

By Wooster, Martin Morse | Freeman, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life


Wooster, Martin Morse, Freeman


Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson Yale University Press * 2010/2012 * 352 pages $32.50 hardcover; $23.00 paperback

Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster

Anyone who reads Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations or The Theory of Moral Sentiments would want to know more about the author of those classic works. The Library of Congress says there are at least 300 works in several languages about Smith, but only about a dozen biographies, including James Buchan's The Authentic Adam Smith (2006).

There are two reasons there aren't many Adam Smith biographies. First, Smith, like so many intellectuals of his time, was not a man who enjoyed baring his soul in print. He didn't like letter writing, for example, and relatively few of his letters survive. But Smith's reticence went further than that of most thinkers of his day. In 1787, three years before his death at age 67, he ordered his friends to destroy all his papers and lecture notes except for seven philosophical essays, which were published posthumously. Smith's friend and literary executor, Dugald Stewart, observed that Smith "seemed to have wished that no materials should remain for his biographers, but what were furnished by the lasting monuments of his genius, and the exemplary worth of his private life."

Although Smith could have his own papers destroyed, he couldn't stop his friends (including Stewart) from writing about him. In addition, extensive lecture notes compiled by Smith's students in the 1760s provide evidence of how his ideas emerged and changed. Using all the available archives, Phillipson, a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh, has produced an elegant and forceful biography.

It should be noted that Phillipson doesn't care much how Smith discovered the importance of free markets. He is far more concerned about how Smith saw himself, as a philosopher who was the foremost disciple of David Hume, a man whose goal was "to develop philosophical accounts of the principles of law and government which would be of use to the rulers of modern Europe."

Consider Phillipson's description of the legacy of The Wealth of Nations. He sees Smith's book as "the greatest and most enduring monument to the intellectual culture of the Scottish Enlightenment." The book, he adds, "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 context that the Wealth of Nations needs to be read by historians. …

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