The Life of Adam Smith

The Life of Adam Smith

The Life of Adam Smith

The Life of Adam Smith


Few would argue that Adam Smith was one of the great minds of the eighteenth century. He is perceived through his best-known book, The Wealth of Nations, as the founder of economics as a science, and his ideas about the free market and the role of the state (in relation to it) continue to influence modern economic thought. Yet Smith achieved even more as a man of letters, as a moralist, historian, and critic. The Life of Adam Smith, the first full-scale biography of Smith in a hundred years, is a superb account of Smith's life and work, encompassing a career that spanned some of the defining moments in world history, including the American and French Revolutions. Here author Ian Simpson Ross examines Smith's family life, education, career, intellectual circle (including David Hume and Francois Quesnay), and his contemporaries (the likes of Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson), bringing to life this great thinker and author. Readers will meet Smith as a student at a lively Glasgow University and at a sleepy Oxford; a freelance lecturer delivering popular classes on rhetoric; an innovative university teacher ("by far the most useful, and therefore," Smith wrote, "by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life"); then a tutor travelling abroad with a Duke; an acclaimed political economist; a policy advisor to governments during and after the American Revolution; and finally, if paradoxically in view of his strongly held tenets, a Commissioner of Customs coping with free traders in the smuggling business. But it his impact as a writer that continues to set Adam Smith apart today. The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, as the British Parliament was deep in debate about the American colonies, continues to influence modern economic theory throughout the world. Ross sheds new light on this classic work and on its meaning for today. And he also paints a vivid portrait of Smith's personal life, revealing a man of singular generosity of spirit, who believed that with wit and logic and sensitivity to our feelings, we might aspire to virtue rather than wealth, and so become members of a truly civil society. Upon Adam Smith's death in 1790, a friend wrote of him, "Happy are those who at the close of life can reflect that they have lived to a valuable purpose by contributing, as he did, to enlighten mankind, and to spread the blessings of peace and liberty and virtue." The Life of Adam Smith illuminates the world of a man whose legacy of thought concerns and affects us all.


The smallest circumstances, the most minute transactions of a great man are sought after with eagerness.

Ever since the writings of Adam Smith about morals and economics reached the reading public, over 200 years ago, they have excited controversy. The debate about the meaning of the systems of ideas appearing under his name, and their application to contemporary society, is as lively as ever. Is it not dangerous to base judgements about good and bad on feelings rather than reason? How can we arrive at moral standards that are higher than those commonly accepted? Is everybody prepared to swap or sell or bargain to achieve material advantage? Should citizens insist that governments free markets as an essential part of a civil society? In Moscow and Manchester, Nagoya and Nantes, Toronto and Turin, Düsseldorf and Detroit, certainly, access to the wealth of nations is sought through understanding or refuting Smithian free-market economics. The individual liberty associated with this is prized, but, as Ernest Gellner (1994) has reminded us, the conditions for civil society that incorporates a free or relatively free market are not easily created. Also, proponents of communitarian interests and needs, such as Amitai Etzioni (1994), argue that the pursuit of self-interest appropriate for the market-place, as Smith recognized, should have its limits. Above all, they should not determine the nature of the loving relationships and dutiful obligations of family and civic life.

This biography of Smith, the first full-scale one to be attempted since John Rae's was published exactly 100 years ago, is based on two considerations relevant to ongoing debates in which his name is invoked. The first is that we are naturally curious about the life of a writer of such wide influence as Smith. Second, examination of both the writing and reading of texts is necessary to clarify and particularize their range of meanings. Plausible reconstruction of the meanings of Smith's discourses from a historical standpoint can be helpfully contextualized by the life story. Rational, intertextualized interpretations can be offered in the light of available commentary from intellectual disciplines to which Smith's work made a contribution. The aim here is not to foreclose meaning by strictly delimiting an author's intentions, surely an impossible task. Rather, a remarkable personality can be depicted in identifiable settings, at work as a writer on an array of subjects that, surprisingly, goes well beyond morals and economics. Also, the biography can objectively record what contemporary readers and first translators made of Smith and his discourses, and how he viewed their responses.

The story told in the following chapters, then, concerns a fatherless and sickly . . .

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