Das Capitalist

By Scialabba, George | The American Conservative, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Das Capitalist


Scialabba, George, The American Conservative


Das Capitalist [Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, Nicholas Phillipson, Yale, 346 pages]

IN THE "OVERTURE" to his grandly symphonic The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Peter Gay describes the "international type" of the philosophe as a "facile, articulate, doctrinaire, sociable, secular man of letters." On this definition, was Adam Smith a philosophe?

Yes and no. Unlike his French counterparts and even his bosom friend David Hume, he led a retired life, much of it in the small Scottish town where he was born, and he lived with his mother until she died at a very advanced age. He was shy, destroyed most of his letters, and did not seem to reUsh giving brilUant performances, either in print or in conversation. He never fell afoul of civil or religious authority, had no mistresses, and engaged in no public quarrels.

(A semi-public one, though. Shortly after Hume's death, Smith met Samuel Johnson at a party. Johnson spoke slightingly of Hume, Smith defended him, and their exchanges grew increasingly heated until Johnson exclaimed, "Sir, you lie!" To which Smith retorted, "Sir, you are the son of a whore!" and stalked out.)

On the other hand, Smith was modestly sociable - he had warm relationships with Turgot, Quesnay, and Condorcet. Like most of the philosophes, he was prolific and versatile, publishing much-admired essays on law, literature, and the history of science as well as his masterpieces on moral philosophy and poUtical economy. And although he was not openly irreligious like Hume and Voltaire, he had as little use for the Calvinist superstitions of Scotland as his French contemporaries had for Roman Catholicism.

Perhaps the main difference lies in that slightly ambiguous word "doctrinaire." Smith was a critic and reformer, and there are plenty of doctrines in his writings, some of them strikingly original. But he was detached and scholarly by temperament, rather than ardently polemical. If he was a philosophe, he was an exceptionaUy philosophical one.

Adam Smith was bom in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His father, a lawyer and civil servant, died six months before Adam's birth. He left his family well off, and young Adam's mother devoted the rest of her life to her son, who reciprocated her devotion. The first and only adventure in Smith's life took place in his childhood, when he was snatched while at play by some strolling vagabonds but was shortly afterwards rescued by his uncle and a search party.

He was sent to the excellent local grammar school and then, at 14, to Glasgow University. After three successful years there, he won a scholarship to Oxford, which was then sunk in intellectual torpor and futile scholasticism. Smith loathed it and returned to Scotland halfway through the term of his scholarship.

The academic job market was considerably brighter then than now. The 25year-old was invited to give two series of lectures, on rhetoric and jurisprudence, at Edinburgh. They were a rousing success, leading to Smith's appointment as professor of logic and metaphysics at Glasgow University in 1751 and professor of moral philosophy in 1752. He remained there happily until lured away, for a princely fee, to tutor and travel with a young duke. From 1767 to 1776 he largely secluded himself in Kirkcaldy, composing The Wealth of Nations. He returned to Edinburgh in 1778 as commissioner of customs, an important and lucrative post, and died there in 1790.

As Nicholas PhilUpson dryly observes at the beginning of his - unavoidably - rather dry biography: "There is a general lack of visibility in Smith's life." Smith burned his letters, notes, and unpublished manuscripts; we don't even have a likeness tUl he was past 40. PhilUpson makes up for this by sketching - in sometimes gratifying and sometimes tiresome detail - the social and cultural background of the Scottish Enlightenment, the remarkable environment in which Smith thrived. Scotland's early 18th-century prosperity produced an eager audience for lecturers like the young Smith and generous patrons for public intellectuals like the mature Smith. …

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