Adam Smith Bio Reveals Scottish Recluse Who Fathered Economics

The cover jacket of "Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life." The book is the latest by Nicholas Phillipson. Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

Adam Smith, the Scottish academic who fathered the dismal science, is a biographer’s nightmare.

Three years before his death in July 1790, he instructed his future executors to destroy all his lecture notes. Two years later, he repeated the request and then, within days, persuaded one of them to do so at once.

He left just seven unpublished philosophical essays, writes Nicholas Phillipson in “Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life.” Only 193 of Smith’s letters have survived -- a vanishing act befitting the man who described how “an invisible hand” guides the economy.

Undeterred, Phillipson, an honorary research fellow in history at the University of Edinburgh, has written what he calls “an intellectual biography” of the 18th-century philosopher who gave us “The Wealth of Nations.” The result is an often speculative brain bender that nonetheless succeeds in showing how Smith’s masterpiece grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment, an astonishing moment in history that also produced David Hume.

Phillipson does give us glimpses of the private man: Smith suffered from hypochondria and lived with his widowed mother most of his life. Hume needled him about his reclusiveness. Smith became, briefly, a habitué of leading salons in Paris, where his tin-ear French and awkward manner didn’t prevent him from debating theory with Francois Quesnay and his circle of “economistes.”

‘Cult Figure’

His lectures at the University of Glasgow turned him into “something of a cult figure, a professor whose portrait bust could be bought by students at local bookshops,” Phillipson writes. When a former pupil said, in February 1790, that he looked forward to seeing Smith again, the ailing philosopher squeezed his hand and demurred.

“I find that the machine is breaking down,” he said, “so that I shall be little better than a mummy.”

Such splashes of color fall few and far between in this account and are incidental to Phillipson’s overarching aim: to paint a portrait of Smith the “public intellectual,” a man who came from a land scorched by religious strife and the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and managed to place “the study of human behavior on new foundations.”

Drawing on Smith’s published works and student notes from his lectures, Phillipson shows how Smith’s thinking on social theory and ethics influenced his system of economics. He places “The Wealth of Nations” in the context of Smith’s other great book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” and also shows how both volumes were only pieces of what Phillipson calls a “vast intellectual project.”

‘Science of Man’

“Smith believed that it was now possible to develop a genuine Science of Man based on the observation of human nature and human history,” he writes. This science “would explain the principles of government and legislation that ought to be followed by enlightened rulers who wanted to extend the liberty and happiness of their subjects and the wealth and power of their dominions.”

Smith built his intellectual framework on an assumption that underlies Hume’s philosophy -- that the history and nature of the human species were “determined by indigence, infirmity and need,” as Phillipson writes.

Primitive humans, being weak and needy, learned to cooperate, speak languages and improve their lot, Smith argued. Unlike other creatures, we sought something better than what nature gave us; we learned to clothe ourselves and cook our meat. Our indigence bred a love of improvement.

This line of reasoning underscored Smith’s teachings on moral philosophy and jurisprudence. From there, it wasn’t much of an intellectual leap to mankind’s bartering ways and the language that later emerged in “The Wealth of Nations.”


“Man continually standing in need of the assistance of others, must fall upon some means to procure their help,” Smith said according to notes kept by one student. Coaxing may not do the trick, so we also appeal to our fellow man’s self-interest.

“When you apply to a brewer or butcher for beer or for beef you do not explain to him how much you stand in need of these,” Smith said. “You do not address his humanity, but his self-love.”

And so it is that every individual pursuing his own gain is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention,” as Smith later wrote in “The Wealth of Nations.”

It took Smith a decade to write his master work, partly because the strongest example of a society that had followed the economic route he described was colonial America. He wrote amid the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. It’s no coincidence that it was published in 1776.

“Adam Smith” is a book to be studied, not read on a lazy Sunday. When I put it down, I felt wiser, however exhausted.

“Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life” is from Allen Lane in the U.K. and from Yale in the U.S. (346 pages, 25 pounds, $32.50). To buy this book in North America click here.

(James Pressley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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