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date: 26 February 2020

Smith, Adamfree

(bap. 1723, d. 1790)
  • Donald Winch

Adam Smith (bap. 1723, d. 1790)

by James Tassie, 1787

Smith, Adam (bap. 1723, d. 1790), moral philosopher and political economist, was baptized on 5 June 1723 at Kirkcaldy, a small port on the Forth. His father, also Adam Smith (1679–1723), was private secretary to the third earl of Loudoun, later becoming writer to the signet and a local customs official; his mother, Margaret Douglas (1694–1784), was the daughter of Robert Douglas of Strathenry, the second son of Sir William Douglas of Kirkness, a prominent Fife landowner and Scottish MP until 1706. The marriage, in 1720, was the father's second, his first wife having died in 1717, leaving him with a son, Hugh (1709–1750). The half-brothers do not appear to have had much to do with one another, though Adam inherited Hugh's property when he died intestate.

Childhood and education

The death of Smith's father five months before his birth meant that he was brought up by his mother, probably as a sickly child. She had help in the early years from influential relatives and friends who acted as the guardians named in his father's will. They included James Oswald of Dunnikier, a wealthy merchant and landowner in Kirkcaldy, and Smith's cousin, William Smith, the second duke of Argyll's steward at a time when the Argyll family controlled much of the patronage in Scotland.

Smith was put through the grammar school curriculum at the local two-room burgh school, learning Latin and a little Greek, Roman history, rhetoric and grammar, and arithmetic. He later commended the Scottish parish school system, while suggesting that 'geometry and mechanics', rather than 'a little smattering of Latin', were a better supplement to basic skills for the 'common people' (Smith, WN, 785). In his own case, however, the introduction to ancient languages was a good foundation for a scholarly career that began in earnest when, at the age of fourteen, he went to Glasgow College. The curriculum consisted of these languages, logic, moral philosophy, mathematics, and natural philosophy, each taught by a specialist professor. Mathematics and natural philosophy were said to be Smith's 'favourite pursuits' (Stewart, 271), but the teacher who was to have most influence on Smith's career was Francis Hutcheson, professor of moral philosophy. Hutcheson was a ‘new light’ teacher, one of the first to lecture in English rather than Latin, doing so in an inspirational manner that countered rigid Calvinist doctrines and brought him under local suspicion for so doing.

In 1740 Smith was awarded a Snell exhibition which enabled him to move to Balliol College, Oxford. The Snell foundation was originally intended to support those destined for ordination in the episcopalian Church of Scotland, though the penalties for failing to honour this had fallen into abeyance. Smith spent six years at Oxford, mostly devoted, as far as it is known, to reading widely in ancient philosophy and in English, French, and Italian literature. These were to remain lifelong interests, aided by considerable powers of recall. Smith also acquired something prized by Scots seeking advancement: fluency in accepted English usage of the language. The intellectual conservatism and indolence of Smith's teachers at Balliol contrasted unfavourably with the teaching at Glasgow. Smith's damning verdict on Oxford has become part of the standard indictment of the ancient English universities during the eighteenth century. By family background and education—whig, Presbyterian, and Hanoverian—Smith could not have been in sympathy with the tory, high-church, and Jacobite sympathies of Balliol. Nor could the anti-Scottish prejudices of the place have helped him to feel at home there.

In 1746 Smith returned to Kirkcaldy, where he spent the next two years, having decided to honour the original terms of the Snell exhibition in one respect only, namely by exercising his talents in Scotland. His first opportunity came as a result of an invitation from Henry Home, Lord Kames, to give a course of public lectures in Edinburgh on rhetoric and belles-lettres. Such was their initial success that between 1748 and 1751 Smith expanded their content to include the history of philosophy and jurisprudence. It was during this period too that Smith formed or confirmed some of his most important friendships among the Edinburgh literati: with Kames, James Oswald (son of Smith's guardian), Alexander Wedderburn, Adam Ferguson, William Johnstone (later Pulteney), John Millar, William Robertson, and Hugh Blair. More especially, he formed his most important friendship, that with David Hume, his senior by twelve years. The affinities between their respective writings on philosophy, politics, economics, history, and religion show that Hume and Smith formed a closer intellectual alliance with each other than either of them had with the other representatives of what has come to be known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

The lecturer's plan of studies

The Edinburgh lectures provided Smith with material that was put to immediate use when he was offered regular employment at Glasgow as professor of logic in 1751, especially since he took on the duties of the professor of moral philosophy as well. He transferred to the latter chair when it became vacant in the following year, but retained the classes on rhetoric as part of his duties. The curriculum inherited from Hutcheson provided the framework for Smith's teaching, especially in the early years of his tenure. It consisted of ethics and a consideration of the rights and duties of man according to the tenets of the law of nature and nations, with politics and some incidental treatment of economic subjects included. There was sufficient latitude here for Smith to develop those special interests and emphases that were to become the basis for what he later published or planned to publish. He was unusual in resisting the temptation to write on topical subjects, except when they served as illustrations for settled philosophical positions. Even his earliest publications—two articles for the first Edinburgh Review in 1755—dealt with weighty subjects: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, the Encyclopédie, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's second discourse on inequality. As a consequence of this peculiarity—and in the case of the Wealth of Nations the long interval between conception and delivery—the pattern of Smith's teaching and his original plan of studies has assumed special significance.

The main informant on this subject was Smith's pupil John Millar, who reported that Smith taught under four headings: natural theology (on which nothing survives, though a good deal can be inferred); ethics (the subject of Smith's first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments); 'that branch of morality that relates to justice' (on which we now have two sets of student notes); and finally, 'those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but that of expediency, and which are calculated to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a State' (Smith, EPS, 274–5), the outcome of which emerged a quarter of a century later as the Wealth of Nations.

By ordering the destruction of sixteen volumes of manuscript material just before his death, Smith ensured that attention would be focused on his two longest and most highly polished works, plus the posthumously published Essays on Philosophical Subjects, which includes a remarkable essay, 'The principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries, illustrated by the history of astronomy'. Dugald Stewart attributed this decision to 'an excessive solicitude in the author about his posthumous reputation' (Smith, EPS, 327). Yet precisely because that solicitude has been so well rewarded, the missing parts of his original enterprise continue to be of interest, particularly when it is clear that Smith did not regard them as superseded by what was already in print. As late as 1785 he spoke of two projects on which he was actively engaged: 'a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence', and 'a sort of theory and History of Law and Government' (Smith, Corr., 287). The first of these represented a return to his beginnings in the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Smith had already published one of these lectures as Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages in 1761. That Essays on Philosophical Subjects was part of the same projected philosophical history was confirmed by the discovery of student notes on the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1958. Another set of notes on Smith's lectures on jurisprudence was found at the same time, supplementing those published in 1896, both of which are now contained in Lectures on Jurisprudence. Although these lecture notes cannot be an entirely faithful record of what was said, they were based on painstaking collation and revision, whether for personal use or for sale. On most significant issues their accuracy can be checked by reference to opinions expressed in the published writings. The various parts of the original plan have acquired separate lives in the histories of rhetorical, ethical, jurisprudential, and economic thinking, but their connections, or perceived lack of them, continue to be central to understanding Smith's aims and achievements.

Rhetoric and astronomy

From a literary-historical point of view, the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres can be seen as Smith's contribution to the promotion of Augustan English in Scotland, together with its associated norms of taste. By responding to this need he also became a founder of the study of English in universities, as well as the kind of critic Romantics in the following century loved to hate. He was a determined advocate of the plain style in prose, taking Jonathan Swift and Joseph Addison as his favoured models, Shaftesburian over-elaboration as its antithesis. But there was a great deal more to the lectures than stylistics and literary criticism. They were innovative in rejecting outmoded branches of knowledge such as ancient logic and the metaphysics of the schools, and that 'very silly set of books' devoted to rules of eloquence and figures of speech (Smith, LRBL, 26). Smith was to adopt a similar position towards casuistry when dealing with ethics. The lectures also attest to a more ambitious philosophical goal, described by Millar as follows:

The best method of explaining and illustrating the various powers of the human mind, the most useful part of metaphysics, arises from an examination of the several ways of communicating our thoughts by speech, and from the attention to the principles of those literary compositions which contribute to persuasion or entertainment.

Smith, EPS, 274

Smith was pursuing the ‘experimental’ or empirical approach to the ‘science of man’ that Hume had endorsed in the introduction to his Treatise of Human Nature (1739) when speaking of this science as the headquarters from which all other philosophical and literary enquiries could best be explored.

Smith's essay on the formation of languages contributes to a branch of speculative linguistics of the type pursued by Girard, Condillac, and Rousseau. He was chiefly interested in the light shed by the development of language on various mental operations: taxonomy, analogy, abstraction, combination, and the capacity to form systems of grammar. A ‘rational grammar’ based on such insights, he thought, could provide a foundation for logic; it would also contribute to the 'history of the natural progress of the human mind' (Smith, Corr., 87–8), where this history would take account of variations in types of social existence. When dealing with modes of communication and the methods of presentation appropriate to each of them, Smith distinguished four main types: poetical, oratorical, historical, and didactic. Of these, the last two have the closest bearing on Smith's own writings. Smith's historiographic preferences favoured impartial causal narratives combining the account of actors' motives with external events. Thucydides and Livy were considered the best of the ancients, Machiavelli of the moderns, with Hume now replacing him.

Although historical narrative, as Smith's persistent recourse to it shows, could also serve didactic purposes, didactic discourse proper sought to prove a proposition or set of propositions by expounding all the relevant arguments for and against. It was best exemplified by the 'Newtonian method', which being the 'most Philosophical' approach, was applicable to both natural and moral sciences. It entailed laying down 'certain principles, known or proved in the beginning, from whence we account for the severall Phenomena, connecting all together by the same Chain' (Smith, LRBL, 146). That the Newtonian system also emerges as the triumphant conclusion of Smith's essay on the history of astronomy is hardly surprising, though Smith's account remained faithful to the Humean agenda in making the psychological basis for scientific curiosity, and the aesthetic qualities possessed by successful theories, its chief concern. There is a Humean basis too for the role Smith attaches to constructive uses of the imagination in creating systems ('imaginary machines'; Smith, EPS, 66) designed to restore tranquillity by overcoming the uncomfortable sensations associated with living in a world of discordant sense perceptions. When successful, such systems provide the simplest as well as most accurate account of the observational evidence. But since they remain a product of our imaginations, there is always the possibility of supersession: hence Smith's disturbingly sceptical hint at the end of the essay on astronomy that Newton might not be the end of the story. If Smith could be sceptical about Newton, perhaps there were other overarching conceptions to which we assent for reasons of mental comfort which have even less foundation. There could be a clue here to the charge that Smith, in performing his duties under natural religion perfunctorily, was adopting a view that was too flattering to human pride.

These early preoccupations with language, history, and the Newtonian method resurface in Smith's two main works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations. Indeed, one could say that, in several senses, they lay the groundwork for those works. Most obviously, Newton provided him with something akin to the modern idea of a philosophy of science. It furnished a justification for treating moral and economic behaviour naturalistically, seeking causal regularities that could be verified by an appeal to the external evidence of our senses in the accepted Newtonian manner, as well as by recourse to the introspective knowledge we have of human behaviour as fellow actors. Ready access to the latter kind of evidence accounted for Smith's belief that it was more difficult to impose false causal accounts on others when dealing with moral phenomena than it was in natural philosophy, where the phenomena are more distant from ourselves (Smith, TMS, 313–14).

The concern with language and modes of communication also provided more substantive insights into the ways in which individuals and groups interact with one another in society. The auditors and readers of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres are replaced by spectators of our moral conduct in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. An ability to find the mode of communication that expresses our thoughts and feelings perspicuously for auditors is on a par with the way in which, in our moral dealings, we seek harmony between our own feelings and those of others, modifying our original impulses to bring them into line with those that spectators can share. Similarly, in the Wealth of Nations, the oratorical qualities of language provide a basis for one of the central human propensities in that work: the propensity to 'truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another' which underpins the division of labour in society (Smith, WN, 25). Language use distinguishes human beings from other animals; it is the medium through which we persuade others to co-operate in serving our wants by meeting their own.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Those who attended the lectures on rhetoric at Glasgow would also have heard Smith's lectures on ethics, and they might have judged the latter to be as much an exercise in oratorical as didactic discourse. The Theory of Moral Sentiments retains signs of delivery to a youthful audience, though the order of the published parts, it has been suggested by his modern editors, differed from the published version. The final part on the history of systems of moral philosophy was probably delivered first, setting the scene for his own theory by ending with the systems of Hutcheson and Hume. These are the two most important influences on Smith's work, part inspiration, part stimulus to fruitful disagreement. All three philosophers agree that morals are essentially a matter of 'immediate sense and feeling' (Smith, TMS, 321) rather than rational calculation. But neither Hume nor Smith accepted Hutcheson's concept of a single ‘moral sense’ capable of directly apprehending moral verities, nor did they believe that truly praiseworthy moral behaviour could be confined to disinterested benevolence. For Hume the ‘natural’ virtues displayed in our personal relationships had qualities akin to this, but he devoted more ingenuity to explaining the difficult ‘artificial’ virtues that underlie many of our dealings with our fellow creatures. From this point of view, Hutcheson had failed to confront the complexities of the main artificial virtue, justice, a virtue of paramount importance in a world where the scarcity of means in relation to human ends placed limits on the capacity for benevolence towards others. Outside the realm of family and friends, then, the claims of meum and tuum conflict, making rules of commutative justice essential. The virtues that underlie these rules are learned through a process that Hume attributes to an acquired sense of their public utility. Smith follows Hume in distinguishing between beneficence and justice, but consistently rejects Hume's explanations based on utility. These are consigned to the role of an 'afterthought' (ibid., 20), a philosopher's reflection on behaviour, rather than its cause.

Smith also took issue with Hutcheson's refusal to allow prudence in the conduct of one's private affairs to be a virtue, particularly when it is accompanied by a quality that enhances all virtues, that of self-command. The persistent invocation of this quality in The Theory of Moral Sentiments imparts that Stoic element to Smith's ethics that has rightly received so much attention in recent years. Even so, Smith assigns an inferior status to prudence, describing it in the final edition (1790) as commanding only a 'cold esteem' (Smith, TMS, 216). He does so because self-regard, though a necessary human attribute, is commonplace; it requires no additional social reinforcement for its performance. In recognizing prudence as a virtue, however, Smith had to distinguish his own position from the ‘licentious’ system of morals expounded by Bernard Mandeville, to whom he devotes a chapter that refutes him while acknowledging his cynical insight into human nature. One of the initial premises of The Theory of Moral Sentiments was that Hobbes and Mandeville were wrong in thinking that all moral behaviour could be explained as variations on self-love. Man's sociability, his basic need for the approval of others, and his capacity to form objective moral codes through social interaction, is a central theme in Smith's work.

The book begins with an explanation of how we arrive at notions of propriety and impropriety when judging others. We do so not simply by observing others' behaviour but by imaginatively entering into the situation prompting that behaviour. The sympathy arising from conscientious spectating is never perfect, but our ability to achieve concord if not unison supports that combination of Christian and Stoic ideas of virtue which best epitomizes Smith's position:

As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us.

Smith, TMS, 25

Judgements of the merit and demerit of actions go beyond mere propriety in requiring an additional process of sympathy: with the gratitude of the beneficiary as well as with the motives of the actor. Having arrived at notions of propriety and merit when observing others, we apply the lessons to our own conduct. Without this social mirror we are incapable of forming any idea of our own character, let alone of how it might be improved.

But if we relied solely on the mirror held up by actual spectators we would often merely be vain and rootless conformists. Smith allows that we may well be just this on many occasions. Such behaviour underlies the socially beneficial, though often personally misplaced, desire for social approval that fuels the ambition to rise in the world and leads us to defer to the rich, regardless of their true merit (Smith, TMS, 50–61). Nevertheless, it is an important feature of Smith's answer to cynics like Mandeville, and critics of amour propre like Rousseau, that we are also capable of distinguishing between mere praise and genuine praiseworthiness. To explain this Smith introduced his concept of an impartial spectator, or 'man within the breast' (ibid., 130), an idea he developed further in each successive edition, possibly as a response to the suspicions of more orthodox Scottish contemporaries that he had not placed enough distance between himself and the ‘prudential’, selfish, or Epicurean position of Hobbes and Mandeville. Psychologically, the impartial spectator explains the role played by conscience in enabling us to correct the inevitable defects in the social mirror by imagining how our actions would look from a better-informed standpoint. From a more sociological perspective, this striving for an objective position becomes part of an evolutionary process that helps to explain and underpin the stability of moral norms over time.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments has gained interest from being regarded from the Humean or naturalistic standpoint rather than as a providentialist account of overall harmony in human affairs. It becomes an attempt to give a scientific account of the ‘efficient’ causes of individual behaviour and its various social outcomes. What remains at issue, however, is how we should interpret the arguments Smith adduces when speaking of ‘final’ causes: are they a rhetorical supplement or an essential element in repairing defects in the ‘efficient’ mechanisms? Smith clearly does employ deistic arguments from design, showing how the various qualities he finds in human nature, good and bad, produce a harmonious outcome. The passage in which the 'invisible hand' generates a rough equality of happiness from the selfish expenditures of the rich falls into this category (Smith, TMS, 184). In other words, The Theory of Moral Sentiments deploys teleological arguments that encourage the nineteenth-century view adopted by Leslie Stephen in 1897 when he judged Smith to be a 'sincere theist' (DNB). In the language of modern philosophies of science, Smith is resorting to a form of functionalist explanation that cannot be adequately rendered into causal terms (Kleer). Hume, the opponent of arguments from design, may have been drawing attention to such features of the book when he reported that The Theory of Moral Sentiments had pleased those 'Retainers to Superstition', the bishops (Smith, Corr., 35). Perhaps Hume's irony can be more accurately expressed by saying that Smith had not aroused the bishops' suspicions, as he was to do in later editions when he removed a reference to divine retribution, possibly in deference to Hume's memory (Raphael, Adam Smith; Smith, TMS, 383–40).

It is possible to give a Stoic rather than Christian interpretation of Smith's reversion to a use of ‘natural’, not in the sense of ‘normal’ or within ordinary human capacities, but as referring to properties conferred by an all-wise Nature or beneficent God. One could also say that the regularities of our social existence are such as to lead us to believe in God; that they are consistent with belief in God; or, more weakly still, that the perceived order is such that we often take aesthetic pleasure from attributing it to God. The last of these resembles Smith's views on astronomy: on the evidence currently available to us, we cannot help but give credence to Newton's account of the physical universe. Whatever gaps this may reveal in Smith's explanations, it cannot be said that they tell us much about his own religious beliefs.

Lectures on Jurisprudence

After Smith had published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he shifted his attention as lecturer and would-be author to the third and fourth parts of the curriculum described by Millar. The firm promise made in the final paragraphs of The Theory of Moral Sentiments on this subject was retained in all later editions. It announced his intention to establish 'a theory of the general principles which ought to run through and be the foundation of the laws of all nations', where this involved a history and critique of existing systems of positive law on the basis of universally applicable principles of natural justice. The programme contained two elements, only the second of which was brought to fruition. It was to be:

an account of the general principles of law and government, and of all the different revolutions which they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society, not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns police, revenue, and arms and whatever else is the object of law.

Smith, TMS, 342

The notes for Lectures on Jurisprudence, therefore, explain something about the origins of the Wealth of Nations, but are equally interesting as a bridge between this latter text and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well as providing evidence about the likely shape of the unfinished enterprise.

The moral groundwork for the promised theory of justice was contained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There Smith had contrasted the strict, though negative, obligations of the rules of justice with the voluntary, though positive, calls on us made by codes of beneficence. He also believed that precise rules could be formulated on the basis of the resentment felt by the impartial spectator when confronted by injuries to legitimate rights. Precision plus consensual resentment was the basis for endowing magistrates, those acting on our behalf, with powers of retributive punishment for civil and criminal offences, thereby avoiding the civil strife that would come from personal revenge. Without rules of justice 'the immense fabric of human society … must in a moment crumble into atoms' (Smith, TMS, 86). Beneficence was merely the ornament to this edifice; it made social life enjoyable rather than merely possible. Smith is careful to confine justice, as Hume had done, to those perfect rights which must be protected from injury in all societies. He calls this commutative justice and it embodies a negative virtue because just behaviour consists only in 'abstaining from what is another's, and in doing voluntarily whatever we can with propriety be forced to do' (ibid., 269). Ideas of distributive justice, based on conceptions of relative merit or desert, were insufficiently precise to provide the degree of social consensus required for communal coercion. Lectures on Jurisprudence builds on this foundation a new kind of evolutionary history of law and government, owing something to Kames and John Dalrymple, with Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws acting as general inspiration for an approach that relates laws to social circumstance. Smith employs the established natural law categories of rights and duties owing to man as individual, member of family, and citizen to deal with private and public jurisprudence, with a special category being reserved for ‘police’—those duties of legislators to achieve what he summarizes as 'cheapness and plenty'. The historical and anthropological evidence complements his theory of rights based on resentment by examining the particular offences recognized by different societies over time.

The feature of the history that most interested twentieth-century commentators was its classification of societies according to four stages, each defined by a specific mode of subsistence: hunter-gathering, pastoral, agricultural (feudal), and commercial. Changes in forms of property, and the resulting inequalities, are linked to changes in forms of government, the most important function of which was to protect property. The four stages feature less prominently in the Wealth of Nations, but comparative-historical evidence is widely deployed throughout, especially when dealing with the transition from feudal to commercial society in book iii and justice in book v. Smith's historical narrative supplements the sociological relativism of Montesquieu by adding a concern with social change in which economic conditions play a necessary role. It lacks, however, the deterministic and predictive features of later types of materialist history, and retains its original critical purpose in making an understanding of law its chief focus. Civil liberty, defined as security under the rule of law, is treated as the historical outcome of a politico-economic process which makes allowance for the accidents of geography and history. Vigilance in preventing this modern, yet still imperfect achievement from being warped by 'particular orders of men who tyrannize the government' (Smith, TMS, 341) is, in turn, a precondition for further economic improvement.

When Smith was honoured by election to the rectorship of Glasgow in 1787, he judged his years there to be 'by far the happiest and most honourable' period of his life (Smith, Corr., 309). Though not as eloquent a lecturer as Hutcheson, Smith's clear and unaffected manner acquired a growing circle of admirers. Since part of his income was derived from student fees (a system he recommended as an antidote to the indolence he found at Oxford), it is fortunate that he attracted students from Ireland and England, some of them from aristocratic families. In such cases they became part of his household, which consisted of his mother and a cousin, Jane Douglas, who acted as housekeeper. Smith was also entrusted by his colleagues with responsible administrative duties, first as quaestor for the library, later as dean of the faculty, and finally as vice-rector. He left a record of institutional loyalty and prudent concern for the university's welfare, even when this meant opposing the election of Hume, his unbelieving friend, to a chair.

Smith had also taken a full part in the life of the town, a thriving port enjoying the access to colonial markets and the carrying trade that came with the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. The Union, Smith believed, had done 'infinite Good' to Scotland (Smith, Corr., 68). In addition to commercial benefits it had delivered the middle and lower ranks of Scottish society 'from the power of an aristocracy which had always before oppressed them' (Smith, WN, 944), a theme that dominates book iii of the Wealth of Nations. Smith was a member of various clubs that attracted leading figures from the mercantile community; and the talks he gave on economic subjects to the Literary and Political Economy clubs show that he had begun to develop the sections of his lectures on justice that deal with 'police, revenue and arms' into something more ambitious.

Travelling tutor and independent scholar

In 1764, at the age of forty, Smith resigned his chair. He wanted to accept an invitation from Charles Townshend to act as travelling tutor to Townshend's stepson, the third duke of Buccleuch, while on a continental tour. Although Smith criticized this fashionable mode of aristocratic education in the Wealth of Nations, the rewards and opportunities attached to the post were considerable: a pension for life of £300 p.a. and his first chance to meet some of the French literary figures whose works he had read and lectured on with warm appreciation. The family ties with the ArgyllsBuccleuch was the grandson of the second duke, to whom Smith's cousin and early trustee had acted as secretary—may also have played a part. The tour enabled Smith to collect evidence on the fiscal problems of the world's most powerful absolute monarchy, much of which later appeared in the Wealth of Nations, the work he now began to assemble during the intervals left between his duties as tutor and chaperon to an obedient charge.

The tour lasted just under three years, eighteen months of which were spent in the quiet provincial capital of Toulouse, with side-trips to Geneva and the south of France. It was probably in Geneva that Smith met Voltaire, whose philosophical and dramatic writings he had long held in great esteem ('the most universal genius perhaps which France has ever produced'; Smith, EPS, 254). The last ten months were spent in Paris, where Smith met a wide range of philosophes: D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Helvetius, and Morrellet. Although Smith spoke French badly and was not, otherwise, a prepossessing figure, he was welcomed at the salons of mesdames D'Enville, De Boufflers, Du Deffand, and De L'Espinasse, those circles in which Hume had recently been fêted while serving at the British embassy. The trip coincided with the first signs of interest in translating the Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work that proved popular in France, particularly among the women who frequented the salons.

Smith also made his first personal encounter with the économistes, then entering into their most influential phase under the leadership of François Quesnay: Dupont de Nemours, Mirabeau, Mercier de la Rivière, and Turgot, a sympathizer, if not a disciple, of Quesnay. Smith had probably read the articles which this group had contributed to the Encyclopédie and was to add their journals, Ephémérides du Citoyen and Journal de l'Agriculture, to his library. Disputes over the national origins of the new science began soon after publication of the Wealth of Nations. Many of these turned on what Smith may have borrowed as a result of his contacts with the économistes, and his acquaintance with Turgot's Réflexions de la formation et distribution des richesses (1766) in particular. The discovery of the notes on Smith's lectures on jurisprudence put an end to charges of plagiarism by revealing how far Smith's own ideas had progressed before his visit to France. Nor can Smith be accused of mean-spiritedness in his treatment of what he called the 'agricultural system'. Not only did he entertain the idea of dedicating the Wealth of Nations to Quesnay, but he gave a sympathetic exposition of the tableau économique, judging Quesnay's system to be 'the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published' (Smith, WN, 678).

There are some broad similarities in policy conclusions: the primacy of agriculture (though not, for Smith, a belief in its uniquely productive status), opposition to Colbertism (official encouragement of manufactures), and free domestic and international trade. Beneath this, however, there are significant divergences best summarized by Smith's endorsement of policies that encouraged 'cheapness and plenty' compared with the physiocratic stress on achieving high prices for agricultural goods. There are closer parallels between Turgot's Réflexions and some ideas that appear for the first time in the Wealth of Nations: chiefly the addition of a circular conception of economic life connected to a theory explaining the rates and shares going to wages, profits, and rents. Smith also borrowed the distinction between productive and unproductive labour, while putting this troublesome terminology to different use when discussing forms of capital accumulation.

Upon his return from France in 1766, Smith spent the next few months in London, partly correcting the proofs of the third edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, partly continuing to serve his employer, Townshend, who, as chancellor of the exchequer under Chatham, was faced with the problems of public debt and taxation left by the Seven Years' War. As the Wealth of Nations was to show, Smith could readily support Townshend's resolve to make the American colonies contribute a larger share of revenue to cover debts incurred in their defence, but there is no evidence that Smith advised the duties on tea that were to become the centre of colonial resentment at Boston in 1773.

Since leaving Glasgow, Smith had experienced the beau monde in Paris and been close to those wielding power in London. He was more a man of the world, less the dutiful pedagogue. This observation seems worth making in view of Smith's decision to use his pension and new-found freedom by returning once more to the relative seclusion of Kirkcaldy, where he was to spend the next six years, resisting the entreaties of Hume to visit him in Edinburgh, and enjoying solitary walks and sea-bathing throughout the year. Although this regimen left him 'extremely happy, comfortable and contented' (Smith, Corr., 125), the strenuous exercise may have been an antidote to recurrent illness arising from overwork on the Wealth of Nations. Many of the leading ideas for this had been in place for nearly two decades, but Smith was a slow writer, even finding the act of writing painful: hence his use of amanuenses. His main efforts now were to incorporate the historical and contemporary factual material he considered essential to illustrate his principles.

Smith's work was still not completed in 1773 when he set off for London, where he was to spend a further three years before publication. Smith picked up the threads of his earlier social life in London, enjoying the company of other expatriate Scots. He was also admitted to fellowship of the Royal Society and elected to The Club founded by Joshua Reynolds, of which Johnson, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, James Boswell, and Oliver Goldsmith were regular members. The main purpose of the visit, however, was to put the finishing touches to the Wealth of Nations. This entailed acquiring up-to-date information on American affairs, some of it derived from House of Commons debates, some from experts such as Benjamin Franklin. The causes and consequences of the dispute between Britain and its colonies were a vital part of Smith's treatment of what he was to call, with pejorative intent, the 'mercantile system'. Although the situation was moving rapidly towards the climax marked by the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, one might not gather that from Smith's calm description of events as the 'present disturbances' (Smith, WN, 585). Much to the relief of Scottish friends who knew how much effort Smith had invested in the work, the Wealth of Nations was published on 9 March 1776. Its two quarto volumes cost £1 16s. Hume, then entering the final months of his life, predicted that such a closely reasoned work would not be an immediate success: 'But it has Depth and Solidity and Acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious Facts, that it must at last take the public Attention' (Smith, Corr., 186).

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

Hume's prediction proved accurate, though he could not know for just how long Smith's work would hold public attention. Smith awaited the reception with every appearance of Stoic indifference. By the time serious reviews had been received and a second edition had proved necessary, he was merely relieved to find that he was 'much less abused that I had reason to expect' (Smith, Corr., 251). He did not reply directly to any of his critics, though he did make a few minor clarifications in later editions.

The Wealth of Nations had no rival in scope or depth when published and is still one of the few works in its field to have achieved classic status, meaning simply that it has sustained yet survived repeated reading, critical and adulatory, long after the circumstances which prompted it have become the object of historical enquiry. As philosopher Smith had taken up the challenge of providing an 'imaginary machine' that would render coherent the everyday appearances of an emerging world. In contrast to the existing systems, agricultural and mercantile, he advanced a 'system of natural liberty' capable of supporting a branch of the 'science of a legislator or statesman' (Smith, WN, 428) which had grown in significance in all modern societies where commerce was beginning to dominate their domestic and international economic relations. The object of the science was to amend the related practical art by providing legislators with a set of principles to guide their actions and inactions, partly by advocating improvements in existing policies and institutions, partly by altering the general climate of opinion within which these matters were discussed.

Though often criticized for its rambling structure, historical digressions, and over-abundance of 'curious facts', the work has a single unifying theme which takes on further ramifications as it is unfolded. As the full title makes clear, it is an enquiry into the nature of wealth, how its benefits should be measured or judged. This is combined with a causal account of the growth of opulence designed to show why the process had been retarded during the feudal period of European history, why some nations were stationary or in decline, and why those that have made a start have frequently failed to reap the full advantages. The theme is launched by posing a simple though artificially heightened enigma that survives from the earliest drafts. While there is no difficulty in explaining how the rich and powerful come to enjoy the fruits of others' labour, how is it that in civilized societies even the poorest members enjoy more of the necessaries and conveniences of life than an African king? Smith had two superficial pieces of conventional wisdom in his sights: the belief that the luxuries of the few were conditional upon the poverty of the mass; and the impossibility of combining high wages with better and cheaper goods for consumers.

It is a mark of Smith's success in changing the climate of opinion that his answers to this enigma are now easier to grasp than the propositions they were meant to replace. The criterion he supplies for judging opulence is a thoroughly normative one:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

Smith, WN, 96

Improvements in the absolute, if not relative, standards of consumption available to wage-earners are made possible by the improvements in labour productivity that arise from the division of labour, with capital accumulation supplying the means by which these improvements can be embodied in machinery and new methods of working. The specialization of tasks that is illustrated by means of the 'trifling' example of pin manufacture borrowed from the Encyclopédie (ibid., 14) is merely a microcosm of the process of growing occupational differentiation and mutual dependence occurring in society at large. The resulting improvements in 'the skill, dexterity, and judgement with which [labour] … is directed or applied' (ibid., 13) depend on the extent of the market. Markets may expand geographically via exploration and reductions in transport costs, but they do so with more regularity when domestic incomes rise and prices have fallen as a result of prior improvements in productivity. The answer to the enigma, then, could be described by a truism: the division of labour depends on the division of labour—and all that makes this self-sustaining spiral possible.

Smith believed the process had operated in England for the previous 200 years, and while he spoke of a stationary state in which a nation could reach its 'full complement of riches', the only nation in this position, China, had arrived there for reasons connected with inflexibilities in its 'laws and institutions' that were in principle reparable (Smith, WN, 111). The limits to growth were political rather than economic. Controversially, in the eyes of some later economic anthropologists at least, Smith assumes that the drive towards improvement in our condition is basic to humanity, regardless of period, race, religion, or country, though circumstances determine how far it can be given free rein: 'Our ancestors were idle for want of a sufficient encouragement to industry', not because they had different motives and values (ibid., 335). Given a tolerable degree of liberty and security of the kind enjoyed in the post-feudal parts of western Europe and North America, conditions existed for slow, spontaneous, but by no means inevitable economic combustion. China's fate was merely an extreme example of how human folly could bring an end to the natural progress of opulence. European history contained other examples that showed how vulnerable prosperity based on commerce was to 'the ordinary revolutions of war and government' (ibid., 427). Wickedness, too, could not be extirpated, though its effects could be minimized by the enforcement of the rule of law and by institutional devices, including the disciplines of the market that harnessed self-interest to public good. We no longer see Smith as an economic determinist or as a sunny optimist.

The novelty of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 can be seen in a cumulative series of shifts in the focus of public attention it achieved. The most basic of these was an increase in length of perspective. This allowed Smith to adopt more composure than was characteristic of the popular literature of jeremiad and mercantile panacea. Such writings either predicted ruin and depopulation as a result of the spread of luxury, high wages, and every adverse shift of economic fortune, or immediate benefit from manufacturing, banking, and colonial projects. A growing population remained the mark of prosperity, but Smith argued that this could best be achieved by concentrating investment and attention less on export markets and distant carrying trades, and more on agriculture and the internal trade between town and country, despite the fact that agriculture was less susceptible to improvements in productivity through the division of labour. In place of the zero-sum monetary indicator of national success favoured by mercantile writers, a favourable balance of trade with other nations, Smith proposed an alternative barometer that was independent of foreign trade, yet better adapted to a world of multilateral gain and interdependence: the balance of production over consumption, considered not merely year by year, but over periods of time that could be measured in decades, even centuries. It was this balance—whether nations were maintaining, adding to, or running down their capital stock—that determined their growth prospects.

Progressive states were those in which the labouring poor enjoyed high wages, resulting in a healthier, 'more active, diligent, and expeditious' workforce, a view that ran counter to a popular dictum connecting greater effort with low wages (Smith, WN, 99). Smith knew that the quantity of labour embodied in commodities could not explain exchange values in a modern society where the rewards to land (rent) and capital (profits) legitimately take their place alongside wages as components of the 'natural price' of goods, without which, indeed, their supply would not continue. Nevertheless, labour effort provides a guide to 'real price' (ibid., 47); it is the best measure of welfare gains over time. Whereas wages and rents rise with progress, profits should fall, unless prevented from doing so by exclusive privileges or conspiratorial abridgements of competition. Falling profits were a sign of health rather than decay, and since the source of savings depended on that 'uniform, constant, and uninterrupted desire on the part of every man to improve his condition' (ibid., 343), the future sources of accumulation were not in jeopardy. The major threat here came from the prodigality of governments, especially now that they were equipped with techniques of public credit, greatly expanded during a century of intermittent war. Against an eighteenth-century background in which perhaps only England and North America, for very different reasons, appeared to have overcome the problems of feeding their populations on a regular basis, Smith's ability to conceive of the possibility of gradual improvement in the living standards of the mass of society is more remarkable.

Throughout the book Smith's 'system of natural liberty and justice' (Smith, WN, 157) plays a pervasive role as explanatory model and regulatory ideal, though the famous image of an 'invisible hand' appears late and only once in the whole work (ibid., 456). A quasi-Newtonian treatment is given to those forces which act like gravity when market price departs from natural price, and it always carries with it a normative implication that policies or practices that prevent these forces from acting are detrimental to the public interest. Monopolies, special privileges, informal combinations by merchants or employers to raise prices and keep down wages, import duties, export bounties, as well as institutions such as apprenticeships and restrictions on labour mobility under the Settlement Acts are all condemned from this perspective. They either entail raising the price above what would otherwise be paid, or subsidizing producers at the expense of taxpayers. By hindering or disturbing the balance that would have been achieved, they injure some natural rights and prevent consumers from enjoying the full benefits that a regime of free competitive rivalry could bestow.

At its most abstract, the system entails an idea that perhaps has Stoic origins, the idea of a beneficial harmony in human affairs arising as the unintended outcome of individuals pursuing, short-sightedly, their own interests. The persistent invocation of natural liberty, equality, and justice that accompany this idea take us back to their origins in natural law thinking. What gives these abstract notions substance, however, is the detailed, persistent, ironic, and even angry manner in which Smith applies them in his analysis of actual events and practices. Nowhere is this clearer than in the extended dissection of ‘the policy of Europe’ performed in book iv of the Wealth of Nations, which he acknowledged to be 'a very violent attack … upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain' (Smith, Corr., 251). He attributed this to the 'pretended doctors' of the mercantile system whose ideas had been taken up by merchants and manufacturers 'with all the passionate confidence of interested falsehood' (Smith, WN, 496). Smith's animus derives not from a prejudice against such men as individuals or even as a class. Landowners receive more sympathetic treatment, as a whole, but their insouciance also means that they lack the qualities of application that merchants bring to agriculture when they reinvest in it, as Smith advised they should. The danger posed by the mercantile interest was constitutional; it arose from their capacity to act as an 'overgrown standing army' capable of influencing 'that insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuations of affairs' (ibid., 471). Hence, too, the corrective purpose of any science directed to the legislator 'whose deliberations ought to be governed by general principles which are always the same' (ibid., 468).

Book v lays down the principles that ought to guide legislators in matters of taxation and when carrying out the essential duties of the sovereign or state. Not only does it reveal how far Smith is from counselling Stoic resignation in the face of benign, impersonal economic forces, the book shows why expenditure on public services is likely to grow in all civilized nations. Abdication from a role that no legislator was wise enough to occupy still left important tasks to be undertaken in the fields of national defence (acknowledged to be of higher importance than opulence), the administration of justice, those public works that were beyond private initiatives, and education. Smith's concern about public prodigality, however, led him to propose various devices for ensuring that performance was matched to reward. But his most interesting suggestions concern education for the people at large. Here the problem is posed as one of minimizing an unintended result of the division of labour which is far from beneficial, the mental and moral 'torpor' that accompanies narrow occupations, where a man's proficiency at his work is purchased at the cost of his 'intellectual, social, and martial virtues' (Smith, WN, 782). Besides elementary education, partly at the public expense, it requires other initiatives of a military, ecclesiastical, and artistic kind that reveal the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments beneath the surface. The virtues being undermined by the division of labour are those that make us human and sociable civic beings.

Customs official and adviser

The first public recognition of Smith's expertise came in 1778 when he was granted a place as commissioner of customs in Edinburgh. Although Smith spoke of the duties as 'easy and honourable' (Smith, Corr., 252) the record of his attendance at meetings (often over 180 days a year) shows that he did not treat the post as a sinecure. With a salary of £600 p.a. and his pension, Smith regarded his situation as now 'fully as affluent as I could wish it to be' (ibid., 253). He moved into Panmure House on the Canongate with his mother and cousin, along with the cousin's nephew, David Douglas, who became Smith's sole heir. Their style of life was comfortably modest, but it ran to giving weekly dinners, and Smith used his affluence to make several anonymous gifts.

For those who rightly regard Smith as an outspoken advocate of free trade, some irony may attach to his becoming a collector of customs. Apart from noting ruefully how many of his personal possessions were on the proscribed list when he took office, there is no sign that he had any qualms about enforcing laws against smuggling—a ‘crime’ for which he had given ample economic justification (Smith, WN, 898). The irony dissolves when other features of Smith's thinking are taken into account. Given the influence exerted on politicians by special interests that had both created and been created by the mercantile system, he did not expect free trade to be established in Britain. Partial reforms could still be attempted, but only 'by slow gradations, and with a good deal of reserve and circumspection' (ibid., 469). Another favourite maxim was that wise legislators should follow Solon's example: 'when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best the people can bear' (Smith, TMS, 233; Smith, WN, 543). It was the duty of philosophers to create systems, but as Smith was to emphasize in the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (233–4), it was dangerous for legislators to attempt wholesale implementation. Smith's post enabled him to make a practical contribution to the public finances by advancing proposals for improving the yield from duties. The only personal by-product of Smith's employment that may have ironic features is that it enabled him to improve the information on which his critique of existing policies was based. The last edition of the Wealth of Nations to receive his full attention (the third, in 1785) contained a longer treatment of the deficiencies of the chartered companies and an extra summary chapter.

The new post placed Smith's services at the disposal of various Scottish friends in office and other statesmen who prided themselves on being open to ‘enlightened’ ideas. Anecdotes about William Pitt the younger deferring to Smith on the grounds that he was Smith's pupil may have been embellished over the years, but there is some evidence that acceptance of free trade could be a conversion experience: Lord Shelburne confessed to having seen 'the difference between light and darkness' as a result of a coach journey to London with Smith (Smith, EPS, 347). Political economy was a practical science, and, as the case of Townshend noted earlier shows, the advisory role was not a new one for Smith. In 1778 he wrote a memorandum for Alexander Wedderburn, then Lord North's solicitor-general, on the 'state of the Contest with America' after the defeat at Saratoga, an event that provoked a characteristically phlegmatic response from Smith to the effect that there was 'a great deal of ruin in a nation' (Winch, Riches and Poverty, 50). The advice to Wedderburn conforms with opinions expressed in the Wealth of Nations, but shows Smith's grasp of realpolitik. The utopian plan in the Wealth of Nations for an imperial 'states-general' (Smith, WN, 933), with representation from the colonies being proportioned to their contribution to imperial revenues, was an exercise in demonstrating the only conditions that could make empire tolerable. Peaceful separation and the restoration of normal trade was the best outcome; it would put an end to what Smith described contemptuously as an imperial project 'fit only for a nation of shopkeepers', a 'golden dream' that no longer accorded with 'the real mediocrity of [Britain's] circumstances' (ibid., 613, 947).

Smith's services to Pitt's administration came initially through another Scottish connection, Henry Dundas. In 1779 Smith fortified the resolve of William Eden and the earl of Carlisle, secretary and president of the Board of Trade respectively, to remove the barriers on Anglo-Irish trade and open up colonial markets to Irish goods. This would be a step in the direction of what he had counselled in the Wealth of Nations, namely an Anglo-Irish union along Anglo-Scottish lines. It became the basis for one of his rare and least successful predictions. Just as union had reduced factional strife in Scotland, so he anticipated that it would produce 'one people' in Ireland by delivering the bulk of them from an oppressive division based on religion (Smith, WN, 944). Smith also advised on the problems created by loss of the North American colonies in 1783, tactfully overlooking those respects in which official policy differed from his own priorities. Eden's efforts on behalf of freer trade climaxed with the Anglo-French trade treaty of 1786, where again Smith was cited in support. As so often happens, however, Pitt's most fulsome parliamentary tribute came two years after Smith's death.

Smith's late official connections, then, were with tory ministries, though the earlier pattern of his friendships had been predominantly Scottish whig. In the 1780s he enjoyed close relations with Edmund Burke and was sympathetic towards the dilemmas faced by his Rockinghamite faction. Although he spoke dismissively of the politician as a type in the Wealth of Nations, there are remarks in letters that show what conduct he most admired in politicians. Nor was he was a political innocent when it came to recognizing the need for 'management and persuasion' (Smith, WN, 799)—polite terms for what oppositionists called ‘corruption’. It is doubtful if any wider significance can be attached to party labels and personal friendships. Retrospective attempts to link Burke with Smith for this purpose are based more on anecdotal evidence than acquaintance with their actual positions on political and economic issues can support.

More significant insight into Smith's politics in a wider sense can now be gleaned from the notes on the lectures on jurisprudence. These confirm how much of Hume's philosophical politics he shared when rejecting contractual accounts of the grounds for political allegiance. Far less emphasis is given to rights of resistance than one finds in Locke, Hutcheson, and late eighteenth-century radicals such as Richard Price and Thomas Paine. But Smith was more complacent about the durability of the English constitution and the threats posed by public debt than Hume became in old age. The mixture of elements in the constitution was a 'happy' one and the securities against royal influence were now firmly entrenched (Smith, LJ, 421–2). While Smith recognized the value of political representation, he remained silent on ways of broadening its base. He disappointed those 'men of republican principles' (Smith, WN, 706) among his Scottish friends by appearing to undermine their case for a Scottish militia by supporting the need for standing armies on grounds of their efficiency. Smith, therefore, can rightly be described as a North Briton who regarded Scotland not merely as his home but as the best place from which to observe the affairs of the capital with the minimum of involvement in party politics consistent with belonging to the world in which he lived. Though firmly convinced of the comparative superiority of Scottish clerical and educational institutions, Smith was critical of the oligarchic nature of its burgh politics and the shameful irresponsibility of Scottish landowners in failing to improve their estates. Scottish patriotism in everyday matters was, however, overlaid by the cosmopolitan ambitions of his writings.

Despite his official duties, Smith continued to work on the uncompleted parts of the ambitious plan he had conceived as a teacher. With age and growing signs of illness, these projects took second place to his desire to leave his two main works in the best condition he could manage. Having done this for the Wealth of Nations by 1785, he turned his attention to preparing a sixth edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. These late revisions have been sifted for clues of a last will and testament, as well as for hints of his possible reaction to the revolutionary events beginning in France. The Theory of Moral Sentiments acquired a new part (vi) which fortified the earlier treatments given to prudence (distinguishing public from private versions), conscience, and self-command. A chapter was added to emphasize the corruption in our moral sentiments that accompanies the otherwise useful habit of deference to the rich and powerful. Smith made good his claim for the new part to be advancing 'a practical system of Morality, under the title of the Character of Virtue' (Smith, Corr., 320). The theory of the nature of virtue based on propriety, however, has been judged (Raphael, Adam Smith, 1790) not to meet the expectations aroused by Smith's fuller treatment of the separate question answered by the theory of moral judgement in the earlier parts of the book.

Late in life Smith's periodic bouts of illness had settled into inflammation of the bladder and piles. On 17 July 1790, a few weeks after the revised version of The Theory of Moral Sentiments had appeared, he died in his Edinburgh home, Panmure House, of a 'chronic obstruction in his bowels' (Stewart, 327). His last reported words to friends were: 'I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place' (Ross, 406). He was buried on 22 July in the Canongate churchyard with a simple inscription on a tomb designed by Robert Adam, a fellow alumnus from Kirkcaldy.

The man

Some elusive, even reclusive, features of Smith's character have already been noted. Unlike Edward Gibbon and Hume, he left no autobiographical reflections and since he was a dilatory correspondent he left fewer epistolary hostages to fortune than most. Even accredited portraits are few and far between, though in appearance he was above average height, well-dressed, eyes heavy-lidded, teeth rather prominent, but with a smile that could be radiant—though this might reflect the one thing everybody noticed, ‘absence’, or what a French admirer described as 'distraite' (Rae, 212). Anecdotes relate that he was in the habit of speaking aloud to himself, and that he suffered various misadventures due to preoccupation: falling in tanning vats, copying the signature of the person who signed ahead of him instead of writing his own, saluting sentries, mistaking bread and butter for tea when brewing the latter, and finding himself in faraway places as a result of taking long walks while musing. In the absence of firm information about matters that interest posterity, his works have been plundered for insights into the man, with the illustrative portraits of different characters in The Theory of Moral Sentiments usually proving whatever the interpreter wishes to prove. Where next to no evidence exists, speculation is unbounded. The fact that Smith did not marry, that he lived with his mother for nearly thirty years and was devastated by her death, instead of being taken as a simple mark of filial love has aroused curiosity about his sexuality. There is evidence that he was attracted to the opposite sex, but all his failure to marry indicates is that he was more attached to the two women in his household than to any he encountered outside it.

The friendships and memberships of various clubs show that absent-mindedness was compatible with sociability, and that it did not prevent conscientious performance of the duties attached to the offices he held. If there is a paradox in Smith's character, it lies in the tension between an emphasis on philosophy as a means of restoring tranquillity (illustrated by his own immersion in private scholarly pursuits) and his assumption of a restless desire for self-improvement in humankind. Philosophers who cultivated knowledge with practical ends in view were accorded an important role by Smith as observers and inventors. Even so, he held that: 'The most sublime speculations of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty' (Smith, TMS, 237).

That Smith set great store by what he described as 'inflexible probity' (Smith, Corr., 428) is confirmed by various episodes: his insistence on returning fees to students for courses he could not complete; his offer to return his pension to Buccleuch on receiving official preferment; and his negotiations on behalf of friends and students. Probity of a less attractive kind might account for the accusations of plagiarism he made against contemporaries: Robertson and Ferguson fell under suspicion here, though Blair was given access to the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres when he was appointed to the chair of rhetoric in Edinburgh. Smith also made one effort, early in his career, to lay claim to priority for his system of natural liberty, but he could be generous to those to whom he felt indebted, as was the case with Hutcheson, Hume, and Quesnay. Kames and Mandeville can be added to this list, though the compliment was a backhanded one in the latter case. Other Scottish contemporaries are conspicuous by their absence; and Smith's decision to treat his main economic rival, James Steuart, to silent rebuttal was parsimonious and effective. Smith may have derived more information from mercantile authors than the anger he felt over their influence allowed him to express. What he may have learned from Turgot has been mentioned earlier. Apart from his personal library ('I am a beau in nothing but my books'; Ross, 311), a strong sense of intellectual autonomy could have been Smith's only vanity.

Curiously perhaps, the most serious charges against Smith's character have arisen from his friendship with Hume. The publication of an obituary in which Smith described Hume 'as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit' (Smith, Corr., 221) proved scandalous to some Christian consciences. Smith became the object of abuse, with lasting echoes into the following century. Others have been more perturbed by Smith's failure to accede to Hume's wishes that he should oversee posthumous publication of his Dialogues on Natural Religion. The episode has been cited as a case where misplaced solicitude for his friend's reputation was either overlaid by prudential regard for his own, or based on dislike of becoming involved in theological disputes. Intellectual disagreements over the merits of arguments from design seem unlikely to have played any part in Smith's motives on such an occasion.


Despite Smith's late attentions to his ethical system, his reputation has come to rest chiefly on his economic opus, a tribute to its readable qualities as well as to the continued prominence of economic questions in public life. Smith's forecast of the likelihood of implementing free trade proved unduly pessimistic: in Britain the process was completed with the abolition of the corn laws in 1846; and many of Smith's maxims on public finance had become embodied in Gladstone's budgets by the 1860s. Hence, too, the popular association of Smith's political economy with a form of laissez-faire liberalism of a negative variety that exalted individual thrift and self-help. During the centenary of the Wealth of Nations in 1876, this Victorianized version was sufficiently diffused for Walter Bagehot to announce that Smith's teachings 'have settled down into the common sense of the nation, and have become irreversible' (Winch, A very amusing book). The Wealth of Nations had given rise to a new science capable of separate development—almost unwittingly, given Smith's lack of fervour in seeking disciples and his attachment to other parts of his original enterprise. The succeeding generation of followers, led by Robert Malthus and David Ricardo, accepted the text as their starting point but not as their bible. They were too conscious of those ways in which it failed to address, or provided too loose an analysis of, problems that seemed central to the British economy during and after the Napoleonic wars; chief among these were those connected with monetary issues and the dilemmas posed by population growth and rising food costs. When John Stuart Mill attempted in 1848 to emulate Smith's achievement in his Principles of Political Economy, he judged the Wealth of Nations to be 'in many parts obsolete, and in all, imperfect'. None of this undermined the pieties of the centenary celebrations, dominated as they were by a proper sense of what was due to a pioneering and still popular exposition of the science. Indeed, for some who were opposed to the abstract deductive nature of the Ricardian version of Smith's science, the Wealth of Nations became the embodiment of an inductive or historical approach to economics that needed to be revived.

Despite the number of translations of the Wealth of Nations that had appeared by then, there was also some concern that the science had acquired fewer adherents abroad, apart from a vigorous brand of economic liberalism in France, largely based on the proselytizing efforts of one of Smith's followers, Jean-Baptiste Say. In Germany, however, where nation building was still a major preoccupation, there had been a revival of interest in Mercantilismus, with Smithianismus representing a foreign doctrine out of harmony with native étatiste and historicist traditions. Two other German intellectual developments also had a bearing on Smith's reputation: the emergence of Marx-inspired forms of socialism and a debate between German commentators centring on ‘das Adam Smith Problem’, the idea that there was a fundamental conflict between the ‘idealism’ of The Theory of Moral Sentiments based on sympathy and the ‘materialism’ of the Wealth of Nations based on self-interest.

Marx's interest in political economy centred on the labour theory of value as the clue to capitalist exploitation. Smith played a lesser part in this than Ricardo, but 'socialistic yeast' was also detected in the pages of the Wealth of Nations (Winch, Riches and Poverty, 416). Although Smith's book is innocent of any theory of exploitation that makes it intrinsic to commercial society, anyone looking for a theory of unequal bargaining power, especially between employers and wage-earners, could find a basis for it there. Smith's distinction between productive and unproductive activities could also be readily adapted to suggest that this described the two main classes in society. Twentieth-century interpretations of the relationship between Marx and Smith, however, have focused more on what Marx could have learned from Smith's allegedly materialist version of history and on the similarities between the early Marxian concept of alienation and Smith's remarks on the debilitating effects of the division of labour. If there is now less tendency to portray Smith as the ideological spokesman for a rising class of capitalists, seen within a context dominated by the industrial revolution, that is due to improved understanding of that revolution and of Smith's actual opinions. Smith was more interested in the unfinished agrarian revolution than in its emerging industrial successor. Not only was he antagonistic towards its mercantile advocates, but he failed to give technology the independent role that later interpreters of the industrial revolution felt was due.

The original ‘Adam Smith Problem’ has suffered a similar fate, though it has been revived in more sophisticated forms in recent decades. Ignorance of the dates during which Smith was pursuing the various parts of his plan of studies accounted for some of the problem. This was compounded by a misunderstanding that led sympathy to be equated with benevolence and treated as a motive that could be contrasted with self-interest. One result of the publication of the Glasgow edition of Smith's works has been a fuller understanding of the connections between the various parts of his enterprise, making schizophrenic interpretations rarer. Nevertheless, there are obvious ways in which the aims and audiences for his two main works differ. The Wealth of Nations engages with a smaller range of human motives, without positing that later invention: rational economic man. By contrast, the mechanisms analysed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments cover the entire range of human interaction; they include friendship, membership of the family, and those bonds that occupy the public sphere: legal, military, and political, as well as those more anonymous economic relationships where private prudence reigns. Beneath these differences of scope, however, there is a common preoccupation with forms of social collaboration and mutual interdependence. We should not expect the mechanisms and results to be the same in every sphere, but that does not mean there is no overlap, still less that they are in conflict.

During the twentieth century the custody of Smith's reputation was still firmly in the hands of economists, though other academic tribes were beginning to show an interest. Alfred Marshall, the author of the English economic bible at the beginning of the century, had overcome earlier squabbles about Smith's methodological legacy and conferred on him the highest praise a late Victorian could bestow: Smith was the Darwin of modern economics (Winch, A very amusing book). Yet since economics was now firmly committed to proving precisely how the invisible hand achieved general market equilibrium under fairly restrictive assumptions, Smith's rudimentary treatment of this problem left much to be desired. Between the wars, when unemployment and business cycles were prominent concerns, Smith's account of long-term growth, in which savings were always invested, lacked interest for other reasons. After the Second World War, with the return of interest in growth and economic advancement in the developing world, Smith's stock rose again. Economists continue to find the Wealth of Nations useful on celebratory occasions, sometimes as a source of inspiration, sometimes for target practice, but they no longer have exclusive rights or even, perhaps, the kinds of interest that enable them to make best use of a work that does not conform with modern tastes. Economic historians have a better claim in this respect. For them the Wealth of Nations serves both as a historical source and as a model for dealing with what is still the most important period of transition through which Western societies have passed. It goes without saying that no one interested in any aspect of eighteenth-century intellectual life can avoid encounter with either of Smith's main works. In March 2007 Smith replaced Edward Elgar as the figure commemorated on the Bank of England's £20 note.

The revival of interest in Smith's ethics in recent years is largely due to its merits when seen as a contribution to a quasi-social scientific enquiry into some interesting problems connected with the interpersonal formation of moral codes and with their internalization as moral norms. Sociologists and social psychologists have understandably led this revival. Largely as a result of the writings of Friedrich Hayek, others have been attracted to Smith's method of explaining socio-historical outcomes as the unanticipated result of behaviour by individual agents. There is an important insight here into the connections between knowledge, agency, and evolution that survives its cruder uses as an argument against all forms of intervention. The fate of The Theory of Moral Sentiments continues to be linked with the Wealth of Nations for reasons connected with the remarkable revival of interest in Smith during the last decades of the twentieth century by those who regard him as the patron saint of free market capitalism. This evidence of re-canonization represented a return to 1876 rather than to 1776. The fall of the Soviet empire in 1989 marked another milestone by appearing to confirm the enduring qualities of Smith's vision over the temporary one associated with Marx. Faced with this ideological revival and with persisting doubts about the moral legitimacy of the kind of society being celebrated, The Theory of Moral Sentiments has been examined for an alternative source of values. The risk here is of creating another version of ‘das Adam Smith Problem’: of seeking a reconciliation of ethical dilemmas posed in one realm by recourse to a supposedly higher court of appeal. Smith had a hard-headed, even cynical awareness of the political and moral dilemmas of his own day, and he made many fruitful suggestions designed to minimize if not remove their consequences. When considering later versions of these dilemmas Smith continues to provide a benchmark, but if his work lives on it is as an example of humane speculation at the highest level combined with detailed observation and insight into the human condition.


  • The Glasgow edition of the works and correspondence of Adam Smith, 6 vols. (1976–87) [TMS: The theory of moral sentiments, vol. 1; WN: An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, vol. 2; EPS: Essays on philosophical subjects, vol. 3; LRBL: Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres, vol. 4; LJ: Lectures on jurisprudence, vol. 5; Corr.: The correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 6, 2nd edn]
  • D. Stewart, ‘Account of the life and writings of Adam Smith’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1794)
  • J. Rae, Life of Adam Smith, 1965 edn (1895)
  • I. S. Ross, The life of Adam Smith (1995)
  • R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, Adam Smith (1982)
  • D. D. Raphael, Adam Smith (1985)
  • A. S. Skinner, A system of social science: papers relating to Adam Smith, 2nd edn (1996)
  • T. D. Campbell, Adam Smith's science of morals (1971)
  • D. Forbes, ‘Sceptical whiggism, commerce, and liberty’, Essays on Adam Smith, ed. A. S. Skinner and T. Wilson (1976), 179–201
  • K. Haakonssen, The science of a legislator: the natural jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith (1981)
  • D. Winch, Riches and poverty: an intellectual history of political economy, 1750–1834 (1996)
  • P. Stein, ‘Adam Smith's theory of law and society’, Classical influences on Western thought, 1650–1870, ed. R. R. Bolgar (1979)
  • R. L. Meek, Social science and the ignoble savage (1976)
  • D. D. Raphael, ‘Adam Smith, 1790: the man recalled; the philosopher revived’, Adam Smith reviewed, ed. P. Jones and A. S. Skinner (1992), 93–118
  • D. Winch, ‘A very amusing book about old times’, Contributions to the history of economic thought, ed. A. Murphy and R. Prendergast (2000)
  • R. A. Kleer, ‘Final causes in Adam Smith's Theory of moral sentiments’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 (1995), 275–300



  • J. Kay, etching, 1787, NPG
  • J. Tassie, glass paste medallion, 1787, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Tassie, plaster medallion, 1787, NPG
  • J. Kay, etching, 1790, NPG
  • P. Park, bust, 1845, Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
  • T. Collopy, oils, National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh
  • medals, Scot. NPG
  • oils, Scot. NPG

Wealth at Death

David Douglas was sole heir to property, incl. valuable book collection; excl. £400 left to another relative

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Register of Archives, private collection
Trinity College, Cambridge
National Portrait Gallery, London
University of Glasgow
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh