Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
(2010), a biography of the world-renowned father of modern economics, is part of the Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
. Awarded the Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize in 2013, Phillipson has been praised for shedding light on this often-misunderstood economist. Phillipson was an Honorary Research Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh. He was also a founder-editor of Modern Intellectual History
and the associate editor of the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Phillipson does not attempt to write a biography of Smith’s personal life. Instead, Adam Smith
centers on Smith’s intellectual life, and how his theories shaped the direction of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith was one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment along with his friend, David Hume. Their conversations about history and economics are still relevant today.
Phillipson begins with a brief overview of Smith’s early life. Smith was born to a middle-class family in the small port village of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, where he grew up surrounded by ambitious men and deep thinkers. Many of his father’s family worked for the customs office, and Smith learned about commerce and the trading of goods at a young age. He was also introduced to Hume’s patron, and it was only a matter of time before he had patrons of his own. Their support would be invaluable to Smith’s intellectual endeavors.
At Glasgow University, Smith met professor of moral philosophy Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson had a significant impact on Smith’s development, particularly his social and economic views. Phillipson explores Hutcheson’s body of work and how his findings encouraged Smith to undertake his own research on social cooperation and economy.
Importantly, Phillipson suggests that ancient ethics influenced Smith’s worldview. From an early stage, Smith read about ancient moral systems and studied how ethics could be adapted to suit evolving societies. Believing that classical ethics could be applied to the modern world, Smith attempted to do so through his own works. These endeavors pulled him into discussions with some of the liveliest thinkers of his time—namely, David Hume.
Smith met Hume at Oxford after spending a few years studying at Glasgow University. Hume instantly connected with Smith; they had deep intellectual and philosophical conversations. Smith was fascinated by how humans are inherently sociable; this sociability, under the right governance, facilitates commerce.
Hume, a notorious religious skeptic, challenged Smith’s views on human nature. However, Hume taught Smith about the correct role of government. Hume explained that a government allows people to improve their lives, which in turn, promote progress. This is the foundation for commerce. Phillipson highlights how Hume’s ideas shaped Smith’s own philosophy irreversibly.
Smith, after spending many years conversing with Hume, undertook his greatest intellectual study—the science of man, or a theory of human society and how it evolves. Smith was especially interested in language, and how communication facilitates human survival. He lectured on the subject. Phillipson explains that these lectures secured Smith the resources he needed for his future research.
Phillipson asserts that Smith, although an increasingly influential figure, still lacked the credibility for anyone to take his work seriously. His lectures secured him a professorship at Glasgow University, where he finally began his work on social theory. At Glasglow, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments
. This treatise, the first of Smith’s major works, is still widely discussed today.
At the time of Smith’s professorship, Edinburgh and Glasgow, closely linked major cities, were flourishing, attracting many great thinkers. It was the perfect environment for Smith to work in, philosophize, and network. Phillipson ponders how Smith’s legacy would be different had he worked and studied anywhere.
After completing The Theory of Moral Sentiments
, Smith left his professorship and visited France, where he met some of the most gifted philosophers of the time in Europe. These philosophers inspired Smith’s next great work, The Wealth of Nations
. Phillipson notes that, while The Theory of Moral Sentiments
earned Smith the credibility to move in the highest intellectual circles, only by moving in these circles did he perfect his work. Without his early professorship, Europe may well have been closed to him.
Smith spent his later life in Scotland, working both as the Commissioner of Customs and a respected intellectual. He completed his last major work, a rewrite of The Theory of Moral Sentiments
, shortly before he died in 1790. Phillipson highlights how both The Wealth of Nations
and the revised The Theory of Moral Sentiments
influenced the thinkers immediately following Hume and Smith, and how important these works remain.