Young Adam Smith

An interview with historian Nicholas Phillipson


In his new intellectual biography Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale University Press), the Scottish historian Nicholas Phillipson probes Enlightenment-era Scotland for clues to a self-effacing thinker. The Kirkcaldy-born Smith (1723–1790) pioneered classical liberal economics in his 1776 book Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he spent most of his adult life living with his mother, left little correspondence, had volumes of his work destroyed before dying, and socialized indifferently. Phillipson returns to Smith's roots and school days to draw a fuller portrait. Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh interviewed Phillipson in November.

Q: What should we know about Smith that The Wealth of Nations doesn't tell us? 

A: At the end of his life, when his health was failing, and after he had spent his last months working on a radically revised edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith told Samuel Romilly, a young, promising member of Parliament, that he had always considered his Moral Sentiments "a much superior work to" The Wealth of Nations. History has, of course judged otherwise; The Wealth of Nations has always been regarded as and remains one of the greatest legacies of the Enlightenment to humanity.

But Smith's self-judgment needs to be taken seriously. It is a reminder that Smith saw himself as a moral philosopher concerned with developing an account of principles of human nature derived from the study of "common life" and principles of exchange which regulate every aspect of our life and understanding in the family, in society, and in the state.

Q: How did the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith's studies with David Hume, and his unsatisfactory experience at Oxford form his philosophy?

A: He may have disliked Oxford, but it gave him six years of peace and quiet to pursue his own interests after a highly structured university education at Glasgow. His friendship with Hume was the decisive fact of his intellectual life. Hume showed him the principles on which an entirely secular science of man could be constructed. Smith's theory of human nature, society, and history was developed out of those principles.

Later down the line, Smith was to become indebted to Hume's thinking about commerce. Hume's Political Discourses of 1752 contain essays on commerce which Smith probably read in draft and discussed with his colleagues in the Glasgow Literary Society. At the heart of Hume's thinking was a brilliant and characteristically brief defense of the civilizing powers of commerce. This was a reply to Bernard Mandeville's deeply cynical Fable of the Bees, which had argued that economic growth and indeed the entire progress of civilization could be explained in terms of our love of praise and our insatiable taste for luxury.

This claim had been taken up, elaborated, and given enormous rhetorical and ethical force by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality of 1756, which Smith reviewed in an Edinburgh periodical. Rousseau had claimed that commerce and the civilizing process damaged the human personality to the point of making us "unintelligible" to ourselves. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments showed that while Rousseau was right to say that the civilizing process was often brutal and brutalizing, it also teaches some of us to become ethically self-reliant, responsible, and capable of virtue—unrecognizable to our former selves, no doubt, but more like the persons we would like ourselves to be.

Q: Smith stressed the role of taste and aesthetics in shaping understanding, yet many people complain free markets produce vulgar culture.

A: Smith never denied that commerce could vulgarize the taste of some individuals. Any form of civilization can promote its own form of vulgarity. His broader point was that commerce tended to civilize a population by encouraging respect for propriety in all its forms.