Introduction | Life | Work | Books
(Etching by Cadell and Davies, 1811)
Adam Smith (1723 - 1790) was a Scottish philosopher and political economist of the Age of Enlightenment and a key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment.
He is widely cited as the father of modern economics, and sometimes as the father of modern Capitalism, and his magnum opus, "The Wealth of Nations", is considered the first modern work of classical economics. His metaphor of the invisible hand of the free market has been of untold influence in the development of laissez faire economics and modern Capitalism and Individualism, but Smith's work has been almost as influential in other areas of Political Philosophy, including Utilitarianism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Socialism and Marxism.
Smith was born in early June 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but we know that he was baptized on 16 June 1723 (or 5 June in the old style Julian calendar). His father, also named Adam Smith, was a lawyer and civil servant, who died six months before Smith's birth; his mother was Margaret Douglas. Few events from his early childhood are known, although he was reputedly abducted by gypsies at the age of four and eventually released without harm.
In the absence of his father, Smith was particularly close to his mother, and it was likely she who encouraged him to pursue his scholarly ambitions. He attended the well-regarded Burgh School of Kirkcaldy from 1729 to 1737, studying Latin, mathematics, history and writing. He entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied Moral Philosophy under Francis Hutcheson (1694 - 1746), himself one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it was there that he developed an early passion for liberty, reason and free speech.
In 1740, he was awarded the Snell Exhibition Scholarship to attend Balliol College, Oxford, although he considered the teaching at Glasgow to be far superior to that at Oxford, and he found his Oxford experience intellectually stifling (he was apparently punished at one point for being caught reading David Hume's "Treatise on Human Nature"). Although he did avail himself of Oxford's excellent library, his time in Oxford was not a happy one, and at one point he developed shaking fits (perhaps symptoms of a nervous breakdown) and left the University in 1746, before his scholarship ended. He had originally intended to study theology and enter the clergy, but his subsequent learning (especially from the skeptical writings of David Hume), persuaded him to take a different route.
Smith began delivering public lectures (including his first pronouncements on "natural liberty") in Edinburgh in 1748, under the patronage of Lord Kames (1696 - 1782). He also met the Scottish philosopher David Hume in 1750, and the two discovered much in common in their views, and were to share a close intellectual alliance and friendship. Smith had rejected Christianity while at Oxford, and it is generally believed that he returned to Scotland as a Deist, although religion was not an important part of his life, and he even had a grudging respect for Hume's Atheism.
In 1751, Smith earned a professorship at Glasgow University, teaching Logic courses at first. The next year, he took over the University's vacant Chair of Moral Philosophy, lecturing on Ethics, rhetoric, jurisprudence and political economy. He retained the position for the next thirteen years, among the busiest and happiest years of his life. He published his "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" in 1759 (based on his Glasgow lecture notes), and its popularity attracted students from home and abroad. The University of Glasgow conferred on Smith the title of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) in 1762, but he nevertheless took up a lucrative offer to tutor the young Henry Scott, Duke of Buccleuch, and so resigned from the University at the end of 1763.
His new tutoring job entailed touring Europe with his charge, including trips to Toulouse, France (where they stayed for a year and a half) and then Geneva, Switzerland (where he met with the philosopher Voltaire), and then Paris (where he came to know intellectual leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Jean D'Alembert, André Morellet, Claude Adrien Helvétius and Francois Quesnay). Quesnay and Turgot were Physiocrats (a school of thought opposed to the dominant mercantilist tradition, which believed that wealth came from production and not from the attainment of precious metals, and from agriculture rather than merchants and manufacturers) and, while Smith did not embrace all of the physiocrats ideas, he considered it the nearest approximation to the truth then available.
After Henry Scott's younger brother died in Paris in 1766, Smith's tour as a tutor ended, and he returned home to Kirkcaldy, where he devoted much of the next ten years to his magnum opus, "The Wealth of Nations", published in 1776. The book was an instant success, selling out the first edition in only six months, and in 1773 Smith was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and then a member of the Literary Club two years later. In 1778, he was appointed to a post as Commissioner of Customs in Scotland, and he went to live with his mother in Edinburgh. In 1783, he became one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and from 1787 to 1789 he occupied the honorary position of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow.
Smith never married, and was looked on by people who knew him as an eccentric but benevolent intellectual, comically absent-minded, with a habit of talking to himself. He was also an odd-looking character, with a large nose, bulging eyes, a protruding lower lip, a nervous twitch and a speech impediment.
After a painful illness, Smith died in Edinburgh on 17 July 1790, and was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. On his death bed, he expressed regret that he had not achieved more. From the many notes and unpublished materials he left behind, a "History of Astronomy" and the "Essays on Philosophical Subjects" were published posthumously in 1795.
Smith published a large body of works throughout his life, beginning with his first book, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", written in 1759, and ending with the "Essays on Philosophical Subjects" which was published posthumously in 1795. His single most important book, though, was undoubtedly "The Wealth of Nations" (full title "An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations"), published in 1776 and widely considered one of the most influential books on economics of all time.
"The Theory of Moral Sentiments" was Smith's first published work, but he himself considered it his most important, and he continued to revise the work throughout his life, making extensive revisions to the final (6th) edition shortly before his death in 1790. It provided the ethical, philosophical, psychological and methodological underpinnings to his later works, and it was actually in this work that Smith first referred to the "invisible hand" to describe the apparent benefits to society of people behaving in their own interests.
In the book, he critically examined the moral thinking of the time, with the aim of explaining how mankind can form moral judgments in spite of its natural inclination toward self-interest. He concluded that conscience arises from social relationships, and proposed a theory of "sympathy" in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and of the morality of their own behavior. While at first glance this Altruism seems to contradict the Egoism and Individualism found in his later works (the so-called "Adam Smith Problem"), it should be noted that he was also suggesting that individuals would actually find it in their own self-interest to develop this sympathy.
"An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations", published in 1776, is a clearly written account of political economy at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and is widely considered to be the first and most influential modern work of economics. In it, he expands on three main concepts that together form the foundation of free market economics and Capitalism: the division of labor, the pursuit of self interest and freedom of trade.
He argued in the "Wealth of Nations" that, while human motives are often selfishness and greed, the competition in the free market would tend to benefit society as a whole by keeping prices low, while still building in an incentive for a wide variety of goods and services ("the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society"). He further argued that a division of labor would affect a great increase in production and that, although the free market appears chaotic and unrestrained, it is actually guided to produce the right amount and variety of goods by a so-called "invisible hand" (the same analogy in a different form).
See the additional sources and recommended reading list below, or check the philosophy books page for a full list. Whenever possible, I linked to books with my amazon affiliate code, and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Purchasing from these links helps to keep the website running, and I am grateful for your support!