Updated: November 23, 2010 11:31 IST

Adam Smith: his life & times

K. Subramanian
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Adam Smith is one of the most celebrated authors in history and, as it emerges from a close study of his writings, the most misunderstood as well. For the defenders of capitalism, he is a messiah. In truth, he had no such pretensions.

There are many who venerate him even after the recent crisis and the near-collapse of global capitalism, and many others who despise him. There are scholarly blogs on Adam Smith's lost legacy. Noam Chomsky described him as “pre-capitalist, a figure of Enlightenment,” and went on to lambast how people read snippets of Adam Smith and the few phrases they teach in schools and don't get the full import of Smith's philosophy.

Indeed, Smith was a creature of his times. More importantly, he was also a contributor to the intellectual fervour of the times. Later historians described the developments in the 18th century as the ‘Age of Enlightenment'. Scotland stood out with its unique contribution. It was the time when societies were moving away from theocracy and feudalism, and nascent trade and enterprise were on the rise. As Wikipedia describes, “In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.” There were achievements in the fields of philosophy, political economy, engineering, and many other fields. The period was also marked by many thinkers and scientists.

Adam Smith should have been fortunate to find himself amid such a galaxy of thinkers and academics. He imbibed their ideas and the flavour of the times and attempted to make his own contribution to them. Thus, a biography of Smith would have to put him in context — of his times and the intellectual milieu he interacted with.

Unfortunately, Smith was a very private or secretive person. He had friends; but hardly communicated with them. He left behind very few letters. He did not marry and the only woman he was close to was his mother. Like Franz Kafka, he wanted all his private papers to be destroyed. While Kafka had in Max Broad a friend who disregarded his wish and got them published posthumously, Smith ensured the destruction of his papers.

Daunting task

Writing the biography of Adam Smith should have, obviously, been quite a daunting task. What Nicholas Phillipson has done is an achievement beyond measure. His bibliography runs to 12 pages covering historical and other biographical accounts. He has also drawn upon the notes of a couple of students to trace the development of Smith's views on many issues. Truly, it is a tour de force.

Phillipson develops Smith's biography from his early school years in Kirkaldy, to college days in Glasgow and to later years in Oxford. (Smith held a dim view of the academic role of Oxford!) He goes on to look at his academic stints in Edinburgh and Glasgow. While describing his intellectual exchanges with his guides and peers, the author traces the development of his major intellectual attempts such as The Theory of Moral Sentiments and, later, The Wealth of Nations. His relationship with David Hume, who had a great influence on him, is dealt with in a clinical fashion.

On the whole, Phillipson's account is more about the intellectual evolution and contributions of Smith than about his life per se. Given the handicaps described earlier, he could not have done better or differently. He has put Smith in context and in a time frame — warts and all. What the philosophers of the ‘Age of Enlightenment' sought was to develop a “Science of Man” that will encompass Newtonian Mechanics, Euclidian Geometry and later day developments in moral sciences bordering on philosophy. Smith's two books have to be taken together to get the message. It was unfortunate that The Wealth of Nations came to acquire notoriety as a fundamentalist's apologia for capitalism.


As Prof. Amartya Sen said in an article (‘Adam Smith's market never stood alone' — Financial Times, March 10, 2010), “Smith never used the term capitalism.” “It is often overlooked that Smith did not take the pure market mechanism to be a free-standing performer of excellence...” He talked about the important role of broader values of the choice of behaviour as well as the importance of institutions. Phillipson devotes several pages to script the evolution of the contents of The Wealth of Nations. Smith's prescriptions were pragmatic and they recognised the need for a gradual approach to freeing trade. “To expect, indeed, that the freedom of trade would ever be entirely restored in Great Britain, is as absurd as to expect that an Oceania or Utopia should ever be established in it.” These words should chasten the later-day reform zealots. It is to the credit of Phillipson that, in a lucidly written and persuasively argued book, he has restored the real contributions of Adam Smith. The book is a rare academic achievement.

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