Adam Smith’s early patron was Henry Home, a philosopher and lawyer who sponsored the Edinburgh lectures that launched Smith’s career in 1748 when he was just 25. His great sparring partner was his friend and fellow Scot, David Hume, who taught Smith many of his best punches. Most of Smith’s opponents were French or French- speaking, including the philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac and the Baron de Montesquieu.
Smith’s first book, “”The Theory of Moral Sentiments””, “”turned the tables”” on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that society enslaved man to vanity and ambition. Smith argued, instead, that society taught man to be good. This tuition started from man’s capacity for “”sympathy””: his ability to feel what another man feels. It continued with his capacity for sympathy squared: his ability to sense what other men feel about him, putting himself in the shoes of other men putting themselves in his shoes. The moral education was complete when a person chose the perfect shoes in which to put himself: those of an “”impartial Spectator””, who “”considers our conduct with the same indifference with which we regard that of other people””.
Smith’s greatest work, “”The Wealth of Nations””, was a “”very violent attack”” on Britain’s commercial policies, which misdirected the nation’s energies, weakened its colonies and plunged it into deep rivalries with its neighbours, all in the mistaken belief that a nation’s wealth lay in the gold and silver it hoarded. Smith’s intellectual challenge was again French. His book had to better the work of Francois Quesnay, author of “”La Physiocratie””, and the man to whom Smith would have dedicated “”The Wealth of Nations”” had he lived.
Quesnay was one of the first to think of the economy as a system of interacting parts, to be judged by the necessities and conveniences it produces, not the bullion it amasses. But he erred in thinking that the wealth of nations lay only in agriculture. In his scheme, merchants, artisans and manufacturers added nothing to labour and capital they diverted from the land. For Smith, who had lived in a Glasgow transformed by trade and industry, this was implausible. The wealth of nations lay not in land, but in labour, deployed to its best advantage and divided as finely as demand would allow.
Mr Phillipson’s book includes a pen-and-ink caricature of Smith trapped in a bubble of contemplation, holding a nosegay to ward off Edinburgh’s stench. The great man once walked 15 miles to Dunfermline wrapped only in his thoughts and his dressing gown, according to an early biographer. But he was nonetheless a worldly philosopher. His books are fat with illustrations and examples, drawn from his erudition and his conversations with statesmen and merchants. He knew that his propositions would not convince people unless his illustrations entertained them.
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