What I’m Reading: The Authentic Adam Smith

The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas by James Buchan is an erudite but straightforward biography of Adam Smith. I was a bit worried at first that it would be partisan and revisionist, because the book cover claims Smith and his theories have become a puppet of Thatcherite and Reaganite conservatives, and implies the book’s mission is to rescue Smith’s reputation. In fact, the book’s contents are fairly neutral and strictly concerned with Smith and his era, not mentioning alleged present-day interpretations, except briefly in the introduction.

Nor is the book too lengthy because Adam Smith led, frankly, a pretty quiet life. His father died before he was born and he lived mostly with his mother from his birth in 1723 until 1784, only six years before his own death. His friends knew of a pretty woman he courted as a young man (her name is not known to us, though), but apparently it didn’t work out and he never married. He traveled little from the Scottish lowlands, and hardly at all before middle age, when he visited France for a year and then lived in London for a period. He was intensely introverted, withdrawn in company, and regular in his habits.

But what Adam Smith did do was observe, with society being his special interest, and he observed so well that two books of his highly distinctive observations and their resulting conclusions have become classics. Of course, his Wealth of Nations of 1776 is one of the most famous and influential books in history, and his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments was highly important in his own time, and still of interest today.

Buchan describes Adam Smith of having little interest in natural landscapes or nature, but possessed of a real love of visiting factories and commercial enterprises. He joined a club investigating trade at Glasgow University, where he taught, and may have been friends with steam engine inventor James Watt. He helped found the Select Society in Glasgow to promoted learning and industry. In his later life, he served as the Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh. At one point he even fell in a pit at a factory that he was touring with some guests, so fascinated was he by the manufacturing processes there. It is no wonder he went on to write The Wealth of Nations, with its famous description of the division of labor in a pin factory. Buchan provides a close reading of TWoN in its own, beautifully-done chapter.

But Smith also had a love of the theatre and the arts, and if he didn’t shine very brightly in company, the recompense was that he spent the time at dinners or social events noticing what was happening around him. So it was that he was able to pen his exploration of manners and fashion, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which Buchan also provides with its own, stand-alone chapter. Smith’s conclusion was that man’s morality originates in his sympathetic observations of others and the propriety of their actions, and from there man turns his gaze on himself, to see if his own actions are in comportment with these judgment of others. Smith also found that morality, manners, and fashion were all different facets of the same thing. It was a startling and bold conclusion for the time.

One thing that strikes me is how small the intellectual world of Britain was in the eighteenth century, something I also noticed in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. They all knew each other! Indeed, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson themselves turn up several times in Buchan’s book, as do other familiar figures from the Life of Johnson, including Smith’s good friend and mentor David Hume, the ridiculous philosopher Lord Monboddo, the London publisher William Strahan, and on and on. Indeed, The Authentic Adam Smith could be read as something as a companion piece to The Life of Johnson. (Sadly, Johnson and Smith never got along, as Smith criticized Johnson’s Dictionary when it was published, and the gregarious Johnson found Smith “a dull dog” at meetings of Johnson’s famous social club in London.)

For those interested in economic history, the Scottish Enlightenment, or simply the lives of great people, I can recommend The Authentic Adam Smith as providing a short, readable account of a towering figure in intellectual history.

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