Adam Smith

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1836) 6:181-84.

The celebrated author of the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was born at Kirkaldy, in Scotland, on the 5th of June, 1723. His father was comptroller of the customs at that small port. When a child of about three years of age, this future enlightener of his race was carried off by a gang of gipsies from his uncle's house; their traces, however, were come upon, and the young philosopher, fortunately for the world, was rescued from the inglorious society into which he had thus early fallen. His education was begun at a school in his native town. Originally of a feeble constitution, and thus precluded from the more boisterous sport of boyhood, young Smith early found his chief amusement in books, for which he displayed an extraordinary passion; and, as his memory was unusually retentive, he soon acquired a large fund of miscellaneous knowledge. In 1737, he was sent to the university of Glasgow, where he remained three years; in 1740, having obtained an exhibition on Snell's foundation, he removed to Baliol college, Oxford. His intention at first seems to have been to take orders in the church of England; but he must have relinquished this idea soon after he removed to Oxford. While at the latter university, he appears to have chiefly devoted himself to the study of mental philosophy and the classics.

After a residence of about seven years at Oxford, he returned to Scotland, and, in the winter of 1748, read lectures in Edinburgh, on rhetoric and the belles lettres, under the patronage of Lord Kames. In 1751, he was elected professor of logic in the university of Glasgow; in the following year, upon the death of Mr. Craigie, the successor of Hutcheson, he was removed to the chair of moral philosophy, in the same university, which he held for a period of thirteen years. His lectures were greatly admired, and drew many students to Glasgow. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was first published in 1759, formed the chief part of the ethical division of his course of moral philosophy; his celebrated "inquiry" was also first sketched out for the concluding part of this course, in which the lecturer examined those political regulations which are founded upon principles of expediency only, as distinct from those which are established upon the immutable principles of justice.

In 1763, Mr Smith resigned bit professorship in consequence of having accepted an invitation to travel with the young duke of Buccleugh, on the continent. In company with this nobleman, and Sir James Macdonald, Mr Smith spent three years abroad, and made the personal acquaintance of Necker, D'Alembert, and other leading characters in Paris. On his return to Scotland, he betook himself to his mother's house, at Kirkaldy, where he spent ten years in almost close retirement, meditating, and arranging the materials of his immortal work, the Wealth of Nations, which he at last gave to the world, in the beginning of 1776, in two volumes, 4to. Of this work, an able writer in the Westminster Review thus speaks: "Adam Smith was probably the first who thought of embracing in one view all the topics which are within the province of the economist. Before his time, it is true, many of them had been separately and incidentally handled by others: to him, however, we are indebted, not only for the discovery and development of many important principles, but for the first tolerable attempt to show their mutual relation and dependence. When the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was given to the world, the foundation of the science of Political Economy was laid. But although Adam Smith's work shed a new light among mankind, much was left to be done by those who might follow in his track. Like all other discoverers, like Bacon, Locke, and Newton, he did not attain perfection, but he pointed out the road. Adam Smith has the merit of having been the first to show, that every man is the best guardian of his own interest, and that, in the pursuit of wealth, the public interest and that of every individual are the same; that security to property is the only protection required at the hands of the legislator; and that any attempt on his part to prescribe the channels in which labour and capital shall flow, or any precautions to prevent a man from ruining himself, cannot be otherwise than injurious. His work, however, is not without defects. In the first place, it is greatly deficient in method and arrangement. The reader is sometimes led from a most instructive investigation of general principles into a discussion of minute and uninteresting details, quite unworthy of admission into such a work. The opinions, too, are often crude, and hastily adopted; and the reasonings sometimes exhibit a degree of looseness which, although not at all surprising considering the period at which he lived, was hardly to be expected from so profound a writer. His work, accordingly, has afforded many a handle to those who, either from interest or from indolence, are watchful to seize every plausible opportunity of impugning the fundamental principles of the science."

After a residence of nearly two years in London, whither he had gone soon after the publication of the Inquiry, he returned to Scotland, on his appointment as one of the commissioners of excise. He was now, in addition to a pension of 300 a year which the duke of Buccleugh had settled upon him, in receipt of a handsome income, which enabled him to pass the remainder of his life in a learned ease, amid the best society of the Scottish metropolis. He died in 1790.

Dr. Adam Smith was unquestionably one of the master-spirits of his age. His Inquiry is classed by Sir James Mackintosh, with Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, the treatise of Grotius on the Law of War and Peace, and Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, as "the works which have most directly influenced the general opinions of Europe during the two last centuries." His Theory of Moral Sentiments has been eulogised in the following eloquent terms by Dr Thomas Brown, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind: "profound in thought, it exhibits, even when it is most profound, an example of the graces with which a sage imagination knows how to adorn the simple and majestic form of science, that is severe and cold, only to those who are themselves cold and severe, as in those very graces it exhibits, in like manner, an example of the reciprocal embellishment which imagination receives from the sober dignity of truth. In its minor details and illustrations, indeed, it may be considered as presenting a model of philosophic beauty, of which all must acknowledge the power, who are not disqualified by their very nature for the admiration and enjoyment of intellectual excellence; so dull of understanding as to shrink with a painful consciousness of incapacity at the very appearance of refined analysis, or so dull and cold of heart, as to feel no charm in the delightful varieties of an eloquence that, in the illustration and embellishment of the noblest truths, seems itself to live and harmonise with those noble sentiments which it adorns. It is chiefly in its minor analyses, however, that I conceive the excellence of this admirable work to consist. Its leading doctrine I am far from admitting. Indeed it seems to me as manifestly false, as the greater number of its secondary and minute delineations appear to me faithful, to the fine lights, and faint and flying shades, of that moral nature which they represent. According to Dr. Smith, we do not immediately approve of certain actions, or disapprove of certain other actions, when we have become acquainted with the intention of the agent, and the consequences, beneficial or injurious, of what he has done. All these we might know thoroughly, without a feeling of the slightest approbation or disapprobation. It is necessary, before any moral sentiment arise, that the mind should go through another process, that by which we seem for the time to enter into the feelings of the agent, and of those to whom his action has relation in its consequences, or intended consequences, beneficial or injurious. If, by a process of this kind, on considering all the circumstances in which the agent was placed, we feel a complete sympathy with the passions or calmer emotions that actuated him, and with the gratitude of him who was the object of the action, we approve of the action itself as right, and feel the merit of the agent, our sense of the propriety of the action depending on our sympathy with the agent, our sense of the merit of the agent on our sympathy with the object of the action. If our sympathies be of an opposite kind, we disapprove of the action itself as improper, that is to say, unsuitable to the circumstances, and ascribe not merit but demerit to the agent. In sympathizing with the gratitude of others, we should have regarded the agent as worthy of reward; in sympathizing with the resentment of others, we regard him as worthy of punishment. Such is the supposed process in estimating the actions of others. When we regard our own conduct we in some measure reverse this process; or rather, by a process still more refined, we imagine others sympathizing with us, and sympathize with their sympathy. We consider how our conduct would appear to an impartial spectator. We approve of it, if it be that of which we feel that he would approve; we disapprove of it if it be that which we feel by the experience of our own former emotions, when we have ourselves, in similar circumstances, estimated the actions of others, would excite his disapprobation. We are able to form a judgment as to our own conduct, therefore, because we have previously judged of the moral conduct of others, that is to say, have previously sympathized with the feelings of others; and but for the presence, or supposed presence, of some impartial spectator, as a mirror to represent to us ourselves, we should as little have known the beauty or deformity of our own moral character, as we should have known the beauty or ugliness of our external features without some mirror to reflect them to our eye."

The philosopher who has furnished us with so clear an exposition of Dr. Smith's theory of morals, has, at the same time, supplied us with a most satisfactory and luminous refutation of the theory in his 80th lecture, to which we can only refer the reader. The essential error of the sympathetic theory, he justly remarks, is "the assumption, in every case, of those very moral feelings which are supposed to flow from sympathy, — the assumption of them as necessarily existing before that very sympathy in which they are said to originate."

A volume of posthumous essays was published by Dr Smith's literary executors in 1795. It contains an exquisite fragment of the history of Ancient Astronomy. Had the author lived to complete this piece, it would have probably been accounted the most finished production of his pen.