1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Adam Smith

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:207.



DR. ADAM SMITH, after an interval of a few years, succeeded to Hutcheson as professor of moral philosophy in Glasgow, and not only inherited his love of metaphysics, but adopted some of his theories, which he blended with his own views of moral science. Smith was born in Kirkaldy in Fifeshire in 1723. His father held the situation of comptroller of customs, but died before the birth of his son. At Glasgow university, Smith distinguished himself by his acquirements, and obtained a nomination to Baliol college, Oxford, where he continued for seven years. His friends had designed him for the church, but he preferred trusting to literature and science. He gave a course of lectures in Edinburgh on rhetoric and belles lettres, which, in 1751, recommended him to the vacant chair of professor of logic in Glasgow, and this situation he next year exchanged for the more congenial one of moral philosophy professor. In 1759 he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, and in 1764 he was prevailed upon to accompany the young Duke of Buccleuch as travelling tutor on the continent. They were absent two years, and on his return, Smith retired to his native town, and pursued a severe system of study, which resulted in the publication, in 1776, of his great work on political economy, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Two years afterwards he was made one of the commissioners of customs, and his latter days were spent in ease and opulence. He died in 1790.

The philosophical doctrines of Smith are vastly inferior in value to the language and illustrations he employs in enforcing them. He has been styled the most eloquent of modern moralists; and his work is embellished with such a variety of examples, with such true pictures of the passions, and of life and manners, that it may be read with pleasure and advantage by those who, like Gray the poet, cannot see in the darkness of metaphysics. His leading doctrine, that sympathy must necessarily precede our moral approbation or disapprobation, has been generally abandoned. "To derive our moral sentiments," says Brown, "which are as universal as the actions of mankind that come under our review, from the occasional sympathies that warm or sadden us with joys, and griefs, and resentments which are not our own, seems to me very nearly the same sort of error as it would be to derive the waters of an overflowing stream from the sunshine or shade which may occasionally gleam over it." Mackintosh has also pointed out the error of representing the sympathies in their primitive state, without undergoing any transformation, as continuing exclusively to constitute the moral sentiments — an error which he happily compares to that of the geologist who should tell us that the layers of this planet had always been in the same state, shutting his eyes to transition states and secondary formations.