Adam Smith philosophy, life and legacy summary

The life Adam Smith : Summary.

The life of Adam Smith, an important figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, can be divided into two parts:

First, preparation for writing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" (to the age of 40).

Adam Smith was born in 1723 in Kirk, a small Scottish manufacturing town in Fife of some 1500 people, overlooking the Firth of the Forth towards Edinburgh. Its workers included colliers, fishermen, salters, sail makers and smugglers. It was called the "lang toon" - that is, the long town. The Smith home faced the High Street, with long, beautifully laid-out gardens running behind it the equivalent of several blocks down to the sea. His father had been born in Aberdeen and became, first, the Comptroller of Customs at Kirkcaldy and then a member of the Society of Writers to the Signet, a branch of the legal profession found only in Scotland. Although he was a solicitor, his time was mainly spent in the legal management of the Scottish landed gentry, and he served the Earl of Loudoun, Principal Secretary of State for Scotland. His father died several weeks before Adam was born. He therefore never experienced a father's love.

His mother was Margaret Douglas of Strathendry (near Leslie, a village today just outside Glenrothes and just a few miles from Kirkcaldy) and the daughter of a land owner. She was affectionate and indulgent. But her son did not allow himself to be spoiled and came to be known for his frugality. She survived her husband by 60 years and died therefore when Adam was that age.

When he was three, Adam was stolen by gypsies from the door of his grandfather's house at Strathendry, which today is separated from Kirkcaldy by Glenrothes. His grandfather was informed by a stranger and, knowing the surrounding land well, conjectured correctly the route by which Adam was taken, vigorously followed in pursuit and rescued his grandson. But though this was good news for his family, would it become bad news for the world? In short, would the world today be better off if Smith had been kept by the gypsies? There are those who claim that Smith was the father of "laissez faire" capitalism, which is based on greed and self-interest. They claim that there is no such thing as society, and that all should be free to acquire all the wealth they want, that the best government is the least government, allowing people to make money in any way they like. In short, this criticism is that Smith may have brought incredible wealth to the rich, but also increased poverty to the poor. They claim that this on a national basis has even led to the war in Iraq. Then there are those who claim that Smith was the father of Socialism and laid out an economic system from which Marx, followed by Lenin, created Communism, and that, economically, this held some countries back by claiming that there is only society. Does this mean that Smith sacrificed individual freedom for the benefit of the state, with its militant revolution that justifies civil strife and war?

From his home in Kirkcaldy with land stretching from the High Street to the sea young Adam could look south and see Edinburgh across the Forth, and look east and watch ships coming and going from the rest of the world. And he could see the port where his father had been the Customs Officer.

He went to the burgh school in Kirkcaldy where he and his headmaster, David Millar, held each other in high regard. There he was well prepared for studying moral philosophy under the radical enlightenment professor, Francis Hutchison. Hutchison did not believe that moral philosophy required the perspective of religious belief.

Adam then received the Snell Exhibition, which assisted young Scotsmen to attend Balliol College, Oxford, to become priests in the Scottish Episcopal Church. But he never pursued ordination, mostly due to the influence of David Hume's "Treatise on Human Understanding". Both believed that critical philosophy rather than religion should determine morality and, thereby, economics.

After seven years at Oxford, using its libraries but holding little educational respect for the lecturers and other students, he returned home to Kirkcaldy. Over the next five years he wrote the first edition of "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". He spent much time in Edinburgh giving two courses of open lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence at Edinburgh University, meeting David Hume and others at various societies.

Second, further preparation for writing "The Wealth of Nations" , first edition published in 1776 (from the age of 40-67).

Adam was head-hunted by his old university Glasgow to be professor of logic. When the professor of moral philosophy became ill, Adam was promoted to that department. The course included ethics (which he considered fundamental) but also the history of philosophy, political economics and jurisprudence or law. He continued to teach rhetoric and belles lettres to which he added literary criticism. Adam didn't read his lectures. He was an extemporaneous speaker who took into the lecture room a manuscript but seldom read from it. He repeatedly paused for comments from the students and gave illustrations to show relevance, to keep their interest, if not to keep them awake. (He read when he was giving a lecture personally to someone like Lord Buchan.) Thus his lectures were well planned but appeared to be extemporaneous talks, never overly discursive and bogged down, but never disorganised or rambling. Adam taught at Glasgow for 13 years, maintaining his friendship with Hume.

Then Charles Townshend MP, step-father of the 17-year-old Duke of Buccleuch, sponsored Adam to take the young duke on what we might call a gap year to France, where the two joined David Hume, who had become Secretary to the British Embassy there, for a few days. They journeyed on to southern France and Switzerland, where they met Voltaire. Adam was smitten by a sentimental novelist named Marie. What became of their relationship and that of his other lady friends, including a duchess and a comtesse, is exposed in the play. It continues with a scene to illustrate the friendship between Adam, Hume and Benjamin Franklin and their attitudes towards America's potential revolutionary war. How did they differ on what should Britain do with the colonies?

Adam Smith grave in Edinburgh


Adam Smith Grave

Then there is a moving scene of Adam's last dinner party with Hume in his Edinburgh home on 4th July, 1776, the day America declared its independence. What was their attitude towards the revolutionary war?

The play closes with Adam moving to Edinburgh with his mother and her cousin, to become a Customs Officer, the death of his mother and finally his own death, followed by a revealing tribute by Robert Burns. Why does the docudrama end with the unfurling of the United Nations flag?

Who is Adam Smith?

Carlyle wrote, Smith ( born June 16th, 1723 Kirkcaldy, died July 17th, 1790 Edinburgh) had a harsh, thick enunciation, almost a stammer. His conversational manner was as if he were lecturing at least when he settled into it. In company he stood apart from the others, moving his lips and talking to himself, and smiling, always smiling. And if he was awakened from his thoughts and imagined conversations to take part in the one being pursued, he would begin haranguing and wouldn't stop until he told all he knew on the subject with the utmost philosophical ingenuity. And if interrupted, he would give the point of view of his adversary. Contrast Dr. Johnson, who engaged in debate to win the argument. He talked for victory, not for truth, and never accepted being proven wrong. Boswell has recorded that Johnson said Adam Smith was as dull a dog as ever there was. But how could he be dull when what he said was not? Radicals often are dull in manner because they tend not to be aggressive or assertive.

In short, Adam was shy, retiring, awkward, unassuming largely with disregard to what others thought of him or some day would think of him or of his writings. He had an almost photographic memory, was absent minded and often talked to himself. When writing, he composed slowly, struggling, or walked up and down dictating to a secretary. Contrast Hume, whose last volumes of "The History of England" were printed from a draft with corrections written by him in the margins.

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