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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 12. Life and Writings

Adam Smith was born at Kirkcaldy on 5 June, 1723. He was educated at the university of Glasgow, where he had Hutcheson as one of his teachers, and, in 1740, he proceeded to Oxford, where he resided continuously through term and vacation for more than six years. Like Hobbes in the previous century, and Gibbon and Bentham shortly after his own day, he has nothing that is good to say of the studies of the university. His own college of Balliol gave small promise of its future fame: it was, then, chiefly distinguished as a centre of Jacobitism, and its authorities confiscated his copy of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature; but its excellent library enabled him to devote himself to assiduous study, mainly in Greek and Latin literature. After some years spent at home, he returned to Glasgow as professor of logic (1751) and, afterwards (1752), of moral philosophy. In 1759, he published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which brought him immediate fame. Early in 1764, he resigned his professorship in order to accompany the young duke of Buccleuch on a visit to France which lasted over two years. This marks the beginning of the second and more famous period of his literary career. He found Toulouse (where they first settled) much less gay than Glasgow, and, therefore, started writing a book “in order to pass away the time.” This is probably the first reference to the great work of his riper years. But it does not mark the beginning of his interest in economics. By tradition and by his own preference, a comprehensive treatment of social philosophy was included in the work of the moral philosophy chair at Glasgow; and there is evidence to show that some of his most characteristic views had been written down even before he settled there. When, in 1765–6, Smith resided for many months in Paris with his pupil, he was received into the remarkable society of “economists” (commonly known as the “physiocrats”). Quesnay, the leader of the school, had published his Maximes générales de gouvernement économique and his Tableau économique in 1758; and Turgot, who was soon to make an effort to introduce their common principles into the national finance, was, at this time, writing his Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses, although it was not published till some years later. Smith held the work of the physiocrats, and of Quesnay of particular, in high esteem; only death robbed Quesnay of the honour of having The Wealth of Nations dedicated to him. The exact extent of Smith’s indebtedness to the school is matter of controversy. But, two things seem clear, though they have been sometimes overlooked. He shared their objection to mercantilism and their approval of commercial freedom on grounds at which he had arrived before their works were published; and he did not accept their special theory that agriculture is the sole source of wealth, or the practical consequence which they drew from the principle that the revenue of the state should be derived from “a single tax” on land. After his return from France, Smith settled down quietly with his mother and cousin at Kirkcaldy and devoted himself to the composition of The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. In 1778, he removed to Edinburgh as commissioner of customs; he died on 17 July, 1790.

Apart from some minor writings, Adam Smith was the author of two works of unequal importance. These two works belong to different periods of his life—the professorial, in which he is looked upon as leading the ordinary secluded life of a scholar, and the later period, in which he had gathered wider knowledge of men and affairs. And the two works differ in the general impression which they are apt to produce. According to the earlier, sympathy, or social feeling, is the foundation of morality; the ideal of the later work is that of a social system in which each person is left free to pursue his own interest in his own way, and the author throws gentle ridicule upon the “affectation” of “trading for the public benefit.” Undue stress has, however, been laid upon the difference; it is superficial rather than fundamental, and results from the diversity of subject and method in the two works rather than from an opposition between their underlying ideas. Indeed, it may be argued that the social factor in the individual, which is brought out in the ethical treatise, is a necessary condition of that view of a harmony between public and private interests which underlies the doctrine of “natural liberty” taught in The Wealth of Nations.