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Northern Light

by Paul Rahe

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson (Yale, 345 pp., $32.50)

In modern American liberal-arts colleges, the Scottish Enlightenment tends to get short shrift. Except in specialized courses focused on the intellectual history of the 18th century at the few institutions where these are offered, David Hume, Adam Smith, and lesser lights — such as Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, John Millar, Lord Kames, and Dugald Stewart — generally pass unread, and all too often they go unmentioned as well. This is in part due to the fact that — like Montaigne and Montesquieu, intellectual giants who are similarly neglected — the Scots were inclined to write books too long to be easily digested by students taking a survey course. But it arises also as a side effect of the more or less arbitrary articulation of liberal-arts colleges into departments dedicated to discrete disciplines. Authors who are neither fish nor fowl, who straddle what we think of today as separate disciplines, receive little attention.

Of course, Adam Smith does get mentioned — and far more often than his close friend and mentor David Hume. Nearly everyone who is even half-educated has heard of his Wealth of Nations (1776). But the book is long and rarely read. If asked about it, very few of those who graduate from even the best of our liberal-arts institutions would be able to explain what Smith had in mind when he spoke of the “invisible hand,” and almost none of these would be aware that its author wrote another great book — The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

This is a great shame — for those who have not been exposed to Smith’s argument in the latter work have missed a great deal. Courses in modern political philosophy tend to hopscotch from Machiavelli to Hobbes and Locke, then on to Rousseau; and courses in ethics generally jump from Hobbes to Kant. In skipping blithely past the Scots, they leave students with a false impression — that, according to the moderns, political and moral obligations have their foundation in a crass calculation regarding one’s own security and material well-being, in a self-forgetting passion for the public good, or in a heroic and selfless will informed by the categorical imperative. But the Scots, who were no less inclined than Rousseau and Kant to recoil in disgust at what Hume termed “the selfish system of morals” of Hobbes and Locke, looked elsewhere for a foundation. Like Smith’s teacher Francis Hutcheson, they felt the force of the withering criticism leveled at these two Englishmen by Lord Shaftesbury; and, to this, they responded by attempting in divers ways to negotiate a return to something like the ethical theory of Aristotle — without, however, embracing his metaphysics.

In this enterprise, Smith was arguably more successful than was Hume. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, he articulated a neo-Aristotelian account of the moral life akin to the analysis underpinning the De Officiis of Cicero — the one classical author wholeheartedly admired by the Scots — and he grounded it in the human capacity for sympathy and the natural human desire to garner respect and be genuinely worthy of it. For Smith, as for Aristotle, morality is neither selfless nor what we would call selfish, but it is self-regarding. Men, as Smith understands them, are not isolated operators who calculate their interests. They make their way within civil society, and they are embedded in a social nexus in which they find that they have obligations (officia in Cicero’s Latin) to parents, siblings, spouses, friends, professional associates, fellow citizens, and the like. They are held to a certain standard by their parents, their teachers, and the others whom they encounter as they mature, and they spend a great deal of time thinking about what it means to be respectable — initially, perhaps, as a consequence of vanity, but in time for reasons less ignoble. If they crave admiration, they come to be even more desirous of deserving it.

Nicholas Phillipson taught the history of the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Edinburgh for almost 40 years, from 1965 to 2004. He has published extensively on the history of Scotland in the 18th century and on its institutions, above all its universities. He is the author of an important study on David Hume as a historian, and he writes with vigor and grace. His intellectual biography of Adam Smith, decades in the making, is his magnum opus. It has two very considerable virtues: It pays no less attention to the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments than to the author of The Wealth of Nations, and it situates Smith firmly in the Anglo-Scottish world in which he lived. In the process, however, it slights influences foreign to this context, including Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the Jansenist Pierre Nicole, and Montesquieu. Phillipson’s depiction of Montesquieu — whose Spirit of Laws was no less important a catalyst for the Scottish Enlightenment than were Hume’s works — suggests that he never took the trouble to study the Frenchman’s work with any care and that his knowledge of the secondary literature on the subject is 40 years out of date.

These defects notwithstanding, Phillipson’s biography is exceedingly valuable. From it, we learn an enormous amount about everything that was near to Smith and dear — for Phillipson knows 18th-century Scotland better than any scholar alive. From the biography, we learn what it was like to be born in 1723 as the posthumous son of a civil servant of gentry ancestry and to have as one’s mother the daughter of a Fife laird. In it we are introduced to Kirkcaldy, “a small, decent, unprepossessing port on the Firth of Forth,” where Smith was reared, went to school, closely observed the habitual conduct of merchants, and eventually penned The Wealth of Nations. In it, we also become familiar with the burgh school run by David Miller, where Smith mastered Greek and Latin; had occasion to see on stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a comedy derived from Aesop, and Joseph Addison’s Cato; and read Epictetus’s Enchiridion, Cicero’s De Officiis, and the Spectator essays of Addison and Steele.

Phillipson then takes us to the University of Glasgow, where Smith was enrolled straightaway as a third-year student at the ripe old age of 14. Glasgow he describes for us as a fiercely Presbyterian boom town — dominated by “the tobacco lords,” who, thanks to Scotland’s union with England, had come to play a prominent role in the transatlantic trade, and were mildly wary of the university as a hotbed of freethinking. It was there, as Phillipson explains, that Smith learned Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics and studied moral philosophy, ancient and modern, with Francis Hutcheson. It was there that he read Augustinians such as Malebranche, mastered The Art of Thinking, by Antoine Arnauld and Nicole, and was called upon to study Hobbes, Pufendorf, Shaftesbury, and Mandeville, and to assess Hutcheson’s attempt to ground ethics in what he called “the moral sense.” It was there as well that he first began to reflect on the commercial revolution then transforming Scotland and Europe.

Smith left Glasgow in 1740, when he was 17, to take up residence at Balliol College, Oxford, then firmly Jacobite in sentiment — which cannot have been a congenial setting for a young man of skeptical disposition, reared as a Presbyterian and sympathetic to Whiggery. We know very little regarding what he did in the six years he spent there, other than to teach himself French and read Pierre Bayle, Descartes, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, and the playwrights Racine and Marivaux. Phillipson takes seriously the posthumous report that, while at Balliol, Smith was caught reading Hume’s recently published Treatise of Human Nature and severely reprimanded, and he suggests that Smith turned to that unheralded work only after reading Hume’s much more popular Essays Moral, Political, and Literary.

In any case, by the time that Smith, who returned to Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion and the battle of Culloden, met the author of these controversial works in 1749–50, he was, we are told, “a committed Humean,” fully persuaded by his fellow Scot’s contention “that all claims that reason has the power to supply us with knowledge about the world, and the power to regulate our understanding and conduct, rest on essentially theological claims about the special powers of reason and are therefore ‘unphilosophical,’” and in sympathy with his conviction that “what passes as ‘knowledge’ has its roots in the imagination and the passions and in the use of intellectual powers we acquire through habit, custom, education and the experience of common life.”

It was, Phillipson asserts, on this foundation that Smith first elaborated a conjectural history of the origins of language and later began to construct a philosophical system suited to a commercial society governed by a mixed monarchy, specifying the processes by which human beings spontaneously construct for themselves over time moral sentiments, the market, the liberal arts, law, and government. The disparate elements within this historically oriented system Smith initially sketched out in public lectures and in the courses that he taught at Glasgow. Eventually, he hoped to present his scheme to the public in a series of treatises encompassing not only ethics and political economy but also a philosophical history of literature, philosophy, poetry, and rhetoric and a theory and history of law and government. The first two subjects were covered in Smith’s two great books. What he had written on the latter two subjects but not completed to his own satisfaction, at his insistence, his executors destroyed. But Phillipson is able to reconstruct much of what Smith hoped to say on the basis of lecture notes taken by his students, and for his efforts in this regard we should be grateful, for this biography allows us to grasp Smith’s remarkable system as a whole.

– Mr. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College and is the author most recently of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (both 2009).

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