NR Digital

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).

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