Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Adam Smith

1723 CE – 1790 CE

  Profile of Adam Smith by James Tassie, 1787 (Wikimedia Commons) Profile of Adam Smith by James Tassie, 1787 (Wikimedia Commons) The great moral philosopher and political economist, Adam Smith, was born on June 5, 1723 in the port town of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, the only son of his parents. Smith was said to have had a somewhat weak constitution and sickly youth, which may have contributed to the especially close relationship that he shared with his mother, who lived until 1784.  A possibly, apocryphal, incident from Smith’s youth is worth noting, given his later accomplishments as a political economist and proponent of liberal commercial progress: at the age of three, Smith was abducted from his uncle’s estate by a passing group of itinerant travelers and workers, whom the Scots referred to as ‘tinkers.’  Although Smith’s uncle quickly recovered the youth, it is fascinating to consider that the world may nearly have been deprived of one its most genius reformers of commercial policy by those most marginalized from and thereby resistant to institutional politics and economics.

From 1732 to 1737, Smith began his formal studies at the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy under the new mastership of a renowned classicist who also designed a curriculum that focused intensely on the development of ethical and political virtue in his pupils.  Not only did this curriculum foster in the young Smith a fluid mastery of Latin and Greek, it is under this  tutelage that Smith received his first access to Stoicism (including Epictetus’ Enchiridion and Cicero’s De Officiis—both familiar texts to many CC students).  The doctrines of Stoicism remained extremely influential in Smith’s own philosophical thinking throughout his life.  Although he eschewed the austerity of certain aspects of Stoic metaphysics, including the acquiescence to one’s position in life and the extreme value placed on the contemplative life over the life of socially virtuous practice, Smith was enduringly influenced by the Stoic doctrine of “spectatorship.”  The notion that individuals learn how to appropriately act and emotively respond to the situations that life faces one with by examining the conduct of others (both of real persons and of the conduct of persons in great works of art), remained a core feature of Smith’s developed moral and political thought. 

Life in Kirkcaldy itself left its mark on Smith’s thinking about markets and commercial policy.  In the late 17th century, and in the early years of the 18th century, due to both the English Civil War and the 1707 Act of Union, Kirkcaldy suffered economic setbacks resulting from high customs and excise taxes. By the time of Smith’s birth, Kirkcaldy had shifted its focus from trade to manufacturing of linen, which led to its significant economic revival.  This transformation seems likely to have left a formative mark on Smith’s mature thinking concerning the doctrines of comparative advantage and of market-excluding interventions by the government.

In 1737, Smith moved for his studies to Glasgow, which, along with Edinburgh, was a city at the center of the vibrant Scottish Enlightenment.  Much like Smith’s native Kirkcaldy, Edinburgh had undergone, in the 18th century, a dramatic commercial transformation in the aftermath of the English Civil War and Act of Union.  At the time of Smith’s arrival in Glasgow, the city was developing a booming merchant oligarchy, especially in the tobacco trade, which attempted to take advantage of expanding Atlantic trade practices within the limits (and likely often around them) of the protectionist Navigation Acts of the period.  Smith’s biographer, Nicholas Phillipson, has recently suggested that Smith’s remarks in the Wealth of Nations concerning the “mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufactures,” may be read as referencing these Glaswegian tobacco lords (WN V.i.3).  And, again, this more than likely had a resounding impact on Smith’s developing ideas concerning the appropriate and inappropriate limits on practices of exchange.

Glasgow University in a 17th century engraving. (Wikimedia Commons)  Glascow was an important site in the "Scottish Enlightenment," to which Smith's thought belonged. Glasgow University in a 17th century engraving. (Wikimedia Commons) Glascow was an important site in the "Scottish Enlightenment," to which Smith's thought belonged. During the years of 1737-40, which Smith spent in study at the University of Glasgow, he had the incredibly fortunate experience to study, among other subjects (including theology, mathematics, and natural philosophy), moral philosophy, under the tutelage of the great Scottish Enlightenment figure, Francis Hutcheson.  Hutcheson, a progressive Whig protestant, was instrumental both in situating moral philosophy at the center of the Glasgow philosophical curriculum and in fostering in Smith the modern methodological and substantive projects of locating the principles of human nature and human sociability as the foundation of moral, political, and economic thought.  In addition to introducing his students to the modern moral works of Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, and Bernard Mandeville (among others) famously developed a sentimentalist moral theory.  According to Hutcheson our moral judgments of others arise from a natural, emotive, anti-rationalist Moral Sense: a natural faculty within all persons, which he purported would track the degree of benevolence in the motives of conduct.  Although Smith was deeply attracted to Hutcheson’s anti-Augustinian view of human nature and the naturalism of Hutcheson’s moral theory, in his own mature moral writings, Smith came to distance himself from his mentor’s moral sense theory, developing instead what he took to be a more empirically grounded theory of moral judgment based on the operations of the faculty of sympathy.  His later friend, David Hume, certainly played a significant role in Smith’s development of his more refined and empirically savvy moral psychology.

In 1740, Smith matriculated to Oxford University at Balliol College, Oxford.  The six years that Smith spent there were marked primarily by the study of literature, politics, modern languages, and the intersection of these different studies as they related to the development of the principles of human nature.  Most of this study was taken up privately without extensive tutelage from the Oxford dons, the intellectual character and curiosity of whom Smith wrote scathingly in the Wealth of Nations.  In a letter to his family guardian in Oxfordshire, Smith derisively remarked that, “it will be his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive study, our only business here being to go to prayers twice a day, and to lecture twice a week” (Correspondence of Adam Smith).  However stagnant he found the intellectual culture at Oxford, Smith did not let this climate deride his own intellectual development.  Scholars believe that it is during this period that Smith seriously engaged with the writings of Hume, which left extraordinarily lasting effects on Smith’s own theories of human nature, moral judgment, and politics.  Likewise, at Oxford, Smith became deeply steeped in the recent French literature on morals and human nature.  The work of these French thinkers, especially with respect for their attention to the moral dilemmas that face individuals in their everyday lives, redoubled Smith’s already developing interest in effects of sympathy, spectatorship, and the drive for shared values on the origins of moral judgment.

After completing his Oxford studies, Smith returned home to Kirkcaldy to live with his mother from 1746-8.  While in search of a patron to support what he hoped to be a budding academic career in Scotland, Smith prepared what were to become his lectures on belles lettres and rhetoric and his lectures on the principles of jurisprudence.  He found his patron in the person of Henry Home (later Lord Kames), an influential Scottish intellectual and cousin of David Hume, who invited Smith to lecture on rhetoric and jurisprudence in Edinburgh from the years of 1748-51.  With these Edinburgh lectures, Smith gained his first taste of intellectual popularity, due greatly to his novel philosophical approaches to the study of rhetoric and jurisprudence that focused, respectively, on the fundamental importance of the principles of human sociability in assessing the exchange of meanings and the fundamental importance of historical development in the establishment and reform of laws and legal institutions.  The popularity of these lectures directly paved the way for Smith’s subsequent appointments at the University of Glasgow.

In 1751, Smith returned to Glasgow, for the first time since his student days, to accept the appointment of Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. Although a rather prestigious position, it was neither one that ultimately suited Smith’s philosophical interests, nor one that Smith held for very long.  Late in 1751, the chair of Moral Philosophy was vacated by a faculty death, and Smith was elected as the new Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow the next spring.  He held the position for the next 11 years;  he later reflected that this period was “by far the most useful, and, therefore, as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life” (Correspondence of Adam Smith).  Smith’s greatest accomplishment of this period was the composition and publication of his penetrating and beautifully realized work of moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS).  Emerging from his Glasgow lectures on moral philosophy and appearing for the first time in 1759, this work of Smith’s, lesser known today, was arguably his life’s main project; he continueed to rework, revise, and republish its text for the rest of his life. 

According to Smith, a complete theory of morals must address two questions: First, what virtue consist in, or, put another way, of what is the proper object of moral judgment and assessment?  Second, which principles and faculties of the mind contribute to our ability to make moral judgments and assessments?  Though in TMS, Smith poses these questions separately, he ultimately offers a theory that endeavors to show how these two questions are inextricably bound up with one another.  According to Smith, virtue consists, essentially, in the suitableness or fittingness of one’s intentions, affections, and actions as responses to practical situations.  The term he uses to designate such fitting and thereby virtuous attitudes is that of ‘propriety.’  While this notion of propriety serves to answer the first question of moral theory, further pursuit of what constitutes a proper attitude leads one directly and ineluctably into the second question of moral theory.  For Smith, a proper attitude is one that receives the sympathetic approval of an Impartial Spectator (the central figure of TMS).  Much of TMS is devoted to explaining how moral judgments are constituted from the psychological resources of sentiments and the faculty of sympathy or fellow-feeling (what we might now think of as empathy), suitably corrected to prevent the biasing influence of partiality towards our own interests. 

An elegant and deeply insightful work of moral theory, TMS unfortunately has, until recently, been largely forgotten both by historians of moral philosophy and by readers of Smith.  In contrast, it was immediately well received upon the publication of its first edition, in 1759.  Shortly after appearing in print, Hume playfully and ironically ‘warned’ Smith (referring to Smith’s own concern in TMS to differentiate the apparent value of popular praise from the real value of moral praiseworthiness) of “the melancholy News, that your Book [TMS] has been very unfortunate: For the Public seem disposed to applaud it extremely” (Correspondence of Adam Smith).  The failure of the more contemporary public to adequately attend to the theories of TMS has contributed, not in small part, to many misconceptions about Smith’s philosophy of human nature, particularly to the misconception that Smith endorses Mandevillean versions of either or both psychological and rational egoism.

Following the publication of the first edition of TMS in 1759, Smith remained at Glasgow for four more years during which time the focus of his lectures shifted from moral theory to the theory of jurisprudence—the topic which had occupied him a decade earlier in Edinburgh.  In the penultimate sentence of TMS, Smith promises that he “shall in another discourse endeavour to give an account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society,” and presumably his final lectures at Glasgow were made in preparation of this new jurisprudential discourse (TMS VII.iv.37).  Unfortunately, Smith never published an official theory of jurisprudence, but there do remain lecture notes from this period indicating how Smith might have developed this account.  His attention, it seems, was taken up with considering the principles and history of political economy—a project that would occupy Smith from 1763 until 1776, culminating in the publication of his magisterial work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN).

   First page, first edition of Wealth of Nations, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons) First page, first edition of Wealth of Nations, 1776 (Wikimedia Commons) In 1763, Smith resigned his Professorship at Glasgow in order to travel to Continental Europe as the tutor of the young nobleman, the Duke of Buccleuch.  Smith spent 1746-66 traveling with the Duke, mostly in France, where, through the recommendation of Hume and the popularity of TMS, he was easily able to make the acquaintance of many eminent thinkers in the leading French salons, including Jean d’Almbert, Duc de la Rouchefoucauld, and Voltaire.  These philosophes significantly influenced Smith’s thinking on human nature and political economy.  Smith’s interactions with the French economist and Physiocrat, Francois Quesnay, and his circle, however, had the greatest influence on Smith.  Quesnay was a leader among a group of French economists working to develop what Smith would later refer to as the ‘Agricultural System’ of political economy.  Although Smith was critical of Quesnay’s agricultural system in WN, he maintained that, “This system, however, with all its imperfections, is, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published on the subject of political economy” (WN IV.ix).  Dugald Stewart, Smith’s friend and first biographer, reports that Smith had told him that had Quesnay lived to see the publication of WN, he would have dedicated the work to him. 

In the fall of 1766, Smith left the Continent for London with the Duke of Buccleuch, where he remained for several months before returning home to Kirkcaldy to live with his mother until 1773.  Although Stewart describes these as years as period of retirement, it would be mistaken to think of them as a time of idleness, irrespective of however contented Smith was to be home; for it is during these years that Smith began to draft the bulk of WN, which he completed in London in 1776.  This treatise on the principles and history of political economy, which later came to be received as Smith’s masterpiece is discussed further on the webpage focused on WN.

Although WN was well received by the public, Smith was somewhat distracted from its initial reception by the declining health and death, on the 25th of August, 1776, of his friend and philosophical compatriot, David Hume.  Hume appointed Smith as one of his literary executors, and a letter that Smith wrote chronicling the final two weeks of Hume’s life is to this day published as a supplementary conclusion to Hume’s autobiography, My Own Life.  Two years after Hume’s death and the release of WN, Smith accepted a post from his former pupil, the Duke of Buccleuch, as a Commissioner of his Majesty’s Customs in Edinburgh; a post which he held until his death.  A few days before his death, Smith gave orders to his friends and executors to destroy all of his unpublished manuscripts.  It is not known exactly what writings were lost as a result of “this irreparable injury to letters,” though it is suspected that these lost texts included writings on jurisprudence, rhetoric, and natural religion (Stewart V.8).  Smith died on July 17, 1790, leaving posterity with those penetrative and magnificent published works of his genius that he did see fit to sanction as worthy of public consumption and preservation.


Written by Jon Rick, Philosophy Department, Columbia University


Works Cited:

The Correspondence of Adam Smith

Adam Smith, The Lectures on Jurisprudence, The Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and The Wealth of Nations

John Rae, Life of Adam Smith

Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: an Enlightened Life

Dugald Stewart, Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith