Source: John Ramsay McCulloch, Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853). Chapter: SKETCH OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF ADAM SMITH, LL.D.
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Adam Smith, author of the “Wealth of Nations,” was born at Kirkcaldy, on the 5th of June 1723. His father, who held the situation of comptroller of customs in that town, died a few months before his birth; so that the charge of his early education devolved wholly on his mother, the daughter of Mr Douglas of Strathenry, in the county of Fife.
His constitution during infancy is said to have been extremely infirm and delicate, and required all the anxious attention of his mother, who treated him with the greatest indulgence. This, however, had no unfavourable influence over his temper or dispositions; and he repaid the fond solicitude of his parent by every attention that filial gratitude and affection could dictate, during the long period of sixty years.
When only three years of age, he was stolen by a party of gypsies from Strathenry, to which place he had been carried by his mother. Fortunately, however, the future reformer of the commercial policy of nations was speedily restored to his parent and to society.
He received the first rudiments of his education in the grammar school of Kirkcaldy. The weakness of his constitution prevented him from indulging in the amusements common to boys of his age. But Dugald Stewart states,1 that he was even then distinguished by his passion for books, and by the extraordinary powers of his memory; that he was much beloved by his schoolfellows, many of whom subsequently attained to great eminence; and that he was thus early remarkable for those habits which remained with him through life, of speaking to himself when alone, and of absence in company.
He continued at Kirkcaldy until 1737, when he was sent to the University of Glasgow, where he remained for three years. He then entered Baliol College, Oxford, as an exhibitioner on Snell’s foundation; and continued for seven years to prosecute his studies at that celebrated seminary.
Stewart mentions, on the authority of Dr Maclaine of the Hague, that mathematics and natural philosophy formed young Smith’s favourite pursuits while at Glasgow. But, subsequently to his removal to Oxford, he seems to have entirely abandoned them, and to have principally devoted the time not consumed in the routine duty of the University to the study of the belles lettres, and of those moral and political sciences of which he was destined afterwards to become so great a master.2
Smith does not seem to have felt any very peculiar respect for his English alma mater. The just though severe remarks in the “Wealth of Nations” on the system of education followed in Oxford and Cambridge, had evidently been suggested by his own observation. He shows that it is reasonable to expect that the plan of appointing professors with handsome salaries, who are not permitted to receive fees from their pupils, should, in all ordinary cases, induce them either wholly to neglect the important duties of their office, or to discharge them in the most slovenly manner; and he refers to the example of Oxford, to prove the accuracy of this conclusion; “the greater part of the public professors of that seminary having, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.”
While at Oxford, Smith frequently employed himself in translating, particularly from the French, in the view of improving his style; and he used often to express a favourable opinion of such exercises. But this was a species of employment he might have prosecuted with nearly equal advantage at any other place. No doubt, however, he must have reaped considerable advantage from his residence at Oxford, by its contributing to improve and perfect his acquaintance with the niceties and delicacies of the English language, as well as by rendering him a greater proficient in classical learning, of which his knowledge was both extensive and accurate; but it is not, perhaps, very easy to discover what other obligations he could owe to it. What advantage could he derive in prosecuting his inquiries respecting the history of society, and into “those principles which ought to run through and be the foundation of the laws of all nations,” from living among those who were satisfied with what had been known on these subjects two thousand years ago? and who compelled the noble and aspiring youth of the country, committed to their charge, to draw the principal part of their information with respect to politics and philosophy from the politics and the logic of Aristotle?1
Something had occurred, while Smith was at Oxford, to excite the suspicions of his superiors with respect to the nature of his private pursuits; and the heads of his college, having entered his apartment without his being aware, unluckily found him engaged reading Hume’s “Treatise of Human Nature.” The objectionable work was, of course, seized; the young philosopher being at the same time severely reprimanded.1
He continued, subsequently to his return from Oxford in 1747, to reside for nearly two years at Kirkcaldy, with his mother. He had been sent to Oxford that he might qualify himself for entering the Church of England. The ecclesiastical profession was not, however, agreeable to his taste; and, in opposition to the advice of his friends, he returned to Scotland, resolved to devote himself exclusively to literary pursuits.
In the latter part of the year 1748, Smith fixed his residence in Edinburgh, where he was prevailed upon, by the encouragement and persuasion of Lord Kames, and some of his other friends, to deliver, during that and the two following years, a course of lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres. The lectures were well attended by an auditory composed chiefly of students of law and theology. He had the honour to reckon among his pupils Mr Wedderburn, afterwards Lord Loughborough; Mr William Johnston, afterwards Sir William Pulteney; Dr Blair, etc.; with all of whom he subsequently continued on the most intimate terms. It was at this period also that he laid the foundation of that friendship with Mr David Hume, which lasted, without the slightest interruption, till the death of the latter.
No part of these lectures was ever published; but it would appear from the statement of Dr Blair, who commenced his course of lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres in 1758, ten years after Smith’s first course, that they had been reduced into a systematic shape. In a note to his eighteenth lecture, Blair mentions that he had borrowed several of the ideas respecting the general characters of style, particularly the plain and simple, and the characters of those English authors who are classed under them, from a manuscript treatise of Smith on Rhetoric, of which the author had shown him a part.
His increasing celebrity procured for Smith, in 1751, the honour of being elected Professor of Logic in the University of Glasgow; and in the following year he was elevated to the chair of Moral Philosophy in the same University, vacant by the death of Mr Craigie, the immediate successor of the celebrated Dr Hutcheson, under whom Smith had formerly studied. He continued to hold this situation for thirteen years; and, as the studies and inquiries in which his academical duties daily engaged him, were those most agreeable to his taste, it is not surprising that he should have considered his residence at Glasgow as the happiest portion of his life. At the same time, it seems reasonable to conclude that his professional pursuits must have had a great effect in maturing his speculations in morals and politics, and, consequently, in determining him to undertake the great works which have immortalised his name.
Mr Millar, author of the “Historical View of the English Government,” and Professor of Law in the University of Glasgow, had the advantage of hearing Smith’s course of lectures on Moral Philosophy, of which he has given the following account:—
“His course of lectures was divided into four parts. The first contained Natural Theology; in which he considered the proofs of the being and attributes of God, and those principles of the human mind upon which religion is founded. The second comprehended Ethics, strictly so called, and consisted chiefly of the doctrines which he afterwards published in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the third part, he treated at more length of that branch of morality which relates to justice, and which, being susceptible of precise and accurate rules, is for that reason capable of a full and particular explanation.
“Upon this subject he followed the plan that seems to be suggested by Montesquieu; endeavouring to trace the gradual progress of jurisprudence, both public and private, from the rudest to the most refined ages, and to point out the effects of those arts which contribute to subsistence, and to the accumulation of property, in producing correspondent improvements or alterations in law and government. This important branch of his labours he also intended to give to the public; but his intention, which is mentioned in the conclusion of the ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments,’ he did not live to fulfil.
“In the last part of his lectures, he examined those political regulations which are founded, not upon the principle of justice, but that of expediency, and which are calculated to increase the riches, the power, and the prosperity of a state. Under this view, he considered the political institutions relating to commerce, to finances, to ecclesiastical and military establishments. What he delivered on these subjects contained the substance of the work he afterwards published under the title of ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.’
“There was no situation in which the abilities of Dr Smith appeared to greater advantage than as a professor. In delivering his lectures, he trusted almost entirely to extemporary elocution. His manner, though not graceful, was plain and unaffected; and, as he seemed to be always interested in the subject, he never failed to interest his hearers. Each discourse consisted commonly of several distinct propositions, which he successively endeavoured to prove and illustrate. These propositions, when announced in general terms, had, from their extent, not unfrequently something of the air of a paradox. In his attempts to explain them, he often appeared, at first, not to be sufficiently possessed of the subject, and spoke with some hesitation. As he advanced, however, the matter seemed to crowd upon him, his manner became warm and animated, and his expression easy and fluent. In points susceptible of controversy, you could easily discern, that he secretly conceived an opposition to his opinions, and that he was led upon this account to support them with greater energy and vehemence. By the fulness and variety of his illustrations, the subject gradually swelled in his hands, and acquired a dimension which, without a tedious repetition of the same views, was calculated to seize the attention of his audience, and to afford them pleasure, as well as instruction, in following the same object through all the diversity of shades and aspects in which it was presented, and afterwards in tracing it backwards to that original proposition or general truth from which this beautiful train of speculation had proceeded.
“His reputation as a professor was accordingly raised very high, and a multitude of students from a great distance resorted to the University, merely upon his account. Those branches of science which he taught became fashionable at this place, and his opinions were the chief topics of discussion in clubs and literary societies. Even the small peculiarities in his pronunciation or manner of speaking became frequently the objects of imitation.”
Smith made his debût as an author by contributing, anonymously, two articles to the “Edinburgh Review,” commenced in 1755, of which only two numbers were published. The first of these articles is a review of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, and the second a letter to the editor, containing some observations on the literature of the different European countries. The latter is worth notice as evincing the attention paid by the author to Continental literature, at a period when it was comparatively neglected in this country.
In 1759 Dr Smith published his “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” He had been engaged for a very considerable period in the composition of this work, which is throughout elaborated with the greatest care. The fundamental principle maintained by the author is, that sympathy forms the real foundation of morals; that we do not immediately approve or disapprove of any given action, when we have become acquainted with the intention of the agent and the consequences of what he has done, but that we previously enter, by means of that sympathetic affection which is natural to us, into the feelings of the agent and those to whom the action relates; that, having considered all the motives and passions by which the agent was actuated, we pronounce, with respect to the propriety or impropriety of the action, according as we sympathise or not with him; while we pronounce, with respect to the merit or demerit of the action, according as we sympathise with the gratitude or resentment of those who were its objects, and that we necessarily judge of our own conduct by comparing it with such maxims and rules as we have deduced from observations previously made on the conduct of others.
“Whatever judgment,” says Smith, “we form with respect to our own motives and actions must always bear some secret reference, either to what are, or to what, upon a certain condition, would be, or to what we imagine ought to be, the judgment of others. We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation and condemn it.”1
Several, and, as it is now generally admitted, some unanswerable, objections have been urged against this most ingenious theory. But whatever difference of opinion may exist with respect to the truth of the principle it involves, the “Theory of Moral Sentiments” has been universally allowed to abound in the most admirable disquisitions, in a faithful and skilful delineation of character, and in the soundest and most elevated maxims for the practical regulation of human life. The style various, but always eloquent, is worthy of the subject; and while it serves, by the beauty and richness of its colouring, to relieve the dryness of some of the more abstract discussions, it gives additional force to the powerful recommendations of generous, upright, and disinterested conduct to be found in every part of the work.
Dr Brown, who has criticised this theory with his usual acuteness, and has shown that though sympathy may diffuse moral sentiments it cannot originate them, bears, notwithstanding, the strongest testimony to the transcendant merits of Smith’s work. “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” he observes, “is, without all question, one of the most interesting works, perhaps I should have said the most interesting work, in moral science. It is valuable, however, as I before remarked, not for the leading doctrine, of which we have seen the fallacy, but for the minor theories which are adduced in illustration of it; for the refined analysis which it exhibits in many of its details; and for an eloquence which, adapting itself to all the temporary varieties of its subject, familiar, with a sort of majestic grace, and simple even in its magnificence, can play amid the little decencies and proprieties of common life, or rise to all the dignity of that sublime and celestial virtue, which it seems to bring from heaven indeed, but to bring down gently and humbly, to the humble bosom of man.”1
Having published the substance of so important a part of his lectures, Smith was enabled to make considerable retrenchments from the ethical part of his course, and to give a proportional extension to the disquisitions on Jurisprudence and Political Economy. He had long been in the habit of embodying the results of his studies and investigations with respect to both these departments of political science, and particularly the latter, in his lectures. And it appears, from a statement which he drew up in 1755, to vindicate his claims to certain political and literary opinions, that he had been in the habit of teaching, from the time he obtained a chair in the University of Glasgow, and even when at Edinburgh, the same enlarged and liberal doctrines with respect to the freedom of industry, and the injurious influence of restraints and regulations, which he afterwards so fully established in the “Wealth of Nations.” His residence in a large commercial city, like Glasgow, gave him considerable advantage in the prosecution of his favourite studies, by affording means of easily obtaining that correct practical information on many points, which cannot be learned from books, and by enabling him to compare his theoretical doctrines with the experimental conclusions of his mercantile friends. Notwithstanding the disinclination, so common among men of business, to listen to speculative opinions, and the opposition of his leading principles to the old maxims of trade, he was able, before he quitted his situation in the University, to rank some very eminent merchants among his proselytes.
The publication of the “Theory of Moral Sentiments” brought a vast accession of reputation to Smith; and placed him, in the estimation of all who were qualified to form an opinion on such a subject, in the first rank of moralists, and of able and eloquent writers.
In 1762 the Senatus Academicus of the University of Glasgow unanimously conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws; in testimony, as it is expressed in the minutes of the meeting, of their respect for his universally acknowledged talents, and of the advantage that had resulted to the University from the ability with which he had for many years expounded the principles of jurisprudence. But the most important effect of his increasing celebrity, in so far at least as respected himself, was his receiving in 1763 an invitation from Mr Charles Townsend, who had married the Duchess of Buccleuch, to attend her Grace’s son, the young Duke, on his travels; and the advantageous terms that were offered, combined with the strong desire he entertained of visiting the Continent, induced him to accept the offer, and to resign his chair at Glasgow. “With the connection which he was led to form in consequence of this change in his situation,” says Stewart, “he had reason to be satisfied in an uncommon degree, and he always spoke of it with pleasure and gratitude. To the public it was not perhaps a change equally fortunate; as it interrupted that studious leisure for which nature seems to have destined him, and in which alone he could have hoped to accomplish those literary projects which had flattered the ambition of his youthful genius.”
Dr Smith set out for France in company with his noble pupil in March 1764. They remained only a few days at Paris on their first visit to that capital, but proceeded to Toulouse, where they resided for about eighteen months. The society of Toulouse, a considerable city, and at that time the seat of a parliament, must have been a good deal superior to that of most country towns; and Smith no doubt availed himself of it, and of the leisure he then enjoyed, to perfect and extend his knowledge of the literature, internal policy, and state of France. He has told us that he was not disposed to place much confidence in the facts and reasonings of political arithmeticians; and it is evident, from his rarely stating facts on the authority of others, and from the references he occasionally makes to circumstances connected with Toulouse, Geneva, and other places he visited, that he was chiefly indebted to his own observation and inquiries for the accurate and extensive information which he is universally acknowledged to have possessed with respect to the institutions, habits, and condition of the French people.
After leaving Toulouse, Smith and his noble pupil proceeded to Geneva, where they resided two months. They returned to Paris at Christmas, 1765, and remained in that city for nearly twelve months. During the whole of this period, Smith lived on the most friendly footing with the best society in Paris. Turgot, afterwards Comptroller-General of Finance, D’Alembert, Helvetius, Marmontel, the Abbé Morellet,1 the Duke of la Rochefoucault, Madame Riccoboni, etc., were of the number of his acquaintances; and some of them he continued ever after to reckon among his friends. He was also on familiar terms with M. Quesnay, founder of the sect of the Economists; and there is every reason to think that he derived considerable advantage from his intercourse with that able and excellent person, than whom none was better qualified to strike out original and ingenious views. So sensible, indeed, was Smith of his merits as a man and a philosopher, that he intended, had he not been prevented by Quesnay’s death, to have left a lasting testimony of the estimation in which he held him, by dedicating to him the “Wealth of Nations.”
In October 1766, the Duke of Buccleuch, accompanied by Smith, returned to London. The latter soon after removed to his old residence at Kirkcaldy; where he continued to reside, with little interruption, for about ten years, habitually occupied in study, and in the elaboration of his great work. The “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” appeared in 1776; an æra that will be for ever memorable in the history of political philosophy. But having elsewhere examined most part of the leading theories and doctrines advanced in this work,1 it is sufficient at present to observe, that notwithstanding the errors and defects which have been discovered in some of its principles, and the objections which have been made, and perhaps with justice, to its arrangement, it will ever remain one of the noblest monuments of profound sagacity, various learning, and persevering research, directed to the most useful purposes. In particular parts it might be improved; but as a whole it has so many excellences, and such a well-founded celebrity, that it will doubtless continue, for a lengthened period, to be the fountain whence succeeding economists must draw inspiration,—
Smith has an unquestionable claim to be regarded as the real founder of the modern system of Political Economy. In adopting the discoveries of others, he made them his own. And in such complicated and difficult subjects, a higher degree of merit belongs to the party who first establishes the truth, and traces the consequences, of a new doctrine, than to him who may previously have stumbled upon it by accident, or who dismisses it as if it were valueless. Though he has not left a perfect work, Smith has left one which contains a greater number of useful truths than have ever been given to the world by any other individual; and he has pointed out and smoothed the route, by following which subsequent philosophers have been able to perfect much that he left incomplete, to rectify the mistakes into which he fell, and to make many new and important discoveries. Whether, indeed, we refer to the soundness of its leading doctrines, the liberality and universal applicability of its practical conclusions, or the powerful and beneficial influence it has had on the progress of economical science, and on the policy and conduct of nations, the “Wealth of Nations” must be placed in the foremost rank of those works which have helped to liberalise, enlighten, and enrich mankind.1
Hume, who was then labouring under his last illness, addressed a congratulatory letter to Smith on the publication of the “Wealth of Nations.” And it is a curious fact, that he points out in it what is the principal blemish of the work, viz., the erroneous view which it gives of the nature and causes of rent. He says, “he cannot think that the rent of farms makes any part of the price of produce.” It is not known whether Hume had himself arrived at this conclusion, or had derived it from the writings or conversation of Dr Anderson, by whom it had been already established. But it is singular, seeing that his attention had been directed to the subject by one he so greatly esteemed, that Smith did not submit his statements in regard to rent to a more searching and careful analysis. Had he done this, he would most probably have adopted the views of Anderson and Hume, and materially improved his great work.1
Smith survived the publication of the “Wealth of Nations” fifteen years. He had the satisfaction to see it translated into all the languages of Europe; to hear his opinions quoted in the House of Commons; to be consulted by the minister; and to observe that the principles he had expounded were beginning to produce a material change in the public opinion, and in the councils of this and other countries. And he must have enjoyed the full conviction that the progress of events would ensure their ultimate triumph, by showing that they were productive of signal advantage, not only to the general mass of mankind, but to the inhabitants of every country which should have good sense enough to adopt them.
Hume died soon after the publication of the “Wealth of Nations.” Smith, with whom he had long lived on the most intimate terms, was most solicitous in his attentions to his illustrious friend during his illness; and gave a brief but interesting account of the circumstances connected with his death, and a sketch of his character, in a letter addressed to Mr Strachan of London, which was soon after published as a supplement to Mr Hume’s autobiography. In it he says that his deceased friend “approached as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as, perhaps, the nature of human frailty will permit.” This unqualified eulogium excited the indignation of those who took offence at Hume’s religious opinions. Dr Horne, Bishop of Norwich, in an anonymous letter, attacked Smith on this ground; and ascribed to him, though without any certain data to go upon, the same sceptical tenets that had been entertained by Hume. But he took no notice of this effusion; and wisely declined entering upon a controversy which could have had no useful result.
Smith resided principally in London during the two years immediately subsequent to the publication of the “Wealth of Nations,” caressed by the most distinguished persons in the metropolis, who were justly proud of his acquaintance, and who, though they could not always subscribe to the justice of his remarks, were delighted with the goodness of his heart, his simplicity, and the vigour of his understanding. In 1778 he was appointed, through the unsolicited application of his old pupil and friend, the Duke of Buccleuch, a commissioner of customs for Scotland. In consequence, he removed to Edinburgh, where he continued afterwards to reside, possessed of an income more than equal to his wants, and in the enjoyment of the society of his earliest and most esteemed friends. His mother, then in extreme old age, and his cousin, Miss Douglas, accompanied him to Edinburgh, the latter superintending the domestic arrangements and economy of his family.
But though his appointment to the customs reflects much credit on the nobleman by whose intervention it was procured, it was neither worthy of the country nor of Smith. The philosopher who had produced a work in which the true sources of national wealth and prosperity were, for the first time, fully explored and laid open, deserved a different and a higher reward. Thousands of persons could have performed the duties of a commissioner of the customs quite as well as Smith, or perhaps better; but there was not one, besides himself, who could have given that “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,”1 which it was his intention to give. And this intention he would most probably have fulfilled, had not the well-earned bounty of the public been clogged by the performance of petty routine duties which engrossed the greater part of his time, and left him but little leisure for study.
In 1787 Smith was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. On this occasion he addressed a letter to that learned body, which strikingly evinces the high sense he felt of this honour, and his regard for those from whom it emanated. “No preferment,” says he, “could have given me so much real satisfaction. No man can owe greater obligations to a society than I do to the University of Glasgow. They educated me; they sent me to Oxford. Soon after my return to Scotland, they elected me one of their own members; and afterwards preferred me to another office, to which the abilities and virtues of the never-to-be-forgotten Dr Hutcheson had given a superior degree of illustration. The period of thirteen years, which I spent as a member of that society, I remember as by far the most useful, and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable, period of my life; and now, after three-and-twenty years’ absence, to be remembered in so very agreeable a manner by my old friends and protectors, gives me a heart-felt joy which I cannot easily express to you.”
His constitution, which had at no time been robust, began early to give way; and his decline was accelerated by the grief and vexation he felt on account of the death of his mother, to whom he had been most tenderly attached, in 1784, and of Miss Douglas, in 1788. He survived the latter only about two years, having died in July 1790. His last illness, which was occasioned by a chronic obstruction of the bowels, was both tedious and painful. But he bore it with the greatest fortitude and resignation: his cheerfulness never forsook him; and he had all the consolation that could be derived from the sympathy and attention of his friends.
His conduct in private life did not belie the generous principles inculcated in his works. He was in the habit of allotting a considerable part of his income to offices of secret charity. Stewart mentions that he had been made acquainted with some very affecting instances of his beneficence. “They were all,” he observes, “on a scale much beyond what might have been expected from his fortune; and were accompanied with circumstances equally honourable to the delicacy of his feelings and the liberality of his heart.”
Smith acquired a valuable and well-selected, though not a very extensive, library. He collected only the best editions of the best works in the different departments of literature and philosophy, and the finest copies of each. “The first time,” says Mr Smellie, “I happened to be in his library, observing me looking at the books with some degree of curiosity, and perhaps surprise, for most of the volumes were elegantly, and some of them most superbly bound, ‘You must have remarked,’ said he, ‘that I am a beau in nothing but my books.’ ”1
Notwithstanding the apparent flow and artlessness of his style, and his great experience in composition, Smith stated, not long before his death, that he continued to compose as slowly, and with as great difficulty, as at first. He did not write with his own hand, but generally walked up and down his apartment, dictating to an amanuensis,2 a habit which may in part, perhaps, account for that diffuseness and redundancy of style which is so observable in the “Wealth of Nations.” He regarded the works of Middleton as affording the best specimens of English composition; and he was accustomed to recommend the careful study of his “Life of Cicero” to all who wished to write easily, perspicuously, and in correct English.
The want of notes, and the fewness of references to authorities, may be mentioned as a peculiarity of Smith’s writings; and one in which they differ very widely from those of his illustrious contemporaries, Hume and Robertson, especially the last. Stewart says, that “Smith considered every species of note as a blemish or imperfection, indicating either an idle accumulation of superfluous particulars, or a want of skill and comprehension in the general design.”1 But, though it must be admitted that Robertson, in his Histories of Charles V. and America, has embodied in notes a large amount of interesting matter, which might have been advantageously incorporated with the text, Smith has certainly carried the opposite practice to an extreme. It is impossible, indeed, to lay down any precise rules on subjects of this sort, or to say positively when notes or references had better be made or omitted. Their excess, and their total, or nearly total omission, seem to be alike objectionable. At all events, there does not appear to be much room for doubting that the arrangement of the “Wealth of Nations” would have gained materially in clearness and simplicity, had the author adopted, in part at least, the plan of Robertson, and thrown some of the numerous digressions by which the thread of the investigation is interrupted into the form of notes or supplementary chapters. And there are many occasions when a reference to the facts or authorities on which an argument is founded, would have given it additional strength, and been satisfactory to the reader.
Smith had early resolved that such only of his manuscripts as he himself judged fit for publication should ever see the light; and a few days before his death, he gave effect to this resolution, by having all his papers committed to the flames, excepting some fragments of essays, intended to illustrate the principles that lead and direct philosophical inquiries, which he left to his friends to publish or not as they thought proper. The contents of the manuscripts that were destroyed are not exactly known; but they certainly comprised the course of lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres delivered at Edinburgh in 1748, and the lectures on jurisprudence and natural religion, which formed a most important part of the course of moral philosophy delivered at Glasgow. The loss of the latter must ever be a subject of deep regret, and is, in truth, one of the most serious which philosophy has to deplore. We are ignorant of the motives which led to their destruction; but Mr Stewart surmises that it was not so much on account of any apprehended injury to the author’s literary reputation from the publication of such unfinished works, as from an anxiety lest the progress of truth should be retarded by the statement of doctrines the proofs of which were not fully developed.
The following observations on the private character and habits of Smith proceed from the pen of Dugald Stewart, who knew him well, and who was the last survivor of that galaxy of illustrious men who shed, during the last century, so imperishable a glory over the literature of Scotland. “The more delicate and characteristical features of his mind,” Stewart observes, “it is perhaps impossible to trace. That there are many peculiarities, both in his manners and in his intellectual habits, was manifest to the most superficial observer; but although, to those who knew him, these peculiarities detracted nothing from the respect which his abilities commanded; and although, to his intimate friends, they added an inexpressible charm to his conversation, while they displayed, in the most interesting light, the artless simplicity of his heart; yet it would require a very skilful pencil to present them to the public eye. He was certainly not fitted for the general commerce of the world, or for the business of active life. The comprehensive speculations with which he had been occupied from his youth, and the variety of materials which his own invention continually supplied to his thoughts, rendered him habitually inattentive to familiar objects, and to common occurrences; and he frequently exhibited instances of absence, which had scarcely been surpassed by the fancy of La Bruyere.1 Even in company he was apt to be engrossed with his studies; and appeared at times, by the motion of his lips, as well as by his looks and gestures, to be in the fervour of composition. I have often, however, been struck, at the distance of years, with his accurate memory of the most trifling particulars; and am inclined to believe, from this and some other circumstances, that he possessed a power, not perhaps uncommon among absent men, of recollecting, in consequence of subsequent efforts of reflection, many occurrences which, at the time when they happened, did not seem to have sensibly attracted his notice.
“To the defect now mentioned, it was probably owing, in part, that he did not fall in easily with the common dialogue of conversation, and that he was somewhat apt to convey his own ideas in the form of a lecture. When he did so, however, it never proceeded from a wish to engross the discourse, or to gratify his vanity. His own inclination disposed him so strongly to enjoy in silence the gaiety of those around him, that his friends were often led to concert little schemes, in order to engage him in the discussions most likely to interest him. Nor do I think I shall be accused of going too far when I say, that he was scarcely ever known to start a new topic himself, or to appear unprepared upon those topics that were introduced by others. Indeed, his conversation was never more amusing than when he gave a loose to his genius upon the very few branches of knowledge of which he only possessed the outlines.
“The opinions he formed of men, upon a slight acquaintance, were frequently erroneous; but the tendency of his nature inclined him much more to blind partiality than to ill-founded prejudice. The enlarged views of human affairs, on which his mind habitually dwelt, left him neither time nor inclination to study, in detail, the uninteresting peculiarities of ordinary characters; and accordingly, though intimately acquainted with the capacities of the intellect, and the workings of the heart, and accustomed, in his theories, to mark, with the most delicate hand, the nicest shades, both of genius and of the passions; yet, in judging of individuals, it sometimes happened that his estimates were, in a surprising degree, wide of the truth.
“The opinions, too, which in the thoughtlessness and confidence of his social hours, he was accustomed to hazard on books, and on questions of speculation, were not uniformly such as might have been expected from the superiority of his understanding, and the singular consistency of his philosophical principles. They were liable to be influenced by accidental circumstances, and by the humour of the moment; and, when retailed by those who only saw him occasionally, suggested false and contradictory ideas of his real sentiments. On these, however, as on most other occasions, there was always much truth, as well as ingenuity, in his remarks; and if the different opinions which, at different times, he pronounced upon the same subject had been all combined together, so as to modify and limit each other, they would probably have afforded materials for a decision, equally comprehensive and just. But, in the society of his friends, he had no disposition to form those qualified conclusions that we admire in his writings; and he generally contented himself with a bold and masterly sketch of the object, from the first point of view in which his temper, or his fancy, presented it. Something of the same kind might be remarked, when he attempted, in the flow of his spirits, to delineate those characters which, from long intimacy, he might have been supposed to understand thoroughly. The picture was always lively and expressive, and commonly bore a strong and amusing resemblance to the original, when viewed under one particular aspect; but seldom, perhaps, conveyed a just and complete conception of it in all its dimensions and proportions. In a word, it was the fault of his unpremeditated judgment to be too systematical, and too much in extremes.
“But, in whatever way these trifling peculiarities in his manners may be explained, there can be no doubt that they were intimately connected with the genuine artlessness of his mind. In this amiable quality, he often recalled to his friends the accounts that are given of good La Fontaine; a quality which in him derived a peculiar grace from the singularity of its combination with those powers of reason and of eloquence, which, in his political and moral writings, have long engaged the admiration of Europe.
“In his external form and appearance there was nothing uncommon. When perfectly at ease, and when warmed with conversation, his gestures were animated, and not ungraceful; and, in the society of those he loved, his features were often brightened with a smile of inexpressible benignity. In the company of strangers, his tendency to absence, and perhaps still more his consciousness of this tendency, rendered his manner somewhat embarrassed;—an effect which was probably not a little heightened by those speculative ideas of propriety, which his recluse habits tended at once to perfect in his conception, and to diminish his power of realising. He never sat for his picture; but the medallion of Tassie conveys an exact idea of his profile, and of the general expression of his countenance.”
The following is a list of the published works of Dr Smith:—
1. Two articles in the “Edinburgh Review” for 1755, being (1) a Review of “Johnson’s English Dictionary;” and (2) “A Letter to the Editors.”
2. “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” The first edition of this work was published in 8vo, early in 1759. The sixth edition was published a short time before the author’s death. It contains several additions, most of which were executed during his last illness.
3. “Considerations concerning the first Formation of Languages, and the different Genius of Original and Compounded Languages.”
This essay was originally subjoined to the first edition of the “Moral Sentiments.” It is an ingenious and pretty successful attempt to explain the formation and progress of language, by means of that species of investigation to which Dugald Stewart has given the appropriate name of Theoretical or Conjectural History; and which consists in endeavouring to trace the progress and vicissitudes of any art or science, partly from such historical facts as have reference to it, and, where facts are wanting, from inferences derived from considering what would be the most natural and probable conduct of mankind under the circumstances supposed.
4. “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The first edition was published at London in 1776, in two volumes 4to. The fourth edition, which was the last revised by the author, appeared, in three volumes 8vo, in 1786.
5. His posthumous works, or those which he exempted from the general destruction of his manuscripts, and which were published by his friends, Doctors Black and Hutton. These gentlemen, in an advertisement prefixed to the publication, state that, when the papers which Dr Smith had left in their hands were examined, “the greater number appeared to be parts of a plan he once had formed for giving a connected history of the liberal sciences and elegant arts.” “It is long,” they add, “since he found it necessary to abandon that plan, as far too extensive; and these parts of it lay beside him neglected until his death. The reader will find in them that happy connection, that full and accurate expression, and that clear illustration, which are conspicuous in the rest of his works; and though it is difficult to add much to the great fame he so justly acquired by his other writings, these will be read with satisfaction and pleasure.” The papers in question comprise,—I. Fragments of a great work “On the Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Inquiries, illustrated—(1) by the History of Astronomy; (2) by the History of the Ancient Physics; and (3) by the History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics.” II. An essay entitled, “Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called the Imitative Arts.” III. A short tract, “Of the Affinity between certain English and Italian Verses.” IV. A disquisition, “Of the External Senses.”
Of the historical dissertations, the first only, on the “History of Astronomy,” seems to be nearly complete. They are all written on the plan of the dissertation on the “Formation of Languages,” being partly theoretical, and partly founded on fact. In the essay on the “History of Astronomy,” after premising some acute and ingenious speculations with respect to the effects of unexpectedness and surprise, and of wonder and novelty, the author proceeds to give a brief outline of the different astronomical systems, from the earliest ages down to that of Newton.
The fragments that remain of the other two historical essays are much less complete, and do not possess the interest of the former.
Dr Smith contends, in the essay on the “Imitative Arts,” that the pleasure derived from them depends principally upon the difficulty of the imitation, or, as he has expressed it, “upon our wonder at seeing an object of one kind represent so well an object of a very different kind, and upon our admiration of the art which surmounts so happily that disparity which nature had established between them.”1 On this principle he explained the preference so generally given in tragedy to blank verse over prose; and Stewart mentions that, for the same reason, he was inclined to prefer rhyme in tragedy to blank verse, and that he extended the same principle to comedy; and even went so far as to regret that those graphic delineations of real life and manners, exhibited on the English stage, had not been subjected to the fetters of rhyme, and executed in the manner of the French school. His theoretical conclusions on this curious topic of speculation were confirmed by the admiration he entertained for the great dramatic authors of France—an admiration that was heightened in no small degree when he saw their chefs-d’œuvre represented on the stage.
The short essay, “Of the Affinity between certain English and Italian Verses,” is curious rather than valuable. It affords a curious illustration of the variety of the author’s literary pursuits.
The disquisition with respect to the “External Senses” is of considerable extent. It embraces some ingenious discussions; and is a valuable contribution to the science of which it treats.
[1 ] In his interesting Account of the Life and Writings of Smith.
[2 ] Mr Stewart has justly applied to Smith what Lord Bacon said of Plato: “Illum, licet ad rempublicam non accessisset, tamen naturâ et inclinatione omnino ad res civiles propensum, vires eo præcipue intendisse; neque de Philosophia Naturali admodum sollicitum esse; nisi quatenus ad Philosophi nomen et celebritatem tuendum, et ad majestatem quandam moralibus et civilibus doctrinis addendam et aspergendam sufficeret.”
[1 ] It is perhaps unnecessary to observe, that these remarks apply only to the state of education at Oxford at the period when it was attended by Smith. Latterly it has been very much improved; though the constitution of the University opposes formidable obstacles to the introduction of the best system.
[1 ] Mr Stewart has not mentioned this circumstance, but it rests on the best authority.
[1 ] “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” part iii. chap. 1.
[1 ] “Brown’s Lectures,” vol. iv. p. 132, edit. 1824.
[1 ] The paragraph which follows is extracted from the “Mémoires” of the Abbé Morellet, published in 1821. “J’avais connu Smith dans un voyage qu’il avait fait en France, vers 1762; il parlait fort mal notre langue; mais sa Théorie des Sentimens Moraux, publiée en 1759, m’avait donné une grande idée de sa sagacité et de sa profondeur. Et véritablement je le regarde encore aujourd’hui comme un des hommes qui a fait les observations et les analyses les plus complètes dans toutes les questions qu’il a traitées. M. Turgot, qui aimait ainsi que moi la métaphysique, estimait beaucoup son talent. Nous le vîmes plusieurs fois; il fut présenté chez Helvétius: nous parlâmes théorie commerciale, banque, crédit public, et de plusieurs points du grand ouvrage qu’il méditait. Il me fit présent d’un fort joli portefeuille anglais de poche, qui était à son usage, et dont je me suis servi vingt ans.”—Tome i. p. 237.
[1 ] For a general view of its principal merits and defects, see the Introductory Discourse prefixed to the edition of the “Wealth of Nations,” by the author of this work.
[1 ] Sir James Mackintosh has made the following just and discriminating remarks on the great works of Grotius, Locke, Montesquieu, and Smith:—“The ‘Treatise on the Law of War and Peace,’ the ‘Essay on the Human Understanding,’ the ‘Spirit of Laws,’ and the ‘Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations,’ are the works which have most directly influenced the general opinion of Europe during the two last centuries. They are also the most conspicuous landmarks in the progress of the sciences to which they relate. It is remarkable that the defects of all these great works are very similar. The leading notions of none of them can, in the strictest sense, be said to be original, though Locke and Smith in that respect surpass their illustrious rivals. All of them employ great care in ascertaining those laws which are immediately deduced from experience, or directly applicable to practice, but apply metaphysical and abstract principles with considerable negligence. None pursues the order of science, beginning with first elements, and advancing to more and more complicated conclusions; though Locke is, perhaps, less defective in method than the rest. All admit digressions which, though often intrinsically excellent, distract attention, and break the chain of thought. None of them are happy in the choice, or constant in the use, of technical terms; and in none do we find much of that rigorous precision which is the first beauty of philosophical language. Grotius and Montesquieu were imitators of Tacitus,—the first with more gravity, the second with more vivacity; but both were tempted to forsake the simple diction of science in pursuit of the poignant brevity which that great historian has carried to a vicious excess. Locke and Smith chose an easy, clear, and free, but somewhat loose and verbose, style,—more concise in Locke, more elegant in Smith,—in both exempt from pedantry, but not void of ambiguity and repetition. Perhaps all these apparent defects contributed, in some degree, to the specific usefulness of these great works; and, by rendering their contents more accessible and acceptable to the majority of readers, have more completely blended their principles with the common opinions of mankind.”—Article on Stewart’s View of the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Science, in the 71st Number of the Edinburgh Review.
[1 ] In the copy of the letter now referred to, given by Stewart in his “Life of Smith,” the paragraph relating to rent is omitted. Another paragraph is also omitted, in which Hume expresses his belief that the statement in regard to the seignorage charged on coins in France could not be well-founded. And in this case too he was quite right.—See p. 21 of the Wealth of Nations, in one vol., by the author of this work.
[1 ] See the concluding paragraph of the “Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
[1 ] Smellie’s “Lives,” p. 296.
[2 ] Mr Stewart states that all Hume’s works were written with his own hand; and that the last volumes of his history were printed from the original copy, with only a few marginal corrections.
[1 ] Account of the Life and Writings of Robertson, p. 142.
[1 ] Some instances of this sort have been specified in an article in the “Quarterly Review;” but of these some are said to be of doubtful authenticity, and they are all too evidently caricatured to warrant any confidence being placed in them.
[1 ] Smith’s Works, vol. v. p. 261, edit. 1811.
Last modified April 13, 2016