Adam Smith's best-known book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, still exerts an extraordinary influence, well over 200 years after it was first published in 1776. Many people know some of the book's most celebrated passages; a few even still read it. It is acknowledged as one of the founding texts of economics, and widely believed to be an apologia for unrestricted free markets. This belief dates from the enthusiastic adoption of Smith by free-market politicians and economists a generation ago. In this new biography, Nicholas Phillipson reclaims the author from that ideological fringe. He gives us the rounded man in place of the caricature.
In many ways, the Kirkcaldy-born Scotsman is an unpromising subject for a biographer, because so little is known about him. Very few of the documents that form the biographer's usual raw materials survive in Smith's case - not least because that was how he wanted it. His executors were instructed to destroy unpublished papers. His first biographer, Dugald Stewart, said: "He seems to have wished that no material should remain for his biographers, but what were furnished by the lasting monuments of his genius."
Relatively little of his work survives, therefore. His early lectures are available in the form of notes taken by a couple of students, rather than in their author's version. Given the paucity of original material, this book lacks the personal interest and narrative drive of some other recent accounts of Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jenny Uglow's Lunar Men (2002). Instead, Phillipson has to give us a biography of ideas - and even though a vast amount has been written about Smith's work, the author does a terrific job of situating him in his time and place.
Smith embarked on his intellectual career at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford with the Jacobite Rebellion and its brutal aftermath still a raw memory. The scope of radical Presbyterian power in Scottish political life was being contested, and the universities were at the centre of the struggle. At the same time, Glasgow was on the way to becoming one of the richest and most dynamic cities in these islands, following the 1707 Act of Union which had expanded its opportunities for trade and given it access to lucrative English markets. In the world of ideas, all was ferment and excitement. Between them, Smith and his esteemed mentor David Hume made Scotland one of the hubs of an age of intellectual discovery. For all the absence of personal details about Smith himself, it's a lively story, sketched out cleverly in this book.