Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, Nicholas Phillipson, Yale, 346 pages
By George Scialabba
In the “Overture” to his grandly symphonic The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Peter Gay describes the “international type” of the philosophe as a “facile, articulate, doctrinaire, sociable, secular man of letters.” On this definition, was Adam Smith a philosophe?
Yes and no. Unlike his French counterparts and even his bosom friend David Hume, he led a retired life, much of it in the small Scottish town where he was born, and he lived with his mother until she died at a very advanced age. He was shy, destroyed most of his letters, and did not seem to relish giving brilliant performances, either in print or in conversation. He never fell afoul of civil or religious authority, had no mistresses, and engaged in no public quarrels.
(A semi-public one, though. Shortly after Hume’s death, Smith met Samuel Johnson at a party. Johnson spoke slightingly of Hume, Smith defended him, and their exchanges grew increasingly heated until Johnson exclaimed, “Sir, you lie!” To which Smith retorted, “Sir, you are the son of a whore!” and stalked out.)
On the other hand, Smith was modestly sociable—he had warm relationships with Turgot, Quesnay, and Condorcet. Like most of the philosophes, he was prolific and versatile, publishing much-admired essays on law, literature, and the history of science as well as his masterpieces on moral philosophy and political economy. And although he was not openly irreligious like Hume and Voltaire, he had as little use for the Calvinist superstitions of Scotland as his French contemporaries had for Roman Catholicism.