The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776 (commonly known as The Wealth of Nations)
Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 1795
Adam Smith studied at the University of Glasgow, where he came under the influence of the famous professor of moral philosophy Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746). Smith then studied at Balliol College, Oxford, for six years before returning to Scotland to lecture in rhetoric and polite literature at the University of Edinburgh. His lectures were popular and, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, attracted listeners from the town as well as from the university.
Smith returned to the University of Glasgow in 1751 as professor of logic, and that same year he was appointed to the chair in moral philosophy. At this time Smith was strongly under the influence of his close friend the historian and philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and shared in a milder form much of Hume’s skepticism. Smith never took holy orders, for example, an unusual circumstance for a professor of moral philosophy in Scotland at that time. In 1759 Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he claimed that sympathy or feeling was the foundation for all moral sentiments or judgments. He felt that evil or wrongdoing was punished by remorse in the individual and that certainly remorse was the most painful of the human sentiments. His position was not very far from that of later philosophers who claim that ethical principles are merely statements of human emotions.
Even at this early date Smith was highly interested in economics. He often talked of trade and political economy in his lectures, and he urged both students and young businessmen from the growing commercial city and port of Glasgow to attend his lectures. Many criticized him, and one of his colleagues later sneered that “he had converted the chair of moral philosophy into a professorship of trade and finance.”
Late in 1762 the wealthy duke of Buccleuch became interested in Smith and hired him as his private tutor. Smith left the university and traveled with his patron to France, where he lived for more than two years and met physiocratic economic philosophers such as Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and François Quesnay. Becoming more and more convinced of the need for coherent study of the principles of political economy, Smith returned from France and spent ten years studying and writing An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This book, the first complete work on political economy, established the author as the founder of classical economics. Smith defined the doctrine of laissez faire, or noninterference, and declared that labor is the real source of a nation’s wealth. Therefore the individuals who perform the labor know what is best for them and should have the rights of private initiative and free enterprise, as well as the right to produce the products that society demands. In this way only can self-interest be harnessed to the common good. Although a good deal of Smith’s theorizing was borrowed from his French associates, his copious illustrations and his applications of his principles to contemporary problems in England and Scotland ensured him a wide and interested audience.
Smith wrote little after The Wealth of Nations, but both the book and its author had become famous. Smith made frequent trips to London, where he had a good deal of influence on the prime minister, William Pitt (1708-1778), and his opinion was sought on almost all tax legislation passed by Parliament after the disastrous Stamp Act of 1765. Widely honored, he was made commissioner of customs for Scotland in 1777 and in 1787 was elected rector of the University of Glasgow.
In later life Adam Smith came to represent a kind of calm, rational, principled Augustan. He was intimate with many of the great of his age, including Hume, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)–although the last apparently never forgave him for an unkind review of Johnson’s famous dictionary in the Edinburgh Review; and he enjoyed discussing philosophy, semantics, history, politics, and economics in the various London clubs. He was a man apparently without fanaticism or a doctrinaire approach. Despite his advocacy of free trade and unrestricted operation of the law of supply and demand, he did acknowledge the necessity for government control in such matters as education and the public highways. Interested in many phases of the intellect, he was the first to synthesize and articulate many of the economic principles and problems that grew out of the rapid industrial and commercial expansion of his age.