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Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-C) Hardcover – October 5, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"A fascinating book. . . . Adam Smith finally has the biography that he deserves, and it could not be more timely."—Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal
(Jeffrey Collins Wall Street Journal)

"An unabashedly intellectual biography . . . [written] in graceful prose. . . . For all that subsequent generations, no less our own, have taken from Smith's economic contributions, it is indeed enlightening to understand the broader sweep of his vision."--Nancy F. Koehn, New York Times (Nancy F. Koehn New York Times)

“Lively [and] well-observed. . . . It would take a ‘skilful pencil’ to bring Smith to life, warned one of his friends. In bringing Smith’s ideas to life, Phillipson shows that his pencilwork is skilful indeed. ”—The Economist (The Economist)

"Remarkable, often brilliant. . . stuffed with acute philosophical observations. But no less fascinating is the portrait of the milieu in which Smith lived. . . . Phillipson's exposition of [Smith's] 'enlightened life' can scarcely be bettered."—The Times (London)
(The Times (London))

"[Nicholas Phillipson] tries, very successfully, to pull together the two Smiths, letting us see how the man of feeling became the little god of finance. . . making it plain that Smith was more moral-man than market-man."—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
(Adam Gopnik The New Yorker 2010-10-18)

"One good reason to read Nicholas Phillipson's excellent intellectual biography is to gain a more nuanced understanding of Smith and, in particular, of his vision of an all-embracing science of man. . . . When Phillipson discusses The Wealth of Nations, it's hard not to discern parallels between Smith's time and our own."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
(Michael Dirda Washington Post)

"This year, my favorite business book was Nicholas Phillipson's biography of Adam Smith. It showed that Smith is still the greatest economist of all time, wise about human nature, and that he understands the power of capitalism."—Tyler Cowen, NPR's "Marketplace"
(Tyler Cowen NPR's Marketplace)

Named a Favorite Business Book of 2010 by James Pressley, Bloomberg BusinessWeek (James Pressley Bloomberg Business Week)

Named a Best Book of 2010 by the Atlantic (Atlantic Monthly)

Named a Critics' Favorite Book of 2010—The New Yorker (New Yorker)

Named a Best Business Book of 2010 by Tyler Cowen, NPR's "Marketplace" (Tyler Cowen NPR's Marketplace)

"In a feast of both writing and erudition, Nicholas Phillipson has recreated the intellectual and mercantile world of Adam Smith, and shows how it shaped Smith's two masterpieces, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations. He sets Smith's economics firmly in the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment – and especially of his great friend David Hume – and argues compellingly that for Smith material improvement was not an end in itself, but a necessary condition for human ennoblement, which was the grand aim of his life's work.  A wonderful, thought-provoking book."—Robert Skidelsky, biographer of John Maynard Keynes
(Robert Skidelsky)

"Nicholas Phillipson's lifelong study of Adam Smith has been well worth waiting for. Phillipson treats Smith's The Wealth of Nations as the sequel to his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Political economy and the history of society were handmaids to the moral philosophy which Enlightenment thinkers intended as the replacement of religion. This story has never been better told than in this deeply sympathetic biography of an intellectually ambitious but personally modest man, and it is a superb portrait of the Scotland, Britain and Europe he lived in."— J.G.A. Pocock,  Johns Hopkins University
(J.G.A. Pocock)

"This stylish biography brings to life Adam Smith's breathtaking ambition to create a Science of Man. Phillipson's elegant prose and erudition make clear the necessary relationship between Smith's moral philosophy and his political economy. The reader is left with a deeper appreciation for Smith's project and for the eighteenth-century Scottish world in which he lived. This book is both a delight to read and agenda-setting. A real achievement!"—Steve Pincus, Yale University
(Steve Pincus)

"This is easily the best book on Smith I’ve read: a wonderfully accessible, thoroughly researched, full-bodied drama examining the philosopher and economist.  Phillipson’s biography presents Smith as a living personality, not just an imposing intellect, tracking his social, economic, and political moves from his birthplace Kirkcaldy, to Glasgow and Oxford, through his various lectures and professorships, travels around Europe, preparation of The Wealth of Nations, and finally to his work for the government.  In doing so, it makes a strong case for the importance and complexity – perhaps primacy – of the Scottish Enlightenment and the men who contributed to it.  In clean and clear prose, Phillipson explains what Smith was writing and why he was writing it, whether moral philosophy, jurisprudence, rhetoric or political economy.  This beguiling blend of Smith’s intellection and experience should appeal to anyone interested in the making of the modern world."—David Hancock, author of Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste
(David Hancock)

"[A] great achievement. . . . Few books have shed better light on what Smith 'meant' and why he wrote as he did."—Scotland on Sunday
(Scotland on Sunday)

"The myth of Adam Smith is that he was the hard-nosed high priest of self-interested capitalism. [Phillipson] shows that his intellectual goals were far greater and nobler. . . . Phillipson has portrayed an Adam Smith for our times."—New Statesman
(New Statesman)

"The Smith who emerges from this thoughtful study. . . had an intellect of extraordinary brilliance, and it is the life of that intellect that is finely portrayed in this book."—Sunday Telegraph (London)
(Sunday Telegraph (London))

"Phillipson's path-breaking biography shines new light on the complex development of this much-misunderstood thinker."—The Independent (London)
(The Independent (London))

"Phillipson has been studying [the Scottish Enlightenment], this explosion of genius, all his life, and is a trustworthy guide to the life of Adam Smith."—Financial Times
(Financial Times)

"Having failed so royally to predict or ameliorate our present distress, some economists may come to examine their assumptions and be drawn to this fine book and its mighty subject."—The Guardian (London)
(The Guardian (London))

"Drawing on Smith's published works and student notes from his lectures, Phillipson shows how Smith's thinking on social theory and ethics influenced his system of economics. . . . what Phillipson calls a 'vast intellectual project.' "—Bloomberg Business Week
(Bloomberg Business Week)

"An unabashedly intellectual biography. . . . It is indeed enlightening to understand the broader sweep of [Adam Smith's] vision."—Nancy F. Koehn, New York Times (Nancy F. Koehn New York Times)

"An absorbing and elegant account of Smith's mind and of the Scottish context, social and intellectual, that produced it."—Blair Worden, The Spectator (London)
(Blair Worden The Spectator)

"For scholars. . . Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life should prove a very valuable resource. For more general audiences there is much to appreciate here--fine prose, erudite consideration of Enlightenment thought, and a consistently engaging narrative."—PopMatters

"Nicholas Phillipson’s new biography, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, is a pleasure to read, and it provides us with a clear and thorough account of Smith’s life."—Samuel Fleischacker, Journal of British Studies
(Samuel Fleischacker Journal of British Studies)

 Winner of the 2011-2013 Annibel Jenkins Prize, given by the American Society for the 18th Century Studies.
(2011-2013 Annibel Jenkins Prize American Society for the 18th Century Studies 2013-01-25)

About the Author

Nicholas Phillipson is one of the leading scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment. An Honorary Research Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh, he has held visiting appointments at Princeton, Yale, the Folger Library, and the Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität.

Product Details

  • Series: The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-C
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300169272
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300169270
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #613,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A solidly written biography of one known by most of us only as the Scottish author of an unread great book. Professor Phillipson's fine effort should lead many to go back and read "The Wealth of Nations."

Adam Smith's thoughts still have direct relevance to today's bucketful of economic problems--and resulting strident political debates--over government's proper role in terms of expenditures, debt, taxation, and business regulations.

While this book concentrates on the scholarship of Adam Smith, the author also intelligently traces the era within which Smith lived and his private life that included such striking people as David Hume, James Boswell, and Voltaire.

In this current age of instant and empty celebrities, Smith still stands, after about 250 years, as a man worth knowing.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a great, thoughtful & engaging biography on the elusive Scottish academic & philosopher, Adam Smith, titled "Adam Smith : An Enlightened Life" by professor Nicholas Phillipson. Adam Smith is well known for his description of the market's/capitalism's "invisible hand" that guides the economy, keeping 'everything' under control. But there is more to this elusive philosophical man than meets the eye : he was a private man, a hypochondriac who lived with his widowed mother most of his life. His popular lectures at the University of Glasgow turned Adam Smith into an 'institutional figure of note'. He wrote two great influencial books, "The Wealth Of The Nations" which took him 10 years to write on colonial America & the philosophical, "The Theory Of Moral Sentiments". By drawing from his published works & lecture notes, his thinking on social theory & ethics influenced his theory of economics & human behaviour.

Adam Smith instructed his executors to destroy all his lecture notes, but seven upublished philosophical essays & 193 letters survived to give us a glimpse of this elusive Scottish academic & philosopher, making the market's "invisible hand" come alive again, even if it's only at an intellectual level. This is a highly recommended reading on the 18th century's influential philosopher & academic that is Adam Smith.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read five book-length biographies of Adam Smith and concluded that the one by Ian Simpson Ross was definitive. I purchased the latest by Nicholas Phillipson because of his reputation rather than an expectation to learn much that is new. Reading it has proven that labeling a work as definitive does not mean it is the final word on the subject. Quite the contrary, Phillipson's work is aptly titled: Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, as it traces the development of Smith's thought in the milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment and British geopolitics during the second half of the eighteenth century. What was especially enjoyable was to learn more about the great debt Smith owed Hume as an intellect in shaping his works and as a friend. Phillipson expresses puzzlement about why Smith may not have held up his end of the friendship. After reading E. C. Mossner's The Life of David Hume and the Smith biographies, it seems clear Smith was too prudent to do so. If given a change, this reviewer would rather have kept the company of Hume than Smith.
Yale has done justice to this wonderful work. The production is a delight to see and to hold. It provides the best answer to e-books because we buyers will surely enjoying pulling it from our shelves, looking at the illustrations, and reading it again.
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Format: Hardcover
I was hoping for a general overview of the political, social, and geographic climate that Smith lived in as well as some analysis of the influences in his work. Unfortunately, this book is far too scholarly for the general reader. Unless you grew up in the British school system, you'll need to brush up on Scottish/English history and keep Wikipedia handy to have any chance of understanding what's going on.

The book assumes the reader already has a thorough understanding of "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" and "The Wealth of Nations". If you don't, you'll very quickly become lost and start skimming paragraphs or finish reading a page and not remember a single thing that was discussed.

I may return to this tome after reading TWoN and TToMS; we'll see.
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Format: Paperback
Though his name looms large as the founder of modern economic theory, Adam Smith himself is in many ways a mysterious and unknowable figure. For all of his impact upon Western thought, Smith left little beyond the two books that were his great intellectual legacy. Not even the date of his birth is known with certainty, while his correspondence consists mainly of letters from friends plaintively wondering why he never wrote back. Nicholas Phillipson doesn't shirk from the challenge of writing a biography of the man from such a scarcity of information, but in filling the blanks he provides something more by giving his readers a broader portrait of Adam Smith's intellectual world, one that sites Smith firmly within the context of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Phillipson begins by charting the formative influences that shaped Smith's intellectual development in his early years. Foremost among them was his schoolmaster in Kirkcaldy and two professors at the University of Glasgow, Robert Simson and Francis Hutcheson. Yet it was the writings of Smith's close friend David Hume which proved the most fertile inspiration for Smith's masterpieces. Phillipson shows how Smith drew upon Hume's ideas as inspiration for a comprehensive "Science of Man", which be began to articulate with his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Its publication in 1759 was greeted with acclaim, elevating Smith to the first rank of intellectual figures. A period as tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch gave him both the opportunity to meet some of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in Europe as well as an income that freed him from his onerous academic duties.
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