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Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History) Hardcover – October 5, 2010
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"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)
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)
"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)
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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.
In reality, Smith was one of the greatest figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, a disciple of David Hume, and a profound philosopher of human nature and social order. "Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life" restores him to history. It is excellently written and handsomely produced. I enjoyed it a lot. I took off one star for two main reasons: First, it assumes that the reader has considerable knowledge of 18th century British letters and politics; second, it doesn't do justice to the detailed arguments in The Wealth of Nations -- an omission which will disappoint those readers (probably most) who take up a Smith biography in order to learn more about the history of economics.
While there is little in the way of private writing on which to base anything, because Smith instructed that all his private papers be destroyed at his death, Nicholas Phillipson has written an able biography of the development of Smith's ideas based on his public writings, his unpublished writings, and the notes of several of his students taken down in lecture. The story he tells is fascinating, describing the economic and political circumstances around Smith's life.
The author begins, as with all biographies, in Smith's childhood home and city, Kirkcaldy. Smith lived in the time when Scotland was moving from being a poor country reliant on spinning and meager farms for its economic basis through the industrial revolution, and so his education and thinking were grounded in the experience of those times. He began his life in trying to understand how this massive change came in his world. From here, Smith moved into teaching at a growing college that was closely tied to the town and the town's business interests, so he once again remained on the economic side of academic life -- or rather saw life through an economic and mercantile lens.
The economic history is well known, and well plied in various textbooks. What the author next brings to light is the most interesting: Smith's ties to the Enlightenment. It is the combination of Enlightenment thinking and commercial growth that led to Smith's ultimate quest, to explain the rise of the "moral sentiment," or rather the rise of morality in human society. While many today consider the Enlightenment to be a wide growth of knowledge as science threw off the shackles of religion, the reality is far different.
The Enlightenment, in the end, was removing the Judeo-Christian foundation from science to replace it with another set of religious beliefs, a Deistic/Darwinistic world view that places man at the center of all things. When Smith applied Enlightenment thinking to the economic growth he had seen, he came to the conclusion that morality comes about in human communities because of the need for the rich to protect their goods from the poor -- hence, all morality is essentially based on developing economies.
"Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor." -quoted on page 174
Smith was essentially attempting to answer the question, "if there is no God, then why are there morals," without asserting there is no God. Based on this biography, he didn't want to argue against God directly, but rather to simply leave God out in the cold, a small, useless figure that doesn't have any real impact in our actual lives. Man has built it all, from civilization to morals; God need not apply. While the division of labor, Smith's fundamental addition to the body of economic theory, is useful and solid, his theory of morality attempted to find solidity in commerce where it could not be found in the various Enlightenment branches of Darwinistic thought.
This is a very solid and readable biography of a man who has impacted our modern worldview in ways very few people actually understand, and well worth reading.
Great read for anyone interested in Smith or history of economic thought in general.
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.