After two centuries, Adam Smith remains a towering figure in the history of economic thought. Known primarily for a single work, An Inquiry into the nature an causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), the first comprehensive system of political economy, Smith is more properly regarded as a social philosopher whose economic writings constitute only the capstone to an overarching view of political and social evolution. If his masterwork is viewed in relation to his earlier lectures on moral philosophy and government, as well as to allusions in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to a work he hoped to write on “the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society”, then The Wealth of Nations may be seen not merely as a treatise on economics but as a partial exposition of a much larger scheme of historical evolution.
Unfortunately, much is known about Smith’s thought than about his life. Though the exact date of his birth is unknown, he was baptised on June 5, 1723, in Kikcaldy, a small (population 1,500) but thriving fishing village near Edinburgh, the son by second marriage of Adam Smith, comptroller of customs at Kikcaldy, and Margaret Douglas, daughter of a substantial landowner. Of Smith’s childhood nothing is known other than that he received his elementary schooling in Kirkcaldy and that at the age of four years he was said to have been carried off by gypsies. Pursuits was mounted, and young Adam was abandoned by his captors. “He would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy”, commented his principal biographer.
At the age of 14, in 1737, Smith entered the university of Glasgow, already remarkable as a centre of what was to become known as the Scottish Enlightenment. There, he was deeply influenced by Francis Hutcheson, a famous professor of moral philosophy from whose economic and philosophical views he was later to diverge but whose magnetic character seems to have been a main shaping force in Smith’s development. Graduating in 1740, Smith won a scholarship (the Snell Exhibition) and travelled on horseback to Oxford, where he stayed at Balliol College. Compared to the stimulating atmosphere of Glasgow, Oxford was an educational desert. His years there were spent largely in self-education, from which Smith obtained a firm grasp of both classical and contemporary philosophy.
Returning to his home after an absence of six years, Smith cast about for suitable employment. The connections of his mother’s family, together with the support of the jurist and philosopher Lord Henry Kames, resulted in an opportunity to give a series of public lectures in Edinburgh - a form of education then much in vogue in the prevailing spirit of “ improvement”.
The lectures, which ranged over a wide variety of subjects from rhetoric history and economics, made a deep impression on some of Smith’s notable contemporaries. They also had a marked influence on Smith’s own career, for in 1751, at the age of 27, he was appointed professor of logic at Glasgow, from which post he transferred in 1752 to the more remunerative professorship of moral philosophy, a subject that embraced the related fields of natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, and political economy.
Smith then entered upon a period of extraordinary creativity, combined with a social and intellectual life that he afterward described as “ by far the happiest, and most honourable period of my life”. During the week he lectured daily from 7:30 to 8:30 am and again thrice weekly from 11 am to noon, to classes of up to 90 students, aged 14 and 16. (Although his lectures were presented in English, following the precedent of Hutcheson, rather than in Latin, the level of sophistication for so young an audience today strikes one as extraordinarily demanding.) Afternoons were occupied with university affairs in which Smith played an active role, being elected dean of faculty in 1758; his evenings were spent in the stimulating company of Glasgow society.