Although regarded as the first scientific treatise on economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations should be viewed in a larger context. The social philosopher, historian, moralist, and political scientist Adam Smith attempted to create in this great work a synthesis of ideas that would in essence be a study of political and social evolution. First published in 1776 and a continuing influence worldwide, it is the crowing achievement of one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.
A brief account of Smith’s life follows; a short essay on The Wealth of Nations will accompany Volume II.
Adam Smith was a native of Kirkcaldy, a small village near Edinburgh. There he remained until age fourteen, when he entered the University of Glasgow, favoring mathematics and lectures on moral philosophy given by Francis Hutcheson. From Glasgow he proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1740, and devoted himself to classical and modern languages as well as to philosophy. After six years he returned to his home in Kirkcaldy, well educated but without a sure plan for his future.
The year 1748 proved to be decisive when, under the patronage of Lord Kames, Smith was offered the opportunity to lecture in Edinburgh on subjects ranging form rhetoric to history and economics. An appointment as professor of logic at Glasgow came in 1751, followed by his transfer to the chair of moral philosophy. This discipline, which encompasses the fields of natural theology, ethics, jurisprudence, and political economy, is the basis for Smith’s first important work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Therein he discusses the relationship between the human passion for self-preservation and self-interest and the tempering “invisible hand” found in individuals, a theme continued in The Wealth of Nations.
While in Glasgow, where he held his professorship until 1763, Smith socialized with the best minds of the day. He also made the acquaintance of many prominent merchants, acquiring from them detailed knowledge of trade and business. It was, however, the contacts made during his two-year trip to the Continent as private tutor to the young duke of Buccleuch who perhaps contributed most significantly to the systematic and comprehensive scope of his magnum opus. Between 1764 and 1766 he met some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire, D’Alembert, and Helvetius, as well as the social reformers and theorists known as the physiocrats.
In Toulouse, Smith began work on The Wealth of Nations. (It had been preceded by a draft entitled A Treatise on Public Opulence, an early effort notable for his hallmark concepts of self-interest, free trade, and the division of labor.) After a stay in London, he returned to Kirkcaldy, writing and rewriting The Wealth of Nations for the next six years. The work was completed and published in London in 1776, with many editions and translations in print today. A major treatise on jurisprudence and another on the arts and sciences seem to have been planned, but only part of what would have been the latter appeared in the posthumously published Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1795).
Smith’s years following the appearance of The Wealth of Nations were productive. He was made a commissioner of customs in 1777 and in 1787 elected lord rector of the University of Glasgow. When he died in 1790, he was much beloved and honored, his memory secure as the father of economics.
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