Adam Smith was a Scottish economist who in 1776 wrote book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations). This book profoundly influenced economic thought, and until the current disintegration of conservative politics in the United States, was the bedrock of economic and political theory with regard to the merits of free markets, free trade, and the “invisible hand” of the free market. (In a post-Trump USA, Mein Kampt is the new influence).
‘I am a beau in nothing but my books,’ was the way Adam Smith once described himself, proudly showing off his treasured library to a friend. He was certainly not a handsome man. A medallion profile shows us a protruding lower lip thrust up to meet a large aquiline nose and heavy bulging eyes looking out from heavy lids. All his life Smith was troubled with a nervous affliction; his head shook, and he had an odd and stumbling manner of speech.
In addition, there was his notorious absentmindedness. In the 1780s, when Smith was in his late fifties, the inhabitants of Edinburgh were regularly treated to the amusing spectacle of their most illustrious citizen, attired in a light-colored coat, knee breeches, white silk stockings, buckle shoes, flat broad-brimmed beaver hat, and cane, walking down the cobbled streets with his eyes fixed on infinity and his lips moving in silent discourse. Every pace or two he would hesitate as if to change his direction or even reverse it; his gait was described by a friend as ‘vermicular.’
Accounts of his absence of mind were common. On one occasion he descended into his garden clad only in a dressing gown and, falling into a reverie, walked fifteen miles before coming to. Another time while Smith was walking with an eminent friend in Edinburgh, a guard presented his pike in salute. Smith, who had been thus honored on countless occasions, was suddenly hypnotized by the saluting soldier. He returned the honor with his cane and then further astonished his guest by following exactly in the guard’s footsteps, duplicating with his cane every motion of the pike. When the spell was broken, Smith was standing at the head of a long flight of steps, cane held at the ready. Having no idea that he had done anything out of the ordinary, he grounded his stick and took up his conversation where he had left off.
This absent-minded professor was born in 1723 in the town of Kirkcaldy, County Fife, Scotland. Kirkcaldy boasted a population of fifteen hundred; at the time of Smith’s birth, nails were still used as money by some of the local townspeople. When he was four years old, a most curious incident took place. Smith was kidnaped by a band of passing gypsies. Through the efforts of his uncle (his father had died before his birth), the gypsies were traced and pursued, and in their flight, they abandoned young Adam by the roadside. ‘He would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy,’ says one of his early biographers.”
From his earliest days, Smith was an apt pupil, although even as a child given to fits of abstraction. He was obviously destined for teaching, and so at seventeen he went to Oxford on a scholarship — making the journey on horseback — and there he remained for six years. But Oxford was not then the citadel of learning which it later became. Most of the public professors had long ago given up even a pretense of teaching. A foreign traveler recounts his astonishment over a public debate there in 1788.
All four participants passed the allotted time in profound silence, each absorbed in reading a popular novel of the day. Since instruction was the exception rather than the rule, Smith spent the years largely untutored and untaught, reading as he saw fit. In fact, he was once nearly expelled from the university because a copy of David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature was found in his rooms — Hume was no fit reading matter, even for a would-be philosopher.
In 1751 — he was not yet twenty-eight — Smith was offered the Chair of Logic at the University of Glasgow, and shortly thereafter he was given the Chair of Moral Philosophy. Unlike Oxford, Glasgow was a serious center of what has come to be called the Scottish Enlightenment, and it boasted a galaxy of talent. But it still differed considerably from the modem conception of a university. The prim professorial group did not entirely appreciate a certain levity and enthusiasm in Smith’s manner. He was accused of sometimes smiling during religious services (no doubt during a reverie), of being a firm friend of that outrageous Hume, of not holding Sunday classes on Christian evidences, of petitioning the Senatus Academicus for permission to dispense with prayers on the opening of class, and of delivering prayers that smacked of a certain ‘natural religion.’ Perhaps this all fits into better perspective if we remember that Smith’s own teacher, Francis Hutcheson, broke new ground at Glasgow by refusing to lecture to his students in Latin!
The disapproval could not have been too severe, for smith rose to be dean in 1758. Unquestionably he was happy at Glasgow. In the evenings he played whist — his absentmindedness made him a somewhat undependable player attended learned societies, and lived a quiet life. He was beloved of his students, noted as a lecturer — even Boswell came to hear him — and his odd gait and manner of speech gained the homage of imitation. Little busts of him even appeared in booksellers’ windows.
It was not merely his eccentric personality that gave him prestige. In 1759 he published a book that made an instant sensation. It was entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and it catapulted Smith immediately into the forefront of English philosophers. Theory was an inquiry into the origin of moral approbation and disapproval. How does it happen that man, who is a creature of self-interest, can form moral judgments in which self-interest seems to be held in abeyance or transmuted to a higher plane? Smith held that the answer lay in our ability to put ourselves in the position of a third person, an impartial observer, and in this way to form a sympathetic notion of the objective (as opposed to the selfish) merits of a case.