Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Bonar
Adam Smith (17231790)
[Born at Kirkcaldy, N.B., 1723, educated at Glasgow University (under Hutcheson) 173740, and at Balliol College, Oxford, 174047, he gave public lectures in Edinburgh on Rhetoric and Criticism, 174849,lectures which bore fruit in the writings of Kames, Campbell, and Blair. In 1751 he became Professor of Logic, in 1752 Professor of Moral Philosophy, in Glasgow University. His first publications were two articles in the short-lived Edinburgh Review of 1755, but he made his reputation by his Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759. In 1763 Charles Townshend persuaded him to resign his chair, and go as travelling tutor into France and Switzerland with the young Duke of Buccleuch, 176366. He had thus greater leisure and opportunities to complete his crowning achievement, the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776. In 1778 he was made a Commissioner of Customs for Scotland, holding office till his death, at Edinburgh, 1790.]
These well-known verses of Dr. Barnard (in reply to Dr. Johnsons taunt, There is great room for improvement in you, and you should set about it) give the impression that Adam Smith is a philosopher and a critic rather than an artist. Yet in the early part of his life he owed much of his fame to the fine writing of his Moral Sentiments and lectures on art. His two critical papers in the Edinburgh Review (on Johnsons Dictionary and on the State of Learning in Europe) showed his learning and ingenuity more than his skill in rounding a period or unravelling a complicated subject, though he has evidently taken pains to perfect his two or three pages of translations from Rousseau in the latter paper. His literary masterpiece is the Moral Sentiments. It has far more colour, polish, and elaboration, and is really more logical in arrangement, than the Wealth of Nations. A comparatively new writer in 1759, he could not afford to dispense with the arts of language; and, like his friend David Hume, he had no desire to address a narrow circle of merely academical readers. In 1776 he could write at his ease. The nature of his subject demanded clearness more than elegance; and the Wealth of Nations is always clear, often homely, even at times ungrammatical. Long sentences occur rarely (when we pass the exordium, ch. i. Bk. I.) The author falls into the speech of daily life, and the idioms of business, such as the higgling of the market, the workmans hand does not go to it, the goods come cheaper to market, the pedlar principle of turning a penny wherever a penny was to be got. He will not keep up his dignity at the cost of the smallest obscurity; and, like Socrates, he takes his illustrations rather from the courtyard than the court. He revels in facts and figures, but delights still more in general and connecting principles, and usually begins a chapter by stating a general proposition, which he proceeds to establish by adducing a long series of instances. His examples are almost always from actual life and history; he is fanciful only in his similes, as when he compares a bank that lived by drawing and redrawing to a pond that had an exit but no entrance, and likens the invention of paper money to a waggon-way through the air. He is a hard hitter, and a good hater, though his heaviest strokes are levelled at bad laws and false doctrines, and his hatred is usually kept for classes, not individuals. Here are some examples: That insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician; The sneaking arts of underling tradesmen are thus erected into political maxims for the conduct of a great empire; That it was the spirit of monopoly which originally both invented and propagated this doctrine cannot be doubted; and they who first taught it were by no means such fools as they who believed it; It is a very singular government in which every member of the administration wishes to get out of the country, and consequently to have done with the Government, as soon as he can, and to whose interest, the day after he has left it and carried his whole fortune with him, it is perfectly indifferent though the whole country was swallowed up by an earthquake.
When he came near to personal bitterness in the case of Rochefoucauld, he found reason to repent (what is said of that author in the Moral Sentiments in 1759 is not said of him there in 1790); and towards the profligate Mandeville (Edinburgh Review) he may perhaps have softened a little. His caustic description of an English youth on the Continent, sent there to spare his father the pain of seeing him going to ruin before his eyes, cannot, without slur on our authors gratitude, be supposed to apply to a particular case. He is rarely ironical, and never with the concealed satire of Hume, or the transparent innuendo of Gibbon.
His general judgments are formed cautiously from the facts, and expressed, where there is room for doubt, with a liberal use of qualifying phrases, generally, perhaps, as it were, it is said, and as nearly as we can judge. Where he quotes authorities at all, he usually gives them in the text. In the Moral Sentiments there are (speaking broadly) no footnotes, and in the Wealth of Nations very few.
Dugald Stewart states that Hume wrote out his books with his own hand, Adam Smith dictated his to a secretary. This may partly explain the difference in style between the two authors. Several long letters of Adam Smith in his own handwriting are still preserved, and they have all the characteristics of the printed books; the habit of dictating and lecturing could not be shaken off.
The extracts given here are selected as examples of our authors work in four departments of studyLiterature, the History of Science, Moral Philosophy, and Political Economy. If a philosophers views could be summed up in short phrases, it might be said that he found the leading idea of Art to be imitation, of Ethics, sympathy, of Political Economy, commercial ambition and industrial liberty, while the spring of all science and philosophy was (to him) the desire of finding order and connecting principles in a chaos of particular data.
His influence on literature and criticism was mainly personal; his work in philosophy is not comparable to Humes in historical importance; but his Wealth of Nations was the starting-point of systematic economical study in this country. Adam Smith is to English economics what Kant is to German metaphysics. Finally, Adam Smith is one of the few authors whose writings have guided the action of statesmen and moulded the policy of nations.