Published March 21, 2011
Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
by Nicholas Phillipson
Yale University Press, 346 pp., $32.50
Adam Smith is not exactly a biographer's dream. An intensely private man, he seemed to go out of his way to leave no trail for future chroniclers. His correspondence is dry and workmanlike, with few personal details or revealing moments. He made sure his private notes and unpublished works-in-progress were burned before his death. Having lived unmarried with his mother for most of his life, he left behind very few intimates who could relate his story for posterity. And yet Smith was more than a profoundly important figure in the history of moral philosophy, economics, and liberal political thought; he was also, in his eccentric way, a quite charismatic man.
This perplexing combination of challenges has meant that Smith has had too few biographers, and that most of them have fallen into one of two traps — the purely intellectual biography, in which the man is merely the vehicle for his ideas, and the purely contextual biography in which the man is just a representative of his time and place. The best modern studies of Smith — Joseph Crospey's Polity and Economy, and Jerry Muller's Adam Smith in His Time and Ours –– fall respectively into these two camps. Like so much that has been written about Smith, they make the reader yearn for something more.
With this superb new book, Nicholas Phillipson has answered that yearning at last. He has done it by leaning toward both traps at different times, but never quite falling into either. There is, as Phillipson acknowledges at the outset, no getting around the fact that Smith's ideas are almost all we have of him. But through meticulous research, a masterful command of the philosophical debates of the age, and a fine grasp of the particulars of Scottish life in Smith's era, he manages to shadow out the man himself — decisively demolishing some longstanding myths popular on both the left and the right, and, without straining to be relevant, nonetheless showing us a thinker with a great deal to offer our own troubled time.
Read the rest of this article at The New Republic.