Iain McLean reviews Nicholas Phillipson's Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, in the FT:
The Scottish Enlightenment remains extraordinary. A nation of a million souls that had known starvation, theocracy, and civil war in living memory, produced from 1730 onwards a constellation of intellectual stars, of whom two – the close friends David Hume and Adam Smith – are among the greatest minds of modern times. Eighteenth-century Scotland had four (briefly five) universities, albeit tiny, to England’s two. Thought was freer than in Oxford, which Smith hated after his time at Balliol between 1740 and 1746. Scottish schools were also said to be better than England’s (though this claim is more dubious).
Edinburgh historian Nicholas Phillipson has been studying this explosion of genius all his life, and is a trustworthy guide to the life of Adam Smith.
But there is a problem. Smith was remarkably quiet and cautious. On his deathbed, he asked two friends to burn almost all his manuscripts. They did. Just over 300 letters to or from him survive.
By his own account a “slow, a very slow workman”, he published only two full-length books: the Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He comes to life only at a few dramatic moments, especially in 1776. In that year Hume died. Smith’s brave eulogy showed that an atheist could live and die as nobly as a Christian.
But, less bravely, Smith refused to publish his friend’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, in spite of Hume’s deathbed request.
Why did the author of TheTheory of Moral Sentiments, which derives its morality from what would seem right to an impartial spectator, refuse his best friend’s deathbed request?