Term Paper: Adam Smith -1790), Scottish Philosopher and Economist

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Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish philosopher and economist, is widely regarded as the father of modern economics and capitalism. His celebrated treatise an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, considered as "the first modern work in the field of economics," contains a comprehensive defense of free market policies and gives a still-valid explanation of how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic well-being and prosperity. Adam Smith's ideas on economics, formulated as they were in the later half of the 18th century, provided the ideological and intellectual background for the Industrial Revolution -- the sweeping material transformation in Western society and many parts of the world that characterized the 19th century.

This paper gives an overview of the life and works of Adam Smith including an account of his early life, boyhood, his education, major influences as well as a review of his two major books. It also analyzes the seeming contradiction in his theories of 'self-interest' and 'sympathy for others' and outlines Smith's views on the 'invisible hand,' mercantalism, slavery, and colonialism.

Early Life

Adam Smith was born at Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on June 5, 1723. His father, also named Adam Smith, was Writer to the Signet, Judge Advocate for Scotland and Comptroller of the Customs in the Kirkcaldy district, while his mother, Margaret Douglas, was daughter of Lt. Col. John Douglas -- a prominent landowner in Strathendry, Scotland (Rae, Ch. I, p. 1). Comptroller Smith died almost six months before the birth of his son and the young Adam Smith was brought up by his mother and the guardians appointed in his father's will. The elder Smith had left behind enough money and property to enable his widow and heirs to survive comfortably (Ross 9).

Childhood and Early Education

Adam Smith, being an only child, was particularly attached to his mother and remained so throughout her life as he never married. He was a sickly child and often suffered from various illnesses from an early age. Perhaps, due to this reason, his mother took extra care of him and is sometimes blamed for treating him with 'unlimited indulgence' (Ross 19).

Kirkcaldy, the Scottish town where Smith was born and continued to live with his mother at a young age, did not have a reputation for being a healthy place for children because of its 'sea air.' Probably due to this reason, his mother often took him to visit her sisters and to her own hometown, Strathenry, where her brother lived. During one such visit to Strathenry, a young 3-year-old Smith is reputed to have been 'kidnapped' by gypsies. One of his early biographers, John Rae narrates that a passerby saw a gypsy woman carrying a piteously crying child a few miles down the road from the Douglas residence; his uncle organized a search party and when they came upon the gypsy woman, she threw the child down and escaped (Rae, Ch. I, p. 4).

As he grew up and his health improved, Smith was sent to the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy, which was one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that time. He is believed to have undergone quality tutoring in classical Latin and elementary mathematics in the school from 1731 to 1737 under the direction of David Miller -- a schoolmaster of high repute (Ross 19). Although Kirkcaldy was a small town with only 1500 inhabitants, there were a couple of naileries in town, which the young Smith was fond of visiting. He may well have subconsciously acquired the idea about the value of 'division of labor' that he so famously expound in the 'Wealth of Nations' by his keen observance of the workers in the process of nail making in these small Kirkcaldy naileries (Ibid. 20-22).

Glasgow College (1737-40): By the age of fourteen, Smith had learned enough classic Latin and mathematics to be sent to Glasgow College for higher studies in October 1737, where he remained until 1740. Since the degree requirement at the College was 5 years and Smith only attended 3 years at the college, he was unable to earn a formal degree. However, in the three years at Glasgow College, he got a thorough grounding in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and Moral Philosophy, as the teaching at the College was of a high quality and the level of intellectual activity among its students was of a similarly high standard.

Smith was already well-versed in the basics of Latin and Mathematics; hence the learning of Greek was to be a new experience for him at Glasgow College. Smith's favorite subject during his student days at Glasgow College appears to have been Mathematics, which was taught by Dr. Robert Simson. In the new edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments (published in 1790) Smith pays high tribute to the professor by counting him among the two greatest mathematicians [along with Dr. Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh] that he "ever have had the honor to be known to" (Quoted by Rae, Ch. II, p. 2). Despite his ardor for Mathematics and admiration for Dr. Simson, however, Smith's most enduring influence at Glasgow was Francis Hutcheson -- the famous Scottish-Irish philosopher. Although unpopular with the older generation, who considered his ideas a threat to the existing beliefs, Hutcheson was virtually worshipped by the students at Glasgow. He was probably the first lecturer at the college who abandoned Latin to speak to the students in their own language during his lectures and not only had an impressive style of delivery but also had fresh and inspiring ideas to impart. He was the original author of the famous Utilitarian phrase, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" and imparted his benevolent philosophy of seeking human welfare, liberty, reason and free speech into the young and impressionable mind of Adam Smith who became a life-long disciple of Hutcheson. Smith was recognized as a special student by Hutcheson, and he is probably the one who introduced his bright young pupil to the great Scottish philosopher of the time, David Hume, who later became Smith's life-long friend (Rae, Ch. II, pp. 3-4).

Oxford (1740-47): Smith left Scotland for Oxford in June 1740, and was immediately struck with the richness of England compared with that of Scotland, particularly by the vast superiority of its agriculture. He remained at Oxford from July of 1740 until August 15, 1746 during which he never visited Scotland (even during term breaks) due to the expense involved in traveling.

Smith happened to have attended Oxford at a time when the standard of learning at the famous institute had fallen considerably. Smith was, therefore, particularly disappointed with the quality of lectures at Oxford and has noted in the Wealth of Nations that the lecturers had given up all pretense of lecturing. Elaborating on the reasons for the stagnating standard of learning which prevailed in the English universities at the time, Smith concluded that it was their very wealth that was responsible for the decline as it was distributed on a bad system. Other famous people, such as Gibbon and Bentham, who attended Oxford a few years later also have similar tales to tell. Bentham, for instance has noted that it was absolutely impossible to learn anything at Oxford, and the years he spent there were the most barren and unprofitable of his life. However, unlike Bentham and Gibbon, Smith did not believe that his years at Oxford were wasted (Rae, Ch. III, p. 5).

He read deeply and widely on many subjects and in many languages mostly at the local College library at Balliol. Although Smith's favorite subject at Glasgow was Mathematics, he concentrated on the study of Latin and Greek classics rather than Math at Oxford. The learning environment at Oxford was far from liberal and students were forbidden to read or discuss works of modern rationalism. Smith himself is said to have been severely reprimanded when he was caught reading Hume's Treatise of Human Nature.

Another reason for Smith's unhappiness at Oxford was his generally poor health during his stay at the University. He mentions "an inveterate scurvy and shaking in the head" in his letters to his mother from Oxford and reveals that he was trying to cure it with tar-water -- considered to be a panacea for almost all diseases at the time. Apart from ill-health, another reason for his unhappiness was the apparent discrimination suffered by Scottish students at Oxford at the hands of the College authorities and fellow students. This may be one of the reasons why Smith made almost no permanent friends at Oxford. (Ross 75-76)

There is some evidence to suggest that Smith took the B.A. degree from Oxford although for some strange reason, his name is omitted from the official graduation records. Smith returned to Scotland in August 1746, and never set foot in Oxford again.

Public Lectures at Edinburgh

After his return to Scotland in 1746, Smith stayed at home with his mother at Kirkcaldy and was without a job for almost two years.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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