Adam Smith 1723-1790 Scottish Philosopher Term Paper

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His lectures were a success as many eminent people of Edinburgh attended them and earned him a decent income.

During the course of his lectures on English literature, Smith perhaps realized that his real vocation was economics. Hence, addition to English literature, he started to deliver lectures in economics in 1750-51 in which he advocated the doctrines of commercial liberty, based largely on the ideas of Hutcheson. It was also during this period that Smith renewed his acquaintance with the philosopher, David Hume, sharing a close intellectual alliance and friendship that led to the emergence of the so-called "Scottish Enlightenment."

As a result of the success of his Edinburgh public lectures Smith was elected to the chair of logic at the University of Glasgow in 1751, which was lying vacant since the death of its previous occupant, John Loudoun, on November 1, 1750. Smith spent the next 13 years at the University and described them later as "by far the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honorable period" of his life (Quoted in Rae, Ch. V p.1). Soon after Smith's appointment to the chair of logic, Professor Craigie of the Moral Philosophy chair also fell ill and died in the following year. Since Smith had been lecturing on jurisprudence and politics during his Edinburgh public lectures, it was decided to give him the moral philosophy chair in 1752 -- a chair once occupied by his famous teacher, Frances Hutheson.

Smith's lectures in moral philosophy were divided into four parts. The first contained natural theology, in which he considered the proofs of the being and attributes of God, and those principles of the human mind upon which religion is founded. The second part consisted of his views on ethics; the third part dealt with the branch of morality relating to justice, and the fourth part related to political economy.

The style of his lectures at Glasgow have been described by those who heard him as being entirely spontaneous and delivered with "extemporary elocution." His manner of speaking was "plain and unaffected, and as he seemed to be always interested in the subject, he never failed to interest his hearers." (Millar, quoted by Rae, Chapter V, p. 22)

Smith's popularity as a lecturer grew every year and students came from far and wide to attend courses in moral philosophy at Glasgow. He managed to inculcate a spirit of free inquiry among his students and taught the young people to think for themselves. John Rae states in his biography of Smith that his fame as a lecturer grew to such an extent that his opinions became the subject of general discussion in Glasgow town; the branches of study he lectured on became fashionable, and the sons of the wealthier citizens used to go to College to take his class even though they had no intention of completing a university course (Rae, Chapter V, p. 25).

Theory of Moral Sentiments

Smith published his first major work, Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and almost immediately received universal recognition. In fact, although the "Wealth of Nations" is now considered to be Adam Smith's greatest work, it was the Theory of Moral Sentiments, which had an immediate impact when it was published and made Adam Smith famous, catapulting him into the first rank of contemporary writers. Smith's trademark style of fluent, persuasive, and rhetorical argument, is very much evident in Theory. The book is basically a systematized collection of the ethical teachings he had propounded in his lectures at the University of Glasgow and deals with a fundamental ethical question: Why do we regard certain actions or intentions with approval and condemn others? (Butler, in his "Preface to the Theory of Moral Sentiments.")

This was by far a settled question at the time. Conservative thinkers were of the opinion that the only standard of right and wrong was the existing law as stipulated by the sovereign. Others believed that moral principles could be worked out rationally, just as a mathematical problem could be solved when it is thought through, rationally.

Smith agreed with neither of the two explanations and proposed in Theory that people have an innate sense of morality called "conscience" and it is this conscience that tells them the difference between right and wrong, rather than something given to us by the law, sovereigns or even by rational analysis. Smith also stated in his book that the inborn sense of morality in man is further reinforced by a natural fellow-feeling, which he termed as "sympathy" for fellow human beings. (Ibid.). The book's underlying philosophy of 'sympathy' is vividly encapsulated in the following quote:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

Hence, according to Smith it is because of these natural senses of conscience and sympathy that human beings are able to live together in orderly and beneficial social organizations, which are the outcome of human action but not necessarily of human design.

Traveling Tutor

The Theory of Moral Sentiments not only made its author famous, it also led to his financial well-being, albeit indirectly. A prominent British politician of the time, Charles Townshend, was so impressed with the book that he hired Smith as tutor to his stepson, Henry Scott -- the Duke of Buccleuch, and lured him away from his professorship at Glasgow, by making him "an offer that he could not refuse" -- the previously unheard off sum of £300 a year for life (Butler, in his "Preface to the Theory of Moral Sentiments.")

Since his pupil was traveling through Europe at the time, Smith's acceptance of the offer meant that he would have to travel with him. The assignment, therefore, took him on a Grand Tour of Europe and from 1764-66 he traveled with his pupil, mostly through France and Switzerland. The tour brought Smith into contact with several leading contemporaries: Continental philosophers such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and in particular the French philosophers of the physiocratic school-- Francois Quesnay and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot -- whose theories on natural law, wealth, and order he later partially adopted in his own work.

The Wealth of Nations

In the concluding paragraph of the Theory of Moral Sentiments written in 1759, Adam Smith had promised:

shall in another discourse endeavour to give an account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they have undergone in the different ages and periods of society, not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns policy revenue and arms, and whatever else is the object of law.

After his return from Europe in 1766, and now in possession of a life pension he had earned in the service of the Duke of Buccleuch, Smith retired to his birthplace of Kirkcaldy to fulfill his promise.

The book that he wrote was his magnus opus, an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Weath of Nations which was finally published in 1776 -- the same year the American Declaration of Independence was signed and in which his close friend David Hume died.

The Wealth of Nations had taken more than ten years to write and almost as many years to contemplate. Its still-continuing popularity two centuries and more later, proves the contention of one of Smith's antagonists, Bishop Horne, who said: "the books which live longest are those which have been carried longest in the womb of the parent." (Rae, Ch. XVII, p. 1)

The book has been described by Buckle as: " probably the most important book that has ever been written" which has "done more towards the happiness of man than has been effected by the united abilities of all the statesmen and legislators of whom history has preserved an authentic account." (Quoted by Rae, Ch. XVII, p. 8)

The Main Thesis of the Wealth of Nations: 'Self-Interest' & the 'Invisible Hand'

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (Smith 20)

This famous quote from the Wealth of Nations describes the main thesis of the book, i.e., every individual who produces food for us, does so in his/her own interest (i.e., to make a living) but while fulfilling his own self-interest, he/she inadvertently contributes to the interest of others.

And how does this miraculous transformation of a simple act of 'self-interest' by an individual result in the greater good of the society? Smith explains…[continue]

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    Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer" (Smith, 1776, p. 118-119). The unintentional consequence is thee same as it was before: an increasingly respectable and thriving nation, one so much so that it is as if shaped by what Smith deems the "invisible hand," from which Smith thus concludes that "it is the necessary, certain propensity

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