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A Wealth Of Ideas

October 5, 2010

Jeffrey Collins in WSJ Books:

Having dined with Adam Smith on a number of occasions, Samuel Johnson once described him “as dull a dog as he had ever met with.” Smith’s biographers might be inclined to agree. The most celebrated political economist in history led a remarkably quiet life. Born in the sleepy Scottish port of Kirkcaldy in 1723, he was raised by his widowed mother and lived with her for much of his life. He studied at the University of Glasgow (which he loved) and at Oxford (which he loathed). Only once in his life did he travel outside of Britain. He wrote few letters and burned his personal papers shortly before his death in 1790. Even his appearance is a mystery. The only contemporary likenesses of him are two small, carved medallions. We know Adam Smith as we know the ancients, in colorless stone.

It is a measure of Nicholas Phillipson’s gifts as a writer that he has, from this unpromising material, produced a fascinating book. Mr. Phillipson is the world’s leading historian of the Scottish Enlightenment. His “Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life” animates Smith’s prosaic personal history with an account of the eventful times through which he lived and the revolutionary ideas that inspired him. Adam Smith finally has the biography that he deserves, and it could not be more timely.

Smith’s fame, of course, was made by the “Wealth of Nations.” The book appeared in 1776, a good year in the annals of human liberty. Its teachings are so fundamental to modern economics that familiarity often dulls our appreciation of its brilliance. [More]

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