Review of John Buchan’s “Adam Smith: and the pursuit of perfect liberty”

The man in question? Gay? There IS a faint resemblance to Oscar Wilde …

Andrew Norton asked me to write a review of a new book on Adam Smith – so here’s a fairly advanced draft. I’d welcome suggestions for improvements.

Postscript: I’m hoping this is a final now, and comments from Don Arthur, Gavin Kennedy and Dr Troppo are gratefully acknowledged. (Well not Dr Troppo’s thoughts which were rude and unhelpful, but then – so what’s new?)

Adam Smith: and the pursuit of perfect liberty

Writing the biography of a great intellectual figure poses particular challenges. Focusing on the life should illuminate rather than distract from explicating the subject’s thought. But sometimes the subject presents particular difficulties.

For instance situating Oscar Wilde’s plays within his life adds immeasurably to their power. Lady Windermere is warned by someone she does not realise is actually her mother that she is “on the brink of ruin . . on the brink of a hideous precipice”. This might be melodrama. But for at least some of us, knowing Wilde was presaging the catastrophe of his later disgrace makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck. Knowing Wilde’s passions makes his paradoxes look less like facile jokes, and more like depth charges.

Then again, as Wilde said, he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life. The problem for James Buchan, the latest biographer of Adam Smith is that Smith got things round the other way. He put his genius into his work. But his life? Well, though like any life there moments which touch us – raised as a sickly child by his mother, his father having died before he was born, the great love of Smith’s life was his mother – we must speculate about their impact. For there is little else to go on.

Fitting though it is for a high priest of self-command it offers slim pickings for the biographer. Despite his eminence in his own time, there are no paintings of him. Sex and romance rate barely a mention in the million odd words he wrote about society. A man who had sixteen volumes of draft material burned before his death managed also to keep the prying eyes of posterity away from more private details. Apart from his mother, were there any other loves of his life? If so were they women or men? We can only speculate.

The book’s blurb and the author’s introduction focus on two themes. Firstly, that Smith scholarship has been beset with anachronism that tendency we have to judge the past by the standards and concepts of the present. Secondly that Smith’s two great books were part of a larger whole which Smith never completed. Oddly however, neither theme is well developed.

Anachronism in Smith studies has been rife. On the one hand economists projected the technical concerns of their own time onto Smith’s writings, trying to divine the extent to which his words ‘anticipated’ ideas like ‘perfect competition’ for instance. On the other, ideologues have always tried to claim Smith for their own side in contemporary debates. Yet these questions are not, and cannot really be about Smith. They are rather about us.

Buchan’s tilting at anachronism may not be original. But given the frequency with which this champion of the poor and the weak is presented as the apostle of the rich and the strong, and the various contrasting attempts to colonise Smith for the left, it is always timely.

Thus Buchan sets out Smith’s ideas in his two great books The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations with a fine regard for Smith’s intentions. He helps the reader grasp Smith in his own terms, no mean feat. But greater depth of discussion, including perhaps more explicit debunking of some central misunderstandings of Smith might have driven the point home, particularly given that some readers will be unaware of their own preconceptions about Smith and so insufficiently appreciative of the magnitude of Buchan’s achievement.

I read intently to see how Buchan would convey the poignant story of the great project slipping away from Smith. But the record doesn’t allow much more than the reporting of a sentence or two from Smith before and after it had all become too late.

At least in the hands of Buchan (and Smith’s other biographers) we do get some picture of Smith’s qualities. Dr Johnson considered him a “dull dog” perhaps because Smith had a reputation for either disengaged silence or for monopolising a conversation, but perhaps also because of Smith’s critique of Johnson’s dictionary as insufficiently analytical. Smith had great solicitude for those to whom he felt he had a duty, was honest and honourable to a fault in his financial dealings being a secret and substantial benefactor. He was a perfectionist working slowly and painfully in between the debilitation of bouts of melancholia and hypochondria.

But a collection of qualities and anecdotes doesn’t really help us engage with Smith and his ideas. All the while Buchan is eager too eager? to entertain. But if our interest is to hold over even the space of this small 150 page book we need to be engaged in some process of unfolding whether that be an unfolding of Smith’s ideas and their implications, of the drama of his life or the development of his character.

Try as he might Buchan can’t make up for this deficit of real engagement with catchy chapter headings.

Cave, Tree, Fountain

Pen-knives and snuff-boxes

Infidel with a bag wig

Baboons in the orchard.

I’m not sure it had to be this way.

Buchan is often pre-occupied with tokens. Thus Smith’s fatherlessness comes to the fore where Buchan quotes the one time, late in his life when Smith’s final draft of The Theory of Moral Sentiments contemplated the abyss of a “fatherless world” before reaffirming his faith that it was not so. Buchan quotes Smith’s letter to his publisher William Strahan upon the death of his mother (p. 134). The passage concludes “I cannot help feeling” this “final separation . . . as a very heavy stroke upon me”. Buchan calls this “unbearable”. It’s also a tad emotionally constipated.

The key to writing about Smith well, I think is that idea that he kept his genius for his work – not his life. Here he is in The Theory of Moral Sentiments expounding the closest of all human bonds.

What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder; and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.

Smith’s life and his love are here I think and, thus transmuted they speak to us directly. For some of us it gets that hair standing up on the back of our necks.

Postscript: And yes, Ken who added the caption above, Smith may have been gay. Evidence in another post some time. (Not that it’s particularly strong either way!)

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James Farrell
James Farrell
15 years ago

A useful review, Nicholas. (Shall I assume the relevant editor will insert the missing commas?)

My only comment is to wonder whether there is really any great mystery about why Smith abandoned the ‘third’ book (which would have been the second book had fate in the form of Townsend not intervened). I didn’t think there was more to it than what John Rae wrote:

In the preface to the 1790 edition [of TMS, Smith] refers to the promise he had made in that of 1759 of treating in a future work of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they had 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; and he says that in the Wealth of Nations he had executed this promise so far as policy, revenue, and arms were concerned, but that the remaining part of the task, the theory of jurisprudence, he had been prevented from executing by the same occupations which had till then prevented him from revising the Theory. He adds: “Though my very advanced age leaves me, I acknowledge, very little expectation of ever being able to execute this great work to my own satisfaction, yet, as I have not altogether abandoned the design, and as I wish still to continue under the obligation of doing what I can, I have allowed the paragraph to remain as it was published more than thirty years ago, when I entertained no doubt of being able to execute everything which it announced.”

Lin
Lin
15 years ago

Ok, here’s what you wanted. Just read and compare—

Adam Smith: and the pursuit of perfect liberty

Writing the biography of a great intellectual figure poses particular challenges. Focusing on the life should illuminate rather than distract from explicating the subject’s thought. But sometimes the subject presents particular difficulties.

For instance, situating Oscar Wilde’s plays within his life adds immeasurably to their power. Lady Windermere is warned by someone, she does not realise is her mother, that she is “on the brink of ruin . . . on the brink of a hideous precipice”

Gavin Kennedy
15 years ago

The comment by James Farrell on Nicholas Gruen’s review of James Buchan’s

recent book on Adam Smith questions the failure of Smith to complete what he

announced he had set out to do in his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ 1759,

namely to write an account of jurisprudence. Now Smith claimed consistently

that he was still working on this project for 31 years, right up to his

final edition of ‘Wealth of Nations’, sent to his printer only a few months

before he died in 1790.

James Farrell, in his comment on Nicholas Gruen’s review presents the

conventional account for Smith’s behaviour:

“My only comment is to wonder whether there is really any great mystery

about why Smith abandoned the ‘third’ book (which would have been the second

book had fate in the form of Townsend not intervened). I didn’t think there

was more to it than what John Rae wrote:

‘In the preface to the 1790 edition [of TMS, Smith] refers to the promise he

had made in that of 1759 of treating in a future work of the general

principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions they had

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; and he says that in the Wealth of

Nations he had executed this promise so far as policy, revenue, and arms

were concerned, but that the remaining part of the task, the theory of

jurisprudence, he had been prevented from executing by the same occupations

which had till then prevented him from revising the Theory. He adds: “Though

my very advanced age leaves me, I acknowledge, very little expectation of

ever being able to execute this great work to my own satisfaction, yet, as I

have not altogether abandoned the design, and as I wish still to continue

under the obligation of doing what I can, I have allowed the paragraph to

remain as it was published more than thirty years ago, when I entertained no

doubt of being able to execute everything which it announced.’ ”

Two aspects of Smith’s own explanations for not concluding his promised work

on jurisprudence, and of some other works which he claimed at various times

to have on the ‘anvil’, raise credible doubts as to the truth merely being

completely explained by what he allowed into the public domain.

Over 31 years between his first public announcement and his last is at the

very least most strange. He was not suffering from ‘very advanced age’ for

all 31 years; he did not have to make public pronouncements of his

intentions to remind readers of what was missing; he wrote and delivered the

bulk of his intellectual ‘system’ in his Glasgow lectures in 1751-63 (see

his ‘Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1762-3; for which he received his doctorate,

LL.D) and he worked diligently from 1778-1790, excepting some minor periods

of leave while engaged in publishing editions of his two books and advising

the UK government on trade policy and, significantly the American war, as a

Commissioner of Scottish Customs in Edinburgh, showing anything but

indolence or the effects of ‘advanced age’ right up to a few months before

he died.

In this respect note that Smith wrote or signed 90 per cent of the over

1,100 pieces of correspondence and reports for the Scottish Commissioners,

which allowing for his few absences, means he dealt personally with nearly

100 per cent of their output from 1778-1790.

Hence, there is controversy about his sudden decision not to publish the

long awaited third book on Jurisprudence to complete the promised trilogy.

My suggested explanation in Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (2005) is that Smith

was too embarrassed politically and personally to publish Jurisprudence. He

was noted for his prudence in all matters (for instance, only critiquing by

name dead, not those of living, authors).

Reading his lecture notes on Jurisprudence, made by students in 1762-3, on

the social-political evolution of constitutional liberty in Britain (mainly

England), knowing of his ‘Hanoverian’ affiliations through his father’s role

in the 1704-5 shenanigans to unify the parliaments of Scotland and England

and of his own predilections that led him to be within the Duke of Argyll’s

sphere of interest in those crucial years from which he obtained his

education at Glasgow and Oxford, and his chairs at Glasgow University, and

knowing from his works of he ‘republican’ sympathies (i.e., ‘democratic’,

pro-the lower orders of society and in favour of ‘liberty’), it is not a

stretch of conjecture to suggest that the American rebellion posed serious

personal problems for Smith.

Wealth of Nations contains material of the ‘recent disturbances’ in the

American colonies and he takes a conciliatory line towards the demands of

the colonists within a frank discussion of the proper role of colonies in a

‘great Empire’. That is about as far as he could go without causing

political repercussions for himself and for others who espoused similar

sympathies. In the context of Smith avowal of the benefits of stability in

social harmony, amidst the ever present dangers of ‘factions’ and ‘discord’,

he faced a dilemma: to support the cause of constitutional liberty in

America was disloyal to the Hanoverian King and government; to oppose the

same was disloyal to those principles he enunciated to his classes in

1751-63. He chose to remain silent.

As it was just after his death in 1790, from the time Dugald Stewart read

his eulogy in 1793, the political atmosphere had swung towards repression

under the influence of the French Terror, and many of Smith’s friends were

investigated, along with Smith’s books, for signs of sedition and for

stirring up discord among the common peoples. Men of lesser social

importance were subjected to judicial punishments, including transportation

to New South Wales and in a few instances to hanging. If ‘Jurisprudence’

had been published as it was likely to have been written on the basis of his

jurisprudence teachings, the ‘close’ inquiries into Smith’s friends, and his

own reputation, would have been a lot ‘warmer’ and discomforting than it was

when the authorities only had Wealth of Nations and informers’ reports to go

on.

When Smith ordered his unfinished manuscripts to be burned he did not know

about the students’ notes, which by then were stored among family papers and

forgotten. He could assume that the oral tradition was not a threat to him

or others, the students having dispersed. Without hard evidence the

authorities were powerless to think the worse. A hundred years later in

1896, the first set of students notes surfaced in Scotland (John Rae’s

biography was published in 1895) and the second set was discovered in 1958.

This changed the game considerably.”

Gavin Kennedy

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Many thanks for those detailed and fascinating comments, Gavin.