(Walter Bagehot and Adam Smith, part 2)
My previous post highlighted some of the main themes in Walter Bagehot’s beautiful essay “Adam Smith as a Person”. Today, I will pick up where I left off, beginning with the fourth paragraph, which surveys “the other works … [Adam Smith] published besides the Wealth of Nations”.
In all, Adam Smith published six substantial works on a wide variety of subjects, including his other great work, a comprehensive seven-part treatise on ethics (The Theory of Moral Sentiments). In addition to his tome on moral philosophy, Smith also published an appendix on the origins of language (Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages) as well as separate histories of astronomy, ancient physics, and ancient logic and metaphysics, which were all published posthumously as Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Smith even wrote a comprehensive survey of the fine arts, including painting, poetry, and music. (Moreover, as comprehensive as this brief survey of Smith’s writings appears, Bagehot left out Smith’s extensive correspondence and his lectures on rhetoric!)
Even more remarkable is that Adam Smith was working on another great book during his lifetime. Alas, this uncompleted work — which, in Smith’s own words, was to have provided “an account of the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions which they had undergone in the different ages and periods of society; not only in what concerns justice, but in what concerns police, revenue, and arms, and whatever else is the object of law” — never saw the light of day because Smith himself had requested his literary executors to burn and destroy it upon his death.
This prodigious and still unsurpassed level of intellectual production is perhaps best summed up by the immortal words of Walter Bagehot: “Scarcely any philosopher has imagined a vaster dream.”
But as Bagehot himself notes in the next paragraph of his essay (para. 5), why would such a great intellectual as Adam Smith — why would a thinker with such an abstract mind and with such a wide variety of eclectic and theoretical pursuits — ever decide to write a book like The Wealth of Nations? Why, in short, did this absent-minded Scottish philosopher, historian, and legal scholar turn to such mundane topics as “trade and money”? To have any hope of answering these pressing questions or solving this intellectual enigma, however, Bagehot concludes we must consider Adam Smith’s life and life experiences, and I will do just that in my next post …
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