Adam Smith as a mystery non-fiction author

(Walter Bagehot and Adam Smith, part 8)

Picking up right where we left off, when Adam Smith finally returned home to his beloved mother in 1766, after three years overseas as a future duke’s chaperone and tutor, the Scottish philosopher spent most of the next ten years of his life in quiet seclusion in the small town of Kirkcaldy, where he wrote, revised, and proofread a book that was destined to become his magnum opus. But what kind of book is The Wealth of Nations? Alas, Walter Bagehot’s 1876 essay “Adam Smith as a Person” does not have much to say about this great work, except that its style was “plain and manly” (p. 36, para. 30); its substance, “curious” or idiosyncratic (p. 38; para. 31).

Why “curious” or idiosyncratic? For Bagehot, Smith’s Wealth of Nations consists of a miscellaneous collection of assorted facts and figures — a literary grab bag of random observations — and most of these intellectual sundries, so to speak, are archaic vignettes of a bygone pre-industrial age. Bagehot himself itemizes no less than 15 examples of such anachronisms directly from the pages of Wealth of Nations (pp. 37-38; para. 31), noting “[t]here are few books in which there may be gathered more curious particulars of the old world” (p. 37; para. 31). For my part, I would remind the Bagehots of the world of the complete title of Smith’s magnum opus: “An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations” (see screenshot below). An “inquiry” is an investigation, so Smith’s tome should be read like a murder-mystery, not a textbook, but instead of trying to solve a murder, our narrator is trying to figure out one of the most important and difficult mysteries of all time: the real reason why some countries are free and prosperous while others are stagnant and poor.

Also, as Bagehot himself reminds us, The Wealth of Nations “was but a fragment of an immensely larger whole.” (Bagehot 1876, p. 36; para. 29.) Recall that, before he had departed for France in 1764, Smith had disclosed at the very end of his first book, his treatise on Moral Sentiments, that he was writing “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.” In fact, as late as the 6th and last edition of Moral Sentiments, published in 1790 (the year of his untimely demise at age 67), the Scottish philosopher and legal scholar is still referring to his upcoming book on law and government. This observation, in turn, poses a new question. Why did Adam Smith never complete this promised work?

I shall address this very question in my next post (the penultimate one in this series) and begin wrapping up my multi-part review of Bagehot’s 1876 essay.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Adam Smith as a mystery non-fiction author

  1. Pingback: Die Adam Smith Probleme: a comprehensive recap | prior probability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s