12 - Adam Smith’s Economics Cambridge Companions Online - Cambridge University Press

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12 - Adam Smith’s Economics

pp. 319-365

  • The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith
  • Edited by:
  • Publisher:

  • Online Publication Date:
  • August 2006
  • Print Publication Year:
  • 2006

  • Hardback ISBN:
  • 9780521770590
  • Online ISBN:
  • 9781139001007
  • Paperback ISBN:
  • 9780521779241


Adam Smith's writings on economic subjects - to adapt the title that his closest friends gave to his posthumously published Essays on Philosophical Subjects - are diverse, discursive, and interspersed with almost everything else that he wrote. Economic life, for Smith, was intricately interconnected with the rest of life, or with the life of politics, sentiment, and imagination. Economic thought was interconnected with the rest of thought, or with legal, philosophical, and moral reflection. In the speculative thought of philosophers, as in the plans and projects of merchants, the economic and the political were virtually impossible to distinguish.

“I have begun to write a book in order to pass away the time,” Smith wrote to David Hume from Toulouse, in 1764. He devoted some 12 years of his life to the composition of The Wealth of Nations, which was eventually published in 1776 (“finish your Work before Autumn; go to London; print it,” Hume had written sternly in 1772) (Corr., pp. 102, 166). But The Wealth of Nations is not concerned only with wealth, and Smith's other writings and lectures were concerned in part with wealth, as well as with the emotional or moral lives of individuals (The Theory of Moral Sentiments), or with legal institutions (the lectures on jurisprudence). In The Wealth of Nations, individuals seek amusement, attention, and conversation; they think about fear and oppression; they reflect on ontology; and they are interested in equity. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, they desire trinkets and tweezer cases, they have theories about wealth and poverty, and they reflect on the commerce with China and on the precariousness of life. Smith says almost nothing about self-love in The Wealth of Nations; it is a principal theme of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “[I]t is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty,” Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (I.iii.2.1), of the desire to be attended to, and taken notice of.

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