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catallaxy in technical exile

Review of Adam Smith: and the pursuit of perfect liberty by James Buchan

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Cross posted from Club Troppo: Andrew Norton asked me to write a review of the above mentioned book for the fine journal he edits – Policy Magazine and here is what I’ve come up with. Comments appreciated.

Review of Adam Smith and the pursuit of perfect liberty by James Buchan

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 disguised 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 degree 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.

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Written by Admin

May 4, 2006 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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