That wonderful, marvelous Adam Smith

I said something about “Adam Smith sermonizing” in The Wall Street Journal back on this post.

Speak of the devil, I just happened to read a book review in that paper this morning about the book, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (I am not making this title up), By Nicholas Phillipson.

Talk about your gushing. The reviewer writes, breathily,

Even his appearance is a mystery. The only contemporary likenesses of him are two small, carved medallions. We know Adam Smith as we know the ancients, in colorless stone.

It is a measure of Nicholas Phillipson’s gifts as a writer that he has, from this unpromising material, produced a fascinating book. Mr. Phillipson is the world’s leading historian of the Scottish Enlightenment. His “Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life” animates Smith’s prosaic personal history with an account of the eventful times through which he lived and the revolutionary ideas that inspired him. Adam Smith finally has the biography that he deserves, and it could not be more timely.

Smith’s fame, of course, was made by the “Wealth of Nations.” The book appeared in 1776, a good year in the annals of human liberty. Its teachings are so fundamental to modern economics that familiarity often dulls our appreciation of its brilliance.

Smith constructed his masterpiece on a few ingenious insights into the workings of a commercial economy….

He’s so wonderful, but so unknowable! His ways are so far above our ways, and his thoughts so far above our thoughts, that we know him only through colorless stone! Quick, a paper bag — I’m hyperventilating…

Of course, I must admit, I haven’t read Wealth of Nations. For two centuries and more, I’ve been holding out for the movie version. Maybe it’s all that and more. But at the moment I’m giving myself a break from nonfiction to reread O’Brian’s The Wine-Dark Sea, which of course actually is wonderful. (Speaking of the movie, I watched “Master and Commander” last night on Blu-Ray. If only someone would undertake to make a separate film on each book in the Aubrey/Maturin canon! As soon as it came out on Netflix, you wouldn’t see me for a year…)

After that, I’m going to read the books I got for my birthday, starting with Tony Blair’s new political autobio. Then there’s Woodward’s Obama’s War. Only then will I allow myself the pleasure of reading the latest Arkady Renko mystery, Three Stations.

Then, before I read Adam Smith, I will go back and finish Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, which I set aside to read Bob Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, back-to-back. Then, sometime after Trotsky, I’ll go read Adam Smith — right after I poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick. Twice. Colorless stone, indeed.

6 thoughts on “That wonderful, marvelous Adam Smith

  1. Brad

    Oops — the title of Woodward book is actually “Obama’s Wars.” I keep forgetting that Democrats and some others use the plural, whereas I think in terms of the singular.

    Also, I don’t mean to disparage the every-weekday book review in the WSJ. I love it. It’s the one thing I try to make a particular point of reading every day. It’s where I first became interested in some of the books listed above, in fact.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    in colorless stone–i.e., white marble–not through colorless stone–sounds like you’re gazing through a cubic zirconium!

    Adam Smith, Bedazzled!

  3. Greg Jones

    Wow, I didn’t know there were SEVEN Renko books. I read Gorky Park, and maybe Polar Star, but that was 20 years ago.
    You managed to get me hooked on Rubicon. I’m only one episode behind. It’s kind of like an American Len Deighton or LeCarre. And I’m having a ball trying to explain it all to my 11 and 21 year olds. They have no pop culture/literary background to let them get their arms around it.

  4. Phillip

    The main thing you need to know about Adam Smith is that, were he around today, he would be pilloried by the Tea Party and Foxpublican Party as a “socialist,” for daring to say such things as “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in proportion.”

  5. Herbie

    Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand scratched my buttocks the other day, and I was thoroughly not amused.

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