Born across the Firth of Forth in Fife, a county to the north of Edinburgh, Adam Smith is one of the best-known and most important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century.
His work on economics in particular remains a text for our time, and it was this book - entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - that garnered Smith his reputation as the father of modern economics (or modern capitalism, depending on your perspective!).
Smith himself never knew his own father (also called Adam Smith), who died a couple of months before his son was born. Few details of Smith's childhood are known - even his exact date of birth in 1723 isn't certain - until he started studying at the University of Glasgow at the age of 14. Here his academic prowess proved to be a great gift, and he later undertook post-graduate studied at Oxford University - although this seemed not to be a happy experience, and it is believed that he ended his studies there prematurely after experiencing the effects of a nervous breakdown.
Whilst giving lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Smith became acquainted with the philosopher David Hume, whose work he had read during his time at Oxford, and they established a firm friendship (despite Hume being 10 years senior to Smith).
In character Smith was perhaps considered a bit absent-minded, prone to distractions and known to frequently talk aloud to himself. Although he was known as a great writer and intellectual, in conversation he could be lifeless and un-engaging - some speculated that he dulled his conversation so as not to distract from sales of his books, in which he was more loquacious - and although he gave frequent public lectures he was an uncomfortable public speaker, the result of a speech impediment. There are few portraits of him from life because he disliked his appearance - he once remarked that "I am a beau in nothing but my books".
In 1759 Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a study outlining Man's moral nature and his capacity to make decisions based on conscience and the impact on the social relationships with others. Smith intended this to be the first volume in an eventual series of 23 works which would consider in great detail every aspect of human experience... Although The Wealth of Nations would prove to be his more influential book, Smith considered Moral Sentiments to be the better work, and continued revising and editing the volume for subsequent publications right up to his death.
At the time he wrote and published The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, Smith was living in Kirkcaldy, the town in which he'd been born.
The house Smith wrote in was owned by his mother, with whom he maintained a close relationship until her death, just six years before his own.
Later Smith would return to Edinburgh to live in Panmure House, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile - the building still stands, and today is a venue for economics forums.
One of the key ideas often cited from The Wealth of Nations is Smith's notion of an 'invisible hand', the unseen but active forces influencing and shaping a society's economic process, but the phrasing of 'invisible hand' occurs just three times in all of Smith's writing - once in The Wealth of Nations, once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and once in A History of Astronomy, which was published posthumously in 1795.
A modern statue of Smith, produced by Alexander Stoddart, pictured above, features a rather playful allusion to this idea of an invisible hand, with Smith standing with a hand atop a sheaf of corn - and the cuff of his jacket conceals his hand rendering it 'invisible'...
Smith died at Panmure House on 17 July 1790, and left instruction to his executors - themselves major figures of the Enlightenment period, physicist Joseph Black and the geologist James Hutton - that all of his unfinished, unpublished work should be destroyed.
Smith didn't want any of his writing being published without his explicit editorial oversight. And so, of the 23 major volumes of work that he had planned and (it is believed) started writing, just Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations survive.
But these two works by themselves have been enough to secure Smith's place in the pantheon of great thinkers of the world, whose vision and ideas continue to influence society today, centuries after their deaths. Yet on his deathbed Smith regretted that he hadn't achieved more.
Adam Smith was buried just a stone's throw from his room at Panmure House, in the Canongate Kirkyard, where his grave today has become a small site of pilgrimage for economics students and others from all around the world, who commemorate Smith in a way that I think is rather fitting - by throwing small coins of their national currency on his grave, literally celebrating him with the wealth of nations.
Explore more of Edinburgh's historical figures on my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
About Your Tour Guide
Edinburgh Expert Blog
Frequently Asked Questions
Telephone: +44 (0) 131 235 2351
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-22