Book Entry: Review: The Scandalous Friendship That Shaped Adam Smith

Book Entry: Review: The Scandalous Friendship That Shaped Adam Smith

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The field of political economy was a branch of philosophy, and it would be more than a century before practitioners’ “scientific” aspirations changed the term to economics (with the “s” representing science). The book that established Smith’s reputation for most of his professional life was called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

Smith published only two significant works, with “The Wealth of Nations” coming a full 17 years after “Moral Sentiments.” Although it would not be fair to call the ultimately more famous book a sequel to his first, “The Wealth of Nations” is not fully intelligible without understanding that context.

In “The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought,” Dennis Rasmussen, a professor of political theory at Tufts University, ably provides much of that needed context. In addition to painting a vivid portrait of the intellectual life of 18th-century Scotland, Professor Rasmussen provides a road map of the development of Smith’s ideas based on his personal history and the broader political, social, theological and academic environments.

David Hume’s final illness was a subject of great public interest, particularly among those who hoped he would recant his religious skepticism.

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Professor Rasmussen’s greatest contribution, however, is to shed new light on the surprising depth and nature of the intellectual and personal influence of the radical skeptic philosopher David Hume on Smith. If Smith was the ultimate establishment figure, Hume was the ultimate subversive.

Widely viewed as one of the greatest philosophers — if not the greatest — ever to write in English, Hume had already gained international renown before Smith produced his first book. Yet Hume’s radical ideas, particularly on the nature of religious belief, ensured that he could never secure a university position of any kind — and prompted two failed efforts by the Church of Scotland to have him excommunicated.

It was not just in their lifetimes that Hume’s renown outstripped Smith’s. Hume’s continuing impact on individual thinkers and broader fields of study is truly breathtaking. Kant, Darwin and Einstein (who credited him with inspiration for relativity theory) is a short list of great minds deeply influenced by Hume. And, in addition to the effect of his thought on economics, he is considered by some to be the father of modern cognitive science.

Hume was a dozen years Smith’s senior. The two met shortly after Smith had completed his studies, but before he had secured a university position. Hume had already published his first major, and scandalously received, work. It is not completely clear how or why they connected, given their vast differences in both position and disposition: Hume was large and gregarious, Smith more of an absent-minded professor type.

What is evident from the excellent use Professor Rasmussen makes of their letters and those of contemporaries is that the two quickly became devoted to one another.

One of the more interesting aspects of “The Infidel” is the extent to which the profound role of friendship in the thought of both Hume and Smith, neither of whom ever married, was colored by their own deep attachment. The most engaging aspects of the story relate to the nature of that friendship.

Less satisfying is the description of how precisely the relationship “shaped modern thought.” Professor Rasmussen does a fine job of demonstrating how closely the thinkers’ views align in a wide variety of areas, even where it is not readily apparent. But many of their most famous and influential ideas are not closely examined. There is, for instance, little discussion of either Smith’s “invisible hand” or Hume’s “is-ought problem.”

Hume’s impending death in 1776 — he had grown ill by that year, with what was probably some kind of cancer — was the source of great public interest, particularly among those most horrified by his skeptical views on religious belief. The philosopher wrote a short autobiography at the time, in part to demonstrate that he had managed to live and die “happily and virtuously, without religion.” The resulting “funeral oration for myself” was sure to be a source of disappointment for those who had hoped for a recantation or at least moderation of his previous views in the face of imminent expiry. It was, however, not entirely unexpected.

What was a source of both shock and fury was a letter appended to every edition of the work from Adam Smith, describing the “cheerfulness and equanimity” of his dear friend’s final days. Even more infuriating was Smith’s overall conclusion that Hume approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”

Smith had spent his life and career avoiding the kind of controversy and offense that Hume had reveled in. By associating his name and reputation with such a strong defense of Hume’s moral character, Smith risked not only his social and professional standing, but the fortunes of his long-gestating masterpiece, “The Wealth of Nations,” which had just finally been published.

Smith’s letter was certainly an act of bravery and a reflection of the depth of his intellectual debt to Hume. As Professor Rasmussen argues, it “also represents a kind of paean to friendship.”

The same could be said of Professor Rasmussen’s touching and illuminating book.

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