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Adam Smith was a key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment during the 18th century, and many economists consider him to be the "ather of modern economics." His most famous work, Wealth of Nations, is still commonly read in most introductory economics classes. Another philosopher who made important intellectual contributions to the Scottish Enlightenment was David Hume. He sought to clarify the methods by which people acquire knowledge. Some of his more groundbreaking works include A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume is considered to be one of the founders of British Empiricism, a philosophical movement.
Though these two Scottish philosophers were truly great in their own right, and individually each contributed significantly to Scottish Enlightenment thought, as well as the world at large, it is worth noting their relationship to each other. Adam Smith and David Hume were the closest of friends, causing their ideologies to be noticeably influenced by one another. As Hume was older than Smith by ten years, he may have seen Smith as a worthy successor.
Smith recognized Hume's brilliance, and therefore looked up to him. The effects of Smith's book Wealth of Nations are incomparable to those of any other text examining monetary theory; it is still frequently referenced in many economics classes at all levels of thought today. Several historians, notably Carl Wennerlind, have detected a distinct Humean paternity woven throughout Smith's monetary thought. This Humean paternity not only can be observed in Smith's economic theories, but can also be traced to other aspects of Smith's philosophies.
It appears that Smith and Hume first met around 1750. Smith had graduated from Oxford four years prior to their introduction, and he was traveling around giving lectures on law and jurisprudence. Hume also had been traveling, but spent the summer working on some academic projects that would have been of significant interest to Smith. It's possible that they could have been introduced by Henry Home of Kames, who was Hume's friend and neighbor.
The projects Hume was working on around this time that might have piqued Smith's interests include a translation of two chapters of Montesquieu's De l'Esprit des lois and research for his book History of England. A chain of letters passed between Smith and Hume reveal that Hume was very enthused to provide Smith with updates on his progress, and Smith excited to receive them. However, one of their primary disagreements arose when Smith was appointed professor of logic at the University of Glasgow; Hume had been recently denied professorships at both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Though Smith disagreed with these rejections, and believed firmly in the value of Hume's scholarly works, he also believed strongly in the value of a positive public image. In a letter to Smith's colleague William Cullen, a professor of medicine at the University of Glasgow, Smith wrote "'I should prefer David Hume to any man for a colleague; but I am afraid the public would not be of my opinion; and the interest of the society [ie, the University] will oblige us to have some regard to the opinion of the public.'" This quote shows the dichotomy of Smith's feelings toward Hume; he respected Hume's work, but hoped to be less controversial in his professional life. Some of Hume's essays expressed religious skepticism bordering on atheism, which was an extremely unpopular position to defend at the time. Smith, on the other hand, publicly expressed pro-religious sentiment. However, this discrepancy between the two's religious beliefs did not seem to impede their personal relationship to each other.
The friendship between these two men only grew to be more profound. When Hume's History of England did not perform as well as he would have liked, selling only forty-five copies within a year in London, Smith was the person that he wrote to express his disappointment. And in return, Smith supported Hume, ensuring that his students were aware of the History of England by including it in his teaching material. Though Hume is commonly seen as the mentor figure in their relationship, Smith's public image was better at the time, and his choices more carefully made. Regardless, Smith still respected Hume as the most outstanding philosopher of their time, and taught Hume's moral and ethical philosophies in his classes as well.
Despite all this respect that Smith had for Hume, it can be observed in Hume's letters to Smith that Hume wrote more frequently and bombastically than Smith. Ross writes that Smith "seems to have disappointed Hume by shortcomings as a correspondent. Hume, perhaps in some heat over this, addressed him on one occasion: 'Dear Smith: I can write as seldom and as Short as you.' It is noticeable also that Hume displays more warmth towards Smith than vice versa." While not significant in terms of their respective theoretical work, this dynamic between them is interesting because of what it says about their individual personalities. Smith made it clear in several other ways that he did value Hume's friendship, but did not express it perhaps in the way that Hume would have deemed best. This makes it clear that though they were able to agree upon a lot of topics, they were very different men.
Though Smith's most famous book, the Wealth of Nations, represents an indispensable contribution to the fields of economics and monetary theory, there is in fact some dispute among historians concerning its originality, and whether or not the entirety of the text can be credited to Smith's own ideas. Obviously, this is quite a strong claim, but it's certainly worth looking at the ways in which Hume's philosophies can be connected to Wealth of Nations, and to what extent they could have influenced Smith's conclusions. Hume and Smith's views on public and private opulence are congruent. Historian Carl Wennerlind writes, "the essence of wealth in Smith's analysis is the division of labor... this productive labor has the capacity to contribute to capital accumulation, which in turn, through a process of cumulative causation, creates the wealth of nations. This wealth allows for increased consumption of necessities, conveniences, and luxuries, but also enriches the state." Wennerlind connects these opinions with Hume's by pointing out the ways in which Hume believed that productive labor could have extremely positive effects on both a state as a whole as well as its individual citizens.
The personal relationship between these two men permeated their intellectual lives, and significantly influenced the conclusions of each man's scholarly discourse. When at the end of his life Hume's health began to decline, he expressed his strong desire to see Smith one more time before he passed away, in order to have one more gratifying intellectual discussion with him. And later, once Hume did inevitably succumb to his illness, he left Smith to decide whether or not to burn or publish many of his papers detailing ideas that he had not yet followed through to completion. Interestingly enough, Smith had Hume's unfinished papers published, but chose to have his own destroyed.
In conclusion, David Hume and Adam Smith were, to use a colloquialism, "partners in crime." However, crime was not their occupation, nor was it their commonality; it was brilliant, revolutionary Enlightenment era thought. Their friendship was unique in that a more experienced, older Enlightenment thinker was able to connect meaningfully with a younger one, but still asked for his advice and support. Smith did have a lot of respect for Hume, but he also recognized Hume's failings. The two balanced each other out, much like Smith's conceived balance between the importance of jurisprudential history and theory. Since Smith was more careful about his public image, he was often privy to opportunities and circles that Hume wasn't, but incredibly, it was not a point of contention between them. They were able to civilly disagree upon a number of topics, like the benefits and drawbacks of an established church, or the ideal prevalence of paper money. However, it was a more common occurrence that they would share a similar viewpoint, and each would use the expertise and brilliance of the other to improve the quality of their own conclusions. The link between their published works, as well as the depth of their friendship, is so profound that it begets the question "What would the Scottish Enlightenment have looked like if David Hume and Adam Smith had never met?"
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