How to Learn from Adam Smith
by Mike Young for AdamSmithWorks
Reading “History of Astronomy” shows what tools a casual reader needs to understand the father of economics.
Adam Smith is not light reading. His subjects and style are difficult and academic, and his long sentences are crammed with 18th century vocabulary that has long fallen out of use. But his ideas on morality, philosophy, and economics are timeless - as worth exploring today as they were when first printed. That’s why, while fully deficient of any formal training on Smith, I decided to take a crack at A History of Astronomy as my first serious attempt to read and understand him in depth. If you also find Smith interesting, but like me have only layman’s experience with him and his works, I want to share three challenges I had, and my tricks for overcoming them. I hope they will equip you with the confidence you need to pick up his books, and the tools you need to accelerate your understanding.
The first challenge in reading Smith comes from the way he writes his sentences. They are long and confusing. A typical example:
Something, however, that approaches to a composed and orderly system, may be traced in what is delivered down to us, concerning the doctorine of Empoedocles, of Archytas, of Timæus, and of Ocellus the Lucanian, the most renowned philosophers of the Italian school. The opinions of the two last coincide pretty much; the one, with those of Plato; the other, with those of Aristotle; nor do those of the two first seem to have been very different, of whom the one was the author of the doctrine of the four Elements, the other the inventor of the Categories, who, therefore, may be regarded as the founders, the one, of the ancient physics; the other, of the ancient Dialectic; and, how closely these were connected, will appear hereafter.
This wordy style feels foreign to 21st century readers. Today’s writing is meant to be read quickly, before our thumbs can scroll away. But 18th century readers weren’t so pressed for time, and they prized scholarly authority over reading speed. Long and flowing sentences could prove an author was well-read. So Smith chose to pack his work the kind of sentences that could only be written by an educated man.
Educated or not, Smith’s stuff is hard to read. How can we work through it? I found patience is the key. Rather than reading at full speed, focus on understanding each sentence and its main idea. If you can comprehend one sentence at a time (and stay focused!), the full image will emerge as you plow ahead. This took some getting used to for me, but once I got in a groove I found the slower pace helped significantly with comprehension.
The second challenge of reading Smith is related - unlike modern authors, the amount Smith writes on a topic doesn’t correspond to its importance at all!
For example, a quarter of HoA is devoted to examining the differences between the three emotions: wonder, surprise, and admiration. Smith tees up all three, then goes on for pages about wonder and surprise without a word on admiration. The essay is packed with anecdotes and asides that tell us nothing about astronomy, and aside from a one-sentence mention, we don’t even start talking about stars and planets until page 18 of 72.
Because of this weird distribution of content, you’ll have to practice serious discipline mid-read to keep the main ideas alive in your head. If you find yourself getting drawn off on tangents, the best solution is probably to read each section twice. Armed with a mental map from a first read, you can use your second read to refit chunks together. The trick is to resize concepts in your brain to match their actual logical significance, and not their relative size on the page.
The third challenge to reading Smith is the most important to solve: a casual reader needs to know Smith’s context - both his objectives and the intellectual environment he sought to influence. In my case, I found HoA totally incomprehensible at first. But by reading the introductory material, editors’ notes, and online sources, I could start to see Smith’s vision for his writing. Then I worked backwards to see how he used his various arguments to support it. For example, I learned from external sources that Smith’s ambition for HoA was a universal history of philosophy. Within this framework, the history of astronomy was meant to play just a small part. Knowing this, I could better understand what Smith was up to when he made broad claims and focused on universal truths, rather than sticking to a pure historical take.
Unfortunately, there is limited reading available online about HoA. Some academic papers are available, but most are behind paywalls. This makes free resources - like AdamSmithWorks.org - all the more precious. I found Jim Otteson’s biography of Smith to be particularly helpful in understanding more about the man and his times; I think it could help you too. Reading the notes in the front of the Glasgow Edition also clarified some key points. Lastly, knowledge of Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments - his more famous works - helped me see how he saw the world, which was a helpful reference frame.
So there you have it. If you find yourself interested in Smith, put these tips to work! Approach his work with patience, knowing it was written long ago for a different audience. Try to view his points in context, and weigh the importance of ideas against their logical significance and not their acreage within the book. Use notes to map out his arguments. Look for external sources (like this website) to give yourself some context. But above all, don’t be afraid to start reading!
G. Mitchell Steckler
Adam Smith would roll over in his grave if he saw how far the federal government has overreached since his death. Mike, you've presented beautifully the challenge of interpreting the philosophies of a scholar who lived in Revolutionary times.