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Adam Smith and The Age of Enlightenment


The course of human history has been determined by the natural changes that occurred under the influence of political, economic, and social changes that were typical of every period of human history. Thus, the changes in the way of thinking and preferable values of humanity determined the division of historical development into several great epochs. The decisive factor in every epoch was the philosophical thought of the particular period that determined the life of society in all other spheres. Age of Enlightenment followed the epoch of Renaissance and it was remarkable for the value of freedom that was emphasized by philosophers as the philosophy of rationalism as the main philosophical thought of the time. The present study is devoted to the analysis of features that were characteristic of the epoch of Enlightenment as presented in “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith.

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The key features of the Age of Enlightenment

First of all, it is necessary to determine the main features and characteristics of the Age of Enlightenment that will enable us to trace the philosophical ideas in “The Wealth of Nations”. On the whole, the philosophers that lived and worked during this period had rather diverse and contradictory philosophical views; very often they demonstrated opposing points of view. Consequently, the Enlightenment may be characterized by certain values that were shared by the philosophers instead of philosophical ideas. Rationalism was the core of the epoch. The human mind was recognized as the main value and the route and basis of the transformation of society. This is why the philosophers of the epoch could be united by the main motivation that drove them: they recognized the right of a human being to seek the truth with the power of the human mind and not to be condemned for that. The necessity of freedom and liberty became the key concept of the time. The philosophers of the period tried to prove the necessity of expansion of the rights of citizens. Thus, the name of the epoch speaks for itself: the term “Enlightenment” means the development and enlightenment of a human being by the light of his mind.

Adam Smith: The Father of political economy and philosopher

As for the historic figure of Adam Smith, he is recognized as the Father of political economy and he is an outstanding moral philosopher as well. The book “The Wealth of Nations” presents the author as “a great synthesizer who made it easy for his readers to read his vision of an economic and social world driven by principles of ‘natural’ liberty” (Henderson 2006, xiii). Though the book describes economic notions, such as wealth, trade, stock, etc., the information is supported by philosophical ideas, and this proves that the book may be considered a philosophical treatise.

Smith versus mercantilism

Analyzing the title of the book, it is possible to state at once that it is devoted to the study of wealth. Here it is necessary to mention that mercantilism was considered the leading economic theory in the time of Adam Smith. Though this “major system of thought” disappeared after the harsh treatment of Smith, it is notable for singling out the fundamental object of economics: the analysis of the causes of the wealth of nations (Vaggi and Groenenwegen 2003, 16). Still, the theory was based on the assertion that the amount of the wealth of a nation equaled the amount of finance and goods inside the country and mercantilists proclaimed restriction of trade that has the ultimate goal of concentration of wealth in the borders of the country. However, this “closeness” contradicted the philosophical view of the new epoch and this was the reason why Smith proved its erroneousness and disclaimed the theory. “The Wealth of Nations” also has a term that is synonymic to the notion of wealth as presented by mercantilists, Smith calls it “stock” and says that “mercantile stock is … barren and unproductive … It only continues the existence of its value, without producing any new value” (Smith 2008, 506).

Since rationalism as the leading philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment worshipped the power of the human mind, it justifies Smith’s interpretation of wealth: in contrast with the view of mercantilism, he drew the parallel between wealth and labor equaling them. Labor is the factor that begets wealth, thus, they are directly proportional. The main contradiction of the theory of Smith and mercantilism is that in his opinion free trade is the factor that can increase the wealth of a nation as it creates more opportunities for labor, which as the consequence multiplies national wealth. The idea of free trade is the embodiment of the philosophy of the Enlightenment since freedom is the key concept of it.

The concept of self-interest

The next philosophical feature characteristic of the Enlightenment is the increase of attention to an individual and it finds its reflection in Smith’s theory as well. The author is concerned with the creation of “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people” (Smith 2008, 9). If the epoch of Enlightenment may be characterized by lowering the authority of aristocracy, this special concern with the fate of poor societal levels seems natural. On the whole, the author shows the absence of interest towards “luxuries” (Smith 2008, 664) in comparison with the necessities that should be provided to poor societal layers of citizens.

Probably, the most picturesque connection of Smith’s theory and his epoch is his positive attitude towards the selfish behavior of individual producers and consumers, their self-interest. The philosopher states: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher or the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest” (Smith 2008, 13). This positive attitude towards self-interest would be condemned earlier because it directly contradicted Christian morality and values that disapproved of selfish behavior and proclaimed that the needed of other people were more important than the personal needs of an individual. Smith’s point of view showed that the citizen who was driven by his self-interest made his contribution to the public good and this was the reason for the encouragement of self-interest. When explaining the driving force of self-interest and human activity inspired by it, Adam Smith refers to the notion of “the invisible hand” of Providence (Smith 2008, 339) implying that there are far more chances to damage the system if one wants to rule it instead of to trust it to work by itself. The notion of “the invisible hand” contradicts the mercantilists’ point of view that suggests the necessity of control of the market to improve the life of people. Since the Enlightenment is characterized by increased rights of the people, the idea of “the invisible hand” seems reasonable.

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The role of government

Since “The Wealth of Nations” is the book on political economy, it is necessary to tackle the role of government for trade and society as presented by the author. The notion of “natural liberty” that is introduced by Smith determines the role of government as the body that does not interfere with the work of the market that is ruled by its power instead of governmental control. People are free to pursue their interests in their way and to establish competition with other people as long as it does not contradict the law (Smith 2008, 525). However, the sovereign has three particular duties that should be done by him but their great importance is evident: first, he should protect society from violence and intervention of other societies, second, he should protect every member of society from the oppression of other members of this society, and, finally, he should create and maintain certain institutions

which it can never be for the interest of any individual … to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual … though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society (Smith 2008, 522).

Attitude towards education and religion

The last thing that is worth mentioning is Smith’s idea about universal education: as he said, “the most essential parts of education” “to read, write, and account” should be available or even “imposed” on every individual (Smith 2008, 594-595). This is the idea that is characteristic of the epoch of Enlightenment with its emphasis on the importance of the human mind. Finally, Smith’s attitude towards religion may be also explained by the mood of Enlightenment: he asserts that there should be religious tolerance to evade the situation where political leaders will have less authority than religious ones (Smith 2008, 604).


Concluding, it should be stated that Adam Smith was a true representative of the Age of Enlightenment as the main features of the philosophy of the time may be traced in his main work “The Wealth of Nations”. He introduces such notions as “the invisible hand” and self-interest that show great importance attributed to an individual and his mind at that time. The concept of freedom is the central concept of his theory. He justifies the importance of free trade and explains the essence of wealth as labor. These concepts were innovative and they replaced the main concepts of the previous epoch, the Renaissance.

Reference List

Henderson, Willie. 2006. Evaluating Adam Smith: Creating the Wealth of Nations. NY: Routledge.

Smith, Adam. 2008. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Forgotten Books.

Vaggi, Gianni, and Peter D. Groenenwegen. A Concise History of Economic Thought: From Mercantilism to Monetarism. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

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