Celebrated primarily as a theorist of economic liberalism, Adam Smith (1723-90) also made important contributions to philosophy, especially to moral philosophy. He is considered the father of modern political economics for his theory that free competition is a necessary condition for the quality and wealth of a nation. The story of his life contained the seeds for this understanding to develop. Attending Oxford University, Smith was disappointed by the low quality of the academic courses, unlike those in Scottish universities he had attended in his earlier years. For him, the reason was that professors at English universities were paid regardless of the quality of their teaching, regardless of their ability to inspire students.
His biography also reveals he pursued an enriching and varied educational path. He began his teaching career as a professor of rhetoric and moral philosophy, studied astronomy, the origin of language, and only later devoted himself to economics. This journey is shown by the publication date of the only two works that appeared while he was alive, the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) preceded by almost twenty years the equally successful Wealth of Nations (1776), the work that made him famous and saw six editions by the time of Smith’s death.
His interest in economics, already evident in his courses at the University of Glasgow, found a significant boost through his appointment as a tutor and later commissioner of customs for the city of Edinburgh by Charles Townshend, who had read his Theory of Moral Sentiments with enthusiasm. This allowed Smith financial stability and the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, particularly to Italy and France, where he came into contact with the leading figures of the Encyclopedia, especially François-Marie Arouet Voltaire, Jean-Baptiste Le Rond d’Alambert, and the physiocratic theorists François Quesnay and Jacques Turgot. In Italy, he frequented Abbot Antonio Genovesi, professor of political economy, and Abbot Ferdinando Galiani, author of the famous treatise Della moneta (1751).