Three hundred years ago, on June 5, 1723, or a few days before, one of the world’s most influential thinkers was born. He was a Kirkcaldy man, and never forgot his childhood in the small Fife town where, as an observant, scholarly boy, he learned something of the nature of markets, business and early industrialisation.

Adam Smith is now synonymous with his home town, a connection on which its former MP Gordon Brown has often capitalised when setting out his own stall. Yet while Smith’s philosophical interest lay, like Brown’s, in the good of the common people, it is impossible to know how he might have voted in his own time let alone ours.

In fact, remarkably little is known about a man whose ideas helped shape the modern world, his legacy making him one of the most important intellectuals who ever lived. One of the kingpins of the Enlightenment, his name is so often on politicians’ and pundits’ lips it is a jolt to remember that when he was born, the ink on the Union between Scotland and England had barely dried and the Jacobite Rebellion, whose violence and upheaval shook Smith to the core, lay two decades ahead.

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As a child, Smith was sweet-natured, generous, and liked by all his classmates. His father, a high-flying lawyer, died before he was born, and he was raised by his widowed mother Margaret. Mrs Smith almost lost Adam as well, when as a toddler he was abducted by gypsies. A search party found him being carried off into the woods, and his rescue preserved a child who would one day be heralded as the father of economics.

Like many who went on to intellectual brilliance, Smith was not a robust youngster. This might explain the warmth of the relationship he had with his mother, to whom he was devoted throughout his life. Although he fell in love at least once, he never married, and his household was run by his cousin Janet Douglas and his mother. They ensured he need never think about anything as trivial as laundry or making a meal, although one of his dearest friends, the equally intellectual David Hume, was MasterChef material. Smith, by contrast, was domestically clueless, the archetypal professor who can solve cerebral conundrums before breakfast, but once at the table is capable of putting a slice of bread and butter rather than tea-leaves into the pot.

Educated at the University of Glasgow, and then at Oxford – he had a very low opinion of the teaching there – Smith quickly made a name for himself as an original and enormously well-read thinker. While a professor at Glasgow, he wrote his first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Few of us know anything about this, although almost everyone has at least heard of his seminal book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Given how ground-breaking this work has been, it would be interesting to ask members of the House of Commons, or of the Parliament at Holyrood, how many have actually read it. Conservative MP Jesse Norman is probably a rarity, knowing Smith’s work intimately. In his biography-cum-economic analysis, Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why It Matters, Norman writes that he suspects not even most economists have read the whole book.

Most of what is now known about Smith has been passed down in shorthand. His ideas have been cut and pasted to suit economic theories across the political spectrum, from Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek to Margaret Thatcher, who claimed he invented Thatcherism long before she did. The Adam Smith Institute, a right-wing think tank, follows in this tradition. While Smith has been described as the founder of capitalism, that word never once appears in any of his works. He abhorred those who took advantage of the less well-off and vulnerable, and was vehemently anti-slavery. Yet, because his ideas are so multi-faceted, he is open to wildly diverging interpretations and misrepresentations.

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Norman’s book is a corrective to the notion that Smith can be appropriated at will. For, while Smith was an advocate of free markets, he was not a neoliberal, as some like to claim. He was against laissez-faire and, unlike many capitalists in our own times, did not believe that rational behaviour was entirely driven by the desire for profit. He was not partisan towards the rich either. For him – and I simplify drastically - the purpose of a free market was to create a commercial society that allowed each individual to enjoy what he called “natural liberty”. Compared to the feudal era, where workers were effectively owned by their masters, this was a radical rethinking. Smith advocated that the economy could be made to work to the betterment of all, keeping the needs of the lowliest uppermost in his thoughts.

In person, however, Smith was no revolutionary. Instead, he was courteous and patient, preferring gradual change to seismic. Only once did he show anything approaching aggression: when telling his Glasgow students that he was leaving, he insisted on repaying their fees. When they protested, Smith grabbed one young man by the coat, stuffed the money into his pocket and shoved him away; after which the others realised there was no arguing with him.

The distance between 1723 and today can feel like a geological age. At heart, though, are we very different from our 18th-century counterparts? Much of what Smith was grappling with remains problematic in our own time. Recognising his significance, and his continuing relevance, Kirkcaldy is hosting a week of tercentenary celebrations; various universities are also honouring him, most notably his Alma Mater, the University of Glasgow, with a series of events (including a lecture this evening, June 8, by the Nobel Prize-winning Scottish economist, Professor Sir Angus Deaton).

Because of his deep understanding of the mechanics of human society, Smith is inspirational: for his extraordinary work ethic and his clarity and range of thought, but also for his personal qualities. He was a true friend to those he loved, and genuinely interested in his students. Even though his intellectual work revolved around the idea of money, he was not at all acquisitive. For him prosperity was a means to an end – a harmonious, equal society – rather than an end in itself. As a guiding principle, we could do a lot worse.