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2.: The Lectures - Adam Smith, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 4 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres 
Lectures On Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ed. J. C. Bryce, vol. IV of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985).
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The notes we have date from what was apparently the fifteenth winter in which Adam Smith lectured on rhetoric. Disappointed of a travelling tutorship on coming down from Balliol, and after two years at home in Kirkcaldy in 1746–8, he ‘opened a class for teaching rhetorick at Edinburgh’, as the obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine (Aug. 1790, lx. 762) puts it; and it goes on to remark on an advantage enjoyed by Smith and frequently to be noticed in later years: ‘His pronunciation and his style were much superior to what could, at that time, be acquired in Scotland only’. The superiority was often (as by Sir James Mackintosh in introducing the second edition of the 1755–6 Edinburgh Review in 1818) ascribed to the influence of the speech of his Glasgow Professor Francis Hutcheson, as well as to his six Oxford years. His awareness of language as an activity had certainly been sharpened by both experiences of different modes—differences so often embarrassing to his fellow–countrymen, speakers and writers alike, in the mid–century. The Edinburgh Review no. 1 named as one of the obstacles to the progress of science in Scotland ‘the difficulty of a proper expression in a country where there is no standard of language, or at least one very remote’ (EPS 229); and two years later, on 2 July 1757, Hume observes in a letter to Gilbert Elliott of Minto (Letter 135, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 1932) that we ‘are unhappy, in our Accent and Pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of’. The background of desire for ‘self–improvement’ and the part played by the many societies in Edinburgh and elsewhere are described in JML xxiii–xxxix, and D. D. McElroy, Scotland’s Age of Improvement (1969). Smith ‘teaching rhetorick’ in 1748 was the right man at the right moment.
In the absence of advertisement or notice of the lectures in the Scots Magazine (these would have been unusual at this time: not so ten years later) we do not know exact dates; but A. F. Tytler in his Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Henry Home of Kames, containing sketches of the Progress of Literature and General Improvement in Scotland during the greater part of the eighteenth century (1807: i. 190) gives this account:
It was by his [sc. Kames’s] persuasion and encouragement, that Mr Adam Smith, soon after his return from Oxford, and when he had abandoned all views towards the Church, for which he had been originally destined, was induced to turn his early studies to the benefit of the public, by reading a course of Lectures on Rhetoric and the Belles Lettres. He delivered those lectures at Edinburgh in 1748, and the two following years, to a respectable auditory, chiefly composed of students in law and theology; till called to Glasgow. . . .
The ‘auditory’ included Alexander Wedderburn (who edited The Edinburgh Review 1755–6), William Johnston (who became Sir William Pulteney), James Oswald of Dunnikeir (a boyhood friend of Smith’s from Kirkcaldy), John Millar, Hugh Blair, ‘and others, who made a distinguished figure both in the department of literature and in public life’. When on 10 January 1751 Smith wrote (Letter 8) to the Clerk of Senate at Glasgow accepting appointment to the Chair of Logic there and explaining that he could not immediately take up his duties because of his commitments to his ‘friends here’, i.e. in Edinburgh, the plural shows that he had sponsors for his lectures besides Kames, and it has been supposed that these were James Oswald and Robert Craigie of Glendoick. There is independent evidence that at least in his last year at Edinburgh if not earlier he also lectured on jurisprudence; but Tytler is quite clear on the duration of the rhetoric course; and after Smith’s departure for Glasgow a rhetoric course continued to be given by Robert Watson till his departure for the Chair of Logic at St Andrews in 1756. This was only the beginning: one of Smith’s first ‘auditory’, Hugh Blair, on 11 December 1759, began a course on the same subject in the University of Edinburgh, which conferred the title of Professor on him in August 1760 and appointed him to a new Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (destined to become in effect the first Chair of English Literature in the world) on 7 April 1762. Smith’s original lectures were presumably delivered in one of the Societies, the Philosophical being the most likely because since the ’45 its ordinary activities had been suspended, and Kames would have seen the courses as a way of keeping it alive. In 1737 Colin Maclaurin, Professor of Mathematics (see Astronomy IV. 58), was instrumental in broadening the Society’s scope to include literature and science.
When Adam Smith arrived in Glasgow in October 1751 to begin teaching as Professor of Logic and Rhetoric he found his duties augmented owing to the illness of Thomas Craigie, the Professor of Moral Philosophy, the work of whose classes was to be shared by Smith and three other professors. We hardly need evidence to prove that, hard–pressed as he was, he would fall back on his Edinburgh materials, including the Rhetoric, which it was his statutory duty to teach. Craigie died in November and his Chair was filled by the translation to it of Smith in April 1752. Throughout the eighteenth century the ordinary or ‘public’ class of Moral Philosophy met at 7.30 a.m. for lectures on ethics, politics, jurisprudence, natural theology, and then at 11 a.m. for an ‘examination’ hour to ensure that the lecture had been understood. A ‘private’ class, sometimes called a ‘college’, attended by those who had already in the previous year taken the public class and were now attending that for the second time—or even third—but not the examination class, met at noon, normally three days a week. Each professor used the private class for a course on a subject of special interest to himself. Hutcheson had lectured on Arrian, Antoninus (Marcus Aurelius), and other Greek philosophers; Thomas Reid on the powers of the mind.
Adam Smith chose for his private class the first subject he had ever taught, Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Here a question arises. Rhetoric was now in the domain of his successor in the Chair of Logic, James Clow. There is no record of a protest from Clow, as there was in Edinburgh from John Stevenson, who had been teaching logic and rhetoric for thirty–two years when Blair’s Chair was founded. Several explanations suggest themselves, apart from personal good–will. The phrase ‘Belles Lettres’, though it did not mollify Stevenson, differentiated in a decisive way the two Glasgow courses. Clow’s emphasis seems to have rested on rhetorical analysis of passages, in keeping with the discipline of logic (see JML xxx quoting Edinburgh Univ. Lib. MS DC 8, 13). More important, at Glasgow a public class was not the offender. In any case Smith’s rhetoric students had attended Clow’s class two years before, and the opportunity (which Smith knew they enjoyed) of making correlations can only have been philosophically beneficial. Similar opportunities were opened by their hearing at the same time—and having already heard—Smith’s discourses on ethics and jurisprudence. The lectures on history and on judicial eloquence would be illustrated by those on public and private law. And we must not forget that these students were simultaneously studying natural philosophy, theoretical and practical, the fifth year subjects of the Glasgow Arts curriculum. Such juxtapositions were then as now among the great benefits of the Scottish University system, and without them Scotland would not have made the mark she did in philosophy in Adam Smith’s century. In particular, Smith’s students must have noted the multi–faceted relationship between the ethics and rhetoric, in three broad areas. First, Smith employed many of the general principles stated in TMS in illustrating the different forms of communication: for example, our admiration for the great (ii. 107 and below, section 4), or for hardships undergone with firmness and constancy (ii. 100). Smith also drew attention to the influence of environment on forms and modes of expression (ii. 113–16, 142 ff., 152 ff.) in a manner which would be familiar to those who had already heard his treatment of the rules of conduct. Secondly, Smith’s students would note the points at which the rhetoric elaborated on the discussion of the role of sympathy and the nature of moral judgement and persuasion (cf. TMS I. i. 3–4; cf. 18–19 below). The character of the man of sensibility is strikingly developed in Lecture XXX (ii. 234 ff.) while the argument as a whole implies that the spoken discourse could on some occasions affect moral judgement. Thirdly, Smith’s students would perceive that the arguments developed in the lectures on rhetoric complement the analysis of TMS, where it is remarked that:
We may judge of the propriety or impropriety of the sentiments of another person by their correspondence or disagreement with our own, upon two different occasions; either, first, when the objects which excite them are considered without any peculiar relation, either to ourselves or to the person whose sentiments we judge of; or, secondly, when they are considered as peculiarly affecting one or other of us’
Objects which lack a peculiar relation include ‘the expression of a picture, the composition of a discourse . . . all the general subjects of science and taste’.
Smith’s lecturing timetable is set out in LJ 13–22, with references to the sources of our information. On the Rhetoric lectures, two accounts by men who had heard them show with what clarity they were remembered more than thirty years later. The first was given by John Millar, Professor of Law, who had heard them both in Edinburgh and Glasgow, to Dugald Stewart for a memoir of Smith to be delivered at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1793 (Stewart I. 16):
In the Professorship of Logic, to which Mr. Smith was appointed on his first introduction into this University, he soon saw the necessity of departing widely from the plan that had been followed by his predecessors, and of directing the attention of his pupils to studies of a more interesting and useful nature than the logic and metaphysics of the schools. Accordingly, after exhibiting a general view of the powers of the mind, and explaining so much of the ancient logic as was requisite to gratify curiosity with respect to an artificial method of reasoning, which had once occupied the universal attention of the learned, he dedicated all the rest of his time to the delivery of a system of rhetoric and belles–lettres. The best method of explaining and illustrating the various powers of the human mind, the most useful part of metaphysics, arises from an examination of the several ways of communicating our thoughts by speech, and from an attention to the principles of those literary compositions which contribute to persuasion or entertainment. By these arts, every thing that we perceive or feel, every operation of our minds, is expressed and delineated in such a manner, that it may be clearly distinguished and remembered. There is, at the same time, no branch of literature more suited to youth at their first entrance upon philosophy than this, which lays hold of their taste and their feelings.
The second report, written after 1776 in a letter from James Wodrow, Library Keeper at the University of Glasgow from 1750 to 1755, to the Earl of Buchan and preserved in Glasgow Univ. Lib. Murray Collection (Buchan Correspondence, ii. 171), reads:
Adam Smith delivered a set of admirable lectures on language (not as a grammarian but as a rhetorician) on the different kinds or characteristics of style suited to different subjects, simple, nervous, etc., the structure, the natural order, the proper arrangement of the different members of the sentence etc. He characterised the style and the genius of some of the best of the ancient writers and poets, but especially historians, Thucydides, Polybius etc. translating long passages of them, also the style of the best English classics, Lord Clarendon, Addison, Swift, Pope, etc; and, though his own didactic style in his last famous book (however suited to the subject) — the style of the former book was much superior—was certainly not a model for good writing, yet his remarks and rules given in the lectures I speak of, were the result of a fine taste and sound judgement, well calculated to be exceedingly useful to young composers, so that I have often regretted that some part of them has never been published.
With this stricture on the style of WN, incidentally, may be compared the remark made by Lord Monboddo to Boswell that though Smith came down from Oxford a good Greek and Latin scholar, from the style of WN ‘one would think that he had never read any of the Writers of Greece or Rome’ (Boswell, Private Papers, ed. Scott and Pottle, xiii. 92); and even his friends Hume, Millar and Blair took this view. On the other hand John Ramsay of Ochtertyre (Scotland and Scotsmen in the eighteenth Century, published 1888, i. 462) thought that in view of the purity and elegance with which he ordinarily wrote it was ‘no wonder, then, that his lectures should be regarded as models of composition’. A kindred activity of Smith’s in his Glasgow days is recorded in the Foulis Press Papers, extracted by W. J. Duncan in Notes and Documents illustrative of the Literary History of Glasgow (Maitland Club 1831, 16): in January 1752 he had helped to found a Literary Society in the University, and ‘he read papers to this society on Taste, Composition and the History of Philosophy which he had previously delivered while a lecturer on rhetoric in Edinburgh’. Of these, two were parts I and II of the essay on the Imitative Arts—this on the evidence of John Millar who was a member of the Society (EPS 172)—an essay which Smith told Reynolds he intended publishing ‘this winter’, i.e. 1782–3 (Reynolds, letter of 12 September 1782, in Correspondence of James Boswell, ed. C. N. Fifer, Yale UP 1976, 126).
What modifications the lectures on rhetoric underwent between 1748 and the session in which our notes were taken it is almost impossible to determine. There are few datable post–1748 references. Macpherson’s Ossian imitations, ‘lately published’ (ii. 113), appeared in 1760, 1762, 1763. Gray’s two Pindaric odes, if the reference at ii. 96 includes them, belong to 1757; the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, of which Smith became so fond, to 1751; Shenstone’s Pastoral Ballad to 1755. Rousseau’s Discours (i. 19) appeared in 1755 and was discussed by Smith in the Edinburgh Review no. 2 (EPS 250–4). All of these references, except perhaps the last, could easily have been inserted without radical revision of the text. The unmistakable reference to Hume’s History of England at ii. 73, whether we read ‘so’ or (‘10’ in the added marginal note, raises a complex question. The History appeared in instalments, working backwards chronologically, in 1754, 1757, 1759, and was completed in 1762, after which date the reference becomes relevant. On 12 January 1763 Smith must have read out what had stood in his manuscript for some years, and then in the last moments of the lecture made an impromptu correction when recollecting a friend’s very recent publication. Why this afterthought is also recorded by Scribe A in an afterthought is perhaps not in the circumstances all that mysterious.
The general continuity of the lecture–course from 1748 to 1763, details apart, is established by its structure and by the set of central principles which inform all twentynine reported lectures and which could not have been added or superimposed on the argument at some intermediate stage of its development. Basic to the whole is the division into ‘an examination of the several ways of communicating our thoughts by speech’ and ‘an attention to the principles of those literary compositions which contribute to persuasion or entertainment’.
To set this out in summary: first section, linguistic: (a) Language, communication, expression (Lectures 2–7, i. 85); (b) Style and character (Lectures 7–11).—Second section, the species of composition: (a) Descriptive (Lectures 12–16); (b) Narrative or historical (Lectures 17–20); (c) Poetry (Lecture 21); (d) Demonstrative oratory, i.e. panegyric (Lectures 22–23); (e) Didactic or scientific (Lecture 24); (f) Deliberative oratory (Lectures 25–27); (g) Judicial or forensic oratory (Lectures 28–30).
Two features of the course enable us to make a plausible guess at the contents of the introductory lecture—whose absence, by the way, tends to prove that this set of notes was not prepared with a view to sale. At the heart of Smith’s thinking, his doctrine, and his method of presentation (the three are always related) is the notion of the chain (see ii. 133 and cf. Astronomy II. 8–9)—articulated continuity, sequence of relations leading to illumination. Leave no chasm or gap in the thread: ‘the very notion of a gap makes us uneasy’ (ii. 36). The orator ‘puts the whole story into a connected narration’; the great art of an orator is to throw his argument ‘into a sort of a narration, filling up in the manner most suitable . . .’ (ii. 206, 197). The art of transition is a vital matter (i. 146). Smith is concerned with this on the strategic level just as contemporary writers on Milton and Thomson were on the imaginative. As a lecturer, giving an exhibition of the very craft he is discussing, he insists that his listeners know where they have been and where they are going. Dugald Stewart notes in his Life of Thomas Reid that ‘neither he nor his immediate predecessor ever published any general prospectus of their respective plans; nor any heads or outlines to assist their students in tracing the trains of thought which suggested their various transitions’ (1802: 38–9). In Smith’s case the frequent signposts would have made such a prospectus superfluous, and readers of the lectures are more likely to complain of being led by the hand than of bafflement. What all this amounts to is that the opening themephrase ‘Perspicuity of stile’ must have been clearly led up to.
The other habit of Smith’s gives a clue to how this may have been done. He often shows his impatience with intricate subdivisions and classifications of his subject, such as had long made rhetoric a notoriously scholastic game. La Bruyère speaks of ‘un beau sermon’ made according to all the rules of the rhetoricians, with the cognoscenti in the preacher’s audience following with admiration ‘toutes les énumérations où il se promène’. But though Smith thinks it all very silly and refers anyone so inclined to read about it in Quintilian, his teacherly conscience compels him to ensure that his students have heard of the old terms. Lecture 1 no doubt defined the scope of this course by saying what it was not going to include. At least since the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium early in the first century B.C. the orator’s art had been divided into invention, arrangement, expression, memory, and delivery; Quintilian’s words (Institutio Oratoria III. iii. 1; and passim) are inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio or actio. Smith in effect sees only the second and third as important, the third (style) occupying Lectures 2–11, the second underlying virtually all that Lectures 12–30 discuss.
It is to be hoped that for the sake of clarity one other traditional division was at least mentioned. As early as i. 12 ‘the didactick stile’ is compared with that of historians and orators, and the phrase and the comparison occur repeatedly throughout the lectures as if their meaning was already known. The central place occupied in Smith’s whole conception of discourse by the ‘didactick stile’ becomes clear in the lecture (24) devoted to it, where it emerges as not only a mode of expression but as a procedure of thought: the scientific (ii. 132–5), that concerned with the exposition of a system, the clarification of a multitude of phenomena by one known or proved principle. Perhaps this was too early in the course; but the analogy with music set out in Imitative Arts II. 29 (see below, section 5) by which many notes are related both to a leading or key–note and a succession of notes or ‘song’, and the observation that this is like ‘what order and method are to discourse’, would have proved helpful to the many who, then as later, find it harder to apprehend pattern in language than in sound or colour. Smith makes things harder by equating, at i. 152, the ancient (indeed Aristotelian) division of speeches into Demonstrative, Deliberative, Judicial, with his own philosophical division into narrative, didactic, rhetorical (i. 149). This, it must be admitted, involves some straining. ‘It is rather reverence for antiquity than any great regard for the Beauty or usefullness of the thing itself which makes me mention the Antient divisions of Rhetorick’ (i. 152); but in this case he could have been less scrupulous, since Quintilian (III. iv) asks ‘why three?’ rather than a score of others. He is echoing Cicero; and Jean–François Marmontel, author of the literary articles in the Encyclopédie vols 3–7 and Supplément (collected in Eléments de Littérature, 1787) pours scorn on the terms themselves: Deliberative speech, where the orator exerts all his energy to proving to the meeting that there is nothing at all to deliberate; Demonstrative, which demonstrates nothing but flattery or hatred (and, he should have added, the orator’s virtuosity—not showing but showing off); Judicial, aiming at demonstrating, and leaving it all to the judges’ deliberation. In any case Smith in the end does not scrap the ancient divison but simply adds the Didactic to it: Lectures 22–30.
By chance our notes begin at what Smith thought of first importance: style, language. ‘Nobis prima sit virtus perspicuitas’ said Quintilian (VIII. ii. 22, echoing Aristotle’s σαϕὴς λέξις, Rhetoric III. ii. 1), and defined the main ingredient in perspicuity as proprietas, each thing called by its own, its properly belonging name. The root meaning of perspicuity is the quality of being seen through, and the subject of Smith’s lectures may be said to be what it is that language allows to show through it, and how. For Smith there is much more to this transparence than the handing over of facts or feelings, and the first paragraph introduces some of this. Words are no mere convenience; they are natives of a community, as citizens are—and as i. 5–6 shows, of a particular part of the community. The Abbé du Bos devoted I. xxxvii of Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (1719) to showing the kind of force the words of our own language have on our minds. When an English–reading Frenchman meets the word God it is to the word Dieu and all its associations that his emotions respond.
A more immediate motive for this paragraph can best be indicated by a well–known story about the poet of the Seasons. After completing his Arts course at Edinburgh, James Thomson’s first exercise in the Faculty of Divinity was the preparation of a sermon on the Jod section of Psalm cxix. When he read it to his class on 27 October 1724 it was severely criticised by his professor, William Hamilton, for its grandiloquence of style, quite unsuitable for any congregation. Thomson, discouraged, gave up his studies, went off to London, and spent his life writing poems whose highly Latinate diction has often been remarked on: as was that of his fellow–countrymen in his own century. The Scoticisms against which Scottish writers were put on their guard, as by Hume and Beattie, were partly of this kind, and have been attributed to the Latin base of Scots Law as well as of Scottish education. Hutcheson was the first professor at Glasgow to lecture in English, and this, quite apart from his teaching, was seen as a help to the students in unlearning their linguistic tendencies. A. F. Tytler (Kames, i. 163) emphasises the influence of another Scottish professor in the same direction, that of the Edinburgh mathematician Colin Maclaurin, his ‘pure, correct and simple style inducing a taste for chasteness of expression . . . a disrelish of affected ornaments’. Scots youths were encouraged towards ‘an ease and elegance of composition as a more engaging vehicle for subjects of taste, in the room of the dry scholastic style in which they had hitherto been treated’. They were ‘attracted to the more pleasing topics of criticism and the belles lettres. The cultivation of style became an object of study’, replacing the ancient school dialectics. This, if only Tytler had provided evidence and illustration, would parallel the linguistic programme of the Royal Society as outlined by Sprat in its History in 1667: ‘this trick of Metaphors’, ‘those specious Tropes and Figures’, to be replaced by positive expressions ‘bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can’.
A much wider context for Smith’s lectures is thus created, though we must not forget the immediate one suggested by i. 103: ‘We in this country are most of us very sensible that the perfection of language is very different from that we commonly speak in’. Periodically throughout the history of style there occur combats between the respective upholders of the plain and the elaborate: Plato versus the sophist Gorgias; Calvus charging Cicero with ‘Asianic’ writing as opposed to Attic purity. Smith’s teaching comes at such a moment. While he was a student John Constable’s Reflections upon accuracy of style enjoyed something of a vogue. Not published till 1734 (reprinted 1738), this attack on the highly figurative language of Jeremy Collier’s Essays (1697) had been written in 1701; and in the meantime Collier’s ‘huddle of metaphors’ and conceits had been sharply criticized in John Oldmixon’s adaptation of the influential La manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages d’esprit (1687) by Dominique Bouhours—The arts of Logick and Rhetorick (1728). Behind all of them lies another combat: the Chevalier de Méré’s strictures on the verbal extravagances of Voiture in De la Justesse (1671), which gave Constable his title. These oppositions are of many kinds, and all differ from the one Smith sets up between the lucidity of Swift and the ‘pompousness’ of Shaftesbury—the shaping motive of much of Lectures 7–11. This is perhaps the earliest appreciation of Swift as writer; political and quasi–moral objections prevented his critical recognition till late in the century. Smith’s admiration rests on something central in the Rhetoric: ‘All his works show a complete knowledge of his Subject . . . One who has such a complete knowledge of what he treats will naturally arange it in the most proper order’ (i. 105–6). Shaftesbury is a dilettante and does not know enough. Above all he has not kept up with modern scientific advances; he makes up for superficiality and ignorance by ornament (i. 140–1, 144). That his letters ‘have no marks of the circumstances the writer was in at the time he wrote. Nor any reflections peculiarly suited to the times and circumstances’ is the most telling fault. The writing does not belong anywhere or to any one.
It is his criticism of the reverence paid to the figures of speech (whether departures from normal use of word, figurae verborum; or unusual modes of presentation, figurae sententiarum—Cicero, Orator xxxix–xl; Quintilian IX. i–iii; Rhetorica ad Herennium Book IV) that leads Smith to his decisive formulations of beauty of language. ‘When the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, clear, plain and clever manner, and the passion or affection he is possessed of and intends, by sympathy, to communicate to his hearer, is plainly and cleverly hit off, then and then only the expression has all the force and beauty that language can give it’. Figures of speech may or may not do the job. See i. 56, 73, 79. ‘The expression ought to be suited to the mind of the author, for this is chiefly governed by the circumstances he is placed in’. Language is organically related not merely to thought in the abstract (see section 3 below); it bears ‘the same stamp’ as the speaker’s nature. Ben Jonson, writing about 1622 (Timber or Discoveries), observed: ‘Language most shewes a man: speake, that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme or likeness so true as his speech’.
The discussion of this relationship is introduced by a nice piece of Smithian economy. The character–sketches of the plain and the simple man not only illustrate two styles and lead on to Swift and Temple (i. 85–95); they offer the student models of ethologia, the form prescribed (according to Quintilian I. ix. 3) to pupils in rhetoric as an exercise, and they prepare for the instruction in character–drawing in Lecture 15 and the discussion of the Character as a genre—invented by Theophrastus, edited by Isaac Casaubon in 1592, introduced in England by Joseph Hall in 1608, and practised by La Bruyere, who is Smith’s favourite because his collection is a microcosm of society and of mankind. When Hugh Blair, as he tells us, was lent the manuscript of Smith’s lectures (he no doubt remembered hearing this passage) when preparing his own, it was from these ethologiae that he drew hints: ‘On this head, of the General Characters of Style, particularly, the Plain and the Simple, and the characters of those English authors who are classed under them, in this, and the following Lecture, several ideas have been taken from a manuscript treatise on rhetoric, part of which was shown to me, many years ago, by the learned and ingenious author, Dr Adam Smith; and which, it is hoped, will be given by him to the Public’ (Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 1783, i. 381). The Theophrastan form influenced the historians; see the collection Characters of the Seventeenth Century, ed. D. Nichol Smith (1920). It is significant that the first critic to publish a series of studies of Shakespeare’s characters, William Richardson, the Glasgow Professor of Humanity from 1773, was a student of Adam Smith’s; his A philosophical analysis and illustration of some of Shakespeare’s remarkable characters appeared in 1774, and two more volumes in 1784 and 1788.
Boswell, another student who heard the Rhetoric lectures (in 1759), was struck by Smith’s emphasis on the personal aspects of writers, and he twice recalled the remark about Milton’s shoes (absent from our report; it should have come at ii. 107): ‘I remember Dr. Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glasgow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles’ (Journal of a tour to the Hebrides §9). ‘I have a pleasure in hearing every story, tho’ never so little, of so distinguished a Man. I remember Smith took notice of this pleasure in his lectures upon Rhetoric, and said that he felt it when he read that Milton never wore buckles but strings in his shoes’ (Boswell Papers i. 107). Such was the training of the future author of the greatest of all biographies of a man of letters. In no. 1 of the Spectator (1 March 1711) Addison ‘observed, that a Reader seldom peruses a Book with Pleasure ’till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of a like nature, that conduce very much to the right Understanding of an Author’. John Harvey included in his Collection of Miscellany Poems and Letters (1726: 84–88) a parody of this Spectator, with a fictitious life of himself.
Beauty of style, then, is propriety in the exact sense of the word: language which embodies and exhibits to the reader that distinctive turn and quality of spirit in the author ‘qui lui est propre’, as Marivaux insisted in the Spectateur français, 8e feuille (8 September 1722). Our pleasure is, as Hutcheson noted in his Inquiry into the original of our ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725: I. sec. IV. vii), in recognizing a perfect correspondence or aptness in a curious mechanism for the execution of a design. It is characteristic of Smith that his aesthetics should thus centre on correspondence, relation, affinity. What he finds wrong with Shaftesbury’s style is that he arbitrarily made it up; it has nothing to do with his own character (i. 137–8). When the principle is extended from persons to societies—‘all languages . . . are equally ductile and equally accommodated to all different tempers’—very wide and illuminating prospects open up. Good examples are Trajan’s Rome as formative background for Tacitus (Lecture 20), the comparison of Athens and Rome as contexts for Demosthenes and Cicero (Lecture 26), and the association of the rise of prose with the growth of commerce and wealth (ii. 144 ff.). Indeed the accounts of historical writing and of the three types of oratory are made the occasions for elaborate excursus on different kinds of social and political organization, ancient and modern.
‘By sympathy’ (i. v. 56): this phrase in the formulation of the highest beauty language can attain is one of the very few which Scribe A underlines, and pains had clearly been taken by Smith to bring out the parallel between his ethical and rhetorical principles. Just as we act under the eye of an impartial spectator within ourselves, the creation of an imaginative self–projection into an outsider whose standards and responses we reconstruct by sympathy or ability to feel as he does, so our language is enabled to communicate our thoughts and ‘affections’ (i.e. inclinations) by our ability to predict its effect on our hearer. This is what is meant by seeing the Rhetoric and TMS as two halves of one system, and not merely at occasional points of contact. The connection of ‘sympathy’ as a rhetorical instrument with the vision of speech and personality as an organic unity need not be laboured. Again, it should be obvious how often Smith’s concern is with the sharing of sentiments and attitudes rather than mere ideas or facts. The arts of persuasion are close to his heart for this reason. The opening of Lecture 11 is a key passage. The conveying to a hearer of ‘the sentiment, passion or affection with which [his thought] affects him’—‘the perfection of stile’—is regulated by a ‘Rule, which is equally applicable to conversation and behaviour as writing’; ‘all the Rules of Criticism and morality when traced to their foundation, turn out to be some Principles of Common Sence which every one assents to’. One of the most frequent terms of critical praise in the Rhetoric is ‘interesting’, bearing its original and normal eighteenth century sense of involving, engaging, as at ii. 27 where, thanks to Livy’s skill, ‘we enter into all the concerns of the parties’ and are as affected as if we had been there. The reason why history is enjoyed is that events which befall mankind ‘interest us greatly by the Sympatheticall affections they raise in us’ (ii. 16). The good historian shows the effects wrought on those who were actors or spectators of the events (ii. 5; cf. ii. 62–3). Knowledge of the plot of a tragedy is an advantage since it leaves us ‘free to attend to the Sentiments’ (ii. 30). A variation on this is acutely described in dealing with the picture of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Timanthes (ii. 8); cf. i. 180, Addison on St Peter’s. Indeed the entire treatment of the art of description in Lectures 12–16 is profoundly instructive of Smith’s main interests. Even minutiae such as the arrangement of words in a sentence (i. v. 42–v. 52b) repay an attention beyond the merely grammatical.
The species of writing are so intimately bound up with each other that Smith finds it difficult in Lectures 12–30 to demarcate them sharply. By instinct, as already noted, he is a historian in the sense that he sees narrative as the very type of human thought–procedure; but his interest in it is also that suggested by Hume’s description of history’s records as ‘so many collections of experiments by which the moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science’. (William Richardson used similar terms about his studies of Shakespeare’s characters in 1784). The first paper read to the Literary Society in the University, on 6 February 1752, was ‘An essay on historical composition’ by James Moor, the Professor of Greek (Essays, 1759). Moor’s elaboration of the kinship of history and poetry, the unified pattern which both exhibit in events, throws interesting light on the position occupied by Lecture 21 in Smith’s progression. Bolingbroke compared history and drama; and Voltaire wrote to the Marquis d’Argenson on 26 January 1740 (Correspondence ed. T. Besterman, xxxv. 373): ‘Il faut, dans une histoire, comme dans une pièce de théâtre, exposition, noeud, et dénouement’. There may be an echo of the ancient assimilation of history and poetry in ‘the Poeticall method’ of keeping up the connection between events, other than the causal (ii. 36); and history, like poetry, is said to ‘amuse’ (ii. 62), and to have originated with the poets. Leonard Welsted expounded this view fully in his Dissertation concerning the perfection of the English Language (1724). For Quintilian (X. i. 31) a history is a poem: ‘Est enim proxima poetis et quodammodo carmen solutum’. There was indeed much collocation by the ancient rhetoricians of all these genres—history, poetry, rhetoric, philosophical exposition—as in Cicero’s Orator XX. 66–7. The Muses are said to have spoken in Xenophon’s voice (Orator XIX. 62). They are all combined by Fénelon in the educational project he outlined to the French Academy, first in 1716. That panegyrical eloquence ‘tient un peu de la poésie’ as Voltaire maintained in the Encyclopédie article on Eloquence is also Smith’s view (ii. 111–2).
The lecture on poetry (21), delivered extemporaneously, is both instructive and disappointing. The post–Coleridge student looks for more analysis of short poems; these are of little interest, naturally, to the philosopher. More important, why does not Smith of all critics tackle the problem of the pleasure afforded us by tragedy? This is specially strange since Hume, who had offered a highly ingenious answer in his essay on tragedy in 1757, expressed dissatisfaction with the treatment of sympathy in this context in TMS I. iii. 1. 9 (Corr. Letter 36, 28 July 1759), and the second edition of TMS contained a footnote on the question. The insistence in the lecture (ii. 82) on the tragic writer’s heightening of the painful nature of his story in order to lead to a satisfying ‘catastrophe’ is an oblique solution of the problem and one frequently given: the difference between suffering on the stage and in real life resides in the artifice of the former. ‘The delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of fiction’, said Johnson in the Preface to Shakespeare (1765)—though Burke in 1757 took the opposite view, because ‘we enter into the concerns of others’. Kames in The Elements of Criticism (1762: I. ii. 1 sec. 7) discusses ‘the emotions caused by Fiction’. The function of Lecture 21 is to prepare for the arts of persuasion used by the orator, playing down or exaggerating as the need demands, by describing the similar arts of the good story–teller. Tragedy and Comedy both arrange events so as to culminate in true conclusiveness. Note that Smith’s imagination is as tuned to good cadence as is his ear.
That is why he delights in rhyme. Boswell reports that when Johnson was extolling rhyme over blank verse, ‘I mentioned to him that Dr. Adam Smith, in his lectures upon composition, when I studied under him in the College of Glasgow, had maintained the same opinion strenuously, and I repeated some of his arguments’. Johnson had no love for Smith, but—‘had I known that he loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, I should have HUGGED him’ (Life of Johnson, ed. Hill–Powell, i. 427–8). Dugald Stewart associates this bias with Smith’s ascription of our pleasure in the Imitative Arts (e.g. I. 16, III. 2) to admiration of difficulté surmontée (Stewart III. 14–15). The phrase is by Antoine Houdar de La Motte in his controversy with Voltaire over Œdipe (1730). La Motte opposed both the Unities and Rhyme in drama: ‘toutes ces puérilités n’ont d’autre mérite que celui de la difficulté surmontée’. Both Voltaire and Smith counter this argument by pointing to the observed triumph over observed obstacles, as a source of our surprised delight in all the arts, both plastic and literary. Stewart (III. 15) wonders whether Smith’s ‘love of system, added to his partiality for the French drama’, may have led him to generalize too much in this. Rhyme is not in fact explicitly mentioned in our manuscript at ii. 74 ff., but it is implicit in couplet and reference to Pope. Cf. TMS V. i. 7.
‘The principles of dramatic composition had more particularly attracted his attention’ (Stewart III. 15); and though the dogmas about unity of Time and Place had often been attacked since Corneille’s Discours in 1660—in Farquhar’s Discourse upon Comedy (1702) and Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762: chap. xxiii)—it is pleasant to find Smith transferring the question to ‘Unity of Interest’ (ii. 81). This time he is on La Motte’s side. In the first of his Discours sur la Tragédie (1730) this is made the supreme law of dramatic art: but, as Smith remarks, the phrase is susceptible of many interpretations, and it is a little surprising to find him not following La Motte’s thesis that concentration of the audience’s sympathy on a group of characters—always present, always acting, animating and vivifying the action of the piece—is what constitutes ‘unité d’intérêt’, as they are ‘tous dignes que j’entre dans leurs passions’. ‘That every part of the Story should tend to some one end, whatever that be’ is of course also a typically Smithian formulation.
Beside the remark on Comedy (ii. 82) we must place the full account of the comic at i. 107–v.116. Smith’s interest in the laughter–provoking (we must remember that that is simply what the eighteenth century words ridicule and ridiculous mean) was no doubt kindled early by Hutcheson, whose criticism of Hobbes’s view—‘the passion of laughter is nothing but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves’ (Leviathan vi)—first appeared in the Dublin Journal 10–12 (June 1725), collected as Reflections on Laughter (1750). Smith’s approach is proper to someone preoccupied with comparison: unexpected incongruities arising from the aggrandisement of the little (as in mock–heroic) or diminution of the grand. At i. 112 he seems to allude to Leibnitz: ‘All raillery includes a little contempt, and it is not just to try to make contemptible what does not deserve it’ (Remarks on Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks, 1711; printed in Masson’s Histoire critique de la République des Lettres, 1715). He does not accept therefore Shaftesbury’s notion of laughter as a ‘test of truth’. For Smith on wit and humour cf. the review of Johnson’s Dictionary (EPS 240–1).
Johnson would not have ‘hugged’ Smith for his words on tragi–comedy (ii. 83–4). This ‘mixed’ kind, described in Spectator 40 as monstrous, was several times vigorously defended by Johnson for its truth to life: e.g. Rambler 156 (14 Sept. 1751), as well as the Preface to Shakespeare in 1765.
To one tradition of rhetorical instruction Smith is faithful, in the readiness with which he quotes poetic examples side by side with prose. At i. 9 he refers to Samuel Clarke’s preface to his edition of the Iliad (1729) in praise of Homer’s perspicuity—such, says Clarke, that no prose writer has ever equalled him in this his ‘perpetua et singularis virtus’. Clarke also makes an interesting distinction between the poet’s ars and his oratio; so in our day Ezra Pound has insisted that poetry must have the qualities of good prose.
Like that later polymath Coleridge, Adam Smith nursed till his last days the hope of producing a magnum opus of immense scope. ‘I have likewise two other great works upon the anvil; the one is a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence’ (the other being his Jurisprudence); ‘The materials of both are in a great measure collected, and some Part of both is put into tollerable good order’. So he wrote to the Duc de La Rochefoucauld on 1 Nov. 1785 (Corr., Letter 248). This was no doubt why in 1755, in a paper read to Cochrane’s Political Economy Club, he gave ‘a pretty long enumeration . . . of certain leading principles, both political and literary, to which he was anxious to establish his exclusive right; in order to prevent the possibility of some rival claims . . .’ (Stewart IV. 25). Unfortunately Stewart does not tell us which ‘literary’ principles were listed. Smith describes the opinions as having formed the subjects of his lectures since he first taught Mr Craigie’s class ‘down to this day, without any considerable variation’.
One envies the eighteenth century the freedom and width of vision made possible to them by their not circumscribing the word literature and narrowing the scope of its study as we have since done. Our two scribes enable us to glimpse that first work which would have become the foundation of the tantalizing ‘Philosophical History’ of all literature.