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4.: Rhetoric and literary criticism - 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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Rhetoric and literary criticism
A student of the traditional rhetoric who reads the present work as he runs (or—as Smith would put it—‘one partly asleep’), may possibly as he encounters familiar topics, concepts and terminology, conclude that this is the well–worn old story: a story so often in the past a dreary one. Smith in speaking of the many systems of rhetoric both ancient and modern observed that they were generally ‘a very silly set of books and not at all instructive’ (i. v. 59). Such a reader will have missed the motive which gives unity and direction to the lectures and the framework of thought which transforms the old discipline; above all he will be ignoring the delight which informs the whole and its details.
Steele remarked early in the century that ‘it is a very good service one man renders another when he tells him the manner of his being pleased’. Smith began lecturing at a time when the study of rhetoric was turning increasingly, especially in Scotland, to the study of taste. Hugh Blair opens the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres which he first delivered in 1759 by summing up their twofold aim: ‘Whatever enables genius to execute well, will enable taste to criticise justly’. Smith was a natural teacher of literature. One of his students, William Richardson, in a life of Archibald Arthur who later occupied the Glasgow Chair of Moral Philosophy (and who had himself studied under Smith), records: ‘Those who received instruction from Dr. Smith, will recollect, with much satisfaction, many of these incidental and digressive illustrations, and even discussions, not only in morality, but in criticism, which were delivered by him with animated and extemporaneous eloquence, as they were suggested in the course of question and answer’ (Arthur, Discourses on Theological and Literary Subjects, 1803: 507–8). Richardson’s words, though in the first instance about Smith’s ‘examination’ hour, are known to be true of his lecturing in general; and it is significant that in the account of the lectures on rhetoric which follows (515), ‘taste’ is the first topic to be mentioned, before ‘composition’. Arthur himself followed Smith’s method ‘and treated of fine–writing, the principles of criticism, and the pleasures of the imagination . . . intended by him to unfold and elucidate those processes of invention, that structure of language, and system of arrangement, which are the objects of genuine taste’. Double evidence, in effect, of Smith’s attitude to the first subject he had chosen to teach. George Jardine, another student of Smith’s who, as Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at Glasgow from 1787, continued to teach along the lines his master had laid down, likewise concentrated on ‘the principles of taste and criticism’. Thomas Reid, writing about 1791 in the Statistical Account of Scotland (vol. 21, 1799 735), describe Jardine’s current practice thus: after dealing briefly with the art of reasoning and its history, he
dedicates the greater part of his time to an illustration of the various mental operations, as they are expressed by the several modifications of speech and writing; which leads him to deliver a system of lectures on general grammar, rhetoric, and belles lettres. This course, accompanied with suitable exercises and specimens, on the part of the students, is properly placed at the entrance to philosophy: no subjects are likely to be more interesting to young minds, at a time when their taste and feelings are beginning to open, and have naturally disposed them to the reading of such authors as are necessary to supply them with facts and materials for beginning and carrying on the important habits of reflection and investigation.
It is significant that accounts of the tradition in rhetorical teaching acknowledged as stemming from Adam Smith so often dwell on the ‘taste and feelings’ of the students.
The title ‘Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’, which presumably (though we do not know) was Smith’s own choice to describe his course, seems to go back to Charles Rollin’s appointment to the Chair of Rhetoric at the Collège Royal in Paris in 1688. Rollin’s lectures were published in 1726–8 as De la manière d’enseigner et d’étudier les Belles–lettres, par raport à l’esprit et au coeur—later changed to Traité des études. Apart from the suggestions of the subtitle the book cannot be shown to have taught Smith anything in the field of criticism. He needed no one else’s instruction on l’esprit et le coeur.
His pleasure as a critic is in several ways that of a philosopher. He is stimulated by prose and poetry which clearly reveal the author, and his eye (and ear) are made attentive by the conception he has worked out of the relation between the writer and the man. Theories, as Pater saw, are useful as ‘points of view, instruments of criticism which may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us’. Rhetoric had, at least since the first century bc, always been taught with copious illustrations from writers, and students had been trained by exercises in the close analysis of texts. The opening paragraphs of Biographia Literaria show how lively, and fruitful, this tradition still was in Coleridge’s schooldays. For Smith there is no separation between the two instructions, in handling language and in the enjoyment of that handling by the masters of the crafts. As we might have predicted, his most characteristic method is the comparative, the pin–pointing of an author’s essential quality by putting his work alongside that of a practitioner in the same field or a kindred one: Demosthenes and Cicero, Clarendon and Burnet. This method, used systematically over a great range of examples, is his most distinctive contribution to the literary criticism of his age—especially when we remember that the values he invokes in his judgements are, not narrowly technical, but comprehensively human and humane—common–sense, to use his own word. In English criticism only Dryden, e.g. in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy and the Preface to the Fables, had so far used comparison in an extensive and self–conscious way. Smith certainly knew the examples in the rhetorical treatises of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Demosthenes with Thucydides, Plato with Demosthenes, Isaeus with Lysias, etc.) and in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria Book X; but perhaps his immediate model was the series of comparisons of ancient writers published by René Rapin in 1664–81.
This was the age of collections of The Beauties of . . . Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Poetry, and so on. Many of Smith’s lectures must have delighted their audience by sounding like some such judiciously selected anthologies. He read extensively from the texts in class, often in his own translation (an art he took great pleasure in and found instructive in its own right: Stewart I. 9): hence the variation in length in the reported lectures. The immense popularity of these lectures was the result of their offering the spectacle of Smith’s suppleness in moving easily over the whole field of ancient and modern writing and of his inventiveness in making illuminating connections.
If we cannot number Adam Smith among the greatest critics, we need not fall into the ill–temper expressed by Wordsworth in a footnote to his Essay Supplementary to the Preface (1815); on the notion ‘that there are no fixed principles in human nature for this art [the admiration of poetry] to rest upon’, he adds: ‘This opinion seems actually to have been entertained by Adam Smith, the worst critic, David Hume not excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this sort of weed seems natural, has produced’. The premise of this remark is so mistaken, and the quantity of Smith’s literary criticism in the printed works, especially TMS and EPS, so fragmentary and scanty, that the violence of Wordsworth’s language is difficult to explain. A clue occurs in a letter he wrote to John Wilson in June 1802, commenting on the offence given to ‘many fine ladies’ by supposedly indelicate or gross expressions in certain of the Lyrical Ballads (The Mad Mother and The Thorn), ‘and as in the instance of Adam Smith, who, we are told, could not endure the ballad of Clym of the Clough, because the author had not written like a gentleman’ (Early Letters, 1935, 296). This is a clear reference to the interview by Amicus with Smith printed in Appendix 1. The article was reprinted in The European Magazine for August 1791 (xx. 133–6), in The Whitehall Evening Post, and thence (with misprints and omissions) in a miscellany of essays dating from the sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries entitled Occasional Essays on Various Subjects, chiefly Political and Historical (1809). The editorship of this last is ascribed by the B.L. Catalogue to the lawyer and mathematician Francis Maseres, the ‘Baron Maseres’ of Lamb’s essay on the Inner Temple, i.e. Cursitor Baron of Exchequer. The identity of Amicus is unknown. He has been wrongly said to be Adam Smith’s old student David Steuart Erskine, later 11th Earl of Buchan (1742–1829), who in fact, under his pen–name Ascanius, criticised the article of Amicus in The Bee of 8 June 1791 (iii. 166 f.): ‘I knew him too well to think he would have liked to have had a pisgah view of such frivolous matters obtruded on the learned world after his death’—yet he goes on: ‘He had no ear for music, nor any perception of the sublime or beautiful in composition, either in poetry or language of any kind. He was too much of a geometrician to have much taste.’ Only if we think the notorious and flamboyant eccentricity of Lord Buchan extended to writing an article under one pseudonym in order to condemn it under another can we accept him as Smith’s ‘friendly’ interviewer. In any case he collected all his Bee articles for 4 May 1791 to 25 December 1793 in The anonymous and fugitive essays of The Earl of Buchan, vol. 1 (1812) so that, as the preface explains, ‘no person may hereafter ascribe to him any others than are by him, in this manner, avowed, described, or enumerated’. So all we know of ‘Amicus’ is that, as the ‘we’ of his defence of Allan Ramsay shows, he was a Scot. As to Lord Buchan, though he had his own odd ways of showing his regard for ‘the reputation of my excellent preceptor and amiable friend’ and recalled ‘having had the happiness to live long and much with him’, the regard was genuine, and in some remarks on literary immortality he groups together Homer, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Adam Smith (Essays as above, 213, 246–7, from The Bee, 29 May 1793 and 27 June 1792 respectively). Incidentally, his denial to Smith of a ‘perception of the sublime’ would have been rebutted by Edmund Burke (who had just written a book on The Sublime and the Beautiful): on 10 Sept. 1759 he wrote to Smith praising the ‘lively and elegant’ style of TMS and adding ‘it is often sublime too, particularly in that fine Picture of the Stoic Philosophy towards the end of your first part which is dressed out in all the grandeur and pomp that becomes that magnificent delusion’ (Corr. Letter 38).
Despite the introductory assurance of authenticity by the editor of The Bee, Dr. James Anderson, who had himself known Smith, the moral propriety of reprinting yet again the gossip of Amicus may rightly be questioned. John Ramsay of Ochtertyre, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Scotland and Scotsmen in the Eighteenth Century (1888: i. 468) remarks that Smith’s table–talk would be precious, ‘but the scraps of it published in the Bee do no honour either to his memory or the discretion of his friends’. Dugald Stewart (V. 15) contrasts the opinions which ‘in the thoughtlessness and confidence of his social hours, he was accustomed to hazard on books, and on questions of speculation’, though having much truth and ingenuity in them, with ‘those qualified conclusions that we admire in his writings’; and what he said as the fancy or the humour took him, ‘when retailed by those who only saw him occasionally, suggested false and contradictory ideas of his real sentiments’. But the Amicus piece has often been quoted (see Rae, Life, 365–71). Smith himself seems to approve of curiosity about the great—‘The smallest circumstances, the most minute transactions of a great man are sought after with eagerness. Everything that is created with Grandeur seems to be important. We watch the sayings and catch the apothegms of the great ones with which we are infinitely pleased and are fond of every opportunity of using them . . .’ (LRBL ii. 107). We are after all publishing lectures which Smith died believing he had saved from publication as not in a worthy state. Of course (there is a difference) these had in one sense been ‘published’. In 1896 Edwin Cannan sought to justify the publication of the Lectures on Jurisprudence by quoting Smith’s own words about the limits on testamentary provisions. In LJ (A) i. 165–6 they run: ‘. . . we should permit the dying person to dispose of his goods as far as he sees, that is, to settle how it shall be divided amongst those who are alive at the same time with him. For these it may be conjectured he may have contracted some affection. . . . But persons who are not born he can have no affection for. The utmost stretch of our piety can not reasonably extend to them.’ Mutatis mutandis Smith’s suppressions need not inhibit us. Johnson’s remark in Rambler 60 is not inopportune: ‘If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth’.