Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: System and aesthetics - Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 4 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
Return to Title Page for Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 4 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
5.: System and aesthetics - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith and the associated volumes are published in hardcover by Oxford University Press. The six titles of the Glasgow Edition, but not the associated volumes, are being published in softcover by Liberty Fund. The online edition is published by Liberty Fund under license from Oxford University Press.
©Oxford University Press 1976. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored transmitted retransmitted lent or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Oxford University Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
System and aesthetics
On 9 July 1764 Boswell wrote from Berlin to Isabella de Zuylen (Zélide): ‘Mr. Smith whose moral sentiments you admire so much, wrote to me sometime ago, “your great fault is acting upon system”, what a curious reproof to a young man from a grave philosopher’. The letter opens: ‘. . . You know I am a man of form, a man who says to himself, Thus will I act, and acts accordingly’ (Letters, ed. C. B. Tinker, 1924, 46). In the absence of Adam Smith’s letter (strange, considering what mountains of paper Boswell preserved) we cannot tell with what irony he wrote to his former student; but the incident draws attention to the two uses in the eighteenth century of the word and the concept ‘system’. While Smith was giving these lectures two of the most powerful critiques of the idea appeared: in the wittiest and subtlest of all such attacks, Tristram Shandy (1759–67), Sterne presents a hapless philosopher–father’s attempts to make his son’s upbringing conform to theory, the Shandean system—the form of the novel itself criticises the notion of rigid form; and in 1759 Voltaire produced, in Candide, a demolition of the optimistic scheme of the universe, a series of disastrous frustrations of the illusion that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Marivaux is fond of pillorying ‘les faiseurs de systèmes’ (e.g. in Lettres au Mercure, May 1718 etc.), who are what ‘le vulgaire’ call ‘philosophers’; and Shaftesbury had already in 1711 (Characteristics: Misc. III. ii) defined a formal philosopher as a ‘system–writer’. ‘System–monger’ comes in about the same time. On 27 Sept. 1748 we find Lord Chesterfield advising his son to ‘read and hear, for your amusement, ingenious systems, nice questions, subtilely agitated with all the refinements that warm imaginations suggest’, and less sardonically he complains: ‘The preposterous notions of a systematical man who does not know the world tire the patience of a man who does’. Cf. Stewart’s (V. 15) ‘too systematical’ of Smith; and the ‘man of system’ apt ‘to be very wise in his own conceit’, in TMS, VI. ii. 2. 17.
‘System’ in the good sense is exemplified by Johnson’s defence of The Wealth of Nations against Sir John Pringle’s charge that Smith was not equipped to write such a work since he had never taken part in trade: ‘. . . there is nothing which requires more to be illustrated by philosophy than trade does’ (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Hill–Powell, ii. 430). Another example, used by James Wodrow in a letter to the Earl of Buchan (Glasgow Univ. Lib., Murray MS 506, 169) is the comparison of Smith’s accounting for the principal phenomena in the moral world from the one general principle of sympathy, with ‘that of gravity in the natural world’. Still another is set out by Smith in a letter (30, dated 4 April 1759) to Lord Shelburne on the course of study his son Lord Fitzmaurice should pursue in his future years at Glasgow, after completing his Philosophical studies. He should, says Smith, attend the lectures of the Professor of Civil Law, as the best preparation for the study of English Law even though Civil Law has no authority in the English Courts:
The civil law is digested into a more regular system than the English Law has yet been, and tho’ the Principles of the former are in many respects different from those of the latter, yet there are many principles common to both, and one who has studied the civil law at least knows what a system of law is, what parts it consist of, and how these ought to be arranged: so that when he afterwards comes to study the law of any other country which is not so well digested, he carries at least the Idea of a System in his head and knows to what part of it he ought to refer everything that he reads.
Compare this with the motive underlying the system of meanings laid out in the review of Johnson’s Dictionary (EPS 232–41).
That something more than mere tidiness and intellectual coherence is involved for Smith is illustrated by a passage in Imitative Arts (II. 30, cf. section 2, above):
A well–composed concerto of instrumental Music, by the number and variety of the instruments, by the variety of the parts which are performed by them, and the perfect concord or correspondence of all these different parts; by the exact harmony or coincidence of all the different sounds which are heard at the same time, and by that happy variety of measure which regulates the succession of those which are heard at different times, presents an object so agreeable, so great, so various, and so interesting, that alone, and without suggesting any other object, either by imitation or otherwise, it can occupy, and as it were fill up, completely the whole capacity of the mind, so as to leave no part of its attention vacant for thinking of any thing else. In the contemplation of that immense variety of agreeable and melodious sounds, arranged and digested, both in their coincidence and in their succession, into so complete and regular a system, the mind in reality enjoys not only a very great sensual, but a very high intellectual, pleasure, not unlike that which it derives from the contemplation of a great system in any other science.
In other words, to watch the explanation of a great diversity and multiplicity of phenomena from a single general principle is to be confronted with beauty: ‘the beauty of a systematical arrangement of different observations connected by a few common principles’ (WN V. i. f. 25; cf. EPS, 13 ff). We remember that Smith’s dominant interests while a student at Glasgow under Professor Robert Simson (Stewart, I. 7) were mathematics and natural philosophy; this is where he learned ‘the idea of a system’—as set out in Astronomy IV. 19.
The issue is most clearly stated in LRBL (ii. 132–4), in the lecture (24) on scientific and philosophical exposition, the ‘didacticall’ method. One may either explain phenomena piecemeal, using a new principle for each as it is encountered, e.g. the ‘System of Husbandry’ presented in Virgil’s Georgics following Aristotle’s procedure; ‘or in the manner of Sir Isaac Newton we may lay down certain principles known or proved in the beginning, from whence we account for the severall Phenomena, connecting all together by the same chain’. This enchaînement (the favourite term among French thinkers of the time) is in every branch of study—ethics, physics, criticism—‘vastly more ingenious and for that reason more engaging than the other. It gives us a pleasure to see the phaenomena which we reckoned the most unaccountable all deduced from some principle (commonly a wellknown one) and all united in one chain, far superior to what we feel from the unconnected method. . . .’ (Cf. TMS, VII. ii. 2. 14).
The task Smith set himself in the Rhetoric was to substitute a ‘Newtonian’ (or Cartesian, cf. ii. 134), a philosophical and ‘engaging’ explanation of beauty in writing, for the old rigmarole about figures of speech and of thought, ‘topics’ of argument, subdivisions of discourse, characters of style and the rest. In this sense his lectures constitute an anti–rhetoric; and though they could not by themselves rescue the word rhetoric, or for that matter the phrases belles lettres and polite literature, from the bad press they suffered from, they exerted a profound and revolutionary influence which has still not been properly investigated, on Hugh Blair, Kames, William Richardson, George Campbell, and those they in turn taught.
‘There is no art whatever that hath so close a connection with all the faculties and powers of the mind as eloquence, or the art of speaking.’ So George Campbell introduces The Philosophy of Rhetoric in 1776. To come closer to describing Smith’s central informing principle, the formulations of two French writers whose work he knew well may help. ‘Le style est l’homme même’. This famous and generally misunderstood remark was made by the naturalist Buffon on his admission to the French Academy in 1753, in what came to be called his Discours sur le style. He is contrasting the inert facts of unanimated knowledge with what language does to them. ‘Ces choses sont hors de l’homme’ they are non–human. But utter them, and how you utter them, is ‘very man’, ‘man himself’. From a different angle Marivaux, in Le Spectateur français of 8 September 1722 (Huitième feuille), attacks the notion that you must write in the manner of this or that ancient or modern author, and aims ‘prouver qu’écrire naturellement, qu’être naturel n’est pas écrire dans le goût de tel Ancien ni de tel Moderne, n’est pas se mouler sur personne quant à la forme de ses idées, mais au contraire, se ressembler fidèlement à soi–même . . . rester dans la singularité d’esprit qui nous est échué. . . .’ Be like yourself: it was a lesson, Smith believed, the much admired Shaftesbury had never learned.