"Practicing Oratory on Others": Adam Smith and the Rhetoric of Life
Professor Vernon Smith observes that in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith "locates the origins of national economy in the universal propensity of individuals to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another." Professor Smith emphasizes that a precondition for the resulting economic development is Smith's theory of justice as property, evident in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the surviving student notes for Smith's Lectures on Jurisprudence. Professor Smith's analysis of those connections enhances our understanding of not only Adam Smith's jurisprudence but also how his oeuvre forms a larger system.
Foundational to that system are Smith's rhetorical ideals. When we sell bread, defend our characters, or seek the sympathy of our neighbor, we engage in the art of persuasion. This point was so important that Smith added a section on veracity in the last chapter of his final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790), where he observes, "the desire of being believed, the desire of persuading, of leading and directing other people, seems to be one of the strongest of all our natural desires. It is, perhaps, the instinct upon which is founded the faculty of speech, the characteristical faculty of human nature" (TMS VII.iv.25, p. 336).
Smith addressed this and related subjects from the start of his teaching career, when he delivered lectures on rhetoric and literature for the benefit of the public in Edinburgh (1748-51). He later chose this subject for his first private class when he became a professor at the University of Glasgow. Although he never published a book on rhetoric, student notes from the course in 1762-63 were recovered and published in 1983 as Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL) as part of The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Reading them alongside Smith's other works illuminates his sense of how this "characteristical faculty of human nature" undergirds his larger system.
In LRBL, Smith closely attends to a theme central to his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) as well: propriety. In TMS, he begins by examining propriety of action and how we judge it through the impartial spectator process. Is your neighbor properly screaming over his hangnail, or should he take Adulting 101? We answer by imagining ourselves in the neighbor's position and assessing how we would behave. Do we sympathize? Can we go along with the neighbor's response?
In LRBL, propriety in writing consists first in expressing oneself clearly, concisely, and in one's own character. Smith praises Jonathan Swift as a plain man who writes plainly, properly ridiculing genuine human foibles with the goal of reformation. Conversely, Lord Shaftesbury lacks any natural style, and "as he was of no great depth in Reasoning he would be glad to set off by the ornament of language what was deficient in matter," rendering his assumed style "pompous" (LRBL 11, pp. 58-59). Smith certainly knew how to keep his students' attention.
In both ethics and writing, sympathy and the impartial spectator process are critical. In his eighth lecture on rhetoric, Smith argues that what gave beauty to style was "when the words neatly and properly expressed the thing to be described, and conveyed the sentiment the author entertained of it and desired to communicate . . . by sympathy to his hearers" (LRBL p. 40). Likewise, in his eleventh lecture, Smith observes, "the Rules of Criticism and morality when traced to their foundation, turn out to be some Principles of Common [Sense] which [everyone] assents to; all the business of those arts is to apply these Rules to the different subjects and shew what their conclusion is when they are so [applied]" (LRBL p. 55).
In TMS, Smith explains how we first learn to adjust our behavior by attending to how impartial spectators judge us, lowering our passion to a pitch with which others can sympathize (I.i.4.7, p. 22). Likewise, in LRBL 11, "a wise man" speaks honestly and adjusts his tone for his audience: "He will only regulate his [natural] temper, restrain within just bounds and lop all [exuberances] and bring it to that pitch which will be [agreeable] to those around him" (p. 55). The key is restraint.
Smith argues that we learn this propriety of behavior not only through observation and formal education but through attending plays and reading great literature. In some cases, novels of sensibility are better teachers than Stoic philosophers: "The poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections, Racine and Voltaire; Richardson, Marivaux, and Riccoboni; are, in such cases, much better instructors than Zeno, Chryssipus, or Epictetus" (TMS III.3.14, p. 143). Reading a novel such as Clarissa enhances our powers of sympathy, thereby enabling a more precise moral judgment by the impartial spectator.
Clear language, self-regulation, and the impartial spectator process are also essential for engaging in business, which was also discussed in Smith's Lectures on Jurisprudence, of which two sets of student notes survive (A and B). Lecture notes from January 1763 for Smith's courses on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL) and Jurisprudence (here designated LJA) underscore these interdisciplinary connections, which must have been especially lucid for students enrolled in both.
On Monday, 17 January 1763, for instance, Smith discusses in his course on Jurisprudence the nature of "obligations which arise from contract or agreement." A bare declaration of intention is insufficient; one must promise and insist that someone can depend on it. "The expectation and dependance of the promittee that he shall obtain what was promised is hear altogether reasonable, and such as an impartial spectator would readily go along with" (LJA p. 87). In very early times, however, "language at all times must be somewhat ambiguous," so exactly determining intention would be difficult (LJA p. 88).
On Friday, 21 January Smith continued this discussion of contracts in his lecture on Jurisprudence, and he also mentions contracts in his course on Rhetoric: "'Tis the Introduction of Commerce which brings on the improvement of Prose.—Opulence and Commerce commonly precede the improvement of arts, and refinement of every sort.” He continues, "Prose is naturally the Language of Business" (LRBL 21 Jan. 1763, p. 137).
The language of business was, of course, very much on Adam Smith's mind in relation to all forms of exchange. In his lead essay, Professor Smith alludes to Smith's point that the division of labor is not originally the result of humans foreseeing and intending the resulting opulence. Adam Smith observes,
It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.
Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature, of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to our present subject to enquire. (WN I.ii.1-2, p. 25)
Smith did, however, address this point in his Lectures on Jurisprudence, which he had long intended to perfect and publish. His "Advertisement" prefacing The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790) affirms, "I have not altogether abandoned the design." His Lecture on Jurisprudence dated Wednesday, 30 March 1763 suggests what he might have written in the proposed book:
If we should enquire into the principle in the human mind on which this disposition of trucking is founded, it is clearly the natural inclination [everyone] has to persuade. The offering of a shilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest. Men always endeavour to persuade others to be of their opinion even when the matter is of no consequence to them. . . . And in this manner [everyone] is practicing oratory on others [through] the whole of his life. (LJA p. 352)
A later set of notes from the course dated 1766 (LJB) reinforces this point with different phrasing, reporting that Smith said, "We ought then mainly to cultivate the power of [persuasion], and indeed we do so without intending it. Since a whole life is spent in the exercise of it, a ready method of bargaining with each other must undoubtedly be attained" (LJB p. 494).
For Adam Smith, the desire to persuade was a powerful human motivation underlying his theories of rhetoric, moral philosophy, economics, and jurisprudence. But perhaps you disagree, and I have been practicing oratory on you to no purpose. Persuade me.
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