Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thought For the Day

One of the many minor aspects of information regarding Adam Smith’s biographical details that remains largely sparse, to much it mildly, is the mystery of what he did in the six years he spent in Oxford at Balliol College, 1740-46. Kirkcaldy was a long journey, at least two, probably three weeks, to and from Oxford in those days. He arrived in Oxford in 1740 by horseback, almost certainly accompanied by his cousin and guardian, William Smith, an aide to the Duke of Argyll.

Apart from a letter to his mother, Margaret Douglas Smith, (23 October, 1741) when he informed her he had a ‘fourteen days’ holiday with ‘Mr. Smith’ at Adderbury House, 18 miles from Oxford, belonging to the Duke of Argyll. And that is all we know for certain about his sojourn at Balliol for six years.

However, Balliol college administrative ‘Battel book’ records show that Adam Smith drew daily expenses for his food, ale (safer than the water), laundry and barber without breaks, except for only five periods, each lasting for only ten days or a fortnight, over those six years. On all other days he drew in person from the ‘buttery’ for his daily requirements and none of these short absences can account for a visit to Kirkcaldy or Glasgow. On some of the other five occasions he may have returned to Adderbury for 10 or 14 days, or, as Ernest Mossner suggests (Adam Smith: the biographical approach, 1969, p.9, University of Glasgow), he may well have gone to London, 50 miles, and perhaps 2 days away on some of these annual breaks, to stay with his cousin, ‘Mr Smith’, at the Duke of Argyll’s house in Brutin Street, London.

Mossner is regarded as the definitive biographer of David Hume (1980), and would have written the biography of Adam Smith for the Glasgow Edition of Smith’s Works and Correspondence if he was not fully committed to Hume’s biography at the time. Fortunately, the remarkable scholar, Ian Simpson Ross, was commissioned to write Smith’s life, and it too, is now regarded, with much justice, to be Smith’s definitive biography, now in a second edition (2010).

So the mystery remains unsolved. We can speculate on the consequences of his prolonged absence from his mother’s house in Kirkcaldy, and one possible consequence, I suggest, is close to my own interests in Smith’s alleged religiosity.

Oxford, like Cambridge, had been closely involved in the education of young men in preparation for careers in the Church (until the Reformation, the Catholic Church) and when Smith attended it still had that function on behalf of the established Church of England. Balliol was not, however, an affiliate of the Church of Scotland, of which Adam Smith was a confirmed member. True, the Snell Exhibition, upon which his presence in Balliol was arranged and which he was nominally supposed to discharge on completion of his studies, led to ordination into the Church of England and a pastoral career in the Episcopalian Church of Scotland.

According to Nicolas Phillipson’s recent intellectual biography, Adam Smith an Enlightened Life (2011), the earlier legal obligation of Snell scholarships to be ordained into the Church of England had been relaxed from 1738 and was not enforced by Smith’s time in the mid-1740s.

However, that is of less importance to my suggestion, specifically, that Smith’s unbroken absence from Scotland, 1740-46, also removed him from the daily habits of life in Calvinist Scotland with its intense, ever-present supervision by the zealots who imposed their versions of Calvinist rituals, genuflections, and behaviours in all aspects of life. At once, his growing alienation from his Anglican tutors, grew into despising them for their academic sloth (a view he held and wrote about in WN thirty years later in 1776), and his absence from the moral influences of moderates like the ‘never to be forgotten’, Francis Hutcheson at Glasgow University, and the local moderate minister at his mother’s local church in Kirkcaldy slowly festered. His self-motivated reading at Oxford’s libraries (including the book his tutors took from him as unsuitable reading) led Smith to move away from the certainties of religion with which he had lived under until moving to and remaining in Oxford from 1740-46.

I have suggested for some years that his ‘juvenile’ History of Astronomy (1744-50) originated in this crucial period and that it should be read as an assault on ‘pusillanimous superstition’ of belief in ‘invisible gods’, without openly inviting retribution from those who might read between the lines and conclude (rightly) that its strictures applied to revealed Christian religion too. He even kept it from David Hume, whom he had known since c.1751, for 22 years until 1773, and only showed it to reliable confidants. He arranged for its posthumous publication by his close friends, Joseph Black and James Hutton, who published in in 1795 (having been instructed to burn all of his other unpublished manuscripts in 1790).

These life-changing consequences he had to cope for the rest of his life.


Blogger Lumsden300 said...

Great piece of writing... :-)

6:35 pm  
Blogger Lumsden300 said...

Excellent piece of writing/blogging Gavin :-) *****

6:36 pm  
Blogger Lumsden300 said...

OMG!!! I had no idea who you were till I did a wee bit of research on you!!! I am indeed priveleged to have had my small,insignificant but honest comments approved by your good self. Thanks. With me being born and bred and still living in Kirkcaldy I found your little piece on Adam Smith most interesting. I'm more interested in your books now! My next stop will be Amazon...
Yours Sincerely, Alan.

9:08 pm  

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