Monday, March 19, 2012

On Giving Credit to Adam Smith Where Due

Stuart Kelly writes “English literature, a Scot’s invention” in the Scotsman (29 March. It is an informative and mostly accurate account (follow the link). HERE

Ironic though it might seem, the idea of English literature was a valid field of academic enquiry was a Scottish invention. This year is the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Regius Professorship of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres at the University of Edinburgh, the precursor to “Eng lit” as we know it; although the story behind it is more complex, and peculiar, than simply the founding of a new scholarly discipline.

The first person to hold the chair was the Rev Hugh Blair. The son of a merchant, Blair was born in Edinburgh on 7 April, 1718. He graduated in moral philosophy, and became a minister in 1741, serving briefly in Collessie in Fife, before returning to Edinburgh to hold charges in the Canongate, Lady Yester’s Kirk and finally St Giles Cathedral.

David Hume described him in his letters as a “vain, timid, fussy, kind-hearted man that everybody liked”. While at Edinburgh, Blair studied under the professor of logic, John Stevenson, who lectured on literary style using English as well as classical sources. He wrote an essay “On The Beautiful” for Stevenson, which his tutor said displayed “a power of discrimination, and a correctness of feeling beyond what could have been expected of a youth but sixteen years of age”. Blair actually started teaching his class in Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in 1759, and they proved so popular that George III endowed the chair (held today by Greg Walker).

Blair was not the first person to discuss vernacular literature in a university: Adam Smith, before he wrote on economics or the theory of moral sentiments had taught a similar class in Glasgow in 1751; although it was a “private” course and not part of the university’s official curriculum.”

Stuart Kelly is somewhat unkind to Adam Smith. The facts are slightly different and should be appreciated to see the real contribution made to what became 'Eng. Lit', as still taught in Scottish universities (I took a first-year compulsory course in my undergraduate degree at the University of Strathclyde).

Adam Smith delivered a series of lectures in Edinburgh from 1748-50. They were sponsored by Henry Home of Kames, a judge from 1752, and by James Oswald, a friend of Adam Smith and a MP in the Scottish Parliament 1707 and later the London Parliament. The audience ("a respectable auditory") was composed mainly of students of law and theology from Edinburgh University and adults from the professions, who paid to attend them, off campus. David Hume reported that Smith earned £100 a year for his lectures (a princely sum for an unemployed, recent student from Oxford University, 1740-46). They established his public reputation as a lecturers and played a role in his appointment as Professor at Glasgow University.

Smith’s lecture course was entitled: “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” (see Alexander Fraser Tytler, “Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Lord Kames”, 1809). Smith knew and was a friend of Hugh Blair, and shared social hours with him in Edinburgh (1778-90). When Smith left for Glasgow, Lord Kames persuaded Blair to take up the “Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” freelance lecture series delivered by Smith from 1756, who gave him his manuscript of the lectures. It was from these lectures that Hugh Blair was appointed to the Regus Chair at Edinburgh University in April 1762, and he continued the popular Rhetoric course until he retired.

Blair published his lecture course as ”Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the title used by Smith. Blair correctly acknowledged his debt to Smith, his predecessor and friend, in developing his themes:

of the General Character of style, particularly, the Plain and the Simple, and the character of the English authors 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” (Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 1812, vol ii.22 n ).

I read some of Blair’s lectures and noted how similar is the structure of his arguments to Smith’s in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” [1763] 1983. A full account of Smith’s rhetoric lectures is given in Ian Ross’s excellent and definitive biography, “The Life of Adam Smith, 2nd ed. 2011, Chapter 6, Oxford University Press.

Stuart Kelly may not be aware of these facts and I hope he remembers them when next he writes on this subject.



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