Adam Smith and Literary Culture

Published: 6 March 2023

The impact of Adam Smith on literary culture and the study and writing of imaginative literature.

A black and white cartoon from 1793 showing a woman on one knee with a banknote in one hand being helped up by a gentleman as a old lady comes though the door to the room. Source:  Met Museum, Public Domain

By Dr Ronnie Young, Senior Lecturer (Scottish Literature), School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow

Adam Smith had a crucial impact on literary culture and the study and writing of imaginative literature – perhaps not something we’d expect of the reputed father of modern economics. In Edinburgh from 1748 and then at Glasgow University (where Smith became Professor of Logic in 1751 before moving to the chair of Moral Philosophy the year after) Smith delivered an important series of lectures on Rhetoric and Belle Lettres – a Scottish modification of French innovations in the study of rhetoric – which are now considered a forerunner of the discipline of English Literature[1] for the manner in which they taught young gentleman 'taste' and critical appreciation of polite literature.

Smith also had considerable influence on poetry during the Enlightenment. Such influence can, as Nigel Leask shows, be seen in the work of Robert Burns. In the young Burns’s first commonplace book - currently on public display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum after decades in private ownership thanks to recent acquisition as part of the Blavatnik Honresfield collection - the young Burns noted agreement 'with that judicious Philosopher Mr Smith in his excellent Theory of Moral Sentiments'[2] The influence of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is also evident in Burns’s first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. (Smith himself subscribed to the 1787 Edinburgh Edition of this collection). 'To a Louse' alludes to Smith’s 'Impartial Spectator', while 'To a Mouse', enacts Smith’s idea that moral 'sympathy' is largely an act of the imagination by having the speaker imagine what it’s like to be in the mouse’s position, turned out of house and home in mid-winter.

Critics have long recognised the influence of Smith’s moral sentimentalism on literary culture via the 'sentimental literature' of the period.[3] Smith himself compared moral sympathy to the feelings we experience when watching 'those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us' (TMS I.i), while drama and fiction of the Enlightenment reciprocated by placing readers in the position of moral spectators judging the actions of characters. Romantic dramatist Joanna Baillie turned Smithean thought into a theory about the 'sympathetick curiosity' [sic] we exhibit when watching characters' tragic downfall. In his archetypal sentimental novel The Man of Feeling (1771), Henry Mackenzie placed a man of delicate 'sensibility', Harley, in distressing situations contrived to test his and the reader’s sympathetic response. Smith’s idea that 'extreme sympathy with misfortunes [...] though it could be attained, would be perfectly useless, and could serve no other purpose than to render miserable the person who possessed it' is brought to life by Harley’s inability to function in the world.[4] We also see Smithean acts of sympathy in Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), where the triangular nature of moral judgments - involving agents, those acted upon, and spectators who approve or disapprove of the agent’s actions - is mirrored in the episode where Welsh squire Matthew Bramble gives £20 to a poor widow and her sick child all while being observed by approving 'spectator' Jery Melford.

Yet Smith’s influence goes even farther than that of The Theory of Moral Sentiments on the 'literature of sensibility'. In his lectures on jurisprudence, Smith offered a definitive version of Scottish Enlightenment 'stadial history' with his view that human societies progress through increasingly advanced stages of development: hunter-gatherer; pastoral 'herding' societies; agriculture; and then commerce.[5] Though problematic by today’s standards, one can see such Scots 'stadial history' behind literary works as diverse as Ossian or the novels of Sir Walter Scott in their depiction of groups in supposedly 'primitive' stages of social development, from ancient Celts to Highlanders to Native Americans.[6] In his account of the life of Smith, philosopher Dugald Stewart called Smith's approach 'conjectural or theoretical history' for imaginatively filling in gaps in historical knowledge with a plausible account of how humans might have proceeded according to their nature.[7] Ayrshire novelist John Galt similarly described his Annals of the Parish (1821) as a 'theoretical history'[8] when providing an imaginative yet plausible account of civil progress in the fictional West of Scotland parish of Dalmailing.

Though it's common to see Smith’s broad legacy distilled into a few soundbites from Wealth of Nations about the 'Invisible Hand' of the market, other important aspects of the philosopher’s work, from sympathy to conjectural history, show a quite different and undeniably remarkable cultural impact.

[1] See Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: EUP, 2000), pp.16-44.

[2] Nigel Leask (ed.), The Oxford Edition of The Works of Robert Burns, Vol. 1: Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose (Oxford: OUP, 20), p.42.

[3] The impact of Smith on sentimental literature is, for example, outlined by Deidre Dawson, ‘Literature and Sentimentalism’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, 2nd rev. edn, ed. by Alexander Broadie and Craig Smith (Cambridge: CUP, 2019), pp.289-312.

[4] Smith. TMS, III.ii. For a discussion of this point see Maureen Harkin ‘Mackenzie's Man of Feeling: Embalming Sensibility’ ELH 61:2 (1994): 317-340. doi:10.1353/elh.1994.0015.

[5] See Smith, ‘The Four Stages of Society’, in The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology, ed. by Alexander Broadie (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), chapter 24.

[6] Crawford, pp.16-17.

[7] Dugald Stewart, ‘Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D,’ in Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. by W.P.D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), p. 293.

[8] K. M. Costain, ‘Theoretical History and the Novel: The Scottish Fiction of John Galt’, ELH, 43: 3 (1976): 342-365.

Dr Ronnie Young is senior lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and associate director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies. Ronnie has published work on the links between literature and Enlightenment thought, including The Scottish Enlightenment and Literary Culture (Bucknell, 2016), co-edited with Ralph McLean. He is currently co-editor for both the Burns Chronicle (EUP) and a new scholarly edition of Burns’ correspondence for OUP, part of the AHRC-funded Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century project.

Image credit: 'Matthew Bramble Offering Charity to the Ensign's Widow', an illustration from Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (London, 1793), Vol. 1, by Charles Grignion, I. Met Museum, Public Domain 

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First published: 6 March 2023