Adam Smith Lectures
This is a copy of my notes from a seminar presentation I gave on Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric
and Belles Lettres. I posted it primarily so you’d realize he taught rhetoric.
* Smith, Adam. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles
Lettres. (Glasgow Edition) Ed. J. C. Bryce and A. S. Skinner. Indianapolis:
* Bevilacqua, Vincent M. “Adam Smith’s Lectures
on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.” Studies in Scottish Literature, 3 (July,
* ___________. “Adam Smith and Some Philosophical
Origins of Eighteenth-Century Rhetorical Theory.” Modern Language Review,
63 (July, 1968), 559-68.
* Howell, Wilbur Samuel. “Adam Smith’s Lectures
on Rhetoric: An Historical Assessment.” Speech Monographs, 36 (November,
* Purcell, William M. “A Reassessment of Adam
Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.” Central States Speech
Journal, 37 (Spring 1986), 45-54.
I. The Man–ADAM SMITH, 1723-1790.
II. Three Interpretations of Smith’s Lectures
A. Howell- “… earliest and most independent expression
of the new rhetoric.”
1. Smith was independent
a. Didn’t view rhetoric through the eyes of the
2. Smith’s differs from 18th Cent. French
[ergo, belletristic] rhetorics
(Rapin, Bouhours, Rollin) in two ways:
a. He made rhetoric the general theory of communication.
b. He borrowed from previous rhetorics what he
considered valid for his own
generation and added fresh insights of his own as he saw fit.
c. Therefore, it is more general and more independent.
i. … must be viewed thus
if it is to achieve status as a learned discipline.
B. Bevilacqua- “… style alone is the pressing concern
1. Three leading assumptions common to mid-eighteenth-century
philosophy and rhetoric :
a. Style is a verbal manifestation of the natural
powers of the mind.
b. Logic and Rhetoric are related intellectual
functions founded on common mental
c. Propriety of expression is an essential quality
2. The relationship between “Investigation”
a. Baconian influence.
b. Impact on rhetoric.
C. Purcell- “… a rhetorical treatise which is belletristic
is different from a belletristic treatise which includes
a treatment of rhetoric.”
1. Direct refutation of Howell. (Smith
2. Not a theory of rhetoric.
a. Perhaps a perspective on rhetorical criticism.
b. Nice closing quote. (See quote #5.)
III. The Lectures
A. Thematic considerations.
1. A diagram. (Of course!)
2. Landscape of the Lectures.
B. Smith’s Method: Common Sense.
a. See quote #6.
b. The large scope of his pedagogy.
ii. Perspective on Rhetorical criticism.
(See quote #7.)
C. Smith’s Overarching Goal: English Eloquence.
D. A Thematic Outline
#2-#7 Preliminary Concerns
#8-#10 Introduces and exemplifies
#11-#12 Defines and amplifies his method
#13-#16 Description of Objects
#17-#19 Historical (or Narrative) Style
#22-#30 Oratorical Style
IV. Our Assessment–(An agenda proposed)
Contribution to Rhetorical Theory
Who wins the debate–Bevilacqua, Howell, or Purcell?
(1) In his recent study of Smith’s lectures on rhetoric,
Vincent M. Bevilacqua, taking cognizance only of Smith’s denial of the
importance of invention and arrangement in ancient rhetorical theory, argues
that the denial is based upon Smith’s misunderstanding of the rhetorical
works of Cicero and Quintilian; and that, “in accord with his misinterpretation,
Smith proposed not a traditional theory of rhetoric, … but a stylistic-belletristic
one.” “Indeed,” adds Bevilacqua, “in Smith’;s lectures style alone is the
pressing concern of rhetoric and the area of greatest artistic latitude.”
But the charge that Smith did not understand the ancient doctrines of invention
and arrangement is destroyed by Smith’s whole discussion of judicial oratory;
and, as I have shown, the assertion that style alone is in his view the
pressing concern of rhetoric would hardly serve to express what he conceived
the pressing concerns of rhetoric to be (413).
(2) [Smith’s Lectures] … decreed that the new rhetoric
must abandon the ritualistic form of the Ciceronean oration and must adopt
the simpler pattern of proposition and proof. And it required the
new rhetoric to turn away from the artistic proofs and the topical machinery
of the old rhetoric, and to adapt itself to non-artistic arguments and
direct proofs instead. Only in two respects was Adam Smith silent
upon the issues confronting the new rhetoric: he did not openly condemn
the syllogistic orientation of ancient rhetorical theory or purpose (sic)
inductive procedures in its place; nor did he stress that probable arguments,
as ancient and modern phenomena in popular discourse, must learn in the
new age to conform to higher stan-dards of validity than they had done
before. these two issues were to be squarely faced and creatively
resolv-ed by George Campbell and were to produce Campbell’s major contributions
to the new rhetoric (417-18).
(3) By the mid-eighteenth century both the scientific
method of investigation and the natural inventive capacity of the mind
were widely recognized as modes of “invention” applicable to investigation
in all subjects, and thus rendered superfluous duplicate systems of investigation
for both logic and rhetoric. … true discovery of the unknown is beyond
the scope of mere rhetorical invention (recollection) and is in fact exclusively
the result of an empirical examination of the subject itself (565-6).
(4) Smith’s marked attention to the philosophic
bases of style resulted, then, from his extension of the moral-aesthetic
precept of propriety to rhetoric. … Smith’s rhetorical criticism of the
style of Addison, Shaftesbury, Cicero, and Demosthenes thus focused on
the appropriateness of their mode of expression (style) to their thought,
character, situation, and times. In this emphasis, Smith’s criticism of
the belles-lettres reflects his underlying assumption that propriety of
expression is essential to perfection of style and is the rhetorical-aesthetic
standard by which it should be judged (567).
5) Inquiries into rhetoric of the type implied
in the Lectures ultimately led to the formulation of the trivium of modern
rhetorical theory, … [Blair, Campbell, and Whately]. The Lectures,
incomplete as they are, foreshadow what was to come (52 & 3).
(6) The Nobleman of Rome would, then, find himself
greatly superior to the far greater part of [a] man-kind; He would see
at Rome 1000 who were his inferiors for one who was even his equalls …
He would have an air of superiority in all his behaviour. As he spoke
generally to his inferiors he would talk in a manner becoming one in that
Station. … His discourse | would be pompous and <o>rnate and such as
appeard to be the language of a superior sort of man.
At Athens on the other hand the Citizens were
all on equall footing …(158).
(7) [T]he perfection of stile consists in Express<ing>
in the most concise, proper and precise manner the thought of the author,
and that in the manner which best conveys the sentiment, passion or affection
with which it affects or he pretends it does affect him and which he designs
to communicate to his reader.
This you’ll say is no more than common sense,
and indeed it is no more. But if you’ll attend to it all the Rules
of Criticism and morality when traced to their foundation, turn out to
be some Principles of Common Sence which every one assents to … (55).