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December 22, 2004

Adam Smith Day!

It's time to repost Davey Hume's letter to Adam Smith, giving Adam the bad news about the reception in London of Smith's first book, the Theory of Moral Sentiments: "Supposing, therefore, that you have duly prepared yourself for the worst by all these reflections; I proceed to tell you the melancholy news..."

Lisle Street, Leicester Fields
April 12, 1759

Dear Smith,

I give you thanks for the agreeable present of your Theory [of Moral Sentiments]. Wedderburn and I made presents of our copies to such of our acquaintance as we thought good judges, and proper to spread the reputation of the book. I sent one to the Duke of Argyle, to Lord Lyttleton, Horace Walpole, Soames Jennyns, and [Edmund] Burke, an Irish gentleman, who wrote lately a very pretty treatise on the sublime. Millar desired my permission to send one in your name to Dr. Warburton.

I have delayed writing to you until I could tell you something of the success of the book, and could prognosticate with some probability whether it should be finally damned to oblivion, or should be registered in the temple of immortality. Though it has been published only a few weeks, I think there appear already such strong symptoms, that I can almost venture to fortell its fate. It is, in short, this--

But I have been interrupted in my letter by a foolish impertinent visit of one who has lately come from Scotland. He tells me, that the Univerity of Glasgow intend to declare Rouet's office vacant upon his going abroad with Lord Hope. I question not but you will have our friend, [Adam] Ferguson, in your eye, in case another project for procuring him a place in the University of Edinburgh should fail. Ferguson has very much polished and improved his treatise on refinement, and with some amendments it will make an admirable book, and discovers an elegant and singular genius.

The Epigoniad, I hope, will do; but it is sometimes uphill work. As I doubt not but you consult the reviews sometimes at present, you will see in the Critical Review a letter upon that poem; and I desire you to employ your conjectures n finding out the author. Let me see a sample of your skill in knowing hands by your guessing at the person.

I am afraid of Lord Kames's Law Tracts. A man might as well think of making a fine sauce by a mixture of wormwood and aloes as an agreeable composition by joining metaphysics and Scotch law. However the book, I believe, has merit; though few people will take the pains of dividing into it.

But to return to your book, and its success in this town, I must tell you--

A plague of interruptions! I ordered myself to be denied; and yet here is one that has broken in upon me again. He is a man of letters, and we have had a good deal of literary conversation. You told me that you were curious of literary anecdotes, and therefore I shall inform you of a few that have come to my knowledge.

I believe I have mentioned to you already Helvetius's book De l'Esprit. It is worth your reading not for it philosophy, which I do not highly value, but for its agreeable composition. I had a letter from him a few days ago, wherein he tells me that my name was much oftener in the manuscript, but that the censor of books at Paris obliged him to strike it out.

Voltaire has lately published a small work called Candide, ou l'Optimisme. It is full of sprightliness and impiety, and is indeed a satire upon Providence, under the pretext of criticizing the Leibnizian system. I shall give you a detail of it--

"But what is all this to my book?" say you--

My Dear Mr. Smith, have patience: compose yourself to tranquillity: show yourself a philosopher in practice as well as profession: think on the emptiness and rashness and futility of the common judgments of men: how little they are regulated by reason in any subject, much more in philosophical subjects, which so far exceed the comprehension of the vulgar.

Non si quid improba Roma, elevet, accedas examenque improbum in illa, perpendas trutina, nec te quaesiveris extra.* A wise man's kingdom is his own breast: or, if he ever looks farther, it will only be to the judgment of a select few, who are free from prejudices, and capable of examining his work. Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude; and Phocion, you know, always suspected himself of some blunder when he was attended with the applauses of the populace.

Supposing, therefore, that you have duly prepared yourself for the worst by all these reflections; I proceed to tell you the melancholy news, that your book has been very unfortunate: for the public seem disposed to applaud it extremely.

It was looked for by the foolish people with some impatience; and the mob of literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises. Three bishops called yesterday at Millar's shop in order to buy copies, and to ask questions about the author. The Bishop of Peterborough said he had passed the evening in a company where he heard it extolled above all books in the world.

You may conclude what opinion true philosopher will entertain of it, when these retainers to superstition praise it so highly.

The Duke of Argyle is more decisive than he uses to be in its favour: I suppose he either considers it as an exotic, or thinks the author will be serviceable to him in the Glasgow elections. Lord Lyttleton says that Robertson and Smith and Bower are the glories of English literature. Oswald protests he does not know whether he has reaped more instruction or entertainment from it: but you may easily judge what reliance can be put on his judgment, who has been engaged all his life in public business and who never sees any faults in his friends.

Millar exults and brags that two-thirds of the edition is already sold, and that he is now sure of success. You see what a son of the earth that is, to value books only by the profit they bring him. In that view, I believe it may prove a very good book.

Charles Townsend, who passes for the cleverest fellow in England, is so taken with the performance that he said to Oswald he would put the Duke of Buccleuch under the author's care, and would endeavor to make it worth his while to accept of that charge. As soon as I heard this, I called on him twice with a view of talking with him about the matter, and of convincing him of the propriety of sending that young nobleman to Glasgow: for I could not hope tht he could offer you any terms which would tempt you to renounce your professorship: but I missed him. Mr. Townsend passes for being a little uncertain in his resolutions: so perhaps you need not build much on this sally.

In recompense for so many mortifying things, which nothing but truth could have extorted from me, and which I could easily have multiplied to a greater number; I doubt not but you are so good a Christian as to return good for evil and to flatter my vanity; by telling me that all the godly in Scotland abuse me for my account of John Knox and the Reformation, etc.

I suppose you are glad to see my paper end, and that I am obliged to conclude with

Your humble servant,

David Hume

*"If foolish Rome underweighs anything, neither go up and correct the false tongue in the balance, nor seek anyone besides yourself." Persius, Satirarum Liber

From pages 33-36 of Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross, eds., The Correspondence of Adam Smith 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

Posted by DeLong at December 22, 2004 09:57 AM


In honor of Adam Smith Day (is the mail running?), I've bought a copy of "The Wealth of Nations."

As a philosophy major gone bad (i.e., a lawyer), I wish Prof. DeLong had posted a syllabus or reading list of economic classics which the interested lay reader dare not omit. I can guess that Keynes's "General Theory" is on that list, but what else I cannot say.

(Would also be curious whether the Prof thinks that "The Worldly Philosophers" is (1) a useful introduction, (2) dangerously misleading, (3) handy despite strange gaps, or (4) ___________.)

Posted by: Anderson at December 22, 2004 08:35 PM

"Damned to oblivion" or registered in the "temple of immortality." Can we choose something in between, with water close by?

"Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude," which I am lucky enough never to have to suffer.

Posted by: cloquet at December 23, 2004 01:03 PM