Gulliver's Travels: Adam Smith's Favorite Novel

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by Shannon Chamberlain for AdamSmithWorks

October 30, 2019
Adam Smith got his start as a young, aspiring academic by providing instruction in rhetoric to students in an elective lecture course in Edinburgh in 1748. Readers of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres—which we have only because the handwritten notes of two students were found in an Aberdeenshire attic in the 1950s—have often noticed a curious fact about them: They contain very little discussion of rhetoric. 

Or at least they contain very little discussion of rhetoric as we think about it. Our modern idea of rhetoric includes a discussion of tropes, figures of speech, and possibly oral delivery. Even back when Smith was writing, this was how most instructors approached their subject. But this was not Smith’s take. He argues instead that traditional rhetorical instruction was going about things all wrong. To understand rhetoric, he says, first you have to understand character.

One of the characters Smith uses to demonstrate the point is Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, hero of the 1726 novel Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (or Gulliver’s Travels, as we’re more likely to call it today). Even if you haven’t read the book or seen any of the film adaptations, you likely know the general outline.  A young man seeks his fortune abroad, becomes shipwrecked, encounters odd, often dangerous peoples and places, returns home to wife and children…and then does the same thing three more times. It’s a famous satire on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), who also barely makes it back to England alive and then for some reason decides to do it all over again. A large part of Swift’s joke seems to be that the real-life basis for Crusoe, a marooned sailor named Alexander Selkirk, came back from a much shorter period of social isolation a broken man who could barely stand to be around other people. In fact, he dug a hole in his yard where he could hide to avoid ever dealing with them again.He wasn’t exactly the affable, perpetual adventurer that Crusoe remains at the end of his book.

Smith loved Gulliver’s Travels, and Swift’s work in general. Swift comes in for the highest praise early in the LRBL, where Smith tells his students that no author is a better master of the English language than Swift, a writer who exhibits perfect propriety in not overusing foreign imports into the English language and modeling his prose on the “easiness” of the conversation of people of breeding. Swift excels all others because his writing is so plain that “one half asleep may carry the sense along with him.” [1]

This might seem like odd praise, but it conforms to Smith’s general recommendations for how to write. We may think, he tells us, that we’re impressing our audience with our dizzying use of tropes and metaphors, but actually, we’re failing to consider how we would feel in their place, which is probably a bit overwhelmed and suddenly inclined to Netflix and chill. It’s only when “the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, clear, plain and clever manner, and the passion of affection he is possessed of and intends, by sympathy, to communicate to his hearer, is plainly and cleverly hit off, then and then only the expression has all the force and beauty that language can give it.” [2]

The emphasis on the word “sympathy” is Smith’s. The LRBL precedes The Theory of Moral Sentiments by more than a decade, and most of the important theoretical frameworks that Smith developed for understanding ethical behavior originated in these lectures, which have been described as the first course in English literature. English literature was not thought to be worth teaching in elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, where Latin was okay but Attic Greek preferred. But Smith approached his subject as an outsider teaching other outsiders. The lowland Scots language that they spoke in their everyday interactions meant that the English that they had to learn for professional reasons was a foreign language to them. 

The concept of sympathy—the imaginative recreation of another’s situation, moderated through the impartial spectator (or the reader “half asleep” in the LRBL)—originated in Smith’s rhetoric lectures, as did Smith’s notion of “character.” In the LRBL, it is “the character of the author” that should be the main subject of study for any aspiring writer. There are many good kinds of writers, Smith assures us, just as there are many good kinds of characters in life and many people who possess them. Swift, for instance, has the character of a plain writer. This “character” not only directs the treatment of a subject, but the subjects about which Swift chooses to write. “Swifts naturall moroseness…would make contempt naturall to his character; and those follies would most provoke him that partake most of gayety and levity.” [3] The essayist Joseph Addison, on the other hand, had the opposite character, and so it was sadness and pessimism that would come in for his harshest satirical treatment. 

All that matters, in the end, is that one knows what kind of writer one is, and keeps writing in that character. For the reader who has imaginatively recreated (by sympathy) the character of a writer in his or her own mind, any break in that character’s personality, subject matter, or writing style would be jarring. 

What is curious about Smith’s use of character when it comes to Swift’s work is that he makes very little distinction between “real” characters of authors—as in the real Irish dean who lived from 1667 to 1745—and the characters that authors created, i.e. Gulliver the voyager. In fact, Smith argues that Swift created Gulliver because he knew that his own character as an author could not possibly sustain the amount of ridicule that he wanted to pile on the Church of England, the monarchy, Daniel Defoe, religious reformers in general, and all of the other subjects that Gulliver’s Travels parodies. “The most common manner in which he throws ridicule on any subjects when he speaks in an other character is to make them express their admiration and esteem for those things he would expose,” [4] Gulliver is not simply a mouthpiece for the author’s views—or at least, not an uncomplicated or flat one. He has his own independent existence and his own autonomy.

Two and a half centuries later, this proposition doesn’t perhaps strike us as so extraordinary. We’ve been trained by a lifetime of reading novels, or watching plays and movies, to regard fictional characters as friends and people. (Some of us may indeed regard them as slightly more real than ‘real’ people.) But in Smith’s time, the novel was just beginning to train its readers to understand character in this way. Prior works of fiction were much less intent on creating characters who seemed real, while knowing that they weren’t. When we talk now about identifying with a character, or finding a character unsympathetic, the underlying premise is that we are meant to think of characters as possessing an independent existence, even though on some level we know that they are merely composed of words on a page or images on a screen.

What’s even more fascinating is that Smith carries this nexus of sympathy, style, communication, and character over to TMS, where one of the first things that he assures us is that we can feel sympathy even for “those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us.” [5] In fact, before he has even explained how sympathy arises between people, he’s using fictional characters to demonstrate how it works. 

It’s long been a bit of a mystery where Smith’s ideas about sympathy and character originated. He clearly took a few of them from David Hume and Francis Hutcheson, but his form of sympathy is noticeably kinder to works of fiction than the works of these philosophers. Why is this the case? For one thing, Smith believes in a far bigger role for the imagination. Hume’s version of sympathy was more immediate and visual, but Smith tells us early on in TMS that “our senses…never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person.” [6] In other words, our imaginations might just as easily carry us into a fictional character as they do another real person: we have exactly the same amount of data about both. For Smith’s purposes, we know just as much about Gulliver as we do about Swift, and we’re just as easily able to sympathize with the former as with the latter. 

Hold on, you’re probably saying right now. Is it really possible that we’re supposed to believe equally in the existence of a Church of England official whose biography is well known, and a sailor who travels to distant lands and meets tiny people, giants, cloud-dwellers, and intelligent horses? Not to mention the Yahoos back home? 

I think the answer for Smith is that it doesn’t really matter. Even if we don’t believe that a man named Gulliver existed and traveled to all of those places, we can still stretch our moral imaginations to put ourselves in the situations that he experiences. We’ve all felt out of place before, marooned among strangers, too big or too small. Would we represent ourselves to a potentially sympathetic audience of strangers in the same language that Gulliver does? For Smith, the important thing is rhetoric. The founding question of Smith’s sympathy in TMS is “what has befallen you?” What we do when we decide to sympathize with someone—real person or character—is listen to their representation of a situation, try to imaginatively recreate that world in our minds, and then compare what we would say about it to how the other person has described it. Is someone asking us to feel more than we would feel, were we (like poor Gulliver) pinned to the ground and enduring the slings and arrows of hundreds of Lilliputians? Or does Gulliver really not seem quite enraged enough about this humiliation?

For all of its fantastical elements, Gulliver’s Travels offers up plenty of moments for possible sympathy, both with its main character and with the characters he encounters. One of the most touching moments in the book occurs when Gulliver has to explain to the intelligent, rational, beautifully mannered horses of the Country of Houyhnhnms how their brothers and sisters are treated back in England. For the first time, Gulliver really seems to put himself in the situation of his hosts, and to think about how barbaric his ordinary practices must look from their perspective. Our sympathies are complex in the scene. We feel for the Houyhnhnms, but we also admire Gulliver for the deep feelings that he is barely able to repress when he tells this sad story. 

And when Gulliver returns from this final voyage, we know why he has become deeply alienated from his own people, whom he now calls by the Houyhnhnm name for them, “Yahoos.” We wonder, perhaps, if we wouldn’t also be stuffing herbs up our noses and avoiding the company of others. 

Literary scholars have spent a long time arguing that Smith’s work inspired nineteenth-century novels, most prominently and noticeably Jane Austen’s. We’ve spent less time asking ourselves about what might have inspired Smith, despite his frequent references to literary works. In addition to Swift in the LRBL, he also mentions the novels of Samuel Richardson, Pierre de Marivaux, and Marie-Jeanne de Riccoboni in TMS. What all of these novelists have in common—and what nineteenth-century novels like Jane Austen’s don’t—is that their characters narrate in the first person. Just as in TMS’s description of sympathy, characters tells us themselves what has befallen them, and then expect us to recreate their situations in our own heads, and then, finally, go back to their rhetoric to see if we will extend them sympathy. 

What this suggests to me is that we’ve been missing out on part of Smith’s story. Did he get all of his ideas from reading novels? Certainly not. Was he acquainted with one of the most popular genres of his day, and one that also concerned itself with popular moral instruction, particularly for young people? I’m willing to bet yes. If you don’t believe me, just listen to Dugald Stewart, Smith’s student and first biographer, eulogizing Smith to the Royal Society of Edinburgh:

The best method of explaining and illustrating the various powers of the human mind, the most useful part of metaphysics, arises from an examination of the several ways of communicating our thoughts by speech, and from an attention to the principles of those literary compositions which contribute to persuasion and entertainment. By these arts, every thing that we perceive or feel, every operation of our minds, is expressed and delineated in such a manner, that it may be clearly distinguished and remembered. There is, at the same time, no branch of literature more suited to youth at their first entrance upon philosophy than this, which lays hold of their taste and their feelings. [7]

Maybe Smith was so sympathetic to literature because this was how his taste and feelings inspired his own philosophical quest.

[1]  LRBL i.10. 
[2] LBLR I.v.56.
[3] LBLR 9.i.118.
[4] LBLR 9.i.120.
[5] TMS I.i.1.4.
[6] TMS 1.i.i.2.
[7] Stewart 1.16.