Adam Smith and Milton's Shoes

adam smith "speaking of smith" john milton

Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

October 22, 2020
Although we now think of Adam Smith primarily in connection with his two major works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in his lifetime much of his fame resulted from his considerable skill and appeal as a teacher.  Smith was a wildly popular lecturer, who began his career with a series of public lectures on rhetoric in Edinburgh. His subject matter and his characteristic turns of phrase became a source of pub chatter among his students after the lectures. And his combination of erudition and geniality seem to have been central to propelling his career forward.

It is a shame, then, that we do not have more of Smith’s pedagogical material.  At his request, and like so much of his writing, his lectures were burned shortly after his death. He seems to have intended to revise them for publication, but never quite found the time or energy to do so. We are able to get a good sense of the content of his lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres and his lectures on jurisprudence, though, because we have surviving notes taken by students who attended those lectures. 

But as any experienced teacher knows, the notes that students take are incomplete and often inaccurate, and they do little to capture the animating spirit of the lecture. Fortunately, however, one of the great biographers of the 18th century, James Boswell, was a student of Adam Smith’s in 1759. Boswell’s great gift was the ability to draw a lively portrait of an individual--whether in the thousands of words he devotes to his Life of Johnson or in the lightning flash portraits he draws of the hundreds of people who move through Johnson’s world. Though Boswell did not leave any extensive record of his experiences as Smith’s student, a brief comment he makes about Smith’s lectures on rhetoric gives us some insight into what it might have been like to be Smith’s student.

In his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, written in 1773, Boswell provides a long description of Johnson’s typical manner and dress, including the English oak walking stick he habitually carried. Boswell pauses his description to justify its great detail, noting:

Let me not be censured for mentioning such minute particulars. Every thing relative to so great a man is worth observing. I remember Dr. Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glasgow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shows [shoes], instead of buckles.

Smith’s students would have known the word already,  but a little research tells us that latchets were leather shoe laces. They were considerably less expensive and showy than the highly decorated shoe buckles that were increasingly popular after the restoration of the monarchy Milton and his party had sought to hard to overthrow. It’s the kind of remark good lecturers make in passing all the time--one of those small footnotes that suddenly brings the subject of a lecture to life. John Milton’s rugged Puritanism is crystallized in this small detail. 

Milton’s modest shoes also comport with his metaphors, which Smith characterizes as kept “within just bounds,” (LRBL 6:66) and with his verse, which Smith says is free of “forced expressions” (LRBL 8:104). Their simple practicality aligns well with Smith’s own sense of Milton as a poet whose “every word tends to convey some idea suited to the Subject.” Nothing is extraneous or merely decorative. Smith’s remark means we see Milton before us, as Smith must have wanted his students to, insisting on plainness and simplicity rather than excess and display from the top of his head down to his literal shoelaces.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
But we also see Adam Smith: lecturer, lover of verse, student of prudence and of self-command. It seems all but certain that this comment on Milton must have been made during Lecture 22, where the surviving student notes record Smith as observing, “The smallest circumstances, the most minute transactions of a great man are sought after with eagerness.” Boswell’s comment in 1759 that “Every thing relative to so great a man is worth observing” is not just an observation about Johnson. It is a straight paraphrase of Smith’s lecture. It is proof that fourteen years after the fact, the small details and the greater points of significance of Adam Smith’s lectures remain with Boswell. 

That is a sign not merely of a good student who will become a great biographer, but of a great lecturer. We’ll never really know what it was like to be in Smith’s classroom, but Boswell gives us a small taste that can help us bring Smith’s students’ notes to life.