On Gulliver, Swift, and Adam Smith

adam smith "speaking of smith"

Alice Temnick for AdamSmithWorks

July 27, 2020

Part 1 of a #ReadWithMe Series
We don’t know how old Adam Smith was when he read Gulliver’s Travels for the first time. We do know how much he praised the novel, the writing style, and the author, as revealed in lecture notes by students who took Smith’s Rhetoric course at Edinburgh (1746-48). 

The first edition of Jonathan Swift’s fantastical novel chronicling Gulliver’s travels into several imaginary nations was published by Benjamin Motte in two volumes on October 28, 1726.  Multiple reprints of the novel were immediately necessary to restock bookseller’s shelves. A 1735 modified version by publisher George Faulkner included an opening letter by Swift (as Lemuel Gulliver) critiquing Motte’s apparently unwelcome editing liberties. 

Perhaps a member of Adam Smith’s family or someone in the tight-knit Kirkcaldy, Scotland community accessed a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and shared it with young Adam Smith who was three years of age in 1726 and twelve years when the 1735 version was released.  Or could he have accessed a copy while studying as a teenager at the University of Glasgow, or even later while passing his time at Oxford where he complained about the poor caliber of students and faculty? Knowing Smith’s respect for Swift’s work, it’s natural to wonder whether Gulliver could have been an important work in forming Smith’s thought.

In Lecture 7 of  Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith describes the difference between the styles of writing expressed by a Plain man and a Simple man. Smith asserts that Swift is an example of the former. 
A Plain man is one who pays no regard to the common civilities and forms of good breeding. He gives his opinion bluntly and affirms without condescending to give any reason for his doing so, and if he mentions any sort of a reason it is only to shew how evident and plain a matter it was and to expose the stupidity of the others in not perceiving it as well as he.(L7, 86)

Swift’s plain-spoken bluntness is famous. It may have its source in the fact that both Jonathan Swift and his fictitious character Gulliver are of humble origins. Swift spent a portion of his life serving as a glorified assistant to a Sir William Temple, whom he depended upon for his rise in the church and in politics. Swift notoriously expressed his low opinion of monarchy through his use of first person narration in this wild travelogue. Gullible Gulliver admires and describes in detail the ostentatious riches as well as the power-hungry proclivities of the royalty he encounters. Swift’s wise readers understand that what Gulliver praises, Swift critiques.

In Lecture 8, Smith explains how difficult it is to write plainly and bluntly:
Swift on the other hand, who is the plainist as well as the most proper and precise of all the English writers, is despised as nothing out of the common road; each of us thinks he could have wrote as well…(L8 104) 

Swift has attained to perfection the four things attributed to a good writer:
1st- That he have complete knowledge of his subject
2nd- That he should arrange all the parts of his Subject in their proper order
3rd- That he paint or describe the Ideas he has of these several in the most proper and expressive manner; this is the art of painting or imitation (or at least we may call it so).
(A footnote states that a 4th attribute may have been omitted by the scribe)
(L8 105)

On this third point, Smith elaborates on Swift’s skilled use of imagery.
That he paints but each thought in the best and most proper manner and with the greatest strength of colouring must be visible to any one at first sight. Now that a writer who has all these qualities in such perfection should not make the best stile for expressing himself in with propriety and precision can not be imagined. That he does this when he speaks in his own person we observed already and that he does so when he takes in the character of another is sufficiently evident from his Gulliver...(L8, 106)

Visible at first sight indeed. The reader’s imagination is ignited by vivid details of Gulliver swimming ashore after a shipwreck onto an island that is home to the mean and vindictive miniature Lilliputians. Upon his first encounter with the King, Gulliver gives this description:

He is taller by almost the breadth of my nail, than any of his court; which alone is enough to strike awe into the beholders. His features are strong and masculine, with an Austrian lip and arched nose, his complexion olive, his countenance erect, his body and limbs well proportioned, all his motions graceful and his deportment majestic. He was then past his prime, being twenty-eight and three quarters old, of which he had reigned about seven in great felicity, and generally victorious. (Ch. 1)

This observation of the King is made by Gulliver as he lies on the ground with his face three yards away from his imperial majesty.  Later Gulliver is required to entertain the royal court. While standing like a Colossus with his legs spread wide, the King
...commanded his general to draw up the troops in close order, and march them under me; the foot by twenty-four abreast, and the horse by sixteen, with drums beating, colours flying, and pikes advanced. This body consisted of three thousand foot and a thousand horse. His majesty gave orders, upon pain of death, that every soldier in his march should observe the strictest decency with regard to my person; which however could not prevent some of the younger officers from turning up their eyes as they passed under me: and to confess the truth, my breeches were at that time in so ill a condition, that they afforded some opportunities for laughter and admiration. (Ch. 1)

If a Plain writer, Swift is also a hilarious one. A later description of Gulliver ingeniously putting out a fire in the royal castle by unleashing a robust stream of urine is dramatically crude. 

Smith's second attribute of great plain writers, of whom Swift is his exemplar, involves careful arrangement and order of the subject. After nine months in Lilliput, Gulliver escapes, briefly returning to England before embarking on a second voyage. This second nautical disaster leaves Gulliver on an island where he experiences a reverse of proportions with the native populace. He now finds himself a miniature peculiarity among the Giants of Brobdingnag where his life is threatened by the ordinary insects, cats, and birds while under the imperfect care of a mostly protective nine year girl. One of Swift’s memorable depictions of the human size differential (and one that critics claim indicates Swift’s misogynistic bent) is in this description of a nurse at the dinner table, quieting her errant one year old by “giving it suck”. 
I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue of that and the dug, so varied with spots pimples and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous: for I had a near sight of her, she sitting down, the more conveniently to give suck, and I standing on the table. (Ch. 2)

Here in Brobdingnag, Gulliver also becomes friendly with the royalty and is encouraged by the interested King to deliver a six-session presentation about England. The Kng’s dismissive response is shocking to poor Gulliver, a victim once again of the different perspectives brought out by foreign travel.  

Next up: What does Swift reveal about his own beliefs through Gulliver’s observations of Kings and royals? Or of religion, party prejudice, trade, war and more in the progression of these travels? 

Related Links:

Shannon Chamberlain, Gulliver's Travels: Adam Smith's Favorite Novel

Alice Temnick with author Leo Damrosch, AMA on The Club
Shanon FitzGerald

Thank you, Alice, for an intriguing consideration of Swift's stylistic influences on Smith's rhetorical theory. You allude to something that I now wonder about as well, which is, how else might have reading a journey-novel affected Smith, and particularly his social theory? Beyond being wellsprings of good style, novels introduce us to other people, other social worlds. I unfortunately have not yet read Gulliver's Travels, but I would be curious to hear from others who may have about the possible relationship between what one reads there and the vignettes we get in, say, the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Did great works of fiction present Smith with morally illustrative substance, as well as style? For anyone else interested in this question, I would definitely recommend the article by Shannon Chamberlain linked above. And I look forward to the next installment of this #ReadWithMe series!

Alice Temnick

Thank you for commenting and for your question: how else might have reading a journey-novel affected Smith, and particularly his social theory? I've been thinking about this a lot and as well as what period in Smith's life he first read Gulliver. As you noted, novels introduce us to other people; they also impact us differently at various stages in our emotional and intellectual development. I hope you'll add Gulliver to your reading list, as you certainly sound like a person that cherishes good books!