Adam Smith on mathematicians and poets

I got this strange and interesting passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from Mark Lewko’s blog, which seems to be quiet at the moment but I hope it comes back!

The beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary. The one establishes, the other shakes, the good opinion which he is anxious to entertain concerning his own performances. Experience and success may in time give him a little more confidence in his own judgment. He is at all times, however, liable to be most severely mortified by the unfavourable judgments of the public. Racine was so disgusted by the indifferent success of his Phaedra, the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language, that, though in the vigour of his life, and at the height of his abilities, he resolved to write no more for the stage. That great poet used frequently to tell his son, that the most paltry and impertinent criticism had always given him more pain, than the highest and justest eulogy had ever given him pleasure. The extreme sensibility of Voltaire to the slightest censure of the same kind is well known to every body. The Dunciad of Mr Pope is an everlasting monument of how much the most correct, as well as the most elegant and harmonious of all the English poets, had been hurt by the criticisms of the lowest and most contemptible authors. Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work. Those men of letters who value themselves upon what is called fine writing in prose, approach somewhat to the sensibility of poets.

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity.

The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.

Now that the public reads no more poetry than it does mathematics, have the moral habits of poets and mathematicians converged?

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5 thoughts on “Adam Smith on mathematicians and poets

  1. Not unless you guys have been getting worse.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    I have long thought that mathematics and poetry have more in common than commonly suspected. More lately I’ve observed that poems and programs share a definition —

    The Words That Do

  3. NDE says:

    It’s not really about the reading public, is it? Mathematicians both of our time and Adam Smith’s seem to have a rough consensus of what mathematical work is valuable. I suspect that there’s no similar consensus among poets, and that poets’ judgement of fellow poets’ work is much more subjective and politicized than in mathematics (granting that even mathematics is not entirely exempt) — which would lead to poets still being much more insecure about their work than mathematicians.

  4. JSE says:

    I observed something similar when I was at a big data / machine learning conference recently — the science there is really thrilling, but very basic questions — what’s interesting and what’s BS, what’s fundamental and what’s trivial — are still up for grabs there, in a way that they’re really not in math. And yeah, they fight. More than mathematicians do and more fiercely.

  5. Nyaya says:

    It is interesting to read about the two mathematicians (who I had never heard of before) mentioned by Smith in the context of his quote. To my modern eyes, they appear more as scholars of mathematics — historians — rather than mathematicians. But, this cannot simply be an anachronism on my part since they are also Euler’s contemporary. (I’m led to believe that most of the development in the subject was confined to contintental europe at this time.) And in my experience, historians fight as much if not more than poets.

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