Adam Smith: The Rhetoric of Propriety

By Schaeffer, John D. | Style, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Adam Smith: The Rhetoric of Propriety


Schaeffer, John D., Style


Stephen J. McKenna. Adam Smith: The Rhetoric of Propriety. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. ix + 184 pp. $71.50 cloth; $22.95 paper.

Stephen McKenna's book discusses the rhetorical theory of Adam Smith, the same Adam Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations. Between 1748 and 1751 Smith lectured on rhetoric three different times at Edinburgh. Smith's copies of the lectures were apparently burned on Smith's orders just before his death, but a set of student notes on the lectures was discovered in 1958. These were published by Oxford University Press in 1983 as Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres. In addition to these lectures, McKenna considers Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), the first book Smith ever published. McKenna focuses his analysis on Smith's idea of "propriety," and he claims that for Smith ethical propriety in conduct is analogous to and derived from rhetorical propriety in discourse. To establish this analogy and tease out its important implications, McKenna marshals an impressive range of data and focuses it with impressive results.

McKenna's book began life as his dissertation: chapter 1 states the problem, "Smith and the Problem of Propriety"; chapter 2 presents the deep background, "Smith and Propriety in the Classical Tradition"; chapter 3 presents the immediate background, "Rhetorical Propriety in Eighteenth-Century Theories of Discourse"; chapter 4 analyzes the earlier work, "Propriety in Smith's Rhetoric Lectures"; chapter 5 analyzes the later text, "Propriety in The Theory of Moral Sentiments," and chapter 6, "Conclusions, Provocations," draws out the implications of the foregoing chapters.

In the first chapter McKenna summarizes in a few paragraphs the current scholarly opinion about rhetorical propriety: (1) that propriety is purely intuitive or (2) that it masks an ideology. McKenna cites Roland Barthes, Stanley Fish, Richard Lanham, and others to show that the latter is by far the more popular view today because the idea of propriety has been absorbed into postmodern Sophism (3-5). To begin recovering the original meaning of propriety, McKenna briefly describes the milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment with particular attention to esthetics and ethics. The Act of Union (1707) had jeopardized Scottish culture, and the crushing of the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 exacerbated the problem of Scottish cultural identity. At the same time, however, Scotland enjoyed a period of religious tolerance and a rejuvenated educational system. The Scots rhetoricians Hugh Blair and George Campbell tried to synthesize Aristotelian rhetoric with the emerging science of psychology, and philosophers like Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson worked at developing ethical theories that could compete with Descartes and Hobbes. Both disciplines turned to concepts like taste, propriety, and common sense to forge their alternative positions. Smith was born into this rich intellectual life, and McKenna concludes his first chapter with a short biography of Smith, including a brief catalogue of the books in Smith's personal library. This catalogue testifies not only to Smith's profound learning and command of ancient and modern languages but also to his reading of modern works on rhetoric, including those by Campbell, Thomas Sheridan, Du Marsais, and William Barron. This chapter thus shows Smith to have been born into an intellectual environment preoccupied with questions of ethical and rhetorical propriety, and it shows Smith to have been uniquely qualified to address those questions.

In chapter 2, describing the role and meanings of propriety in classical rhetoric, McKenna begins with the most remote etymology available: the Greek noun to prepon, which means "to appear conspicuously before the eyes" (26). McKenna points out that this original definition already implies clear sensory perception, pleasurable aesthetic response, and a conspicuous social appearance for the agent-and that these conform to some cosmic or natural order (26). …

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