Balliol College and the road to Adam Smith’s Damascus

(Walter Bagehot and Adam Smith, part 3)

Thus far, I have reviewed the first five paragraphs of Walter Bagehot’s “Adam Smith as a Person” (see here and here). The next few paragraphs of Bagehot’s beautiful essay describe the circumstances surrounding Smith’s birth in Kirkcaldy and provide a brief sketch of Smith’s formal education at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford.

Although Bagehot incorrectly tells us in the sixth paragraph of his essay that the great Adam Smith was born in 1713 (Smith, in fact, was most likely born ten years later), Bagehot is right about two things: (1) the future economist was born to a widow, so Smith never met his father, and (2) we know next to nothing about Smith’s childhood and early years, except that Smith attended the University of Glasgow and that he must have been a good student, for he was awarded a special scholarship to attend Oxford. (Smith won a Snell Exhibition from the University of Glasgow to Balliol College, Oxford, to be more precise.) Bagehot then devotes the next two paragraphs (7 & 8) of his essay to Smith’s studies at Balliol College (pictured below), making the following points:

  1. If Oxford had allowed students to evaluate their courses (a common practice today), Smith would have written scathing reviews of his instructors, who (as Smith himself tells us in The Wealth of Nations) “have for these many years given up altogether even the pretence of teaching”;
  2. In spite of this, Smith spent “as many as seven years” at Balliol College, Oxford, where Smith was exposed to a new country, culture, and way of life (historically, Scotland and England were separate kingdoms until the Act of Union of 1707);
  3. Among other things, Smith studied modern and ancient philosophy during his Oxford years, including ancient Greek as well as a contraband copy of David Hume’s early philosophical writings.

The student scholarship that Smith was awarded to attend Oxford was reserved for future Anglican priests, i.e. for students who were destined to become clergymen, but as Bagehot correctly notes in the ninth paragraph of his essay, “for some reason or another, Adam Smith … gave up all idea of entering the Church of England, and returned to Scotland without fixed outlook or employment.” After abruptly leaving Oxford and abandoning the clergy, Smith lived with his mother for two years, “studying no doubt, but earning nothing, and visibly employed in nothing,” to quote Bagehot.

In other words, something dramatic must have occurred in the young Adam Smith’s intellectual life at this time–momentous enough to cause him to decamp from Oxford, give up his religious vocation, and beat a hasty retreat to his mother’s house. What happened on the road to Smith’s Damascus? And whatever it was, how did a washout with no prospects become a leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment, the man who would change the world by bringing down mercantilism and championing free trade?

Bagehot never answers the first question: what was the dramatic event that led Smith to abandon Oxford and jettison his prospects? (For my part, I suspect it was a broken heart caused by a love affair; see my 2021 paper “Adam Smith in Love“.) But in the next few paragraphs of his Adam Smith essay, Bagehot does describe the young scholar’s transformation from a proverbial loser living with his mom to an esteemed professor at the University of Glasgow, where Smith would spend the next 12 or 13 years of his life and where he would write his first great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I will turn to Smith’s Glasgow years as well as his philosophical treatise in my next few posts.

Image credit: “Balliol College, Oxford: in sixteenth century” (wood engraving), via the Welcome Collection (see here)

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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4 Responses to Balliol College and the road to Adam Smith’s Damascus

  1. Pingback: Adam Smith’s patrons and father figures | prior probability

  2. Pingback: Recap of Walter Bagehot’s View of Adam Smith | prior probability

  3. Pingback: Die Adam Smith Probleme: a comprehensive recap | prior probability

  4. Pingback: The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident | prior probability

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