It’s well known that Samuel Johnson, the writer of English’s first great dictionary, didn’t much care for the Scots (remind me to tell you about oats). But you’d think he’d appreciate Scottish geniuses.
I was reading in The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner and learned of an interesting feud. This one was between the great wit (read: jerk) and lexicographer Samuel Johnson and Adam Smith, one of the most important moral philosophers of the time and one of the most important economists of all time.
Samuel Johnson had the pleasure of meeting many of the great men of his day, including Adam Smith. When this meeting took place, what did Johnson do? He immediately attacked Smith for some statement he had said in the past.
How did Smith react? He defended himself, in a gentlemanly fashion, of course. But how does Samuel Johnson react to gentlemen? Well, as Smith told it, Johnson called him a liar.
So Johnson had upped the ante a bit. Smith lost his demure façade at this point, replying, “You are a son of a —!”
Heilbroner says, “Such was the classical dialogue between two great teachers of philosophy.”
Why do we have this silly expectation that geniuses will somehow be better people than we are? Does intelligence—even intelligence in the realm of moral philosophy, for which Adam Smith was famous—equate to being a better person? How would you have reacted to Johnson?
…Oh, and according to this book, Smith was also famous for sleep walking. He journeyed as much as 15 miles before awakening. And when he was four, he was kidnapped by gypsies, but eventually rescued. Just thought I’d throw those lovely little facts in.