Not All Geniuses Get Along

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.”


Adam Smith, genius and sleepwalker

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.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Luke says:

    Hi Rebecca! Whenever I hear about Samuel Johnson I think of this!

    1. Blackadder, yes! One of my co-workers is obsessed with that series.

  2. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for the interesting look at Johnson. If you have read The Life of Samuel Johnson, this is not unexpected behavior from him. In today’s world he would probably have a diagnosis of OCD or Tourette’s. Since many geniuses have social disorders, it is not surprising that they don’t get along with each other :-).

    1. Yes, it’s classic Johnson. I hope to have many more Johnson posts to come.

  3. Rod Rodriguez says:

    People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.
    -Samuel Johnson

    Although not always practiced as shown in your example, this is very good advice to live our lives by.

    Man values Intelligence, sometimes above all else. Because of this we undervalue common decency, kindness, truth and even love. 

    Intelligence is to be valued, but not above truth. Truth is to be cheeriest,
    but not without kindness. Kindness can not be exist without
    love. Yet kindness and love can exist without truth or intelligence interfering! 

    Although our society may think Intelligence makes a man, one without love is no man.

    Let us hope those considered most intelligent demonstrate it with love first, of so the rest will follow!

    1. I wonder how intelligent a person can be who doesn’t value common decency, kindness, etc., as you say.

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