While in London, Smith also managed to get into a spat with Samuel Johnson on their first meeting, perhaps because Johnson spoke ill of Hume in front of him. This was the Great Moralist’s wont with respect to the Great Infidel; as the historian Peter Gay notes, Johnson’s recorded comments about Hume display “an unphilosophical aversion that smacks almost of fear.” One version of the story has it that Johnson criticized Smith for praising Hume, calling him a liar, at which point Smith snapped back that Johnson was a son of a bitch.
While having lunch with an old friend a couple years ago, he bitterly complained about Obama and Bush being two of the worst presidents we’d ever had. I demurred that only time would give us enough perspective to judge, and besides, didn’t it just seem that way because we knew so much more about them, living in our fishbowl world of constant news and social media? Historical events and personalities only acquire their sepia-toned gravitas by virtue of our temporal distance from them. To paraphrase Epicurus, “Where we are, dignity is not; where dignity is, we are not.” Our fantasies about the solemnity of our ancestors wouldn’t survive our intimate acquaintance with them. The eighteenth-century equivalent of Vox Media would have been writing headlines about the sick burn Smith laid on Johnson, and Publius420 would have been taunting Johnson on Twitter with “lmao what did the invisible hand say to the face?!?!” followed by a reaction gif. Thomas Jefferson would have quickly been pilloried as a sexual predator. Rousseau would have been the guy melting down on Facebook before dramatically flouncing.