Thomas Smith and Reading as a ‘Trigger for Action’

For Smith and others of his milieu, classical learning provided not simply the lessons needed to lead a moral and effective life, but also a model to inspire the actions of monarchs. In an age when, for many, reading was an intensely proactive endeavour whose purpose was to inspire direct action, the doodlings to be found in Smith’s books are hugely significant. Through them we discern Smith’s response to specific passages in, for example, the works of Tacitus and other Roman historians as well as Greek philosophers that informed his attempts to advise on military strategy and governance. More than simply a fashion, Smith’s belief that actions should be informed by history had been given intellectual clout by his insistence as Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge (1540–7) that medieval law texts should be interpreted through recourse to historical method. In his subsequent positions of influence in the administrations of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, Smith was well placed to put to the test the new humanist thinking.

The ultimate fallibility of the approach was, however, nowhere more evident than in Smith’s career-defining attempt to execute a plan for the colonisation of Ireland’s Ards peninsula, informed by Livy’s account of ancient Rome’s Second Punic War. After many mishaps, including the shocking murder of Smith’s illegitimate son (1573) who was leading the initial expedition, the venture ended in ignominious failure. Indeed, it was not long after this that the vogue for ‘book-trained politics’ of this kind came to an end. It would, however, be the general historiographical and philosophical approach that informed Smith’s publications on governance and economics that ultimately offered a more viable role for humanism in affairs of state.

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