Reading the Natural World
Described by one of his pupils as ‘the true embodiment of all humanity and the arts’, Smith astounded fellow scholars and courtiers alike with the extent of his knowledge. Its sheer breadth is significant, not least, for the degree to which it shows how the interests of a learned humanist in Tudor England could extend beyond the legacy of Greece and Rome. At a time of New World discoveries, when the astronomy of Copernicus (whose De Revolutionibus Smith owned) cast doubt over ancient learning, Smith typified his age in his ability to question as well as revere antiquity, whilst embracing new modes of enquiry. Whether by authors ancient or modern, the annotated books in Smith’s library manifest a similar process of refinement in which Smith tested received ideas against his own knowledge, thereby expanding texts with his own hand-written observations. When he developed throat cancer Smith consulted a work by the sixth-century Greek medical writer Aëtius of Amida, as translated by the sixteenth-century humanist, Gian Battista Da Monte. In it Smith marked the passage relating to paralysis of the tongue, from which he was suffering, and underlined the most relevant passages.
Smith appears to have read ancient and modern works on the natural sciences as actively as he did classical works of political history. It was perhaps on the strength of this that Smith felt sufficiently confident as a botanist to take the health of others into his own hands, instructing a servant, presumably suffering from cataracts, to take corrosive celandine sap from his garden and ‘put a little of that milk in your eye and it will scour it’.