Elementary Sketches Of Moral Philosophy "A Square Person Has Squeezed Himself Into The Round Hole"

Sydney Smith

"A Square Person Has Squeezed Himself Into The Round Hole"

Context: Sydney Smith, English writer and clergyman, first achieved fame in Edinburgh with his work for the Edinburgh Review in 1802. Two years later the London world crowded to Albemarle Street to hear him deliver a series of lectures at the Royal Institution on moral philosophy. For three seasons, 1804-1806, he spoke on such topics as the history of moral philosophy, the powers of external perception, reason and judgment, the conduct of the understanding, taste, wit and humor, and the beautiful and the sublime. Smith himself did not take his performance very seriously as evidenced by his tossing his manuscripts into the fire as soon as the lectures were delivered. Mrs. Smith, however, rescued the manuscripts, a great deal damaged, from the flames and, after her husband's death, published the three courses in one volume under the title Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy. In Lecture IX, "On the Conduct of the Understanding," Smith stresses the importance of self-knowledge if one is to achieve happiness and success in life; all too often people find their roles miscast. (Smith's remark below is generally accepted as the origin of the phrase "a square peg in a round hole.") He continues:

. . . If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,–some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,–and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole.