Again, from Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

[George Smiley] had schooled himself to admit that in those last wretched months of Control's career, when disasters followed one another with heady speed, he had been guilty of seeing things out of proportion. And if the old professional Adam rebelled in him now and then and said: You know the place went bad, you know Jim Prideaux was betrayed - and what more eloquent testimony is there than a bullet, two bullets in the back? - Well, he had replied, suppose he did? And suppose he was right? 'It is sheer vanity to believe that one, fat, middle-aged spy is the only person capable of holding the world together,' he would tell himself. And other times: 'I never heard of anyone yet who left the Circus without some unfinished business.'

What is the author trying to convey here with the expression "professional Adam"? Wiktionary offers the figurative use of Adam to denote human frailty, but that doesn't appear to be a good fit here. ODO provides nothing along those lines.

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    ... too localized! +1 for checking Wiktionary first, -1 for having asked! ... "= 0"! Sep 6, 2012 at 19:39
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    Not knowing the book, is the guy's name 'Adam'?
    – Mitch
    Sep 6, 2012 at 19:41
  • @Mitch Good question. I've edited the excerpt to include the guy's name (George Smiley). Sep 6, 2012 at 19:49

2 Answers 2


Congratulations on spotting the right reference in Wiktionary. The Old Adam is, Merriam-Webster tells us, "unregenerate human nature", quoting the Book of Common Prayer: "grant that the old Adam in this child may be so buried". It's the ineluctable tendency of fallen humanity to revert to its original sin.

And in Smiley's world, from novel to novel to novel, the cardinal sin, the trap which the professional spy must be most wary of falling into, is pridefully believing that he and his agency are knowledgeable and competent.

So Smiley must school himself not only to confess his past failure but also to suppress his hybristic assumption that he now understands what happened and is therefore capable of rectifying the situation.

But this is straying off-charter, into literary criticism.

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    You've hybridized hubristic? Sep 6, 2012 at 18:14
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    @jwpat7 In my day in academe (60s and 70s) the old transliteration of upsilon as "y" was still dominant among general lit scholars. I don't know when the classicists started shifting. Sep 6, 2012 at 18:57
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    @jwpat7 Finally something Ngrams is good for: the two spellings are roughly equal in frequency until about 1950; hybris starts declining from about 1960 on. Sep 6, 2012 at 19:23
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    +1 Very interesting. Collins defines Old Adam as "the evil supposedly inherent in human nature". My first thought is that Le Carré is piggybacking professionalism on this expression to suggest that all spies become jaded and lazy over time; i.e., could he perhaps be talking about his inherent professionalism which rebels and questions? Sep 6, 2012 at 20:17
  • @StoneyB: Comparing corpuses, it seems 1950 was the turnover point in the US, but "hubris" became the dominant form in the UK around 1920. Interestingly, OED's earliest citation for "hybris" (which I don't think I've ever seen before) is 1920 - apparently from an American magazine of the day called "Public Opinion". Sep 6, 2012 at 20:37

I believe “the old professional Adam” should be read as “the old professional in him, the old Adam”, where “old Adam” is taken in a sense like an innocent or uncorrupted. I'll explain further, but first some background on the phrase “old Adam”. Historically it seems to have two opposing meanings; one referring to innocent man before the fall, the other to corrupted (or corruptible) post-fall man.

For the former usage, see for example footnote to 13, 14 of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors Act IV, Scene 3; the footnote remarks, “But why is the officer called old Adam new apparelled? The allusion is to Adam, in his state of innocence, going naked; and immediately after the fall, being clothed in a frock of skins.”

For the latter, see for example item 64 in Luther's Large Catechism: “Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man ... For this must be practised without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam”.

Returning to the passage from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, we have Le Carré describing Smiley's thoughts; we see on the one hand his self-corruption: “he had schooled himself to admit ... he had been guilty of seeing things out of proportion”. On the other hand we have the old professional, the old uncorrupted Adam, seeing things as they are: “You know the place went bad, you know Jim Prideaux was betrayed.”

  • The "old Adam", however, who pretends to "see things as they are", is not uncorrupted but fallen man who, as Luther says, must be put to death, then resurrected by baptism in Christ. Sep 6, 2012 at 19:18
  • +1 @StoneyB Wouldn't that be as interpreted by the latter of jwpat's two usages? The former seems to connote purity, innocence, naïveté, etc. Sep 6, 2012 at 20:29
  • @StoneyB: I believe Smiley's bureaucracy, like many, sees the tendency to believe what you see rather than what you are told as a regrettable backsliding that needs to be chastised. Sep 6, 2012 at 20:47
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    @coleopterist jwpat's quote is, even in context, ambiguous; but there's no allusion in Shakespeare's text to "Adam in his state of innocence". References to "the old Adam" derive from I Cor 15:45's "first Adam" and always refer to fallen man. Sep 6, 2012 at 21:12

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