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Significant Scots
Rev Archibald Alison


ALISON, REV. ARCHIBALD, M.A., LL.B., this distinguished writer on "Taste," whose works procured him a high reputation among the foremost literary judges of his day, was born in Edinburgh, A.D. 1757, and was the son of Mr. Andrew Alison, one of the magistrates of that city. When he had completed the usual course of an elementary classical education, he was sent, at the age of fifteen, to the university of Glasgow, where, after the usual curriculum of Latin, Greek, and Logic, he attended the lectures of Professor Reid, at that time in high metaphysical reputation, and formed an intimacy with Dugald Stewart, which continued to the end of his life. Having been so fortunate as to obtain one of those exhibitions to Baliol College of which the university of Glasgow possesses the patronage, Archibald Alison removed to Oxford, where he completed his course of study, and took the degree of A.M., and afterwards of LL.B. In 1784, he also took orders, and married the eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. John Gregory of Edinburgh. His first appointment in the church was to the curacy of Brancepath, in the county of Durham. After this, he was appointed to the chapelry of Kenley in Shropshire in 1790, and to the vicarage of Ercall in the same county in 1794, by the Earl of Darlington, to whom the patronage of both livings belonged; and in 1791 he was presented to Roddington by the Lord Chancellor. In 1791 also, the small prebend of Yatminster Secunda, in the cathedral of Salisbury, was conferred upon him by Bishop Douglas. So many pluralities have an imposing appearance; but their aggregate revenue amounted to nothing more than eight hundred per annum. Circumstances soon led to Alison’s removal to his native city, having been invited by Sir William Forbes and the vestry of the Episcopal Chapel in the Cowgate of Edinburgh, to become senior minister of that charge. He removed to Edinburgh in 1800, and continued to preach in the Cowgate, until the congregation removed from that murky locality to the handsome chapel of St. Paul’s, in York Place. In 1831, Alison, now an old man, and subject to severe attacks of pectoral disease, was obilged to desist from his public labours, and confine himself to the private society of his friends, in which the evening of his days was tranquil and happy. The high reputation which he had attained both as a preacher and writer, and his amiable personal qualities, endeared him to the most distinguished literary characters for which Edinburgh was now at the height of its fame; and he was in constant intercourse, among others, with Dugald Stewart, Dr. Gregory, Lord Woodhouselee, Professor Playfair, Dr. Thomas Brown, Sir James Hall, and Thomas Campbell. Besides these, he had been in familar acquaintanceship with the illustrious of the end of the last century, such as Dr. Adam Smith, Dr. Adam Ferguson, Dr. Robertson, and Dr. Blair. He was indeed the literary Nestor of the day, who chronicled the remembrances of the great and good of a past generation for the instruction of their successors. Another congenial spirit, though in a different walk of intellect, whose society he especially valued, was Mr. Telford, the celebrated engineer; and it was pleasing to witness the zeal of the venerable pair, while Telford unfolded his scientific plans for the improvement of their native Scotland and its fair capital. The death of Archibald Alison occurred in 1839, at the age of eighty-two. By his wife, who died in 1830, he had six children, of whom three survived him, and one of them, Sir Archibald Alison, is known to most of our readers as the author of the "History of Europe from the French Revolution."

Of the Rev. Archibald Alison’s life as an author it is now necessary to speak. His "Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste," the work by which he is best known, was published so early as 1790, but attracted little notice—the state of society being probably far from favourable at that time to metaphysical investigation. Not discouraged by the cold reception of a subject which had evidently formed the chief study of his life, Alison, after he had been for some years settled in Edinburgh, republished his "Essays" with considerable additions in 1811. He had now established for himself a more favourable class of readers; and he was so fortunate as to find a eulogist in Francis Jeffrey, then the Aristarchus of critics, and through the "Edinburgh Review" at that time the paramount oracle of the literary world. A very powerful and beautiful article forthwith appeared in that influential periodical upon the long-neglected work; and the consequence was, that the "Essays" immediately took their place as the standard of the "Nature and Principles of Taste." The present generation can well remember how their boyhood and youth were familiarized with it, and how the pulpit and the press did homage to its authority. But time has sobered down this enthusiasm, and Alison is reckoned neither to have invented a new theory (for its leading idea had been distinctly announced by David Hume); nor to have sifted it with the most philosophical analysis, or expressed it in the happiest language. But who shall arrest our fleeting emotions produced by the sublime and the beautiful, and reduce them to such a fixed standard as all shall recognize? Longinus, Burke, Schlegel, and Alison, have all successively passed away, while the science of aesthetics is still accumulating its materials for future theorists and fresh legislation. The theory of taste, like that of the weather or the tides, is still the subject of hypothesis and conjecture. Besides his principal work of "Essays on Taste," which has gone through many editions, both in Britain and America, as well as been translated into French, Mr. Alison published two volumes of sermons, which have also been several times republished; and a "Memoir of Lord Woodhouselee," inserted in the "Transactions of the Edinburgh Royal Society," 1818. The character of Alison, which is thus given by his son, was borne out through a long and well-spent life:—"No man who held firm and uncompromising opinions on the principles of religion and morals, looked with more indulgence on the failings of others, or passed through the world in more perfect charity and good-will to all men. No man who had lived much in society, could retire with more sincere pleasure at all periods of his life into domestic privacy, and into the solitude of the country. * * * * * No man who had attained a high reputation as a preacher or an author, was ever more absolutely indifferent to popular applause, as compared with the consciousness of the performance of duty."


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