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Significant Scots
James Burnet


BURNET, JAMES, better known by his judicial designation of Lord Monboddo, was born at Monboddo, in Kincardineshire, in the year 1714. He was eldest surviving son of James Burnet, by Elizabeth Forbes, only sister to Sir Arthur Forbes of Craigievar, Baronet. For what reason is not known, but, instead of being sent to a public school, he was educated at home, under the care of Dr Francis Skene, afterwards professor of philosophy at the Marischal College, Aberdeen. This gentleman discharged his duty to his pupil with the utmost faithfulness, and succeeded in inspiring him with a taste for ancient literature. He was the first that introduced him to an acquaintance with the philosophy of the ancients, of which Mr Burnet became so enthusiastic an admirer. Dr Skene, being promoted to a professorship, was the more immediate cause of his pupil accompanying him to Aberdeen, and of his being educated at the Marischal College in that city. It is probable that he lodged with his preceptor, who of course would direct and superintend his studies. Dr Skene was a professor in that seminary for the long period of forty-one years, and was universally acknowledged to be one of the most diligent and laborious teachers that ever held the honourable office.

What contributed, in a great degree, to fix Mr Burnet's attention upon the literature and philosophy of the Greeks, was not only the instructions he had received at home from his tutor, but that, when he entered the university, Principal Blackwell had for several years been professor of Greek. This person was the great means of reviving the study of this noble language in the north of Scotland; and one of his greatest admirers, and zealous imitators in the prosecution of Grecian learning, was Mr Burnet. Esteeming the philosophical works transmitted to us by the Romans as only copies, or borrowed from the Greeks, he determined to have recourse to the fountain head. Burnet was naturally a man of very keen passions, of an independent tone of thinking, and whatever opinion he once espoused, he was neither ashamed nor afraid to avow it openly. He dreaded no consequences, neither did he regard the opinions of others. If he had the authority of Plato or Aristotle, he was quite satisfied, and, how paradoxical soever the sentiment might be, or contrary to what was popular or generally received, he did not in the least regard. Revolutions of various kinds were beginning to be introduced into the schools; but these he either neglected or despised. The Newtonian philosophy in particular had begun to attract attention, and public lecturers upon its leading doctrines had been established in almost all the British universities; but their very novelty was a sufficient reason for his neglecting them. The laws by which the material world is regulated, were considered by him as of vastly inferior importance to what regarded mind, and its diversified operations. To the contemplation of the latter, therefore, his chief study was directed.

Having been early designed for the Scottish bar, he wisely resolved to lay a good foundation, and to suffer nothing to interfere with what was now to be the main business of his life. To obtain eminence in the profession of the law, depends less upon contingencies, than in any of the other learned professions. Wealth, splendid connections, and circumstances merely casual, have brought forward many physicians and divines, who had nothing else to recommend them. But though these may be excellent subsidiaries, they are not sufficient of themselves to constitute a distinguished lawyer. Besides good natural abilities, the most severe application, and uncommon diligence in the acquisition of extensive legal knowledge, are absolutely necessary. At every step the neophyte is obliged to make trial of his strength with his opponents, and as the public are seldom in a mistake for any length of time, where their interests are materially concerned, his station is very soon fixed. The intimate connection that subsists between the civil or Roman law, and the law of Scotland, is well known. The one is founded upon the other. According to the custom of Scotland at that time, Burnet repaired to Holland, where the best masters in this study were then settled. At the university of Groningen he remained for three years, assiduously attending the lectures on the civil law. He then returned to his native country so perfectly accomplished as a civilian, that, during the course of a long life, his opinions on difficult points of this law were highly respected.

He happened to arrive in Edinburgh from Holland on the night of Porteous' mob. His lodgings were in the Lawnmarket, in the vicinity of the Tolbooth, and hearing a great noise in the street, from a motive of curiosity he sallied forth to witness the scene. Some person, however, had recognised him, and it was currently reported that he was one of the ringleaders. He was likely to have been put to some trouble on this account, had he not been able to prove that he had just arrived from abroad, and therefore could know nothing of what was in agitation. He was wont to relate with great spirit the circumstances that attended this singular transaction.

In 1737, he became a member of the Faculty of Advocates, and in process of time came into considerable practice. His chief patrons in early life, were lord justice clerk Milton, lord president Forbes, and Erskine lord Tinwald, or Alva. The last had been a professor in the university of Edinburgh, and being an excellent Greek scholar, knew how to estimate his talents.

During the rebellion of 1745, Burnet went to London, and prudently declining to take any part in the politics of that troublous period, he spent the time chiefly in the company and conversation of his literary friends. Among these were Thomson the poet, lord Littleton, and Dr Armstrong. When peace was restored, he returned to Scotland. About 1760, he married a beautiful and accomplished lady, Miss Farquharson, a relation of Marischal Keith, by whom he had a son and two daughters. What first brought him into very prominent notice, was the share he had in conducting the celebrated Douglas' cause. No question ever came before a court of law, which interested the public to a greater degree. In Scotland it became in a manner a national question, for the whole country was divided, and ranged on one side or the other. Mr Burnet was counsel for Mr Douglas, and went thrice to France to assist in leading the proof taken there. This he was well qualified to do, for, during his studies in Holland, he had acquired the practice of speaking the French language with great facility. Such interest did this cause excite, that the pleadings before the court of session lasted thirty-one days, and the most eminent lawyers were engaged. It is a curious historical fact, that almost all the lawyers on both sides were afterwards raised to the bench. Mr Burnet was, in 1764, made sheriff of his native county, and on the 12th February, 1767, through the interest of the Duke of Queensberry, lord justice general, he succeeded Lord Milton as a lord of session, under the title of Lord Monboddo. It is said that he refused a justiciary gown, being unwilling that his studies should be interrupted, during the vacation, by any additional engagements.

The first work which he published was on the Origin and Progress of Language. The first volume appeared in 1771, the second in 1773, and the third in 1776. This treatise attracted a great deal of attention on account of the singularity of some of the doctrines which it advanced. In the first part, he gives a very learned, elaborate, and abstruse account of the origin of ideas, according to the metaphysics of Plato and the commentators on Aristotle, philosophers to whose writings and theories he was devotedly attached. He then treats of the origin of human society and of language, which he considers as a human invention, without paying the least regard to the scriptural accounts. He represents men as having originally been, and continued for many ages to be, no better than beasts, and indeed in many respects worse; as destitute of speech, of reason, of conscience, of social affection, and of every thing that can confer dignity upon a creature, and possessed of nothing but external sense and memory, and a capacity of improvement. The system is not a new one, being borrowed from Lucretius, of whose account of it, Horace gives an exact abridgment in these lines: - "Cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris, mutum et turpe pecus," &c. which Lord Monboddo takes for his motto, and which, he said, comprehended in miniature the whole history of man. In regard to facts that make for his system he is amazingly credulous, but blind and sceptical in regard to every thing of an opposite tendency. He asserts with the utmost gravity and confidence, that the oran-outangs are of the human species - that in the bay of Bengal, there exists a nation of human creatures with tails, discovered one hundred and thirty years before by a Swedish skipper - that the beavers and sea-cats are social and political animals, though man, by nature, is neither social nor political, nor even rational - reason, reflection, a sense of right and wrong, society, policy, and even thought, being, in the human species, as much the effects of art, contrivance, and long experience, as writing, ship-building, or any other manufacture. Notwithstanding that the work contains these and many other strange and whimsical opinions, yet it discovers great acuteness of remark.

His greatest work, which he called "Ancient Metaphysics," consists of three volumes 4to., the last of which was published only a few weeks before the author's death. It may be considered as an exposition and defence of the Grecian philosophy in opposition to the philosophical system of Sir Isaac Newton, and the scepticism of modern metaphysicians, particularly Mr David Hume. His opinions upon many points coincide with those of Mr Harris, the author of Hermes, who was his intimate friend, and of whom he was a great admirer. He never seems to have understood, nor to have entered into the spirit of the Newtonian philosophy; and, as to Mr Hume, he, without any disguise, accuses him of atheism, and reprobates in the most severe terms some of his opinions.

In domestic circumstances Monboddo was particularly unfortunate. His wife, a very beautiful woman, died in child-bed. His son, a promising boy, in whose education he took great delight, was likewise snatched from his affections by a premature death; and his second daughter, in personal loveliness one of the first women of the age, was cut off by consumption, when only twenty-five years old. Burns, in an address to Edinburgh, thus celebrates the beauty and excellence of Miss Burnet: -

Thy daughters bright thy walks adorn,
Gay as the gilded summer sky,
Sweet as the dewy milk-white thorn,
Dear as the raptured thrill of joy!

Fair Burnet strikes the adoring eye,
Heaven's beauties on my fancy shine;
I see the Sire of love on high,
And own his work indeed divine."

His eldest daughter was married to Kirkpatrick Williamson, Esq. late keeper of the outer house rolls, who had been clerk to his lordship, and was eminent as a Greek scholar.

About 1780, he first began to make an annual journey to London, which he continued for a good many years, indeed, till he was upwards of eighty years of age. As a carriage was not a vehicle in use among the ancients, he determined never to enter and be seated in what he termed a box. He esteemed it as degrading to the dignity of human nature to be dragged at the tails of horses instead of being mounted on their backs. In his journeys between Edinburgh and London he therefore rode on horseback, attended by a single servant. On his last visit, he was taken ill on the road, and it was with difficulty that Sir Hector Monroe prevailed upon him to come into his carriage. He set out, however, next day on horseback, and arrived safe in Edinburgh by slow journeys.

Lord Monboddo being in London in 1785, visited the King's bench, when some part of the fixtures of the place giving way, a great scatter took place among the lawyers, and the very judges themselves rushed towards the door. Monboddo, somewhat near-sighted, and rather dull of hearing, sat still, and was the only man who did so. Being asked why he had not bestirred himself to avoid the ruin, he coolly answered that he "thought it was an annual ceremony, with which, being an alien, he had nothing to do."

When in the country he generally dressed in the style of a plain farmer; and lived among his tenants with the utmost familiarity, and treated them with great kindness. He used much the exercises of walking in the open air, and of riding. He had accustomed himself to the use of the cold bath in all seasons, and amid every severity of the weather. It is said that he even made use of the air bath, or occasionally walking about for some minutes naked in a room filled with fresh and cool air. In imitation of the ancients, the practice of anointing was not forgotten. The lotion he used was not the oil of the ancients, but a saponacious liquid compound of rose water, olive oil, saline aromatic spirit, and Venice soap, which, when well mixed, resembles cream. This he applied at bed-time, before a large fire, after coming from the warm bath.

This learned and ingenious, though somewhat eccentric, man died upon the 26th May, 1799, at the advanced age of eighty-five years.


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