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Significant Scots
Sir
William Drummond


DRUMMOND, SIR WILLIAM, a distinguished scholar and philosopher. The date of his birth seems not to be ascertained, nor does any memoir of which we are aware, describe his early education. He became first slightly known to the world in 1794, from publishing "A Review of the Government of Sparta and Athens." It was probably a juvenile performance, which would not have been recollected but for the later fame of its author, and it is not now to be met with in libraries. In 1795, he was elected representative of the borough of St Mawes; and in 1796 and 1801, he was chosen for the town of Lostwithiel. In the meantime he was appointed envoy extraordinary to the court of Naples, an office previously filled by a countryman celebrated for pursuits not dissimilar to some of his own—Sir William Hamilton; and he was soon afterwards ambassador to the Ottoman Porte. Of his achievements as an ambassador little is known or remembered, excepting perhaps an alleged attempt, in 1808, to secure the regency of Spain to prince Leopold of Sicily. Nor as a senator does he appear to have acquired much higher distinction; from being a regular and zealously-labouring political partisan, his studious habits and retired unbending disposition prevented him, but such political labours as he undertook were on the side of the government. In 1798, he published a translation of the Satires of Perseus, a work, which, especially in fidelity, has been held to rival the contemporaneous attempts of Gifford, and it established him in the unquestioned reputation of a classical scholar. In 1805, appeared his Academical Questions, the first work in which he put forward claims to be esteemed a metaphysician. Although in this work he talks of the dignity of philosophy with no little enthusiasm, and gives it a preference to other subjects, more distinct than many may now admit; yet his work has certainly done more for the demolition of other systems than for instruction in any he has himself propounded. He perhaps carried the sceptical philosophy of Hume a little beyond its first bounds, by showing that we cannot comprehend the idea of simple substance, because, let the different qualities which, arranged in our mind, give us the idea of what we call an existing substance, be one by one taken away,—when the last is taken nothing at all will remain. To his doctrine that the mind was a unity, and did not contain separate powers and faculties, Locke’s demolition of innate ideas must have led the way; but that great philosopher has not himself been spared from Sir William’s undermining analysis, with which he attempted indeed to destroy the foundations of most existing systems. The Edinburgh Review, in a pretty extensive examination of the book, says, "We do not know very well what to say of this learned publication. To some readers it will probably be enough to announce, that it is occupied with metaphysical speculations. To others, it may convey a more precise idea of its character, to be told, that though it gave a violent headache in less than an hour, to the most intrepid logician of our fraternity, he could not help reading on till he came to the end of the volume.

"The book is written we think with more rhetorical ornament, and enlivened with more various literature, than is usual in similar discussions; but it is not, on this account, less ‘hard- to be spelled;’ and after perusing it with considerable attention, we are by no means absolutely certain that we have apprehended the true scope and design of the author, or attained to a just perception of the system or method by which he has been directed. The subjects of his investigations are so various, his criticisms so unsparing, and his conclusions so hostile to every species of dogmatism, that we have sometimes been tempted to think, that he had no other view in this publication than to expose the weakness of human understanding, and to mortify the pride of philosophy, by a collection of insolvable cases, and undeterminable problems. It is but fair to recollect, however, that Mr Drummond has avowedly reserved the full exposition of his own theory to a subsequent volume, [this never appeared,] and professes in this to do little more than point out the insufficiency and contradictions that may be fairly imputed to those of preceding philosophers. It is only the task of demolition which he proposes now to accomplish; and it must be owned, that he has spread abroad his rubbish, and scattered abroad his dust, in a very alarming manner."

In 1810, Sir William, along with Mr Robert Walpole, published "Herculanensia," containing archaeological and etymological observations, partly directed towards a MS. found in the ruins of Herculaneum. During the same year he published an "Essay on a Punic inscription found in the island of Malta." The inscription was interesting from its twice containing the name Hanni-Baal, or Hannibal; but it seems to have been merely used by Sir William as a nucleus round which he could weave an extensive investigation into the almost unknown and undiscoverable language of the Carthaginians. He proposed two methods of analytically acquiring some knowledge of this obscure subject; first, through the Phoenician and Punic vocables scattered through the works of Greek and Roman authors, and second, through the dialects cognate to the Phoenician, viz., the Arabic or ancient Syriac, the Samaritan, the Ethiopian, the fragments of Egyptian to be found in the modern Coptic, and the Hebrew.

In 1811, he printed the most remarkable of all his works, the "OEdipus Judaicus." It was not published and probably had it been so, it would have brought on the author, who did not entirely escape criticism by his concealment, a torrent of censure which might have rendered life uncomfortable. It was Sir William Drummond’s object to take the parts of the Old Testament commonly commented on by divines as purely historical, and prove them to be allegories. Perhaps the following extract contains a greater portion of the meaning which the author had in view, than any other of similar brevity: "When we consider the general prevalence of Tsabaism among the neighbouring nations, we shall wonder less at the proneness of the Hebrews to fall into this species of idolatry. Neither shall we be surprised at the anxious efforts of their lawgiver to persuade and convince them of the vanity of the superstitions, when we recollect, that, though he could command the elements, and give new laws to nature, he could not impose fetters on the free will of others. With such a power as this he was by no means invested; for the Almighty, in offering to the Hebrews the clearest proofs of his existence, by no means constrained their belief. It cannot be doubted, that by any act of power, God might have coerced submission, and have commanded conviction; but had there been no choice, there could have been no merit in the acceptance of his law.

"Since then Jehovah did not compel the people to acknowledge his existence, by fettering their free will, it was natural for his servant Moses to represent, by types and by symbols, the errors of the Gentile nations; and it is in no manner surprising, that the past, the existing, and the future situation of the Hebrews, as well as the religious, moral, and political state of their neighbours, should be alluded to in symbolical language by an historian, who was also a teacher and a prophet.

"Above all things, however, it is evident, that the establishment of the true religion was the great object of the divine legation of Moses. To attain this purpose, it was not enough that he performed the most surprising miracles. His countrymen acknowledged the existence of Jehovah; but with him they reckoned, and were but too willing to adore other gods. Is it then surprising, that the false notions of religion entertained by the Gentiles should be pointed out in the writings of Moses, and that their religious systems should be there made to appear what they really are—the astronomical systems of scientific idolaters?" To institute a critical investigation of the points discussed in such a book as the OEdipus, would require more learned investigation than is expected to be met with in a casual memoir. But with deference, we believe, a mere ordinary reader may take it on him to say, that Sir William has run riot on the dangerous and enticing ground of philology. It will be difficult to convince ordinary minds that the book of Joshua allegorically represents the reform of the calendar, or that the name Joshua is a type of the sun in the sign of the Ram; and when he finds the twelve labours of Hercules, and the twelve tribes of Israel identified with the twelve signs of the zodiac, one feels regret that he did not improve the analogy by the addition of the twelve Caesars. It was with some truth that D’Oyly, in his "Remarks on Sir William Drummond’s OEdipus Judaicus," thus characterized the species of philology in which Sir William indulged: "It is in the nature of things impossible to disprove any proposed method of deducing the etymology of a word, however absurd, fanciful, and strained it may appear to every considerate mind. We may give reasons for rejecting it as highly improbable, and for receiving another, perhaps as drawn from a far more obvious source; but this is all that we can do; if any person should persevere in maintaining that his own is the best derivation, the question must be left to the judgment of others: it is impossible to prove that he is wrong. In some old monkish histories, the word Britain is derived from Brutus, a supposed descendant of AEneas: now, we may produce reasons without end for disbelieving any connexion to have subsisted between Britain and a person named Brutus; and for either acquiescing in our inability to derive the word at all, or for greatly preferring some other mode of deriving it; but we can do no more; we cannot confute the person who maintains that it certainly is derived from Brutus, and that every other mode of deriving it is comparatively forced and improbable. Precisely in the same manner, when our author affirms that the word "Amorites" is derived from a Hebrew word signifying a ram, the astronomical sign of Aries; that Balaam comes from a word signifying "to swallow," with allusion to the celestial Dragon; Deborah from Aldebaran, the great star in the Bull’s eye, so we cannot possibly confute him, or positively prove that he is wrong; we can only hint that these derivations are not very obvious or probable, and refer the matter to the common sense of mankind."

Sir William was not likely to create friends to his views by the tone he adopted, which was occasionally (especially in the introduction) such as he should not have used till the world had acknowledged his own system, and should not have been applied to anything held in reverence.

In 1818, Sir William Drummond published the first part of a poem, entitled "Odin," which was never popular. The first of the three volumes of his "Origines, or Remarks on the Origin of several Empires, States, and Cities," appeared in 1824. Of the varied contents of this very eminent historio-critical work, we shall spare our readers any analysis, as it is well known to the reading world, preferring to refer to the article on Sir William Drummond in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Towards the latter period of his life Sir William was a martyr to gout. His habits were retired, and by some considered reserved. For instance, when on a visit he would seldom make his appearance after dinner, spending the afternoon in the library or study. But while he was in company his manners were bland and courteous, and his conversation was enriched by classical and elegant information. He died in the year 1828.


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