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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 1 - Early Life


IT may be a truism, but it is none the less a fact, that it is not always he of whom the world hears most who influences most deeply the thought of the age in which he lives. The name of James Frederick Ferrier is little heard of beyond the comparatively small circle of philosophic thinkers who reverence his memory and do their best to keep it green to others it is a name of little import— one among a multitude at a time when Scotland had many sons rising up to call her blessed, and not perhaps one of the most notable of these. And yet, could we but estimate the value of work accomplished in the higher sphere of thought as we estimate it in the other regions of practical work—an impossibility, of course—we might be disposed to modify our views, and accord our praises in very different quarters from those in which they are usually bestowed.

James Ferrier wrote no popular books; he came before the public comparatively little; he made no effort to reconcile religion with philosophy on the one hand, or to propound theories startling in their unorthodoxy on the other. And still we may claim for him a place—and an honourable place—amongst the other Famous Scots, for the simple reason that after a long century of wearisome reiteration of tiresome platitudes—platitudes which had lost their original meaning even to the utterers of them, and which had become misleading to those who heard and thought they understood—Ferrier had the courage to strike out new lines for himself, to look abroad for new inspiration, and to hand on these inspirations to those who could work them into a truly national philosophy.

In Scotland, where, in spite of politics, traditions are honoured to a degree unknown to most other countries, family and family associations count for much; and in these James Ferrier was rich. His father was a Writer to the Signet, John Ferrier by name, whose sister was the famous Scottish novelist, Susan Ferrier, authoress of The Inheritance, Destiny, and Marriage. Susan Ferrier did for high life in Scotland what Gait achieved for the humbler ranks of society, and attained to considerable eminence in the line of fiction which she adopted. Her works are still largely read, have recently been republished, and in their day were greatly admired by no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott, himself a personal friend of the authoress. [In a Life of Susan Terrier, lately published, an account of the family is given which was written by Miss Ferrier, for her nephew, the subject of our memoir.] Ferrier's grandfather, James Ferrier, also a Writer to the Signet, was a man of great energy of character. He acted in a business capacity for many years both to the Duke of Argyle of the time and to various branches of the Clan Campbell: it was, indeed, through the influence of the Duke that he obtained the appointment which he held of Principal Clerk of Session. James Ferrier, like his daughter, was on terms of intimate friendship with Sir Walter Scott, with whom he likewise was a colleague in office. Scott alludes to him in his Journal as 'Uncle Adam,' the name of a character in Miss Ferrier's Inheritance, drawn, as she herself acknowledges, from her father. He died in 1829, at which time Scott writes of him: 'Honest old Mr. Ferrier is dead, at extreme old age. I confess I should not like to live so long. He was a man with strong passions and strong prejudices, but with generous and manly sentiments at the same time.' James Ferrier's wife, Miss Coutts, was remarkable for her beauty: a large family was born to her, the eldest son of whom was James Frederick Ferrier's father. Young Ferrier, the subject of this sketch, used frequently to dine with his grandfather at his house in Morningside, where Susan Ferrier acted in the capacity of hostess; and it is easy to imagine the bright talk which would take place on these occasions, and the impression which must have been made upon the lad, both then and after he attained to manhood; for Miss Ferrier survived until 1854. In later life, indeed, her wit was said to be somewhat caustic, and she was possibly dreaded by her younger friends and relatives as much as she was respected; but this, to do her justice, was partly owing to infirmities. She was at any rate keenly interested in the fortunes of her nephew, to whom she was in the habit of alluding as 'the last of the metaphysicians '—scarcely, perhaps, a very happy title for one who was somewhat of an iconoclast, and began a new era rather than concluded an old.

James Frederick Ferrier's mother, Margaret Wilson, was a sister of Professor John Wilson—the 'Christopher North' of immortal memory, whose daughter he was afterwards to marry. Margaret Ferrier was a woman of striking personal beauty. Her features were perfect in their symmetry, as is shown in a lovely miniature, painted by Saunders, a well-known miniature painter of the day, now in the possession of Professor Ferrier's son, her grandson. Many of these personal charms descended to James Ferrier, whose well-cut features bore considerable resemblance to his mother's. And his close connection with the Wilson family had the result of bringing the young man into association with whatever was best in literature and art. While yet a boy, we are told, he sat upon Sir Walter's knee; the Ettrick Shepherd had told him tales and recited Border ballads; while Lockhart took the trouble to draw pictures, as he only could, to amuse the child.

In surroundings such as these James Frederick Ferrier was born on the 16th day of June 1808, his birthplace being Heriot Row, in the new town of Edinburgh—a street which has been made historic to us by the recollections of another child who lived there long years afterwards, and who left the grey city of his birth to die far off in an island in the Pacific. But of Ferrier's child-life we know nothing: whether he played at 'tig' or 'shinty' with the children in the adjoining gardens, or climbed Arthur's Seat, or tried to scale the 'Cats' Nick' in the Salisbury Crags close by; or whether he was a grave boy, 'holding at' his lessons, or reading other books that interested him, in preference to his play. Ferrier did not dwell on these things or talk much of his youth; or if he did so, his words have been forgotten. What we do know are the barest facts: that his second name was given him in consideration of his father's friendship with Lord Frederick Campbell, Lord Clerk Register of Scotland; that his first name, as is usual in Scotland for an elder son, was his paternal grandfather's; and that he was sent to live with the Rev. Dr. Duncan, the parish minister of Ruthwell, in Dumfriesshire, to receive his early education. Dr. Duncan of Ruthwell was a man of considerable ability and energy of character, though not famous in any special sphere of learning. He is well known, however, in the south of Scotland as the originator of Savings Banks there, and his works on the Seasons bear evidence of an interest in the natural world. At anyrate the time passed in Dumfriesshire would appear to have left pleasant recollections; for when Ferrier in later life alluded to it, it was with every indication of gratitude for the instruction which he received. He kept up his friendship with the sons of his instructor as years went on, and always expressed himself as deeply attached to the place where a happy childhood had been passed. Nor was learning apparently neglected, for Ferrier began his Latin studies at Ruthwell, and there first learned— an unusual lesson for so young a boy—to delight in the reading of the Latin poets, and of Virgil and Ovid in particular. After leaving Ruthwell, he attended the High School of Edinburgh, the great Grammar School of the metropolis, which was, however, soon to have a rival in another day school set up in the western part of the rapidly growing town; and then he was sent to school at Greenwich, where he was placed under the care of Dr. Burney, a nephew of the famous Fanny Burney, afterwards Madame d'Arblay. From school, as the manner of the time was, the boy passed to the University of Edinburgh at the age of seventeen,—older really than was customary in his day,—and here he remained for the two sessions 1825-26 and 1826-27, or until he was old enough to matriculate at Oxford. At Edinburgh, Ferrier distinguished himself in the class of Moral Philosophy, and carried off the prize of the year for a poem which was looked upon as giving promise of literary power afterwards fulfilled. His knowledge of Latin and Greek were considered good (the standard might not have been very high), but in mathematics he was nowhere. At Oxford he was entered in 1828 as a 'gentleman-commoner' at Magdalen College, the College of his future father-in-law, John Wilson. A gentleman-commoner of Magdalen in the earlier half of the century is not suggestive of severe mental exercise, [The gentlemen-commoners at Magdalen, as elsewhere, paid higher fees and wore a distinctive costume; at Magdalen they had a common room of their own, distinct from that of the Fellows, or the Demies or Scholars, and seldom read for honours. In Ferrier's days Magdalen College admitted no ordinary commoners, and there were but few resident undergraduates, many of the thirty demies being graduates and non-resident. In the year of his matriculation there were only ten gentlemen-commoners; thus, as far as undergraduates went, the College was a small one.] and from the very little one can gather from tradition—for contemporaries and friends have naturally passed away—James Ferrier was no exception to the common rule. That he rode is very clear; the College was an expensive one, and he was probably inclined to be extravagant. Tradition speaks of his pelting the deer in Magdalen Park with eggs; but as to further distinction in more intellectual lines, record does not tell. In this respect he presents a contrast to his predecessor at Oxford, and friend of later days, Sir William Hamilton, whose monumental learning created him a reputation while still an undergraduate. Sir Roundell Palmer, afterwards Lord Selborne, was a contemporary of Ferrier's at Oxford; Sheriff Campbell Smith was at the bar of the House of Lords acting as Palmer's junior the day after Ferrier's death, and Sir Roundell told him that he remembered Ferrier well at College; he described him as 'careless about University work,' but as writing clever verses, several of which he repeated with considerable gusto. Of other friends the names alone are preserved, William Edward Collins, afterwards Collins-Wood of Keithick, Perthshire, who died in 1877, and J. P. Shirley of Ettington Park, in Warwickshire;' but what influences were brought to bear upon him by his University life, or whether his interest in philosophical pursuits were in any way aroused during his time at College, we have no means of telling. A later friend, Henry Inglis, wrote of these early days: 'My friendship with Ferrier began about the time he was leaving Oxford, or immediately after he had left it-1 should say about 1830 or thereabout. At that University I don't think he did anything more remarkable than contracting a large tailor's bill; which annoyed him for many years afterwards. At that time he was a wonderfully handsome, intellectual-looking young man, -a tremendous "swell" from top to toe, and with his hair hanging down over his shoulders.' Though later on in life this last characteristic was not so marked, Ferrier's photographs show his hair still fairly long and brushed off a finely-modelled square forehead, such as is usually associated with strongly developed intellectual faculties.

It is known that Ferrier took his Bachelor's degree in 1832, and that he had by that time managed to acquire a very tolerable knowledge of the classics and begun to study philosophy, so that his time could not have been entirely idle. For the rest, he probably passed happily through his years at College, as many others have done before and after him, without allowing more weighty cares to dwell upon his mind. Another friend of after days, the late Principal Tulloch, after noting the fact that Oxford had not then developed the philosophic spirit which in recent years has marked her schools, and which had not then taken root any more than the High Church movement which preceded it, goes on: 'It may be doubted, indeed, whether Oxford exercised any definite intellectual influence on Professor Ferrier. He had imbibed his love for the Latin poets before he went there, and his devotion to Greek philosophy was an after-growth with which he never associated his Magdalen studies. To one who visited the College with him many years afterwards, and to whom he pointed out with admiration its noble walks and trees, his associations with the place seemed to be mainly those of amusement. There is reason to think that few of those who knew him at Magdalen would have afterwards recognised him in the laborious student at St. Andrews, who for weeks together would scarcely cross the threshold of his study; and yet to all who knew him well, there was nevertheless a clear connection between the gay gownsman and the hard-working Professor.'

In 1832, Ferrier became an advocate at Edinburgh, but it does not appear that he had any serious idea of practising at the Bar. This is the period at which we know that the passion for metaphysical speculation laid hold of him,—a passion which is unintelligible and inexplicable to those who do not share in it,—and as Ferrier could not clearly say in what direction this was leading him, as far as practical life was concerned, he probably deemed it best to attach himself to a profession which left much scope to the adopter of it, to strike out lines of his own. What led Ferrier to determine to spend some months of the year 1834 at Heidelberg it would be extremely interesting to know. The friend first quoted writes: 'I cannot tell of the influences under which he devoted himself to metaphysics. My opinion is that there were none, but that he was a philosopher born. He attached himself at once to the fellowship of Sir William Hamilton, to whom he was introduced by a common friend—I think the late Mr. Ludovic Colquhoun. I know that he looked on Sir William at that time as his master.'

Probably the friendship with Hamilton simply arose from the natural attraction which two sympathetic spirits feel to one another. It is clear that at this time F'errier's bent was towards metaphysics, and that, as Mr. Inglis says, this bent was born with him and was only beginning to find its natural outlet; therefore it would be very natural to suppose that acquaintance would be sought with one who was at this time in the zenith of his powers, and whose writings in the Edinburgh Review were exciting liveliest interest. A casual acquaintanceship between the young man of three-and-twenty and the matured philosopher twenty years his senior soon ripened into a friendship, not perhaps common between two men so different in age. It is perhaps more remarkable considering the differences in opinion on philosophical questions which soon arose between the two; for it is just as difficult for those whose point of view is fundamentally opposed on speculative questions to carry on an intercourse concerning their pursuits which shall be both friendly and unconstrained, as for two political opponents to discuss vital questions of policy without any undercurrent of self-restraint, when they start from entirely opposite principles. Most likely had the two been actually contemporaries it might not have been so easy, but as it was, the younger man started with, and preserved, the warmest feelings to his senior; and even in his criticisms he expresses himself in the strongest terms of gratitude: 'He (Hamilton) has taught those who study him to think, and he must take the consequences, whether they think in unison with himself or not. We conceive, however, that even those who differ from him most, would readily own that to his instructive disquisitions they were indebted for at least half of all they know of philosophy.' And in the appendix to the Institutes, written soon after Sir William's death, Ferrier says: 'Morally and intellectually, Sir William Hamilton was among the greatest of the great. A simpler and a grander nature never arose out of darkness into human life; a truer and a manlier character God never made. For years together scarcely a day passed in which I was not in his company for hours, and never on this earth may I expect to live such happy hours again. I have learned more from him than from all other philosophers put together; more, both as regards what I assented to and what I dissented from.' It was this open and free discussion of all questions that came before them—discussion in which there must have been much difference of opinion freely expressed on both sides, that made these evenings spent in Manor Place, where the Hamiltons, then a recently married couple, had lately settled, so delightful to young Ferrier. He had individuality and originality enough not to be carried away by the arguments used by so great an authority and so learned a man as his friend was reckoned, and then as later he constantly expressed his regret that powers so great had been devoted to the service of a philosophic system —that of Reid—of which Ferrier so thoroughly disapproved. But at the same time he hardly dared to expect that the labours of a lifetime could be set aside at the bidding of a man so much his junior, and to say the truth it is doubtful whether Hamilton ever fully grasped his opponent's point of view. Still, Ferrier tells us that from first to last his whole intercourse with Sir William Hamilton was marked with more pleasure and less pain than ever attended his intercourse with any human being, and after Hamilton was gone he cherished that memory with affectionate esteem. A touching account is given in Sir William's life of how during that terrible illness which so sadly impaired his powers and nearly took his life, Ferrier might be seen pacing to and fro on the street opposite his bedroom window during the whole anxious night, watching for indications of his condition, yet unwilling to intrude on the attendants, and unable to tear himself from the spot where his friend was possibly passing through the last agony. Such friendship is honourable to both men concerned.

Perhaps, then, it was this intercourse with kindred spirits (for many such were in the habit of gathering at the Professor's house) that caused Ferrier finally to determine to make philosophy the pursuit of his life —this combined, it may be, with the interest in letters which he could not fail to derive from his own immediate circle. He was in constant communication with Susan Ferrier, his aunt, who encouraged his literary bent to the utmost of her power. Then Professor Wilson, his uncle, though of a very different character from his own, attracted him by his brightness and wit —a brightness which he says he can hardly bring before himself, far less communicate to others who had not known him. Perhaps, as the same friend quoted before suggests, the attraction was partly due to another source. He says: 'How Ferrier got on with Wilson I never could divine; unless it were through the bright eyes of his daughter. Wilson and Ferrier seemed to me as opposite as the poles; the one all poetry, the other all prose. But the youth probably yielded to the mature majesty and genius of the man. Had they met on equal terms I don't think they could have agreed for ten minutes. As it was, they had serious differences at times, which, however, I believe were all ultimately and happily adjusted.'

The visits to his uncle's home, and the attractive young lady whom he there met, must have largely contributed to Ferrier's happiness in these years of mental fermentation. Such times come in many men's lives when youth is turning into manhood, and powers are wakening up within that seem as though they would lead us we know not whither. And so it may have been with Ferrier. But he was endowed with considerable calmness and self-command, combined with a confidence in his powers sufficient to carry him through many difficulties that might otherwise have got the better of him. Wilson's home, Elleray, near the Lake of Windermere, was the centre of a circle of brilliant stars. Ferrier recollected, while still a lad of seventeen years of age, meeting there at one time, in the summer of 1825, Scott, Wordsworth, Lockhart, and Canning, a conjunction difficult to beat. Once more, we are told, and on a sadder occasion, he came into association with the greatest Scottish novelist. 'It was on that gloomy voyage when the suffering man was conveyed to Leith from London, on his return from his ill-fated foreign journey. Mr. Ferrier was also a passenger, and scarcely dared to look on the almost unconscious form of one whose genius he so warmly admired.' The end was then very near.

Professor Ferrier's daughter tells us that long after, in the summer of 1856, the family went to visit the English Lakes, the centre of attraction being Elleray, Mr. Ferrier's old home and birthplace. 'The very name of Elleray breathes of poetry and romance. Our father and mother had, of course, known it in its glorious prime, when our grandfather, "Christopher North," wrestled with dalesmen, strolled in his slippers with Wordsworth to Keswick (a distance of seventeen miles), and kept his ten-oared barge in the long drawing-room of Elleray. In these days they had "rich company," and the names of Southey, Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Coleridge were to them familiar household words. The cottage my mother was born in still stands, overshadowed by a giant sycamore."

We can easily imagine the effect which society such as this would have on a young man's mind. But more than that, the friendship with the attractive cousin, Margaret Wilson, developed into something warmer, and an engagement was finally formed, which culminated in his marriage in 1837. Not many of James Ferrier's letters to his cousin during the long engagement have been preserved; the few that are were written from Germany in 1834, the year in which he went to Heidelberg; they were addressed to Thiristane House, near Selkirk, where Miss Wilson was residing, and they give a lively account of his adventures.

The voyage from Leith to Rotterdam, judging from the first letter written from Heidelberg, and dated August 1834, would appear to have begun in inauspicious fashion. Ferrier writes: 'I have just been here a week, and would have answered your letter sooner, had it not been that I wished to make myself tolerably well acquainted with the surrounding scenery before writing to you, and really the heat has been so overwhelming that I have been impelled to take matters leisurely, and have not even yet been able to get through so much view-hunting as I should have wished. What I have seen I will endeavour to describe to you. This place itself is most delightful, and the country about it is magnificent. But this, as a reviewer would say, by way of anticipation. Have patience, and in the meantime let me take events in their natural order, and begin by telling you I sailed from Leith on the morning of the second of this month, with no wind at all. We drifted on, I know not how, and toward evening were within gunshot of Inchkeith; on the following morning we were in sight of the Bass, and in sight of the same we continued during the whole day. For the next two or three days we went beating up against a head-wind, which forced us to tack so much that whenever we made one mile we travelled ten, a pleasant mode of progressing, is it not? However, I had the whole ship to myself, and plenty of female society in the person of the captain's lady, who, being fond of pleasure, had chosen to diversify her monotonous existence at Leith by taking a delightful summer trip to Rotterdam, which confined her to her crib during almost the whole of our passage under the pressure of racking headaches and roaring sickness. She had a weary time of it, poor woman, and nothing could do her any good—neither spelding, cheese, nor finnan haddies, nor bacon, nor broth, nor salt beef, nor ale, nor gin, nor brandy and water, nor Epsom salts, though of one or other of these she was aye takin' a wee bit, or a little drop. We were nearly a week in clearing our own Firth, and did no good till we got as far as Scarborough. At this place I had serious intentions of getting ashore if possible, and making out the rest of my journey by means that were more to be depended on. Just in the nick of time, however, a fair wind sprang up, and from Scarborough we had a capital run, with little or no interruption, to the end of our voyage.' An account of a ten days' voyage which makes us thankful to be in great measure independent of the winds at sea! Holland, our traveller thinks an intolerable country to live in, and the first impressions of the Rhine are distinctly unfavourable. 'The river himself is a fine fellow, certainly, but the country through which he flows is stale, flat, though I believe, not unprofitable. The banks on either side are covered either with reeds or with a matting of rank shrubbery formed apparently out of dirty green worsted, and the continuance of it so pails upon the senses that the mind at last becomes unconscious of everything except the constant flap-flapping of the weary paddles as they go beating on, awakening the dull echoes of the sedgy shores. The eye is occasionally relieved by patches of naked sand, and now and then a stone about the size of your fist, diversifies the monotony of the scene. Occasionally, in the distance, are to be seen funny, forlorn-looking objects, trying evidently to look like trees, but whether they would really turn out to be trees on a nearer inspection is what I very much doubt.' At Cologne he had an amusing meeting with an Englishman, 'whom I at once twigged to be an Oxford man, and more, even, an Oxford tutor. There is a stiff twitch in the right shoulder of the tribe, answering to a similar one in the hip-bone on the same side, which there is no mistaking.' The tutor appears to have done valiant service in making known the traveller's wants in French to waiters, etc., though 'he spent rather too much of his time in scheming how to abridge the sixpence which, "time out of mind," has been the perquisite of Boots, doorkeepers, etc.' 'But,' he adds in excuse, 'his name was Bull, and therefore, as the authentic epitome of his countrymen, he would not fail to possess this along with the other peculiarities of Englishmen.' From Cologne, Ferrier went to Bonn, where he had an introduction to Dr. Welsh, and then proceeded up the Rhine to Mayence. He does not form a very high estimate of the beauty of the scenery. He feels 'a want of something; in fact, to my mind, there is a want of everything which makes earth, wood, and water something more than mere water, wood, and earth. We have here a constant and endless variety of imposing objects (imposing is just the word for them), but there is no variety in them, nothing but one round- backed hill after another, generally carrying their woods, when they have any, very stiffly, and when they have none presenting to the eye a surface of tawdry and squalid patchwork,' thus suggesting, in his view, a series of children's gardens—an impression often left on travellers when visiting this same country. His next letters find him settled in the University town of Heidelberg.


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