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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 8 - Professional Life


THE St. Andrews University has the reputation of being given to strife, and never being thoroughly at rest unless it has at least one law-plea in operation before the Court of Session in Edinburgh, or an appeal before the House of Lords in London. In a small town, and more especially in a small University town, there is of course unlimited opportunity for discussing every matter of interest, and battles are fought and won before our very doors—battles often just as interesting as those of the great world outside, and more engrossing because in them we probably play the part of active participators, instead of being simple spectators from outside. Of this time Sheriff Smith, however, writes: 'Never was the University set more social, and less given to strife than in Ferrier's day. Grander feats I have often seen elsewhere, but brighter or more intellectual talk, ranging from the playful to the profound, never have I heard anywhere.' In this respect it contrasts with the more self-conscious and less natural social gatherings of the neighbouring city of Edinburgh, whose stiffness and formality was unknown to the smaller town. The company, without passing beyond University bounds, was excellent. There was Tulloch at St. Mary's, still a young man at his prime, and a warm friend of Ferrier's in spite of the traditional decree that St. Mary's dealings with the other College should be as few as might be; there was Shairp, afterwards Professor of Poetry in Oxford, and always a delightful and inspiring companion; in the Chair of Logic there was Professor Spalding, whose ill-health alone prevented him from sharing largely in the social life; and he was succeeded by Professor Veitch, afterwards of Glasgow, whose appreciation of Ferrier was keen, and with whom Ferrier had so much intercourse of a mutually enjoyable sort. Then there was Professor Sellar, a staunch friend and true, and likewise Sir David Brewster, the veteran man of science, whom Scotland delights to honour. When Brewster resigned the Principalship of the United College in 1859, Ferrier was pressed to become a candidate for the post, and Brewster himself promised his support, and urged Ferrier's claims; but there were difficulties in the way, and his place was filled by another follower of science, Principal Forbes.

Ferrier's students are now, of course, dispersed abroad far and wide. One of their number, Sheriff Campbell Smith of Dundee, writes of them as follows:-' His old students are scattered everywhere—through all countries, professions, and climates. To many of them the world of faith and action has become more narrow and less ideal than it seemed when they sat listening to his lofty and eloquent speculations in the little old classroom among earnest young faces that are no longer young, and nearly all grown dim to memory; but to none of them can there be any feeling regarding him alien to respect and affection, while to many there will remain the conviction that he was for them and their experience the first impersonation of living literature, whose lectures, set off by his thrilling voice, slight interesting burr, and solemn pauses, and holding in solution profound original thought and subtle critical suggestions, were a sort of revelation, opening up new worlds, and shedding a flood of new light upon the old familiar world of thought and knowledge in which genius alone could see and disclose wonders.' And this sometime student tells how in passages from the standard poets undetected meanings were discovered, and new light was thrown upon the subject of his talk by quotations from the classics, from Milton and Byron as well as from his favourite Horace. His eloquence, he tells us, might not be so strong and overwhelming as that of Chalmers, but it was more fine, subtle, and poetical in its affinities, revealing thought more splendid and transcendental. 'In person and manner Professor Ferrier was the very ideal of a Professor and a gentleman. Nature had made him in the body what he strove after in spirit. His features were cast in the finest classic mould, and were faultlessly perfect, as was also his tall thin person,—from the finely formed head, thickly covered with black hair, which the last ten years turned into iron-grey, to the noticeably handsome foot. . . . A human being less under the influence of low or selfish motives could not be conceived in this mercenary anti-ideal age. If he made mistakes, they were due to his living in an ideal world, and not to either malice or guile, both of which were entirely foreign to his nature.' And yet there was nothing of the Puritan about the Professor's nature. There are celebrations in St. Andrews in commemoration of a certain damsel, Kate Kennedy by name, which are characterised by demonstrations of a somewhat noisy order. Some of the Professors denounced this institution and demanded its abolition. But Ferrier had too much sense of humour to do this; he did not rebuke the lads for the exuberance of their spirits, but by his calm dignity contrived to keep them within due bounds.

A picture of Ferrier was painted about a year before his death by Sir John Watson Gordon, and it may still be seen in the University Hall beside the other men of learning who have adorned their University. It was painted for his friends and former students, but though a fairly accurate likeness, it is said not to have conveyed to others the keen, intellectual look so characteristic of the face. It was the nameless charm—charm of manner and personality—that drew Ferrier's students so forcibly towards him. As his colleague, Principal Tulloch, said in a lecture after his death: 'There was a buoyant and graceful charm in all he did - a perfect sympathy, cordiality, and frankness which won the hearts of his students as of all who sought his intellectual companionship. Maintaining the dignity of his position with easy indifference, he could descend to the most free and affectionate intercourse; make his students as it were parties with him in his discussions, and, while guiding them with a master hand, awaken at the same time their own activities of thought as fellow-workers with himself. There was nothing, I am sure, more valuable in his teaching than this—nothing for which his students will longer remember it with gratitude. No man could be more free from the small vanity of making disciples. He loved speculation too dearly for itself—he prized too highly the sacred right of reason, to wish any man or any student merely to adopt his system or repeat his thought. Not to manufacture thought for others, but to excite thought in others; to stimulate the powers of inquiry, and brace all the higher functions of the intellect, was his great aim. He might be comparatively careless, therefore, of the small process of drilling, and minute labour of correction. These, indeed, he greatly valued in their own place. But he felt that his strength lay in a different direction - in the intellectual impulse which his own thinking, in its life, its zealous and clear open candour, was capable of imparting.'

Ferrier was not, perhaps, naturally endowed with any special capacity for business, but the business that fell to him as a member of the Senatus Academicus was performed with the greatest care and zeal. With the movement for women's University education, which has always been to the front in St. Andrews, he was sympathetic, although it was not a matter in which he played any special part. 'No one,' it was said, 'had clearer perceptions or a cooler and fairer judgment in any matter which seemed to him of importance.' Principal Tulloch tells how on one occasion in particular, where the interests of the University were at stake, his clear sense and vigilance carried it through its troubles. His loyalty to St. Andrews at all times was indeed unquestioned. It is possible that had he made it his endeavour to devote more interest to practical affairs outside the University limits, it might have been better for himself. There may, perhaps, be truth in the saying that metaphysics is apt to have an enervating effect upon the moral senses, or at least upon the practical activities, and to take from men's usefulness in the ordinary affairs of life; but one can hardly realise Ferrier other than he was, a student whose whole interests were devoted to the philosophy he had espoused, and who loved to deal with the fundamental questions that remained beneath all action and all thought, rather than with those more concrete; and the former lay in a region purely speculative. Such as he was, he never failed to preserve the most perfect order in his class, and to do what was required of him with praiseworthy accuracy and minute attention to details.

'Life in his study,' says Principal Tulloch, 'was Professor Ferrier's characteristic life. There have been, I daresay, even in our time, harder students than he was; but there could scarcely be anyone who was more habitually a student, who lived more amongst books, and took more special and constant delight in intercourse with them. In his very extensive but choice library he knew every book by head-mark, as he would say, and could lay his hands upon the desired volume at once. It was a great pleasure to him to bring to the light from an obscure corner some comparatively unknown English speculator of whom the University library knew nothing.'

We are often told how he would be found seated in his library clad in a long dressing-gown which clung round his tall form, and making him look even taller—a typical philosopher, though perhaps handsomer than many of his craft. 'My father rarely went from home,' writes his daughter, 'and when not in the College classroom was to be found in his snug, well-stocked, ill- bound library, writing or reading, clad in a very becoming dark blue dressing-gown. He was no smoker, but carried with him a small silver snuff-box.'

Professor Shairp says that now and then he used to go to hear him lecture. 'I never saw anything better than his manner towards his students. There was in it ease, yet dignity so respectful both to them and to himself that no one could think of presuming with him. Yet it was unusually kindly, and full of a playful humour which greatly attached them to him. No one could be farther removed from either the Don or the Disciplinarian. But his look of keen intellect and high breeding, combined with gentleness and feeling for his students, commanded attention more than any discipline could have done. In matters of College discipline, while he was fair and just, he always leant to the forbearing side.

Till his illness took a more serious form, he was to be met at dinner-parties, to which his society always gave a great charm. In general society his conversation was full of humour and playful jokes, and he had a quick yet kindly eye to note the extravagances and absurdities of men.' And the Professor goes on to narrate how on a winter afternoon he would fall to talking of Horace, an especial favourite of his, and how then he would read the racy and unconventional translation he had made up for amusement. And afterwards he would talk of Wordsworth and the feelings he awoke in him, showing 'a richness of literary knowledge, and a delicacy and keenness of appreciation, of which his philosophical writings, except by their fine style, give no hint.' Hegel and Plato were the favourite objects of his study. Of the former he never satisfied himself that he had completely mastered the conception. But the insight that he had got into his dialectic and into the doctrine of Reality contributed very largely to making his philosophy what it was. He endeavoured to apply the system in various directions, and ever continued in his efforts to work it out more fully.

Another former student, who has been quoted before, writes in his Recollections of student life at St. Andrews: 'Ferrier had not Spalding's thorough method of teaching. He had no regular time for receiving and correcting essays; he had only one written examination; for oral examination he had an easy way, in which the questions suggested the answers; yet all these drawbacks were atoned for by his living presence. It was an embodiment of literary and philosophical enthusiasm, happily blended with sympathy and urbanity. It did the work of the most thorough class drill, for it arrested the attention, opened the mind, and filled it with love of learning and wisdom. Intellect and humanity seemed to radiate from his countenance like light and heat, and illumined and fascinated all on whom they fell.

Let me recall him as he appeared in the spring of 1854. The eleven-o'clock bell has rung. All the other classes have gone in to lecture. We, the students of Moral Philosophy, are lingering in the quadrangle, for the Professor, punctual in his unpunctuality, comes in regularly two or three minutes after the hour. Through the archway under the time-honoured steeple of St. Salvator's he approaches—a tall somewhat emaciated figure, with intellectual and benevolent countenance. As he hurries in we follow and take our seats. In a minute he issues gowned from his anteroom, seats himself in his chair, and places his silver snuff-box before him. Now that he is without his hat and in his gown, he has a striking appearance. His head is large, well- developed, and covered with thick iron-grey hair; his features are regular, his mouth is refined and sensitive, his chin is strong, and his eyes as seen behind his spectacles are keenly intelligent and at the same time benevolent. He begins by calling up a student to be orally examined; and the catechising goes on very much in the following style :-

'"Professor.—Well, Mr. Brown, answer a few questions, if you please. What is the first proposition of the lectures?

"Student repeats it.

Professor. - Quite right, Mr. Brown. And, Mr. Brown, is this quite true?

Stud.—Yes.

Prof—Quite right, Mr. Brown. At least, so I think. And, Mr. Brown, is it not absurd to hold the reverse?

'"Stud.—Yes.

'"Prof—Yes, yes. Thank you, Mr. Brown. That will do."

'The Professor then begins his lecture. As long as he is stating and proving the propositions in his metaphysical system, his tone is simple and matter-of-fact. His great aim is to make his meaning plain, and for that purpose he often expresses an important idea in various ways, using synonyms, and sometimes reading a sentence twice. But when he comes to illustrate his thoughts, his manner changes. He lets loose his fancy, his imagination, and even his humour; and his whole soul comes into his voice. His burr, scarcely distinguishable in his ordinary speech, now becomes strong, and his whole utterance is slow, intense, and fervid. 1-le is particularly happy in his quotations from the poets, and he has a peculiarity in reading them which increases the effect. When rolling forth a line he sometimes pauses before he comes to the end, as if to collect his strength, and then utters the last word or words with redoubled emphasis. The effect of his eloquence on the students is electrical. They cease to take notes; every head is raised; every face beams with delight; and at the end of a passage their feelings find vent in a thunderstorm of applause.

'The two most remarkable features of his lectures were their method and clearness. Order and light were the very elements in which his mind lived and moved. He kept this end in view, threw aside the facts that were unnecessary, arranged the facts that were necessary, and expressed them with a precision about which there could be no ambiguity. In fact, each idea and the whole chain of ideas were visible by their own light. So perspicuous were the words that they might have been called crystallised thoughts.

'Out of the classroom Ferrier was equally polite and kind, especially to those students who showed a love and a capacity for philosophy. It was no uncommon thing for him to stop a student in the street and invite him to the house to have a talk about the work of the class. I have a distant recollection of my first visit to his study; I see him yet, with his noble, benignant countenance, as he reads and discusses passages in my first essay, gravely reasoning with me on the points that were reasonable, passing lightly over those that were merely rhetorical, and smiling good - naturedly at those that attacked in no measured language his own system.'

Professor Ferrier was never failing in hospitality to his students as to his other friends. Dr. Pryde goes on 'Every year Ferrier invited the best of his students to dinner. At the dinner at which I was present there were two of his fellow-professors, Sellar and Fischer. It was a great treat for a youth like me. Mrs. Ferrier was effervescent with animal spirits and talk; Ferrier himself, looking like a nobleman in his old-fashioned dress-coat with gold buttons, interposed occasionally with his subtle touches of wit and humour.' The Professor appears to have been an inveterate snuffer. His students used to tell how the silver snuff-box was made the medium of explaining the Berkeleian system, and how to their minds the system, fairly clear in words, became a hopeless tangle when the assistance of the snuff-box was resorted to. And Dr. Pryde narrates how he used to see Professor Spalding and Professor Ferrier seated side by side in the students' benches, looking on the same book, listening to their young colleague Professor Sellar's inspiring lectures, and at intervals exchanging snuff-boxes. He gives the following account of his last visit to Ferrier, when he was on his deathbed, but still in his library among his books: 'He told me that his disease was mortal; but face to face with death he was cheerful and contented, and had bated not one jot of his interest in learning and in public events. He was very anxious that I should take lunch with Mrs. Ferrier and the rest of the family; and though he could not join us, he sent into the dining- room a special bottle of wine as a substitute for himself. Two months afterwards he had passed away.'

Tulloch writes after the sad event had occurred: I have, of course, heard the sad news from St. Andrews. What sadness it has been to me I cannot tell you. St. Andrews never can be the same place without Ferrier. God knows what is to become of the University with all these breaks upon its old society; and where can we supply such a place as Ferrier's?' And his biographer adds: 'The removal of that delicate and clear spirit from a little society in which his position was so important, and his innate refinement of mind so powerful and beneficial an influence, was a loss almost indescribable, not only to the friends who loved him, but to the University. His great reputation was an honour to the place, combining as it did so many associations of the brilliant past with that due to the finest intellectual perception and the most engaging and attractive character. Even his little whimsicalities and strain of quaint humour gave a charm the more; and the closing of the cheerful house, the centre of wit and brightness to the academical community, was a loss which St. Andrews never failed to feel, nor the survivors to lament.'

Professor Ferrier was occasionally called upon to make a visit to London, although this did not seem to have been by any means a frequent occurrence. Business he must occasionally have had there, for in 1861 he was appointed to examine in the London University, and in 1863, shortly before his death, the Society of Arts offered him an examinership in Logic and Mental Science, in place of the late Archbishop of York, which he accepted. But of one visit which he paid in 1858, with Principal Tulloch as joint delegate from the University of St. Andrews, Mrs. Oliphant gives an amusing account, in her Memoir of Princtal Tuliock.' The object of the deputation was to watch the progress of the University Bill through the House of Commons. This Bill was one of the earliest efforts after regulating the studies, degrees, etc., of the Scottish Universities, and also dealt with an increase in the Parliamentary grant which, if it passed, would considerably affect the Professors' incomes as well as the resources of the University. The Bill, which was under the charge of Lord Advocate Inglis (afterwards Lord Justice-General of Scotland), likewise provided that in each University a University Court should be established, as also a University Council composed of graduates. Ferrier and Tulloch no doubt did their part in the business which they had in hand: they visited all the Members of Parliament who were likely to be interested, as other Scottish deputations have done before and since, and received the same evasive and varying replies. But in the evenings, and when they were free, they entertained themselves in different fashion. First of all, they have hardly arrived after their long night's journey's travel before they burst upon the 'trim and well-ordered room where Mr. John Blackwood and his wife were seated at breakfast'—this evidently at Ferrier's instigation. Then, having settled in Duke Street, St. James's, they are asked, rather inappropriately, it would seem, to a ball, where they were 'equally impressed by the size of the crinoline and the absence of beauty.' Next Cremorne was visited, Tulloch declaring that his object was to take care of his companion. 'If you had seen Ferrier as he gazed frae him with the half-amused, half- scowling expression he not unfrequently assumes, looking bored, and yet with a vague philosophical interest at the wonderful expanse of gay dresses and fresh womanhood around him! ' ' He will go nowhere without a cab; today for the first time I got him into an omnibus in search of an Aberdeen Professor, a wild and wandering distance which we thought we never should reach.' The theatre was visited, too; Lear was being played, very possibly by Charles Kean. In the Royal Academy,  Frith's Derby Day was the attraction of the year. But quite remarkable was the interest which Ferrier—who did not appreciate in general 'going to church,' and used to say he preferred to sit and listen to the faint sounds of the organ from the quiet of his room—betrayed in the eloquence of Spurgeon, then at the height of his fame and attracting enormous congregations round him in the Surrey Garden Theatre. Tulloch wrote to his wife 'We have just been to hear Spurgeon, and have been both so much impressed that I write to give you my impressions while they are fresh. As we came out we both confessed, "There is no doubt about that," and I was struck with Ferrier's remarkable expression, " I feel it would do me good to hear the like of that, it sat so close to reality." The sermon is about the most real thing I have come in contact with for a long time.' The building was large and airy, with window-doors from which you could walk into the gardens beyond, and Ferrier, Tulloch writes, now and then took a turn in the fresh air outside while the sermon was progressing.

After London, Oxford was visited, and here the friends lived at Balliol with Mr. Jowett, who had not yet become the Master. Ferrier would doubtless delight in showing to his friend the beauties of the place with which he had so many memories, but to attend eight-o'clock chapel with Tulloch was, the latter tells us, beyond the limits of his zeal. Just before this, in 1857, another visit was paid by Ferrier to Oxford with his family, and this time to visit Lady Grant, the mother of his future son-in-law. It was at Commemoration-time, we are told, and a ball was given in honour of the party. On this occasion Ferrier for the first time met Professor Jowett, besides many other kindred spirits, and he thoroughly enjoyed wandering about the old haunts at Magdalen, where in his youth he had pelted the deer and played the part of a young and thoughtless gownsman.

A little book was published some years ago, on behoof of the St. Andrews Students' Union, entitled Speculum Universi/atis, in which former students and alumni piously record their recollections of their Alma Mater. Some of these papers bring before us very vividly the sort of impression which the life left upon the lads, drawn together from all manner of home surroundings, and equally influenced by the memories of the past and the living presence of those who were the means of opening up new tracts of knowledge to their view. One of them, already often quoted, says in a paper called 'The Light of Long Ago': 'I always sink into the conviction that the St. Andrews United College was never so well worth attending as during the days when in its classrooms Duncan taught Mathematics, Spalding taught Logic, and Ferrier taught Metaphysics and Moral Science, illustrating living literature in his literary style, and in the strange tones, pauses, and inflections of his voice. To the field of literature and speculation Ferrier restored glimpses of the sunshine of Paradise. Under his magical spell they ceased to look like fields that had been cursed with weeds, watered with sweat and tears, and levelled and planted with untold labour. Every utterance of his tended alike to disclose the beauty and penetrate the mystery of existence. He was a persevering philosopher, but he was also a poet by a gift of nature. The burden of this most unintelligible world did not oppress him, nor any other burden. Intellectual action proving the riddles of reason was a joy to him. He loved philosophy and poetry for their own sake, and he infected others with a kindred, but not an equal, passion. He could jest and laugh and play. If he ever discovered that much study is a weariness of the flesh, he most effectually concealed that discovery.'

And to conclude, we have the testimony of another former student who is now distinguished in the fields of literature, but who always remains faithful to his home of early days. Mr. Andrew Lang says: 'Professor Ferrier's lectures on Moral Philosophy were the most interesting and inspiriting that I ever listened to either at Oxford or St. Andrews. I looked on Mr. Ferrier with a kind of mysterious reverence, as on the last of the golden chain of great philosophers. There was, I know not what of dignity, of humour, and of wisdom in his face; there was an air of the student, the vanquisher of difficulties, the discoverer of hidden knowledge, in him that I have seen in no other. His method at that time was to lecture on the History of Philosophy, and his manner was so persuasive that one believed firmly in the tenets of each school he described, till he advanced those of the next. Thus the whole historical evolution of thought went on in the mind of each of his listeners.'


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