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Significant Scots
Alexander Gerard


GERARD, ALEXANDER, D.D., an eminent divine and writer, was the eldest son of the reverend Gilbert Gerard, minister of the chapel of Garioch, a parish in Aberdeenshire, where he was born on the 22nd of February, 1798. He was removed at the period destined for the commencement of his education, to the parish of Foveran, in the same county, the humble schoolmaster of which appears to have possessed such superior classical attainments, that the reverend gentleman felt justified in delivering his son up to his care, - a preference which the future fame of that son, founded on his correctness of acquisition and observation, must have given his friends cause to regret. At the age of ten, on the death of his father, he was removed to the grammar school of Aberdeen, whence he emerged in two years, qualified to enter as a student of Marischal college. Having there performed his four years of academical attendance in the elementary branches, he finished his career with the usual ceremony of "the graduation," and appeared before the world in the capacity of master of arts at the age of sixteen, - not by any means the earliest age at which that degree is frequently granted, but certainly at a period sufficiently early to entitle him to the character of precocious genius. Immediately after finishing these branches of education, he commenced in the divinity hall of Aberdeen his theological studies, which he afterwards finished in Edinburgh.

In 1748, he was a licensed preacher of the church of Scotland, and about two years thereafter, Mr D. Fordyce, professor of natural philosophy in Marischal college, having gone abroad, he lectured in his stead; and on the regretted death of that gentleman, by shipwreck on the coast of Holland, just as he was returning to his friends, Mr Gerard was appointed to the vacant professorship. At the period when Mr Gerard was appointed to a chair in Marischal college, the philosophical curriculum, commencing with logic, proceeded immediately to the abstract subjects of ontology and pneumatics, the course gradually decreasing in abstruseness with the consideration of morals and politics, and terminating with the more definite and practical doctrines of natural philosophy. Through the whole of this varied course it was the duty of each individual to lead his pupils; mathematics and Greek being alone taught by separate professors. The evils of this system suggested to the professors of Marischal college, the formation of a plan for the radical alteration of the routine, which has since been most beneficially conducive to the progress of Scottish literature. A very curious and now rare pamphlet, from the pen of Dr Gerard, exists on this subject; it is entitled, "Plan of Education in the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, with the Reasons of it, drawn up by order of the Faculty," printed at Aberdeen in 1755; a little work of admirable perspicuity and sound logical reasoning. The rationale of the ancient system was founded on the presumption, that, as it is by the use of logic and the other metaphysical sciences alone, that we can arrange, digest, and reason upon the facts which come under our observation, these must be committed to the mind as rules of management, before any facts collected can be applied to their proper purposes, and that before any knowledge of nature, as it exists, is stored in the intellect, that intellect must be previously possessed of certain regulations, to the criterion of which the knowledge gained must be submitted. A quotation from Dr Gerard’s little work will afford one of the best specimens of the now pretty generally understood confutation of this fallacy; speaking of logic, he says:—"This is one of the most abstruse and difficult branches of philosophy, and therefore quite improper to begin with, it has a strict dependence on many parts of knowledge: these must of consequence be premised, before it can be rightly apprehended,— the natural history of the human understanding must be known, and its phenomena discovered; for without this, the exertions of the intellectual faculties, and their application to the various subjects of science will be unintelligible. These phenomena must be not only narrated, but likewise, as far as possible, explained: for without investigating their general laws, no certain and general conclusions concerning their exercise can be deduced: nay, all sciences, all branches of knowledge whatever, must be premised as a groundwork to genuine logic. History has one kind of evidence, mathematics another; natural philosophy, one still different; the philosophy of nature, another distinct from all these; the subordinate branches of these several parts, have still minuter peculiarities in the evidence appropriated to them. An unprejudiced mind will in each of these be convinced by that species of argument which is peculiar to it, though it does not reflect how it comes to be convinced. By being conversant in them, one is prepared for the study of logic; for they supply them with a fund of materials: in them the different kinds of evidence and argument are exemplified: from them only those illustrations can be taken, without which its rules and precepts would be unintelligible." * * "In studying the particular sciences, reason will spontaneously exert itself: if the proper and natural method of reasoning is used, the mind will, by the native force of its faculties, perceive the evidence, and be convinced by it; though it does not reflect how this comes to pass, nor explicitly consider according to what general rules the understanding is exerted. By afterwards studying these rules, one will be farther fitted for prosecuting the several sciences; the knowledge of the grounds and laws of evidence will give him the security of reflection, against employing wrong methods of proof, and improper kinds of evidence, additional to that of instinct and natural genius." The consequence of this acknowledgment of the supremacy of reason and practice over argumentation and theory, was the establishment of a course of lectures on natural and civil history, previously to inculcating the corresponding sciences of natural and mental philosophy; an institution from which, wherever the former part consists of anything better than a blundering among explosive combustibles, and a clattering among glass vessels, or the latter is anything superior to a circumstantial narrative of ancient falsehoods and modern dates,—the student derives a basis of sound and useful information, on which the more metaphysical sciences may or may not be built, as circumstances or inclination admit, it is a striking instance of the propensity to follow with accuracy the beaten track, or to deviate only when some powerful spirit leads the way, that the system has never advanced further than as laid down by Dr Gerard ;—according to his system, jurisprudence and politics are to be preceded by pneumatology and natural theology, and is to be mixed up "with the perusal of some of the best ancient moralists." Thus the studies of jurisprudence and politics, two sciences of strictly modern practical origin, are to be mixed with the dogmas of philosophers, who saw governments but in dreams, and calculated political contingencies in the abstract rules of mathematicians; and the British student finds, that the constitutional information, for which he will, at a more advanced period of life, discover that his country is renowned, is the only science from which the academical course has carefully excluded him, and which he is left to gather in after-life by desultory reading or miscellaneous conversation and practice. The change produced by Dr Gerard was sufficiently sweeping as a first step, and the reasons for it were a sufficient victory for one mind over the stubbornness of ancient prejudice. It is to be also remembered, that those admirable constitutional works on the government and constitutional laws of England, (which have not even yet been imitated in Scotland,) and that new science by which the resources of governments, and the relative powers of different forms of constitutions are made known like the circumstances of a private individual—the work of an illustrious Scotsman—had not then appeared. It will be for some approaching age to improve this admirable plan, and to place those sciences which treat of men—in the methods by which, as divided in different clusters through the earth, they have reduced abstract principles of morals to practice—as an intermediate exercise betwixt the acquisition of mere physical facts, and the study of those sciences which embrace an abstract speculation on these facts; keeping the mind chained as long as possible to things which exist in the world, in morals as well as in facts—the example of the tyrannical system never deviated from till the days of Bacon and Des Cartes— and of many reasonings of the present day, which it might be presumption to call absurd, showing us how naturally the mind indulges itself in erecting abstract edifices, out of proportions which are useless when they are reduced to the criterion of practice. In 1756, a prize offered by the philosophical society of Edinburgh, for the best essay on taste, was gained by Dr Gerard, and in 1759, he published this essay, the best and most popular of his philosophical works. It passed through three English editions and two French, in which language it was published by Eidous, along with three dissertations on the same subject by Voltaire, D’Alembert, and Montesquieu. This essay treats first of what the author calls taste, resolved into its simple elements, and contains a sort of analytical account of the different perceptible qualities, more or less united, to be found in any thing we admire: he then proceeds to consider the progress of the formation of taste, and ends with a discussion on the existence of a standard of taste. The author follows the system of reflex senses, propounded by Hutchinson. The system of association, upon which Mr Alison afterwards based a treatise on the same subject, is well considered by Gerard, along with many other qualifications, which he looks upon as the sources of the feeling—qualifications which other writers, whose ideas on the subject have not yet been confuted, have referred likewise to the principles of association for their first cause. Longinus, in his treatise on sublimity, if he has not directly maintained the original influence of association—or in other words, the connexion of the thing admired, either through cause and affect, or some other tie, with what is pleasing or good - as an origin of taste, at least in his reasonings and illustrations, gives cause to let it be perceived that he acknowledged such a principle to exist. [This is particularly remarkable at the commencement of the 7th section.] The first person, however, who laid it regularly down and argued upon it as a source of taste, appears to have been Dr Gerard, and his theory was admitted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in as far as maintaining that beauty consists in an aptness of parts for the end to which they are assigned, may be considered an admission of the principle of association, at a period when one of an inversely opposite nature was supported by Burke and Price. To those who have followed these two, the name of Dugald Stewart has to be added; while that eminent scholar and great philosopher, Richard Payne Knight, has, amidst the various and rather ill-arranged mass of useful information and acute remark, accumulated in his inquiry into the principles of taste, well illustrated the theory propounded by Dr Gerard, and it has been finally enlarged and systematized by Dr Alison, and the author of a criticism on that work in the Edinburgh Review, one of the most beautiful and perfect specimens of modern composition. At the period when Dr Gerard produced this work, he was a member of a species of debating institution half way betwixt a society and a club, subject neither to the pompous state of the one, nor the excess of the other. This society is well known in Scottish literary history, as embracing among its members many of the first men of the time. More or less connected with it were the classical Blackwell, and Gregory, and Reid, the parent of that clear philosophy which has distinguished the country, and Beattie, who, though his merits have perhaps been too highly rated, was certainly fit to have been an ornament to any association of literary men. The use of literary societies has been much exaggerated; but still it cannot be denied, that wherever a spot becomes distinguished for many superior minds, there is one of these pleasing sources of activity and enjoyment to be found. That it is more the effect than the cause may be true. Such men as Gerard, Reid, and Blackwell would have been distinguished in any sphere of life; but if the principle should maintain itself in no other science, it is at least true of philosophy, that intercommunication and untechnical debate, clear and purify the ideas previously formed, and ramify them to an extent of which the thinker had never previously dreamed. It must have been grateful beyond conception to the members of this retired and un-ostentatious body, to have found learning and elegance gradually brightening under their influence, after a dreary and unlettered series of ages which had passed over their university and the district,—to feel that, though living apart from the grand centres of literary attraction, they had the enjoyments these could bestow beside their own retired hearths and among their own professional colleagues,—and to be conscious that they bestowed a dignity on the spot they inhabited, which a long period of commercial prosperity could never bestow, and gave a tone to the literature of their institution which should continue when they were gone. In June 1760, Dr Gerard was chosen professor of divinity in Marischal college, being at the same time presented with the living of the Grey Friars’ church, in Aberdeen. During his tenure of these situations, he published his "Dissertations on the Genius and Evidences of Christianity," a subject which he treated with more soundness, reason, and gentlemanly spirit, than others of the same period have chosen to display. In June 1771, he resigned both these situations, and accepted the theological chair of King’s college, and three years afterwards published "An Essay on Genius;" this production is stamped with the same strength of argument, and penetrating thought, every where to be found in the productions of the author. The heads of the subject are laid down with much philosophical correctness, and followed out with that liberal breadth of argument peculiar to those who prefer what is reasonable and true, to what supports an assumed theory. The language is not florid, and indeed does not aim at what is called elegant writing, but is admirably fitted to convey the ideas clearly and consistently, and seems more intended to be understood than to be admired. It commences with a discussion on the nature of "genius," which is separated from the other mental powers, and particularly from "ability," with which many have confounded it. Genius is attributed in the first process of its formation to imagination, which discovers ideas, to be afterwards subjected to the arbitration of judgment; memory, and the other intellectual powers, being considered as subsidiary aids in instigating the movements of imagination. Dr Gerard afterwards presented to the world two volumes of sermons, published in 1780-82. He died on his 67th birth-day, 22d February, 1795. A sermon was preached on his funeral, and afterwards published, by his friend and pupil, Dr Skene Ogilvy of Old Aberdeen, which, along with the adulation common to such performances, enumerates many traits of character which the most undisguised flatterer could not have dared to have attributed to any but a good, able, and much esteemed man. A posthumous work, entitled "Pastoral Care," was published byDr Gerard’s sonand successor in 1799.


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