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Significant Scots
Andrew Baxter

BAXTER, ANDREW, an ingenious moral and natural philosopher, was the son of a merchant in Old Aberdeen, and of Mrs Elizabeth Fraser, a lady connected with some of the considerable families of that name in the north of Scotland. He was born at Old Aberdeen, in 1686 or 1687, and educated at the King’s College, in his native city. His employment in early life was that of a preceptor to young gentlemen; and among others of his pupils were Lord Gray, Lord Blantyre, and Mr Hay of Drummelzier. In 1723, while resident at Dunse Castle, as preceptor to the last-mentioned gentleman, he is known, from letters which passed between him and Henry Home, afterwards Lord Kaimes, to have been deeply engaged in both physical and metaphysical disquisitions. As Mr Home’s paternal seat of Kaimes was situated within a few miles of Dunse Castle, the similarity of their pursuits appears to have brought them into an intimate friendship and correspondence. This, however, was soon afterwards broken off. Mr Home, who was a mere novice in physics, contended with Mr Baxter that motion was necessarily the result of a succession of causes. The latter endeavoured, at first with much patience and good temper, to point out the error of this argument; but, teased at length with what he conceived to be sophistry purposely employed by his antagonist to show his ingenuity in throwing doubts on principles to which he himself annexed the greatest importance, and on which he had founded what he believed to be a demonstration of those doctrines most material to the happiness of mankind, he finally interrupted the correspondence, saying, "I shall return you all your letters; mine, if not already destroyed, you may likewise return; we shall burn them and our philosophical heats together." About this time, Mr Baxter married Alice Mabane, daughter of a respectable clergyman in Berwickshire. A few years afterwards he published his great work, entitled, "An Enquiry into the nature of the Human Soul, wherein its immateriality is evinced from the principles of Reason and Philosophy." This work was originally without date; but a second edition appeared in 1737, and a third in 1745. It has been characterised in the highest terms of panegyric by Bishop Warburton. "He who would see," says this eminent prelate, "the justest and precisest notions of God and the soul, may read this book; one of the most finished of the kind, in my humble opinion, that the present times, greatly advanced in true philosophy, have produced." The object of the treatise is to prove the immateriality, and consequently the immortality of the soul, from the acknowledged principle of the vis inertiae of matter. His argument, according to the learned Lord Woodhouselee, is as follows: "There is a resistance to any change of its present state, either of rest or motion, essential to matter, which is inconsistent with its possessing any active power. Those, therefore, which have been called the natural powers of matter, as gravity, attraction, elasticity, repulsion, are not powers implanted in matter, or possible to be made inherent in it, but are impulses or forces impressed upon it ab extra. The consequence of the want of active power in matter is, that all those effects commonly ascribed to its active powers, must be produced upon it by an immaterial being. Hence we discover the necessity for the agency of a constant and universal Providence in the material world, who is GOD; and hence we must admit the necessity of an immaterial mover in all spontaneous motions, which is the Soul; for that which can arbitrarily effect a change in the present state of matter, cannot be matter itself, which resists all change of its present state: and since this change is effected by willing, that thing which wills in us is not matter, but an immaterial substance. From these fundamental propositions, the author deduces as consequences, the necessary immortality of the soul, as being a simple uncompounded substance, and thence incapable of decay, and its capacity of existing, and being conscious when separated from the body." In 1741, leaving his family in Berwick, he went abroad with his pupil Mr Hay, and resided for several years at Utrecht. In the course of various excursions which he made through Holland, France, and Germany, he was generally well received by the literati. He returned to Scotland in 1747, and, till his death in 1750, resided constantly at Whittingham in East Lothian, a seat of his pupil Mr Hay. His latter works were, "Matho, sive Cosmotheoria puerilis, Dialogus," a piece designed for the use of his pupil, and, "An Appendix to his Enquiry into the nature of the human soul," wherein he endeavoured to remove some difficulties, which had been started against his notions of the vis inertiae of matter by Maclaurin, in his "Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries." In 1779, the Rev. Dr Duncan of South Warnborough published, "The evidence of reason in proof of the Immortality of the Soul, independent on the more abstruse enquiry into the nature of matter and spirit—collected from the MSS. of the late Mr Baxter."

The learning and abilities of Mr Baxter are sufficiently displayed in his writings, which, however, were of more note in the literary world during his own time than now. He was very studious, and sometimes sat up whole nights reading and writing. His temper was cheerful; he was a friend to innocent merriment, and of a disposition truly benevolent. In conversation he was modest, and not apt to make much show of the extensive knowledge he possessed. In the discharge of the several social and relative duties of life, his conduct was exemplary. He had the most reverential sentiments of the Deity, of whose presence and immediate support, he had always a strong impression upon his mind. He paid a strict attention to economy, though he dressed elegantly, and was not parsimonious in his other expenses. It is known also that there were several occasions on which he acted with remarkable disinterestedness; and so far was he from courting preferment, that he repeatedly declined offers of that kind that were made to him, on the condition of his taking orders in the Church of England. The French, German, and Dutch languages were spoken by him with much ease, and the Italian tolerably; and he read and wrote them all, together with the Spanish. His friends and correspondents were numerous and respectable; among them are particularly mentioned, Mr Pointz, preceptor to the Duke of Cumberland, and Bishop Warburton. While travelling on the Continent, he had formed an intimate friendship with the celebrated John Wilkes; and he accordingly dedicated to this gentleman his Appendix to the Enquiry. After the death of Mr Baxter, Mr Wilkes published a remarkably interesting letter, the last but one which he had received from his friend, exhibiting in a very striking manner the deep impression which the excellent principles of Mr Baxter had made upon his own mind, and which were only the more deeply and confidently cherished as life approached its close. "As to the state of my disease," says the dying philosopher, "unless I would make suppositions contrary to all probability, I have no reasonable hopes of recovery, the swelling which began at my legs, being now got up to my belly and head. I am a trouble to all about me, especially to my poor wife, who has the life of a slave night and day, helping me to take care of my diseased frame. Yet I may linger on a while, as I can still walk a little through the room, and divert myself now and then with reading, nay, in writing down my remarks on what I read. But I can with sincerity assure you, my most dear Mr Wilkes, death has nothing terrible to me; or rather I look upon it with pleasure. I have long and often considered and written down the advantages of a separate state. I shall soon know more than all the men I leave behind me; wonders in material nature and the world of spirits, which never entered into the thoughts of philosophers. The end of knowledge then, is not to get a name, or form a new sect, but to adore the power and wisdom of the Deity. This kills pride, but heightens happiness and pleasure. All our rational desires, because rational, must be satisfied by a being, himself infinitely rational. I have been long aware that nothing can go beyond the grave, but habits of virtue and innocence. There is no distinction in that world, but what proceeds from virtue or vice. Titles and riches are laid off when the shroud goes on." [Mr Baxter then goes on to express his conviction that even the punishments which may be awarded in a future state will only be "to correct and make better."] "Besides, what is it to be free from the pains and infirmities of the body—though I am satisfied just now, that the weakness of my distressed limbs is as much the immediate effect of the same power and goodness, as their growth and strength was sixty years ago! Dare I add a word without being thought vain? This is owing to my having reasoned honestly on the nature of that dead substance, matter. It is as utterly inert when the tree flourishes, as when the leaf withers. And it is the same divine power, differently applied, that directs the last parting throb, and the first drawing breath. 0 the blindness of those who think matter can do any thing of itself, or perform an effect without impulse or direction from superior power!"

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