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Significant Scots
James Beattie

James BeattieBEATTIE, JAMES, poet and moral philosopher, was born on the 25th October, 1735, at Laurencekirk, then an obscure hamlet in Kincardineshire. His father, James Beattie, was a small shop-keeper in the village, and at the same time rented a little farm in the neighbourhood. His mother’s name was Jean Watson, and they had six children, of whom the subject of this article was the youngest. The father was a man of information, and of character superior to his condition, and the mother was also a person of abilities; on the early death of her husband, she carried on the business of his shop and farm, with the assistance of her eldest son, and thus was able to rear her family in a comfortable manner.

Young Beattie, who, from his earliest years, was considered a child of promise, received the rudiments of a classical education at the parish school, which had been taught forty years before by Ruddiman, and was at this time a seminary of considerable reputation. His avidity for books, which, in such a scene might have otherwise remained unsatisfied, was observed by the minister, who kindly admitted him to the use of his library. From a copy of Ogilvy’s Virgil, obtained in this way, he derived his first notions of English versification. Even at this early period, his turn for poetry began to manifest itself, and among his school-fellows he went by the name of the Poet. In 1749, being fourteen years of age, he commenced an academical course at Mareschal College, Aberdeen, and was distinguished by Professor Blackwell as the best scholar in the Greek class. Having entitled himself by this superiority to a bursary, he continued at the college for three years more, studying philosophy under the distinguished Gerard, and divinity under Dr Pollock. His original destination being for the church, he read a discourse in the Hall, which met with much commendation, but was at the same time remarked to be poetry in prose. Before the period when he should have taken his trials before the presbytery, he relinquished all thoughts of this profession, and settled as school-master of the parish of Fordoun, near his native village.

In this humble situation, Beattie spent the years between 1753 and 1758. In the almost total want of society, he devoted himself alternately to useful study and to poetical recreation. It was at this period of life his supreme delight to saunter in the fields the livelong night, contemplating the sky, and marking the approach of day. At a small distance from the place of his residence, a deep and extensive glen, finely clothed with wood, runs up into the mountains. Thither he frequently repaired; and there several of his earliest pieces were written. From that wild and romantic spot, he drew, as from the life, some of the finest descriptions, and most beautiful pictures of nature, that occur in his poetical compositions. It is related that, on one occasion, having lain down early in the morning on the bank of his favourite rivulet, adjoining to his mother’s house, he had fallen asleep; on awaking, it was not without astonishment that he found he had been walking in his sleep, and that he was then at a considerable distance (about a mile and a half) from the place where he had lain down. On his way back to that spot, he passed some labourers, and inquiring of them if they had seen him walking along, they told him that they had, with his head hanging down, as if looking for something he had lost. Such an incident, though by no means unexampled, shows to what a degree Beattie was now the creature of impulse and imagination. He was, indeed, exactly the fanciful being whom he has described in "The Minstrel." Fortunately for Beattie, Mr Garden, advocate, (afterwards Lord Gardenstone) who at that time resided in the neighbourhood, found him one day sitting in one of his favourite haunts, employed in writing with a pencil. On discovering that he was engaged in the composition of poetry, Mr Garden became interested, and soon found occasion to honour the young bard with his friendship and patronage. Beattie at the same time became acquainted with Lord Monboddo, whose family seat was within the parish.

In 1757, when a vacancy occurred in the place of usher to the grammar-school of Aberdeen, Beattie applied for it, and stood an examination, without success. On the place becoming again vacant next year, he had what he considered the good fortune to be elected. This step was of some importance to him, as it brought him into contact with a circle of eminent literary and professional characters, who then adorned the colleges of Aberdeen, and to whom he soon made himself favourably known.

In 1760, one of the chairs in the Marischal College became vacant by the death of Dr Duncan, professor of Natural Philosophy. Beattie, whose ambition had never presumed to soar to such an object, happened to mention the circumstance in conversation, as one of the occurrences of the day, to his friend, Mr Arbuthnot, merchant in Aberdeen; [Father to Sir William Arbuthnot, Bart., who was Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the visit of George IV, in 1822.] who surprised him with a proposal that he should apply for the vacant situation. With a reluctant permission from Beattie, he exerted his influence with the Earl of Errol to apply, by means of Lord Milton, to the Duke of Argyll, who then dispensed the crown patronage of Scotland; and to the astonishment of the subject of the application, he received the appointment. By an accommodation, however, with the nominee to another vacant chair, he became professor of Moral, instead of Natural Philosophy; an arrangement suitable to the genius and qualifications of both the persons concerned.

By this honourable appointment, Beattie found himself, through an extraordinary dispensation of fortune, elevated in the course of two years from the humble and obscure situation of a country parish school-master, to a place of very high dignity in one of the principal seats of learning in the country, where he could give full scope to his talents, and indulge, in the greatest extent, his favourite propensity of communicating knowledge. His first business was to prepare a course of lectures, which he began to deliver to his pupils during the session of 1760-1, and which, during subsequent years, he greatly improved. In the discharge of his duties, he was quite indefatigable; not only delivering the usual lectures, but taking care, by frequent recapitulations and public examinations, to impress upon the minds of his auditors the great and important doctrines which he taught.

So early as the year 1756, Dr Beattie had occasionally sent poetical contributions to the Scots Magazine from his retirement at Fordoun. Some of these, along with others, he now arranged in a small volume, which was published at London, 1760, and dedicated to the Earl of Errol, his recent benefactor. His "Original Poems and Translations,"—such was the title of the volume—made him favourably known to the public as a poet, and encouraged him to further exertions in that branch of composition. He also studied verse-making as an art, and in 1762, wrote his "Essay on Poetry," which was published in 1776, along with the quarto edition of his "Essay on Truth." In 1763, he visited London from curiosity, and in 1765, he published a poem of considerable length, but unfortunate design, under the title of "The Judgment of Paris," which threatened to be as fatal to his poetical career, as its subject had been to the Trojan state. In 1766, he published an enlarged edition of his poems, containing, among other compositions, "The Judgment of Paris;" but this poem he never afterwards reprinted. His object was to make the classical fable subservient to the cause of virtue, by personifying wisdom, ambition, and pleasure, in the characters of three goddesses, an idea too metaphysical to be generally liked, and which could scarcely be compensated by the graces of even Beattie’s muse.

Gray, the author of the "Elegy in a Country Church-yard," visited Scotland in the autumn of 1765, and lived for a short time at Glammis Castle with the Earl of Strathmore. Beattie, whose poetical genius was strongly akin to that of Gray, wrote to him, intreating the honour of an interview; and this was speedily accomplished, by an invitation for Dr Beattie to Glammis Castle, where the two poets laid the foundation of a friendship that was only interrupted by the death of Gray in 1771. In a letter to Sir William Forbes, Beattie thus speaks of the distinguished author of the Elegy;

"You would have been much pleased with Mr Gray. Setting aside his merit as a poet, which, however, is greater in my opinion than any of his contemporaries can boast, in this or any other nation, I found him possessed of the most exact taste, the soundest judgment, and the most extensive learning. He is happy in a singular facility of expression. His conversation abounds in original observations, delivered with no appearance of sententious formality, and seeming to arise spontaneously, without study or premeditation. I passed two very agreeable days with him at Glammis, and found him as easy in his manners, and as communicative and frank, as I could have wished."

It is curious to find that, during this trip to Scotland, Gray thus expressed himself to Dr Gregory of Edinburgh regarding the immortal poem to which his name is so endearingly attached; "he told me," says Dr Gregory, "with a good deal of acrimony, it owed its popularity entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose." [Forbes’ Life of Beattie. 4to. vol. i. p. 88.]

Beattie was at this period in a low state of health, being afflicted with a kind of giddiness, which defied all his efforts to banish it, and even threatened to interrupt his professional duties. In a letter to the honourable Charles Boyd, brother of the Earl of Errol, he thus playfully alludes to this, as well as several other personal peculiarities:

"I flatter myself that I shall ere long be in the way of becoming a great man. For have I not headaches like Pope? vertigo like Swift? grey hairs like Homer? [Hair, like Byron’s, "grey at thirty!"] Do I not wear large shoes (for fear of corns) like Virgil? and sometimes complain of sore eyes (though not of lippitude) like Horace? Am I not, at this present writing, invested with a garment not less ragged than that of Socrates? Like Joseph the patriarch, I am a mighty dreamer of dreams; like Nimrod the hunter, I am an eminent builder of castles (in the air). I procrastinate like Julius Caesar; and very lately in imitation of Don Quixote, I rode a horse, lean, old, and lazy, like Rosinante. Sometimes, like Cicero, I write bad verses; and sometimes bad prose like Virgil. This last instance I have on the authority of Seneca. I am of small stature like Alexander the Great; somewhat inclined to fatness like Dr Arbuthnot and Aristotle; and I drink brandy and water like Mr Boyd. I might compare myself; in relation to many other infirmities, to many other great men; but if fortune is not influenced in my favour by the particulars already enumerated, I shall despair of ever recommending myself to her, good graces."

Some time previous to September 1766, Beattie commenced a poem in the Spenserian stanza; a description of verse to which he was much attached, on account of its harmony, and its admitting of so many fine pauses and diversified terminations. The subject was suggested to him by the dissertation on the old minstrels, which was prefixed to Dr Percy’s "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry," then just published. In May, 1767, he informs his friend Blacklock at Edinburgh, that he wrote one hundred and fifty lines of this poem some months before, and had not since added a single stanza. His hero was not then even born, though in the fair way of being so; his parents being described and married. He proposed to continue the poem at his leisure, with a description of the character and profession of his ideal minstrel; but he was wofully cast down by the scantiness of the poetical taste of the age.

On the 28th of June, 1767, Dr Beattie was married at Aberdeen, to Miss Mary Dun, the only daughter of Dr James Dun, rector of the grammar-school of that city. The heart of the poet had previously been engaged in honourable affection to a Miss Mary Lindsay, whom, so late as the year 1823, the writer of this memoir heard recite a poem written by Beattie in her praise, the lines of which commenced with the letters of her name in succession. The venerable lady was the widow of a citizen of Montrose, and in extreme, though healthy old age.

At this period, infidelity had become fashionable to a great extent in Scotland, in consequence of the eclat which attended the publication of Hume’s metaphysical treatises. Attempts had been made by Drs Reid and Campbell, in respective publications, to meet the arguments of the illustrious sceptic; but it was justly remarked by the friends of religion, that the treatises of these two individuals assumed too much of that deferential tone towards the majesty of Mr Hume’s intellect and reputation, which was to be complained of in society at large, and no doubt was one of the causes why his sceptical notions had become so fashionable. It occurred to Dr Beattie, and he was encouraged in the idea by his friends Dr Gregory, Sir William Forbes, and other zealous adherents of Christianity, that a work treating Hume a little more roughly, and not only answering him with argument, but assailing him and his followers with ridicule, might meet the evil more extensively, and be more successful in bringing back the public to a due sense of religion. Such was the origin of his "Essay on Truth," which was finished for the press in autumn 1769.

It is curious that this essay, so powerful as a defence of religion, was only brought into the world by means of a kind of pia fraus. The manuscript was committed to Sir William Forbes and Mr Arbuthnot, at Edinburgh, with an injunction to dispose of it to any bookseller who would pay a price for it, so as to insure its having the personal interest of a tradesman in pushing it forward in the world. Unfortunately, however, the publisher to whom these gentlemen applied, saw so little prospect of profit in a work on the unfashionable side of the argument, that he positively refused to bring it forth unless at the risk of the author; a mode to which it was certain that Dr Beattie would never agree. "Thus," says Sir William Forbes, "there was some danger of a work being lost, the publication of which, we flattered ourselves, would do much good in the world.

"In this dilemma it occurred to me," continues Beattie’s excellent biographer, "that we might, without much artifice, bring the business, to an easy conclusion by our own interposition. We therefore resolved that we ourselves should be the purchasers, at a sum with which we knew Dr Beattie would be well satisfied, as the price of the first edition. But it was absolutely necessary that the business should be glossed over as much as possible; otherwise, we had reason to fear that he would not consent to our taking on us a risk which he himself had refused to run.

"I therefore wrote him (nothing surely but the truth, although, I confess, not the whole truth,) that the manuscript was sold for fifty guineas, which I remitted to him by a bank-bill; and I added that we had stipulated with the bookseller who was to print the book, that we should be partners in the publication. On such trivial causes do things of considerable moment often depend; for had it not been for this interference of ours in this somewhat ambiguous manner, perhaps the ‘Essay on Truth,’ on which all Dr Beattie’s future fortunes hinged, might never have seen the light."

In the prosecution of his design, Dr Beattie has treated his subject in the following manner: he first endeavours to trace the different kinds of evidence and reasoning up to their first principles; with a view to ascertain the standard of truth, and explain its immutability. He shows, in the second place, that his sentiments on this head, how inconsistent soever with the genius of skepticism, and with the principles and practice of skeptical writers, are yet perfectly consistent with the genius of true philosophy, and with the practice and principles of those whom all acknowledge to have been the most successful in the investigation of truth concluding with some inferences or rules, by which the most important fallacies of the sceptical philosophers may be detected by every person of common sense, even though he should not possess acuteness of metaphysical knowledge sufficient to qualify him for a logical confutation of them. In the third place he answers some objections, and makes some remarks, by way of estimate of scepticism and sceptical writers.

The Essay appeared in May 1770, and met with the most splendid success. It immediately became a shield in the hands of the friends of religion, where with to intercept and turn aside the hitherto resistless shafts of the sceptics. A modern metaphysician may perhaps find many flaws in the work; but, at the time of its publication, it was received as a complete anti triumphant refutation of all that had been advanced on the other side. Under favour of the eclat which attended the publication, religion again raised its head, and for a time infidelity was not nearly so fashionable as it had been.

After getting this arduous business off his mind, Beattie returned to his long Spenserian poem, and, in 1771, appeared the first part of "The Minstrel," without his name. It was so highly successful, that he was encouraged to republish this, along with a second part, in 1774; when his name appeared in the title-page. "Of all his poetical works, ‘the Minstrel’ is, beyond all question, the best, whether we consider the plan or the execution. The language is extremely elegant, the versification harmonious, it exhibits the richest poetic imagery with a delightful flow of the most sublime, delicate, and pathetic sentiment. It breathes the spirit of the purest virtue, the soundest philosophy, and the most exquisite taste. In a word, it is at once highly conceived and admirably finished." [Forbes’ Life of Beattie.] Lord Lyttleton thus expressed his approbation of the poem; one of the most warmly conceived compliments that was ever perhaps paid by a poet to his fellow: "I read the Minstrel with as much rapture as poetry, in her sweetest, noblest charms, ever raised in my mind. It seemed to me, that my once most beloved minstrel, Thomson, was come down from heaven, refined by the converse of purer spirits than those he lived with here, to let me hear him sing again the beauties of nature and finest feelings of virtue, not with human but with angelic strains!" It is to be regretted that Beattie never completed this poem. He originally designed that the hero should be employed in the third canto in rousing his countrymen to arms for defence against a foreign invasion, and that, overpowered and banished by this host, he should go forth to other lands in his proper character of a wandering minstrel. It must always be recollected, in favour of this poem, that it was the first of any length, in pure English, which had been published by a Scottish writer in his own country—so late has been the commencement of this department of our literature.

Beattie visited London a second time in 1771, and, as might be expected from his increased reputation, entered more largely into literary society than on the former occasion. Among those who honoured him with their notice, was Dr Johnson, who had been one of the warmest admirers of the Essay on Truth. In 1773, he paid another visit to the metropolis, along with his wife, and was received into a still wider and more eminent circle than before. On this occasion, the university of Oxford conferred upon him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

The chief object of this tour was to secure a provision which his friends had led him to expect from the government, in consideration of his services in the cause of religion. Many plans were proposed by his friends for obtaining this object. A bishop is believed to have suggested to the king, that the author of the Essay on Truth might be introduced to the English church, and advance according to his merits; to which the king, however, is said to have slily replied that, as Scotland abounded most in infidels, it would be best for the general interests of religion that he should be kept there. George III., who had read and admired Beattie’s book, and whose whole mind ran in favour of virtue and religion, suggested himself the more direct plan of granting him a pension of two hundred pounds a year, which was accordingly carried into effect. The king also honoured Dr Beattie with his particular notice at a levee, and, further granted him the favour of an interview in his private apartments at Kew for upwards of an hour. The agreeable conversation and unassuming manners of Dr Beattie appear to have not only made a most favourable impression upon the king and queen—for her majesty also was present at this interview—but upon every member of that lofty circle of society to which he was introduced.

Even after he had been thus provided for, several dignified clergymen of the church of England continued to solicit him to take orders; and one bishop went so far as directly to tempt him with the offer of a rectorate worth five hundred a-year. He had no disinclination to the office of a clergyman, and he decidedly preferred the government and worship of the English church to the presbyterian system of his own country. But he could not be induced to take such a reward for his efforts in behalf of religion, lest his enemies might say that he had never contemplated any loftier principle than that of bettering his own circumstances. Nearly about the same time, he further proved the total absence of a mercenary tinge in his character, by refusing to be promoted to the chair of Moral Philosophy in the university of Edinburgh. His habits of life were now, indeed, so completely associated with Aberdeen, and its society, that he seems to have contemplated any change, however tempting, with a degree of pain.

About this time, some letters passed between him and Dr Priestley, on occasion of an attack made by the latter on the Essay on Truth. In his correspondence with this ingenious but petulant adversary, Dr Beattie shows a great deal of candour and dignity. He had at first intended to reply, but this intention he appears afterwards to have dropped: "Dr Priestley," says he, "having declared that he will answer whatever I may publish in my own vindication, and being man who loves bustle and book-making, he wishes above all things that I should give him a pretext for continuing the dispute. To silence him by force of argument, is, I know, impossible."

In the year 1786, Beattie took a keen interest in favour of a scheme then agitated, not for the first time, to unite the two colleges of Aberdeen. It was found impossible to carry this project into effect, though it is certainly one of those obvious improvements which must sooner or later be accomplished. In the same year, Dr Beattie projected a new edition of Addison’s prose works, with biographical and critical preface to the extent of half a volume, in which he meant to show the peculiar merits of the style of Addison, as well as to point out historically the changes which the English language has undergone from time to time, and the hazard to which it is exposed of being debased and corrupted by modern innovations. He was reluctantly compelled by the state of his health to retrench the better part of this scheme. The works of Addison were published under his care, in 1790, by Messrs Creech and Sibbald, booksellers, Edinburgh but he could only give Tickell’s Life, together with some extracts from Dr Johnson’s "Remarks on Addison’s Prose," adding a few notes of his own, to make up any material deficiency in Tickell’s narrative, and illustrating Johnson’s critique by a few occasional annotations. Though these additions to his original stock of materials, are very slight, the admirer of Addison is much gratified by some new information which he was ignorant of before, and to which Dr Beattie has given a degree of authenticity, by adhering, even in this instance, to his general practice of putting his name to every thing he wrote.

In 1787, Dr Beattie made application to the Marischal college, while the project of the union was still pending, desiring that his eldest son, James Hay Beattie, then in his twentieth year, should be recommended to the crown as his assistant and successor in the chair of Moral Philosophy. The letter in which this application was made, sets forth the extraordinary qualifications of his son, with a delightful mixture of delicacy and warmth. The young man was an excellent Greek and Latin scholar; wrote and talked beautifully in the latter language, as well as in English, and, to use the language of his father, the best of his genius lay entirely towards theology, classical learning, morals, poetry, and criticism. The college received the application with much respect, and, after a short delay on account of the business of the union, gave a cordial sanction to the proposal.

Unfortunately for the peace of Dr Beattie’s latter years, his son, while in the possession of the highest intellectual qualifications, and characterised by every virtue that could be expected from his years, was destined by the inherent infirmity of his constitution for an early death. After his demise, which happened on the 19th of November, 1790, when he had just turned two-and-twenty, Dr Beattie published a small collection of his writings, along with an elaborate preface, entering largely into the character and qualifications of the deceased. In this, he was justified by the admiration which he heard everywhere expressed, of the character and intellect of his son; but, as posterity appears to have reduced the prodigy to its proper limits, which were nothing wonderful, it is unnecessary to bring it further into notice. The following is the more unaffected and touching account which the afflicted parent has given of his loss, in a letter to the Duchess of Gordon; a lady with whom, for many years, he cultivated the warmest friendship, and whose society he largely enjoyed, along with his son, during repeated visits to Gordon Castle:

"Knowing with what kindness and condescension your Grace takes an interest in every thing that concerns me and my little family, I take the liberty to inform you that my son James is dead; that the last duties are now paid; and that I am endeavouring to return, with the little ability that is left me, and with entire submission to the will of Providence, to the ordinary business of life. I have lost one who was always a pleasing companion; but who, for the last five or six years, was one of the most entertaining and instructive friends that ever man was blest with: for his mind comprehended almost every science; he was a most attentive observer of life and manners: a master of classical learning; and he possessed an exuberance of wit and humour, a force of understandings, and a correctness and delicacy of taste, beyond any other person of his age I have ever known.

"He was taken ill on the night of the 30th of November, 1789; and from that time his decline commenced. It was long what physicians calls a nervous atrophy; but towards the end of June, symptoms began to appear of the lungs being affected. Goat’s milk, and afterwards asses’ milk, were procured for him in abundance; and such exercise as he could bear he regularly took: these means lengthened his days, no doubt, and alleviated his sufferings, which indeed were very often severe; but in spite of all that could be done, he grew weaker and weaker, and died the 19th of November, 1790, without complaint or pain, without even a groan or sigh; retaining to his last moment the use of his rational faculties: indeed, from first to last, not one delirious word escaped him. He lived twenty-two years and thirteen days. Many weeks before it came, he saw death approaching; and he met it with such composure and pious resignation, as may no doubt be equalled, but cannot be surpassed.

" * * * My chief comfort arises from reflecting upon the particulars of his life; which was one uninterrupted exercise of piety, benevolence, filial affection, and indeed every virtue which it was in his power to practise, I shall not, with respect to him, adopt a mode of speech which has become too common, and call him my poor son, for I must believe that he is infinitely happy, and will be so for ever."

Dr Beattie bore the loss of his son with an appearance of fortitude and resignation. Yet, although his grief was not loud, it was deep. He said, in a subsequent letter, alluding to a monument which he had erected for his son: "I often dream of the grave that is under it: I saw, with some satisfaction, on a late occasion, that it is very deep, and capable of holding my coffin laid on that which is already in it;" words that speak more eloquently of the grief which this event had fixed in the heart of the writer, than a volume could have done. The following is a copy of the epitaph which he composed for his amiable and accomplished child:—

Philos. in Acad. Marischal Professori.
Ea. Modestia.
Ea. suavitati. morum.
Ea. benevolentia. erga. omnes.
Erga. Deum. pietate.
Ut. Humanum. nibil. supra.
In. bonis. literis.
In. theologia.
In. omni. Philosophia.
Poetae. insuper.
Rebus. in. levioribus. faceto.
In. grandioribus. sublimi.
Qui. Placidam. Animam. efflavit.
xix. Novemb. MDCCXC.
Annos. habens. xxii. diesque. xiii.

Another exemplification of the rooted sorrow which this event planted in the mind of Beattie, occurs in a letter written during a visit in England, in the subsequent summer. Speaking of the commemoration music, which was performed in Westminster Abbey, "by the greatest band of musicians that ever were brought together in this country," he tells that the state of his health could not permit him to be present. Then recollecting his son’s accomplishment as a player on the organ, he adds, "Perhaps this was no loss to me. Even the organ of Durham cathedral was too much for my feelings; for it brought too powerfully to my remembrance another organ, much smaller indeed, but more interesting, which I can never hear any more."

In 1790, Dr Beattie published the first volume of his "Elements of Moral Science," the second volume of which did not make its appearance till 1793. He had, in 1776, published a series of Essays on poetry and music, on laughable and ludicrous composition, and on the utility of classical learning. In 1783, had appeared "Dissertations, Moral and Critical," and, in 1786, a small tract, entitled, "The Evidences of the Christian Religion, briefly and plainly stated." All of these minor productions originally formed part of the course of prelections which he read from his chair in the university; his aim in their publication being "to inure young minds to habits of attentive observation; to guard them against the influence of bad principles; and to set before them such views of nature, and such plain and practical truths, as might at once improve the heart and the understanding, and amuse and elevate the fancy." His "Elements of Moral Science," was a summary of the whole of that course of lectures, a little enlarged in the doctrinal parts, with the addition of a few illustrative examples. In a certain degree, this work may be considered as a text-book; it is one, however, so copious in its extent, so luminous in its arrangement and language, and so excellent in the sentiments it everywhere inculcates, that if the profound metaphysician and logician do not find in it that depth of science which they may expect to meet with in other works of greater erudition, the candid enquirer after truth may rest satisfied, that, if he has studied these "Elements" with due attention, he will have laid a solid foundation, on which to build all the knowledge of the subject necessary for the common purposes of life. Of such of the lectures as had already appeared in an extended shape, under the name of "Essays," particularly those on the theory of language, and on memory and imagination, Dr Beattie has made this abridgment as brief as was consistent with any degree of perspicuity; while he bestowed no less than seventy pages on his favourite topic, the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the subject of slavery connected with it.

While delighting the world with the quick succession and variety of his productions, Dr Beattie was himself nearly all the while a prey to the severest private sufferings. Mrs Beattie had unfortunately inherited from her mother a. tendency to madness. Though this did not for a considerable time break out into open insanity, yet in a few years after their marriage, it showed itself in caprices and follies, which embittered every hour of her husband’s life. Dr Beattie tried for a long time to conceal her disorder from the world, and, if possible, as he has been heard to say, from himself; but at last, from whim, caprice, and melancholy, it broke out into downright phrenzy, which rendered her seclusion from society absolutely necessary. During every stage of her illness, he watched and cherished her with the utmost tenderness and care; using every means at first that medicine could furnish for her recovery, and afterwards, when her condition was found to be perfectly hopeless, procuring for her, in an asylum at Musselburgh, every accommodation and comfort that could tend to alleviate her sufferings. "When I reflect," says Sir William Forbes, "on the many sleepless nights, and anxious days, which he experienced from Mrs Beattie’s malady, and think of the unwearied and unremitting attention he paid to her, during so great a number of years in that sad situation, his character is exalted in my mind to a degree which may be equalled, but I am sure never can be excelled, and makes the fame of the poet and the philosopher fade from my remembrance."

The pressure of this calamity—slow but certain—the death of his eldest son, and the continued decline of his health, made it necessary, in the session of 1793-4, that he should be assisted in the duties of his class. From that period till 1797, when he finally relinquished his professorial duties, he was aided by Mr George Glennie, his relation and pupil. He experienced an additional calamity in 1796, by the sudden death of his only remaining son, Montague, a youth of eighteen, less learned than his brother, but of still more amiable manners, and whom he had designed for the English church. This latter event unhinged the mind of Beattie, who, it may be remarked, had always been greatly dependent on the society, and even on the assistance, of his children. The care of their education, in which he was supposed to be only over indulgent, had been his chief employment for many years. This last event, by rendering him childless, dissolved nearly the last remaining tie which bound him to the world; and left him a miserable wreck upon the shores of life. Many days had not elapsed after the death of Montague Beattie, ere he began to display symptoms of a decayed intellect, in an almost total loss of memory respecting his son. He would search through the whole house for him, and then say to his niece and housekeeper, Mrs Glennie, "You may think it strange, but I must ask you, if I have a son, and where he is." This lady would feel herself under the painful necessity of bringing to his recollection the death-bed sufferings of his son, which always restored him to reason. And he would then, with many tears, express his thankfulness that he had no child, saying, with allusion to the malady they might have derived from their mother, "How could I have borne to see their elegant minds mangled with madness?" When he looked for the last time on the dead body of his son, and thought of the separation about to take place between himself and the last being that connected him with this sublunary scene, he said, "Now, I have done with the world!" After this, he never bent his mind again to study, never touched the violincello on which he used to be an excellent and a frequent player, nor answered the letters of his friends, except, perhaps, a very few. He commanded his mind, however, to compose the following epitaph on his son; it was the last effort of the Minstrel; and has all his usual happiness in this peculiar branch of composition:

Jacobi. Hay. Beattie. Frater.
Ejusque. virtutum. et. studiorum.
Sepulchrique. consors
Variarum. Peritus. Artium.
Pingendi. imprimis..
Natus. Octavo. Julii. MDCCLXXVIII.
Multum. Defletus. obilt.
Decimo. quarto. Martii. MDCCXCV.

The phrase "sepulchrique consors" was literally true. That space in the roomy grave of his eldest son, which he had calculated on as sufficient for himself, was devoted to receive this second and final hope of his old age.

In March 1797, Dr Beattie became completely crippled with rheumatism, and in the beginning of 1799, he experienced a stroke of palsy, which for eight days so affected his speech that he could not make himself understood, and even forgot several of the most material words of every sentence. At different periods after this, he had several returns of the same afflicting malady; the last, in October 1802, deprived him altogether of the power of motion. He lingered for ten months in this humiliating situation, but was at length relieved from all his sufferings by the more kindly stroke of death, August 18, 1803. He expired without the least appearance of suffering. His remains were deposited close to those of his two sons in the ancient cemetery of St Nicolas, and were marked soon after by a monument, for which Dr James Gregory of Edinburgh, supplied an elegant inscription.

The eminent rank which Dr Beattie holds as a Christian moral philosopher is a sufficient testimony of the public approbation of his larger literary efforts. It may, however, be safely predicted, that his reputation will, after all, centre in his "Minstrel," which is certainly his most finished work, and, every thing considered, the most pleasing specimen of his intellect. If we consider how much original talent, and how much cultivated taste must have been necessary to the composition of this beautiful poem, we will wonder that such should have been found in a professor of a Scottish provincial university, at a time when scarcely any vestige of the same qualifications was to be found out of London. "Beattie," says Cowper—a kindred mind, well qualified to judge of his merits, "is the most agreeable and amiable writer I have ever met with; the only author I have seen whose critical and philosophical researches are diversified and embellished by a poetical imagination, that makes even the driest subject, and the leanest, a feast for an epicure in books; one so much at his ease, too, that his own character appears in every page, and, which is very rare, not only the writer but the man; and the man so gentle, so well tempered, so happy in his religion, and so humane in his philosophy, that it is necessary to love him, if one has any sense of what is lovely."

The mind of Beattie is so exactly identified with his works, and is so undisguisedly depicted in them, that when his works are described, so also is his character. His whole life was spent in one continued series of virtuous duties. His piety was pure and fervent; his affection for his friends enthusiastic; his benevolence unwearying, and the whole course of his life irreproachable. The only fault which his biographer, Sir William Forbes, could find in the whole composition of his character, was one of a contingent and temporary nature: he became, towards the end of his life, a little irritable by continued application to metaphysical controversy.

Although his connections in early life had been of the humblest sort, yet he showed no awkwardness of behaviour in the most polished circles to which his eminent literary reputation afterwards introduced him. On the other hand, though, in the course of his frequent visits to England, he was caressed by the very highest personages, in the realm, he never was in the least degree spoilt, but returned to his country with as humble and unassuming manners as he had carried away from it. To a very correct and refined taste in poetry, he added the rare accomplishment of an acquaintance to a considerable extent with both the sister arts of painting and music: his practice in drawing never went, indeed, beyond an occasional grotesque sketch of some friend, for the amusement of a social hour. In music he was more deeply skilled, being not only able to take part in private concerts on the violoncello, but capable of appreciating the music of the very highest masters for every other instrument. In his person, he was of the middle height, though not elegantly, yet not awkwardly formed, but with something of a slouch in his gait. His eyes were black and piercing, with an expression of sensibility somewhat bordering on melancholy, except when engaged in cheerful conversation, and social intercourse with his friends, when they were exceedingly animated. Such was "the Minstrel." 

An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism
By James Beattie (pdf)

An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LLD.
Late Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic in the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen including many of his origional letters by Sir William Forbes of Fitsligo, Bart, one of the Exercutors of D. Beattie (1807) (pdf)

The Poetical Works of James Beattie
Including an extensive Memoir of him by the Rev. Alexander Dyce (1831) (pdf)

James Beattie, LLD: Professor of Moral Philosophy & Logic in the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, Elements of Moral Science, 2 vols. 3rd Ed.
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

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