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Significant Scots
Thomas Brown

BROWN, THOMAS, a distinguished modern philosophical writer, the son of the Rev. Samuel Brown, minister of the parish of Rirkmabreck in the stewarty of Kirkcudbright, was born at the manse of that parish, January 9, 1778. Deprived of his father when between one and two years old, Thomas Brown was conveyed to Edinburgh, where for some years he lived under the charge of his widowed mother. By her he was taught the elements of learning at a singularly early age, acquiring the whole alphabet, it is said, by one effort, or, to use other words, in one lesson, and every thing else with the same amazing facility.

When between four and five years of age, he was able to read the scriptures, and also, it would appear, partly to understand them; one day, at that period of his life, he was found sitting on the floor of his mother’s parlour, with a large family bible on his knee, which he was dividing into different parts with his hand; being asked jocularly if he intended to preach, and was now choosing a text, he said, " No, I am only wishing to see what the evangelists differ in; for they do not all give the same account of Christ."

From the kindly tutelage of his mother he was removed in the seventh year of his age, and placed by his maternal uncle, Captain Smith, in a school at Camberwell, from which in a short time he was transferred to one at Chiswick, where he continued for some years. In these and two other academies he spent the years between seven and fourteen, and acquired a perfect classical education. In 1799, he returned to the maternal roof at Edinburgh, and commenced a course of atteadance at the University.

At this period of his life he was deeply read in the English belles lettres, and had even collected a considerable library, which, however, was lost at sea in its passage from England to Scotland. Having gone to Liverpool to spend the vacation of 1793 with some friends, he became, boy as he was, the intimate friend of Dr Currie, the amiable biographer of Burns, who is believed to have been the first cause of his directing his mind to metaphysical studies by placing in his hands the first volumes of Professor Dugald Stewart’s "Elements of the Phihosophy of the Human Mind," then just published. The impressions he received from this work were deepened next winter, when he attended its author’s prelections in the moral philosophy class at Edinburghs college. Yet, much as he admired Professor Stewart, he did not fail, even at the early age of sixteen, to detect that deficiency of analysis, which often lurks under the majestically flowing veil of his language and imagery. According to the late Dr. Welsh, whose very pleasing memoir of Dr Brown is here followed, the scholar took an early opportunity of presenting to his master a few remarks which he had thrown together in reference to one of his theories.

"Those who remember the dignified demeanour of Mr Stewart in his class, which was calculated to convey the idea of one of those great and gifted men who were seen among the groves of the Academy, will duly appreciate the boldness of our young philosopher. With great modesty he read his observations; to which Mr Stewart, with a candour that was to be expected from a philosopher, but which not the less on that account did him infinite honour, listened patiently, and then, with a smile of wonder and admiration, read to him a letter which he had received from the distinguished M. Prevost of Geneva, containing the same argument which Dr Brown had stated." This delightful incident was the commencement of an acquaintance between the master and the pupil, which led to more intimate relations, and only ended with the death of Dr Brown.

The varied and profound acquirements of this extraordinary young man, soon attracted to him the attention and friendship of many other personages, distinguished by academic rank and literary reputation, especially Professors Robison, Playfair, and Black, and Messrs Horner, Leyden, Reddie, and Erskine. Ere he had completed his twentieth year, he was led, by the spirit of philosophical inquiry, to write "Observations upon Dr Darwin’s Zoonomia," in a pamphlet which far surpassed the work which had called it forth. It appeared in 1798, and, while it excited astonishment in those who knew the years of the author, was received in other quarters as the work of a veteran in philosophy. Dr. Welsh justly characterises it as one of the most remarkable exemplifications of prematura intellect which has ever been exhibited, and states that, though unfortunate in its object, and the exposure of an unworthy production, it is found to contain the germ of all Dr Brown’s subsequent discoveries as to mind, and of those principles of philosophizing by which he was guided in his future inquiries.

Dr Brown at this time belonged to an association of young men, which, whether from its peculiar object, the celebrity since acquired by several of its members, or one remarkable result of its existence, must be acknowledged as possessing no ordinary claims to attention. It was called the Academy of Physics, and its object is described in the minutes of its first meeting to have been, "the investigation of nature, the laws by which her phenomena are regulated, and the history of opinions concerning these laws." The first members were Messrs Brougham, Erskine, Reddie, Brown, Rogerson, Birbeck, Logan, and Leyden; to whom were afterwards joined Lord Webb Seymour, the Rev. Sydney Smith, and Messrs Homer, Jeffrey, and Gillespie. The Academy prosecuted its investigations with great assiduity and success for about three years; like many other clubs, the spirit in which it was originated began to change with the changed years, and altered views of its members; it flagged, failed, and was finally broken up. The remarkable result of its existence, above alluded to, was the establishment of the Edinburgh Review. The first writers in this work were Jeffrey, Brougham, Sydney Smith, Homer, and Brown. The leading article of the second number, upon Kant’s philosophy, was by the last of these gentlemen. Mr. Brown, however, did not long continue to contribute; a misunderstanding with the gentleman who superintended the publication of the third number, regarding some liberties taken with one of his articles, was the cause of his retirement.

Brown’s first ideas as to a profession, led him to choose the bar, and for a twelvemonth he prosecuted the dry studies of the law. An insurmountable repugnance, however, to this pursuit caused him afterwards to study medicine. He obtained his degree of M.D. in 1803, on which occasion he was honoured with the highest commendations from Dr Gregory, not only for his proficiency in medical learning, but for the amazingly fluent and elegant style of his Latinity, of which no one could judge better than that learned professor, himself acknowledged to be the best Latinist of his time in Scotland.

Previous to this period, namely in 1800, when he was only twenty-two years of age, his friends had, unsuccessfully, endeavoured to obtain for him the chair of rhetoric; but a system by which the clergy of the university seat were almost invariably preferred to the vacant chairs, blasted his hopes on this occasion. This disappointment, with his antipathy to the courtly party of the church, by which it was patronized, seems to have inspired him with a vehement aversion to a system, which can only be palliated by a consideration of the narrow stipends then enjoyed by the clergy, and the propriety of enriching, by this oblique means, the prospects which were to induce men of abilities to enter the church. Upon the promotion of Mr Playfair to the chair of Natural Philosophy, Mr Leslie competed for the vacant chair of Mathematics with a clergyman whose attainments in that study, though more than respectable, certainly could not be placed on an equality with those of the opposing candidate. The church party, knowing that they could not make out any superior qualifications in their candidate on the score of mathematics, endeavoured to produce the same effect by depreciating Mr Leslie’s qualifications on the score of religion: Their proof lay in a note to Mr Leslie’s essay on heat, containing an expression of approbation respecting Hume’s doctrine of causation. The canvass, which lay in the town—council, was the cause of great excitement in the literary world, and for some time absorbed every other topic of discourse in Edinburgh. Dr Brown was tempted by his feelings on this subject to come forward with an essay, disproving the inferences which were drawn from Mr Leslie’s note; an essay which, in a subsequent edition, he expanded into a complete treatise on cause and effect. Through the influence of this powerful appeal, and other similar expressions of public feeling, the patrons of the chair were shamed for once out of their usual practice, and Mr Leslie received the appointment.

Dr Brown had before this period published two volumes of miscellaneous poems, which, though they did not meet with brilliant success, are yet to be admired as the effusions of an ingenious and graceful mind. In 1803, immediately after receiving his diploma, he began to practise as a physician, and he had hitherto met with considerable success. He was now (1806) taken into partnership by Dr Gregory, and for some time his attention was occupied more exclusively by his profession than was at all agreeable to one disposed like him to give up worldly advantages for the sake of a darling study. The prospect of an occupation more germane to his mind, opened up to him in the winter of 1808-9, when the state of Mr Stewart’s health induced him to request the services of Mr Brown as his temporary substitute. The lectures which he delivered in this capacity attracted much attention, on account of their marvellous display of profound and original thought, of copious reading, of matchless ingenuity, and of the most admirable elocution; this last accomplishment having been acquired by Dr Brown in the ordinary course of his school studies.

The Moral Philosophy Class at this period presented a very striking aspect. It was not a crowd of youthful students led into transports of admiration by the ignorant enthusiasm of the moment; distinguished members of the bench, of the bar, and of the pulpit, were daily present to witness the powers of this rising philosopher. Some of the most eminent of the professors were to be seen mixing with the students, and Mr Playfair, in particular, was present at every lecture. The originality, and depth, and eloquence of the lectures, had a very marked effect upon the young men attending the university, in leading them to metaphysical speculations."— Welsh’s Memoir. The effect of these exhibitions was so great, that when Mr Stewart, two years after, expressed a wish to have Dr Brown officially conjoined to him in the chair of Moral Philosophy, the usual influence in favour of the clergy was overcome with little difficulty.

From the commencement of the session of 1810-11, he acted as the substitute of Mr Stewart, who now retired to the country; and what is certainly very wonderful, he wrote the whole of his first course of lectures during the evenings which preceded the days on which they were delivered. After the first and most difficult step had been got over, Dr Brown obtained a little leisure to cultivate that poetical vein which had all along been one of his own favourite exercises of thought; and accordingly, in 1814, he published his largest versified work entitled " The Paradise of Coquettes." As this poem appeared anonymously, its success, which was considerable, must have given him high gratification. He was, therefore, tempted next year to bring forth another under the title of "The Wanderer in Norway."

The health of Dr Brown had never been good; and it was now the annual custom of this amiable and gifted being to retire during the summer vacation to some sequestered and beautiful nook of his romantic native laud, in order to enjoy the country air and exercise. Sometimes he would plant himself in some Swiss-like spot, hanging between Highland and Lowland, such as the village of Logic in Glendevon. At other times he would lose himself in the woody solitudes of Dunkeld. He had all his life a fondness for romantic and rugged scenery, amidst which he would occasionally expose himself to considerable risks. Walking was his favourite exercise, as he was thus able to pause and admire a rock, a wild flower, a brook, or whatever else of beautiful presented itself. To his gentle and aflectionate heart, one object always appealed with irresistible power—namely, a cottage smoking amidst trees: he never could pass a scene of that kind without pausing to ruminate upon the inexplicable sympathy which it seems to find in almost every breast.

Though possessing a heart as open as day light, the weakly health of Dr Brown, and the abstraction of his studies, seem to have checked that exuberant feeling which assumes the form called love: it is the impression of one of his surviving friends that he never experienced that sensation, at least to any extent worthy of the name. His affections were devoted to his mother, his sisters, nature, books, studies, literary fame. He seemed to have none for "the sex." In 1817, his feelings sustained a dreadful shock in the death of the former relative, who had been his first instructress, and to whom he bore an affection bordering upon reverence. Her remains were first placed in a vault in Edinburgh; and at the end of the winter-session moved to the family burying-ground in the old church-yard of Kirkmabreck. This romantic and secluded spot Dr Brown bad always viewed with great interest. A few years before, in visiting his father’s grave, he had been altogether overcome, and when he saw the earth closing in upon all that remained of a mother that was so dear to him, " aud the long grassy mantle cover all," his distress was such as to affect every person who saw him. In 1818, Dr Brown published a poetical tale, entitled " Agnes." But his reputation in this walk of literature was not on the increase. His mind by no means wanted poetical feeling and imagery; but he never could prevent the philosopher from intruding upon his warmest visions, and accordingly there is a decided tameness in all his verses. It may be said, that, if he had not been a great philosopher, he would have been a greater poet; and, on the other hand, if he had not attempted poetry, at least his living reputation as a philosopher would have been somewhat enhanced.

Towards the end of 1819, the ill health of Dr Brown began to assume an alarming aspect, and early in the ensuing year he found himself so weak as to be obliged to appoint a substitute to deliver his lectures. This substitute was Mr John Stewart, another of the devotees of science, and, like himself, destined soon to sink prematurely beneath the weight of intellectual exertion. Of Brown it might truly be said, that an active spirit had worn out the slender and attenuated frame in which it was enshrined. At the recommendation of his physicians, he took a voyage to London, and established himself at Brompton, then a healthy village in the vicinity, but now nearly involved in the spreading masses of the great city. Here he gradually grew weaker and weaker, until the 2d of April, when he gently breathed his last; "Dr Brown," says his reverend biographer, "was in height rather above the middle size, about five feet nine inches; his chest broad and round; his hair brown ; his features regular; his forehead large and prominent; his eyes dark grey, well formed, with very long eye-lashes, which gave them a very soft and pleasing expression; his nose might be said to be a mixture of the Roman and Grecian, and his mouth and chin bore a striking resemblance to those of the Buonaparte family. The expression of his countenance altogether was that of calm reflection. His temper was remarkably good; so perfect was the command he had over it, that he was scarcely ever heard to say an unkind word. Whatever provocation he received, he always consulted the dignity of his own character, and never gave way to anger. Yet he never allowed any one to treat him with disrespect; and his pupils must remember the effect of a single look in producing, instantaneously, the most perfect silence in his class.

At a very early period, Dr Brown formed those opinions in regard to government to which he adhered to the end of his life. Though he was not led to take any active part in politics, he felt the liveliest interest in the great questions of the day, and his zeal for the diffusion of knowledge and of liberal opinion, was not greater than his indignation at every attempt to impede it. The most perfect toleration of all liberal opinions, and an unshackled liberty of the press, were the two subjects in which he seemed to take the most interest, and which he seemed to consider as most essential to national happiness and prosperity. In his judgment upon every political question, he was determined solely by its bearings upon the welfare of the human race; and he was very far from uniformly approving of the measures of the party to which he was generally understood to belong. Indeed, he often said, that liberty, in Scotland at least, suffered more from the Whigs than the Tories— in allusion to the departure he conceived to be sometimes made from professed principles with a view to present advantage.

He was intimately acquainted with the principles of almost all the fine arts, and in many of them showed that practice only was wanting to ensure perfection in his powers of execution. His acquaintance with languages was great: French, Italian, and German, he read with the same ease as English. He read also Spanish and Portuguese, though not so fluently. Among the more prominent features of Dr Brown’s character, may be enumerated the greatest gentleness, and kindness, and delicacy of mind, united with the noblest independence of spirit; a generous admiration of every thing affectionate or exalted in character; a manly contempt for every thing mean; a detestation for every thing that even bordered on tyranny and oppression; a truly British love of liberty, and the most ardent desire for the diffusion of knowledge, and happiness, and virtue, among mankind. In private life he was possessed of almost every quality which renders society delightful, and was indeed remarkable for nothing more than for the love of home and the happiness he shed around him there. It was ever his strongest wish to make every one who was with him happy ; his exquisite delicacy of perception gave him a quick fore-feeling of whatever insight be hurtful to any one ; and his wit, his varied information, his classical taste, and, above all, his mild and gentlemanly manners, and his truly philosophic evenness of temper, diffused around him the purest and most refined enjoyment. Of almost universal knowledge, acquired by the most extensive reading, and by wide intercourse with the world, there was no topic of conversation to which he seemed a stranger.

In the philosophic love of truth, and in the patient investigation of it, Dr Brown may be pronounced as at least equal, and in subtilty of intellect and powers of analysis, as superior to any metaphysician that ever existed. The predominating quality in his intellectual character was unquestionably his power of analysing, the most necessary of all qualities to a metaphysician. It is impossible, indeed, to turn to any page in his writings that does not contain some feat of ingenuity. States of mind that had been looked upon for ages as reduced to the last degree of simplicity, and as belonging to those facts in our constitution which time most sceptical could not doubt, and the most subtile could not explain, he brought to the crucible, and evolved from their simpler elements. For the most complicated and puzzling questions that our mysterious and almost inscrutable nature presents, he found a quick and easy solution. The knot that thousands had left in despair, as too complicated for mortal hand to undo, and which others, more presumptuous, had cut in twain, he unloosed with unrivalled dexterity. The enigmas which a false philosophy had so long propounded, and which, because they were not solved, had made victims of many of the finest and most highly gifted men of our race, he at last succeeded in unriddling." Dr Brown’s lectures were published after his death, in 4 volumes, 8vo, and have deservedly obtained a high reputation. An account of his life and writings has been published in one volume 8vo, by the late Rev. Dr. David Welsh.

Article about his book "Lectures on Ethics"
His book "Lectures on Ethics"

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