« PreviousContinue »
I. THE STYLE AND LEARNING OF DR. PRIESTLEY.
Of what kind soever our sentiments may be, on subjects of religion and literature, the manner in which they are delivered is of so much consequence, that when an author is spoken of, we generally enquire in the first place, how he writes. The work which first made Dr. Priestley more extensively known to the public, was his History of Electricity. Let any reader of judgment cast his eye over the preface to that history, and he will be shocked with the affectation and poverty of his diction. There is such a jumble of scenes, prospects, objects and ideas, as render his style boyish and ridiculous. The word Views, which occurs ten times in a few paragraphs, would never have been permitted to stand, if the writer had understood how to revise and correct his own language. We are told (p. 1.) of pleasing objects according to all the genuine and universal
principles of taste deduced from a knowledge of human nature—of objects throwing a pleasing idea upon scenes: which is profound nonsense; though the author probably took it for fine writing.
When he produces himself as the champion of his party against Mr. Burke, the poor lame English which
he presents to the supreme critical eye of that learned gentleman, becomes more remarkable and offensiveWhat I have more particularly replied to is what he has advanced, &c. and again (p. 2.) there is nothing extraordinary in this revolution having excited, &c. In a plain unassuming person, of little education, such mistakes might be considered as vernacular oversights; but when they come from a teacher of eloquence, who writes books upon rhetoric, they take a very different character.
As to Dr. Priestley's skill in the learned languages, there is a vast appearance of it in his voluminous writings; but in the critical analysis of Greek and Latin, he is ill grounded and injudicious; insomuch that
any well-trained scholar will soon find out that he was never put into proper possession of school-learning. The Bishop of St. David's (then Archdeacon of St. Alban's) charges him with gross blunders, even to the mistaking of a passage, the sense of which was hardly to be missed at first sight by a school-boy in his second year of Greek. (Tracts, p. 101.) When any man does his best, candour will be ready to make the most of him; but when such a person holds in contempt and defiance his adversaries, who are better learned, he has then no longer any claim upon our candour or politeness, but deserves to be held up to the public in his true colours; more especially, if any evil purpose is to be promoted amongst the ignorant and the disaffected by his pretensions to superior learning. None of Dr. Priestley's principles are more mischievous in their intention than his political : we shall therefore begin with a short sketch of his politics from his own writings.
II. THE POLITICS OF DR. PRIESTLEY.
His system is briefly this. To gain clear ideas, as he tells us, he supposes (in common with some higher authors who ought to have known better) a state of nature, in which every individual is possessed of na, tural liberty, part of which he resigns into a common stock, out of which arises that power of directing the conduct of others, which we call government. This scheme, even at first sight, must be false : because, out of liberty, nothing can arise but liberty : whereas government is a power of restraining, and power must arise out of power not out of liberty, for this is the antagonist of power; and accordingly, all those busy gentlemen who are now striving against government, call themselves the friends of liberty. The principle which dissolves government can never be the principle out of which it arises; and the case is so plain that a child may see it.
This absurdity, however, runs through all our author's politics; in which, as occasion requires, he substitutes power and liberty for one another. Thus doth he begin his fundamental definition.-Political liberty consists in the power which the members of the state reserve to themselves of arriving at public offices, &c. (Essay on the first Pr. of Gov. p. 9.) Here liberty is confounded with the power of governing; that is, of restraining liberty: and we reckon a writer who is loose in a definition, to be either cloudy in his understanding, or fraudulent in his intention; a swindler in reasoning, who takes up what he has not fairly purchased.
When the Doctor's principles are brought tog ther and compared, the perplexity is obvious. He distin
guishes (for clearness, as he observes) liberty into political and civil; making the latter a power over our own actions, and the former a power over the actions of others; that is, a power of ruling, and a power of not being ruled: which in effect leave all powerin equilibrio; and so amount to nothing. His two sorts of liberty are evidently two sorts of power, which annihilate each other: and all this is for clearness.
He farther asserts (p. 12.) that “ as every man retains, and can never be deprived of his natural right of relieving himself from all oppression; that is, from every thing that has been imposed upon him without his own consent; this must be the only true and proper foundation of all the governments subsisting in the world.” Which means in plainer English, that the only proper foundation of government is the power of overturning government; which he calls relieving ourselves from oppression; and a power this is which may be turned against the ten commandments; for these having been imposed upon us without our own consent, (it being certain that we had no hand in the making of them) are consequently, by Dr. Priestley's rule, an oppression. It is another of his
fundamental maxims, that kings, senators and nobles are to all intents the servants of the public, and accountable to the people : (p. 23.) which principle, when transferred from the body civil to the body natural, asserts the headship of the feet and toes : which is very good sense when our meaning is to turn the world upside down. : If it be our intention to overturn establishments, we must advance such principles as will promote the great work of decomposition. But decomposition, as we find by experience, is an experiment attended with some loss. When chemists undertake to analyze, a subtile prin
ciple evaporates, which can never be restored ; and this extends by analogy to other cases. It is
It is easy to take a man to pieces ; but life escapes in the experiment, and the man can never be put together any more. Every legal government is a composition, of which God, by his laws and his providence, makes himself a part; the animating part, which gives energy and effect to the whole. When this is lost, on a dissolution of the state, and of laws human and divine, it is not in the power of man to restore it. There may be a thing framed which will call itself a government; but it will have no authority nor stability, because it is built upon a loose bottom. Cruelty and revenge will take the place of penal, and robbery and sacrilege of distributive justice; and a thousand other evils will happen, which all good men will deprecate, because none but evil men can be gainers by them: and they only in appearance; for the whole is a deception and a phantom.
Our author's political casuistry is as curious as his principles. He has one measure for us and another for himself. In his letters to Mr. Burke he lays it down, that we have no business to find fault with the French for what they have thought proper to do in their own affairs, (p. 3.) But if it be a good rule to let our neighbours alone in managing for themselves, how comes it that the Doctor is so busy and so severe a critic
upon the church of England, a society to which he does not belong ? and why were he and his friends so zealous to celebrate the French revolution ? Why is he, who is a stranger, at liberty to applaud and give his sanction to their proceedings : if we, who are also strangers, are not at liberty to censure them? It will never be a matter of indifference whether vice or virtue prevail in the world: the cause of the French, VOL. VI.