The Collected Letters, Volume 1


TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 31 March 1817; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18170331-TC-RM-01; CL 1:96-101.


Kirkcaldy, 31th March 1817—

My Dear Mitchell,

Certainly your letter1 ought to have been answered before this. But it seems to be the fate of all my lucubrations to be behind their time. I have no excuse to offer—except of course no time & no subject—and I need not aggravate my offence by taking up your time longer with discussing it. If you shall be graciously pleased to pardon me, I promise to behave in future as becometh me.— I have nothing surprising to tell you. I myself am leading a quiet and peaceable life: and my neighbours, like every other person's neighbours, are exclaiming against the hardness of the times, and praising or blaming the proceedings of the Government—according as the late ‘strengthening of the hands of the Executive’ happens to strike their mental optics.— We had two lectures upon the pathognomy of Drs Gall & Spurzhiem2 lately. The cranioscopist was a Mr Allen3 a Yorkshire man who has been expounding the doctrines of ‘Chemical philosophy’ amongst us for the last three months. He seems to pos[s]ess talents—but to be very much addicted to building hypotheses. On this occassion, he had the honour of addressing all that was rich & fair & learned in the burgh. After considerable flourishing he ventured to produce this child of the Dr's brain—and truly it seemed a very Sooterkin[.]4 I have since looked into the Dr's book, and if possible the case is worse. Certainly, it is not true, that, our intellectual & moral & physical powers are jumbled in such huge disorder—surely it will be marvellous if these powers can be defined and estimated with such Mathematical precision, from the size & figure of the scull; but it is very silly to say that Spurzhiem has demonstrated all this— Spurzhiem has demonstrated nothing;—for any thing he knows to the contrary, the faculties of the soul are to be ascertained from the figure & size of the abdomen—if the venerable science of palmistry is not to be revived— It is in vain to rail against the opposition shewn to novelties—the doctrine is not to be rejected for its novelty, but for its want of truth— Neither does it serve any purpose to tell us of the many ingenious persons who support it. A century has not elapsed since Dr Berkely wrote a book on the virtues of Tar-water5—and the learned in Europe were loud in itspraise: yet now Tar-water is accounted vile— So it may fare with Spurzhiem. Nevertheless Allen has converted the lieges of Kirkcaldy. So strong is the desire which we all feel of knowing the character talents & disposition of our neighbour, and so deep is the regret, that,

‘Nature has made his breast no windores
To publish what he does within doors &c’—

That craniology (—to say nothing of other inducements) if urged with a proper quantity of dogmatism, will find many b[e]lievers. And why not? Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur.6

I was in Edinr two weeks ago: but there was nothing worthy of Notice taking place. I heard Leslie give a lecture on heat:—it displayed great ingenuity, but his experiments did not succeed.— His geometry is to be out in a few days.— I intended to have enrolled in the Divinity-Hall; but their Doctor7 was too busily engaged otherwise to attend to me. He had been quarrelling with his students about the management of the library; and the committee, which had been appointed to draw up regulations for the management of it, had that very day submitted them to the Doctor & his students assembled in the Hall. They gave much dissatisfaction to the Doctor, and immediately (as I was told—for I was not there) there was great confusion, and several speeches vituperative & objurgatory passed among them; till at last the mutineers to the number of fifty, adjourned to a neighbouring school-room, con strepito [noisily]—and valiantly drew up twelve resolutions proclaiming their grievances, & their determination to apply to the presbytery for advice. The Senatus Academicus has since taken up the case; and, as the committee appointed to decide on it consists of Meiklejohn, Ritchie & Brunton, it is easy to see how the affair will end.— Your picture of this hall & the dudgeon it seems to have excited in you gave me great amusement. I have not been within its walls for many months—& I know not whether I shall ever return, but all accounts agree in representing it as one of the most melancholy & unprofitable corporations, that has appeared in these parts for a great while. If we are to judge of the kind of Professors we should get from the Edinr Kirk, by the sample we already pos[s]ess, it is devou[t]ly to be wished that their visits may be short & far between.8 It may safely be asserted that tho' the Doctors Ritchie junior & senior, with Dr Meiklejohn, Dr Brunton & Dr Brown9 were to continue in their chairs, dosing in their present fashion, for a century, all the knowledge which they could discover, would be an imperceptible quantity—if indeed it[s] sign were not negative. We ought to be somewhat sorry for the divinity-Hall; but our grief need not stop here. If we follow its members into the world, and observe their destination, we shall find it very pitiful. With the exception of the few whom superior talents or better stars exempted from the common fortune, every Scotch Licenciate10 must adopt one of two alternatives. If he is made of pliant stuff, he selects some one having authority before whom he bows with unabating alacrity for (say) ha[l]f-a-score of years, and thereby obtains a Kirk: whereupon he betakes him to collect his stipend, and (unless he think of persecuting the Schoolmaster) generally in a few months, falls into a state of torpor, from which he rises no more. If on the other hand, the soul of the Licenc[i]ate is stubborn & delights not to honour the Esquires of the district,—heartless & hopeless he must drag out his life—without aim or object—vexed at every step to see surplices alighting on the backs of many who surpass him in nothing— but their love for gravy.*11 This is the result of patronage, and this is one of the stages thro' which every established church must pass, in its road to dissolution. No Government ever fostered a Church—unless for its value as a state-engine,12 and none was ever ignorant of the insecurity of this engine, till it is placed upon the rock of patronage. But it ends not here. Tho all ‘constituted authorities’ are ready to admit, that, Truth is great and will prevail—none have ventured to let their ‘true religion’ descend unsupported into the arena, and try its hand at mauling the heresies which oppose it. On the contrary every ‘true religion’ is propped & bolstered, & the hands of its rivals tied up; till by nursing and fattening it has become a bloated monster that human nature can no longer look upon—and men rise up & knock its brains out. Then there is great joy for a season; and forthwith a successor is elected, which undergoes the same treatment—and in process of time, meets with a similar fate. Such is the destiny of Churches by law established. Let every one of us be as contented with it as possible—and gird up his loins to attain unto a share of the plate whilst the game is good—

I am glad that you like Adam Smith.13 I agree with you very cordially and regard him as one of the most honest & ingenious men of his age—or indeed of any other. He is one of the very few writers, who have not gone delirious when they came to treat of Metaphysics. He wrote his wealth of Nations in a room not a hundred yards from the place where I am sitting—and the men of Kirkcaldy are, with reason, proud to remember him.— You view Ld Bacon 14 with a different eye; and, without doubt, you have some reason to be scandalised at the admiration with which he is treated. It looks as if philosophers could not do without some one to worship. It is not long since they tumbled poor Aristotle from his temple—and it rests not with Playfair & Stewart or Bacon would soon be exalted in his stead.— I have read little of any consequence since I wrote to you. You will have seen the last Numbers of the Edinr & Quarterly reviews. In the latter, among a great deal of foul & nauseating stuff, I was happy to see that due credit is at length given to Mr Duncan for his valuable institution.15 I was reading Pascal's lettres provinciales.16 None can help admiring his wit & probity. He sustains excellently the character of naiveté which he has assumed—and with infinite dexterity, hunts the jesuits thro' all their doublings and subterfuges, till he has triumphantly exposed the wretched baseness of their conduct. It is pity that the Salvation of Europe required the reestablishment of this vile order of men. Last week I perused von Buch's travels in Norway & Lapland.17 Much of his attention is devoted to Mineralogy, of which I am very ignorant, and his movements are sometimes not a little mysterious, from the want of a proper map of the country. Nevertheless he communicates some valuable information respecting the natural productions—& the wandering inhabitants of those dreary regions. His manner is as clumsy & ponderous as that of German philosophers generally is—and no where is this [more ap]parent than when he attempts to be striking, or tries his powers in the pathetic lin[e. I took Bail]ly's histoire d'Astronomie,18 out of the College library, last time I was over the firth. [He seems] to write with great eloquence & perspicuity; but I have read little of him.— We get a Dumfries Courier here amongst us. Our third Number reached us a few days ago. It seems M'Darmaid [M'Diarmid] is become sole Editor;—it is not the opinion of the readers here, that the paper has been a gainer by the change. The Ranger19 seems (under favour) to be but a silly kind of person—and his friend Mr Bright is a very vapid gentleman. It is a pity that Spoudastes20 his labours have been curtailed, before he has completed his investigations. But we must make a shift to live without knowing who wrote Mary's dream.— I expected to have seen Samuel Cowan's investigation last week—but it did not appear. If you have given over your Mathematics—well & good; but if you have not, you may throw the following exercises into your store-room, if you like.— ‘[Takin]g a point in a line from which the sum of squares of the straight lines drawn to four given points—shall be a[tear in paper.’] [(]It is wretchedly enunciated but you will be able to understand it.) It was one of Leslie's exercises this year; and the point regu[lated?] in the perpendicular drawn from the centre of gravity of the four points—supposing them physical bodies of equal magnitude. ‘To find the locus of the vertex of a triangle given in species—whose base is a side of a triangle whose base & vertical angle are given.’ This locus is a circle—I believe but it is long since I did it. ‘What is the compound interest of a sum of money—at a given rate—and the payments made every instant?’ I think I have heard that this is in Emerson's Algebra21—but having scarcely seen that book, I do not know whether it is or not. I got a simple enough solution of it, which I intended to send you—but I have not room. You shall have it next time if you want it. It is algebraical—& has nothing to do with fluxions—

And now my beloved Mitchell what more can I do for thee. My sheet is full—and if thou speak of picas—this is dense enough in all conscience. I do hope & trust I shall hear from thee very soon—I know I have been to blame—but that is past & gone. Therefore let us forget & forgive—& believe me My Dear Robin,

Yours faithfully /

Thomas Carlyle