TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 5 July 1817; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18170705-TC-RM-01; CL 1:102-106.
TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL
Kirkcaldy5th July 1817—
My Dear Robin,
After waiting very impatiently for such a long period, I received with great satisfaction, the short but savoury morsel which thou hast at length been pleased to dispatch me.1 It does not by any means quell my appetite; but you assure me it is only a precursor, & what can I do but be ‘propitiated.’— I turned pale when I noticed your charge of ‘palming—’2 The proposition about the harmonic section was, as I said before, included in one of Matthew Stewart's problems3—the source, I suppose, from which Leslie himself obtained it. NO doubt it was stupid enough not to know that it was deducible from prop. 22. III. of the Analysis or still more directly from prop 9. VI. Elements—and therein lies my error. The problem concerning the minimum was proposed last winter in Leslie's class: and I know not when or where or in what manner you & Waugh had discussed it. That ‘to find the locus of the vertex of a triangle given in species whose base is one of the sides of a given angle standing on a given straight line,’ was also derived from one of Leslie's. It seems to have no affinity with prop 4. III. Analysis. I suppose it has been wron[gly] enunciated to you.— So that you see the quantity of palming has in this case been very inconsiderable.— The same day on which I received your letter, I perused Alpha's Newspaper-solution. Edward Irving thinks it a learned investigation. I think so likewise. The very same result (for I tried it) is obtained, and by nearly a similar process, from the 32nd prop. of Newton: but I do not understand your integral calculus— It would be a more difficult business to find the time of descent to the centre of the earth. I wish you would try this and send me your result— I am afraid I can not do it.
Three weeks ago, I finished M. Bailly's histoire de l'Astronomie Modern[e.] His acquaintance with the science seems to have been more extensive than profound; his stile is elegant—perhaps somewhat too florid, and interspersed with metaphors which an English critic might be tempted sometimes to call conceited— I wish I were an Astronomer— Is it not an interesting reflection to consider, that a little creature such as man-tho' his eye can see the heaven but as it were for a moment—is able to delineate the aspects which it presented long ages before he came into being—and to predict the aspects which it will present when ages shall have gone by. The past the present & the future are before him.4 Assuredly the human species never performed a more honourable atchievement. ‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power’5 must disappear like those that delighted in them; but when the hand that wrote the Principia is reduced to a little black earth, and the spirit that dictated it is gone no one knows whither—the work itself remains in undecaying majesty to all generations.— But Dr Chalmers, it would seem, is fearful lest these speculations lead us away from Christianity and has written a volume of discourses6 to prove that the insignificance of our planet in the universe is no argument against the truth of religion. Orthodox men declare, of course, that he has completely discomfited his opponents— I read it sometime ago— It abounds in that fiery thoroughgoing stile of writing for which the Author is so remarkable: nevertheless his best argument seems to be, that as it is in the scriptures, we have no business to think about it [at] all—an argument which was well enough known to be a panacea in cases of that nature—before his volume saw the light. One is a little surprised to see the Dr so vehement in his praise of Newton—for what certainly was very laudable—his rejecting all manner of probabilities, and refusing to admit any hypothesis till it was supported by direct and incontrovertible proof. Without doubt this answers exactly in the present instance—but if carried to its full extent in the other side it will lead to alarming results. Christianity itself is only supported by probabilities; very strong ones certainly, but still only probabilities. But here, we are informed, it is necessary to ‘sit down with the docility of little children’ and believe every thing that is told us—which is a very comfortable way of reasoning. It is perhaps not surprising that the Author should be dogmatical; but it seems strange, when his own side of the question is so very evident, that he should deal so largely in denunciations against his adversaries. It is very certain that the unhappy sceptic cannot believe one jot the better—tho' he were brayed in a mortar— Yet almost all the writers on the evidences of Christianity that I have seen (excepting Paley[)]7 have treated him in this manner— These reflections occur naturally enough in perusing this book (which after all is no ordinary production—tho better books have not always passed thro six editions in so short a space); but I have not stated them often— When a poor creature's sentiments, in such cases, happen to be contrary to those of his neighbours—the less he says of them the better— This same Doctor, as you will know wr[i]tes the first article in the late Edinr review—on the causes & cure of mendicity.8 After expatiating at considerable length on the evils of pauperism, he proposes as a remedy to increase the number of clergymen. They who know the general habits of Scottish ministers will easily see how sovereign a specific this is. The remainder of the review is good reading; but as you will have seen it before this time, I will not trouble you farther on the matter— I have seen the last Number of the Quarterly review. It seems to be getting into a very rotten frothy vein. Mr Southey9 is a most unblushing character; & his political lucubrations are very notable. He has been sorely galled by ‘the Caledonian Oracle’ poor man— I know nothing about Mr Duncan's controversy10 except thro the ‘Scotsman’; and they assign him the victory— I received about a month ago the Revd Willm Thomson of Ochiltree's new translation of the Testament.11 Of course I am no judge of his ‘new renderings’; but the stile both of writing & thinking displayed in those parts which I have looked at, is dull & sluggish as the clay itself. He brags of having altered the expressions of the old translation—every body I suppose will readily admit this—and be ready to wish him joy of all the honour than [that] can arise from such alterations— I might say more of books but this will abundantly satisfy you for one course— I have heard nothing of Johnson yet. Truly I think never any poor wight had two such lazy correspondents as I am yoked withal— Much might be said on this subject— But it is needless to punish you before the time. I[n four] or five weeks I hope to be with you, and you shall hear your evil deeds [proclaimed] with energy enough. As I may reach Annandale by various routes, it [will be an] object of great importance to fix upon the best— Sometimes I am for proceeding thro Peebles & the wolds of Selkirk by Polmoodie & Ettrick pen— This track is almost as the crow flies— At other times I think of Tweedsmuir & Moffat: and at present Irving & a Mr Pears12 (schoolmaster in this neighbourhood) are persuading me to accompany them by Stirling & the Trossachs to Glasgow13— They tell me we shall see Loch Kettrine & climb Ben Lomond & do many other exploits:—but we have not yet counted the cost—and notwithstanding all that has been said about the sturdy independent feelings of a pedestrian—I am inclined to think that in my own case they are greatly overbalanced by the more vulgar consideration of stiffened joints & blistered feet. Upon the whole it is not unlikely that I must again penetrate the moors of Tweed[d]ale—a district which I never crossed except in the most wo[e]ful plight both of body & mind—& which therefore I hate very cordially[.] At all events, I am to be three or four weeks beside you— I wish you would contrive some excursion for our mutual benefit. What say you of a sail to Liverpool? The expense would not be great— & it might tend to dissipate that headache, which I am sorry to find still infests you. We could embark at Dumfries or Annan, and we could not fail to find a ship bound to some Scottish port, whenever it should please us to return— We could go to the isle of Man or to Wigtown or anywhither— If Johnston would go with us, we should be three merry souls—wind & weather permitting— Write me your opinion of this project immediately— I had other things to tell you of— But daylight & paper are both failing me—& this half hour I have been driving my pen as fast as ever Jehu the son of Nimshi14 drove his chariot to be in timefor the mail—and after all I am afraid that I am out— One thing I must mention— Write soon— Call to mind thy engagements & to make the matter definite— I hereby give notice that unless I receive a letter from thee within fourteen days from the date hereof (allowing three days of grace) thou shalt be punished as a crack-tryst & a breaker of promise—without benefit of clergy15— So look to it— Thine old & faithful friend