If the man to perpetuate whose memory we have this day raised a statue had been asked on what part of his busy life’s work he set the highest value, he would undoubtedly have pointed to his voluminous contributions to theology. In season and out of season, he was the steadfast champion of that hypothesis respecting the Divine nature which is termed Unitarianism by its friends and Socinianism by its foes. Regardless of odds, he was ready to do battle with all comers in that cause; and if no adversaries entered the lists, he would sally forth to seek them.
To this, his highest ideal of duty, Joseph Priestley sacrificed the vulgar prizes of life, which, assuredly, were within easy reach of a man of his singular energy and varied abilities. For this object he put aside, as of secondary importance, those scientific investigations which he loved so well, and in which he showed himself so competent to enlarge the boundaries of natural knowledge and to win fame. In this cause he not only cheerfully suffered obloquy from the bigoted and the unthinking, and came within sight of martyrdom; but bore with that which is much harder to be borne than all these, the unfeigned astonishment and hardly disguised contempt of a brilliant society, composed of men whose sympathy and esteem must have been most dear to him, and to whom it was simply incomprehensible that a philosopher should seriously occupy himself with any form of Christianity.
It appears to me that the man who, setting before himself such an ideal of life, acted up to it consistently, is worthy of the deepest respect, whatever opinion may be entertained as to the real value of the tenets which he so zealously propagated and defended.
But I am sure that I speak not only for myself, but for all this assemblage, when I say that our purpose to-day is to do honour, not to Priestley, the Unitarian divine, but to Priestley, the fearless defender of rational freedom in thought and in action: to Priestley, the philosophic thinker; to that Priestley who held a foremost place among “the swift runners who hand over the lamp of life,” 1 and transmit from one generation to another the fire kindled, in the childhood of the world, at the Promethean altar of Science.
The main incidents of Priestley’s life are so well known that I need dwell upon them at no great length.
Born in 1733, at Fieldhead, near Leeds, and brought up among Calvinists of the straitest orthodoxy, the boy’s striking natural ability led to his being devoted to the profession of a minister of religion; and, in 1752, he was sent to the Dissenting Academy at Daventry — an institution which authority left undisturbed, though its existence contravened the law. The teachers under whose instruction and influence the young man came at Daventry, carried out to the letter the injunction to “try all things: hold fast that which is good,” and encouraged the discussion of every imaginable proposition with complete freedom, the leading professors taking opposite sides; a discipline which, admirable as it may be from a purely scientific point of view, would seem to be calculated to make acute, rather than sound, divines. Priestley tells us, in his “Autobiography,” that he generally found himself on the unorthodox side: and, as he grew older, and his faculties attained their maturity, this native tendency towards heterodoxy grew with his growth and strengthened with his strength. He passed from Calvinism to Arianism; and finally, in middle life, landed in that very broad form of Unitarianism by which his craving after a credible and consistent theory of things was satisfied.
On leaving Daventry Priestley became minister of a congregation, first at Needham Market, and secondly at Nantwich; but whether on account of his heterodox opinions, or of the stuttering which impeded his expression of them in the pulpit, little success attended his efforts in this capacity. In 1761, a career much more suited to his abilities became open to him. He was appointed “tutor in the languages” in the Dissenting Academy at Warrington, in which capacity, besides giving three courses of lectures, he taught Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, and read lectures on the theory of language and universal grammar, on oratory, philosophical criticism, and civil law. And it is interesting to observe that, as a teacher, he encouraged and cherished in those whom he instructed the freedom which he had enjoyed, in his own student days, at Daventry. One of his pupils tells us that,
“At the conclusion of his lecture, he always encouraged his students to express their sentiments relative to the subject of it, and to urge any objections to what he had delivered, without reserve. It pleased him when any one commenced such a conversation. In order to excite the freest discussion, he occasionally invited the students to drink tea with him, in order to canvass the subjects of his lectures. I do not recollect that he ever showed the least displeasure at the strongest objections that were made to what he delivered, but I distinctly remember the smile of approbation with which he usually received them: nor did he fail to point out, in a very encouraging manner, the ingenuity or force of any remarks that were made, when they merited these characters. His object, as well as Dr. Aikin’s, was to engage the students to examine and decide for themselves, uninfluenced by the sentiments of any other persons.” 2
It would be difficult to give a better description of a model teacher than that conveyed in these words.
From his earliest days, Priestley had shown a strong bent towards the study of nature; and his brother Timothy tells us that the boy put spiders into bottles, to see how long they would live in the same air — a curious anticipation of the investigations of his later years. At Nantwich, where he set up a school, Priestley informs us that he bought an air pump, an electrical machine, and other instruments, in the use of which he instructed his scholars. But he does not seem to have devoted himself seriously to physical science until 1766, when he had the great good fortune to meet Benjamin Franklin, whose friendship he ever afterwards enjoyed. Encouraged by Franklin, he wrote a “History of Electricity,” which was published in 1767, and appears to have met with considerable success.
In the same year, Priestley left Warrington to become the minister of a congregation at Leeds; and, here, happening to live next door to a public brewery, as he says,
“I, at first, amused myself with making experiments on the fixed air which I found ready-made in the process of fermentation. When I removed from that house I was under the necessity of making fixed air for myself; and one experiment leading to another, as I have distinctly and faithfully noted in my various publications on the subject, I by degrees contrived a convenient apparatus for the purpose, but of the cheapest kind.
“When I began these experiments I knew very little of chemistry, and had, in a manner, no idea on the subject before I attended a course of chemical lectures, delivered in the Academy at Warrington, by Dr. Turner of Liverpool. But I have often thought that, upon the whole, this circumstance was no disadvantage to me; as, in this situation, I was led to devise an apparatus and processes of my own, adapted to my peculiar views; whereas, if I had been previously accustomed to the usual chemical processes, I should not have so easily thought of any other, and without new modes of operation, I should hardly have discovered anything materially new.” 3
The first outcome of Priestley’s chemical work, published in 1772, was of a very practical character. He discovered the way of impregnating water with an excess of “fixed air,” or carbonic acid, and thereby producing what we now know as “soda water”— a service to naturally, and still more to artificially, thirsty souls, which those whose parched throats and hot heads are cooled by morning draughts of that beverage, cannot too gratefully acknowledge. In the same year, Priestley communicated the extensive series of observations which his industry and ingenuity had accumulated, in the course of four years, to the Royal Society, under the title of “Observations on Different Kinds of Air”— a memoir which was justly regarded of so much merit and importance, that the Society at once conferred upon the author the highest distinction in their power, by awarding him the Copley Medal.
In 1771 a proposal was made to Priestley to accompany Captain Cook in his second voyage to the South Seas. He accepted it, and his congregation agreed to pay an assistant to supply his place during his absence. But the appointment lay in the hands of the Board of Longitude, of which certain clergymen were members; and whether these worthy ecclesiastics feared that Priestley’s presence among the ship’s company might expose His Majesty’s sloop Resolution to the fate which aforetime befell a certain ship that went from Joppa to Tarshish; or whether they were alarmed lest a Socinian should undermine that piety which, in the days of Commodore Trunnion, so strikingly characterised sailors, does not appear; but, at any rate, they objected to Priestley “on account of his religious principles,” and appointed the two Forsters, whose “religious principles,” if they had been known to these well-meaning but not far-sighted persons, would probably have surprised them.
In 1772 another proposal was made to Priestley. Lord Shelburne, desiring a “literary companion,” had been brought into communication with Priestley by the good offices of a friend of both, Dr. Price; and offered him the nominal post of librarian, with a good house and appointments, and an annuity in case of the termination of the engagement. Priestley accepted the offer, and remained with Lord Shelburne for seven years, sometimes residing at Calne, sometimes travelling abroad with the Earl.
Why the connection terminated has never been exactly known; but it is certain that Lord Shelburne behaved with the utmost consideration and kindness towards Priestley; that he fulfilled his engagements to the letter; and that, at a later period, he expressed a desire that Priestley should return to his old footing in his house. Probably enough, the politician, aspiring to the highest offices in the State, may have found the position of the protector of a man who was being denounced all over the country as an infidel and an atheist somewhat embarrassing. In fact, a passage in Priestley’s “Autobiography” on the occasion of the publication of his “Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit,” which took place in 1777, indicates pretty clearly the state of the case:—
“(126) It being probable that this publication would be unpopular, and might be the means of bringing odium on my patron, several attempts were made by his friends, though none by himself, to dissuade me from persisting in it. But being, as I thought, engaged in the cause of important truth, I proceeded without regard to any consequences, assuring them that this publication should not be injurious to his lordship.”
It is not unreasonable to suppose that his lordship, as a keen, practical man of the world, did not derive much satisfaction from this assurance. The “evident marks of dissatisfaction” which Priestley says he first perceived in his patron in 1778, may well have arisen from the peer’s not unnatural uneasiness as to what his domesticated, but not tamed, philosopher might write next, and what storm might thereby he brought down on his own head; and it speaks very highly for Lord Shelburne’s delicacy that, in the midst of such perplexities, he made not the least attempt to interfere with Priestley’s freedom of action. In 1780, however, he intimated to Dr. Price that he should be glad to establish Priestley on his Irish estates: the suggestion was interpreted, as Lord Shelburne probably intended it should be, and Priestley left him, the annuity of £150 a year, which had been promised in view of such a contingency, being punctually paid.
After leaving Calne, Priestley spent some little time in London, and then, having settled in Birmingham at the desire of his brother-in-law, he was soon invited to become the minister of a large congregation. This settlement Priestley considered, at the time, to be “the happiest event of his life.” And well he might think so; for it gave him competence and leisure; placed him within reach of the best makers of apparatus of the day; made him a member of that remarkable “Lunar Society,” at whose meetings he could exchange thoughts with such men as Watt, Wedgwood, Darwin, and Boulton; and threw open to him the pleasant house of the Galtons of Barr, where these men, and others of less note, formed a society of exceptional charm and intelligence. 4
But these halcyon days were ended by a bitter storm. The French Revolution broke out. An electric shock ran through the nations; whatever there was of corrupt and retrograde, and, at the same time, a great deal of what there was of best and noblest, in European society shuddered at the outburst of long-pent-up social fires. Men’s feelings were excited in a way that we, in this generation, can hardly comprehend. Party wrath and virulence were expressed in a manner unparalleled, and it is to be hoped impossible, in our times; and Priestley and his friends were held up to public scorn, even in Parliament, as fomenters of sedition. A “Church-and-King” cry was raised against the Liberal Dissenters; and, in Birmingham, it was intensified and specially directed towards Priestley by a local controversy, in which he had engaged with his usual vigour. In 1791, the celebration of the second anniversary of the taking of the Bastille by a public dinner, with which Priestley had nothing whatever to do, gave the signal to the loyal and pious mob, who, unchecked, and indeed to some extent encouraged, by those who were responsible for order, had the town at their mercy for three days. The chapels and houses of the leading Dissenters were wrecked, and Priestley and his family had to fly for their lives, leaving library, apparatus, papers, and all their possessions, a prey to the flames.
Priestley never returned to Birmingham. He bore the outrages and losses inflicted upon him with extreme patience and sweetness, 5 and betook himself to London. But even his scientific colleagues gave him a cold shoulder; and though he was elected minister of a congregation at Hackney, he felt his position to be insecure, and finally determined on emigrating to the United States. He landed in America in 1794; lived quietly with his sons at Northumberland, in Pennsylvania, where his posterity still flourish; and, clear-headed and busy to the last, died on the 6th of February 1804.
Such were the conditions under which Joseph Priestley did the work which lay before him, and then, as the Norse Sagas say, went out of the story. The work itself was of the most varied kind. No human interest was without its attraction for Priestley, and few men have ever had so many irons in the fire at once; but, though he may have burned his fingers a little, very few who have tried that operation have burned their fingers so little. He made admirable discoveries in science; his philosophical treatises are still well worth reading; his political works are full of insight and replete with the spirit of freedom; and while all these sparks flew off from his anvil, the controversial hammer rained a hail of blows on orthodox priest and bishop. While thus engaged, the kindly, cheerful doctor felt no more wrath or uncharitableness towards his opponents than a smith does towards his iron. But if the iron could only speak! — and the priests and bishops took the point of view of the iron.
No doubt what Priestley’s friends repeatedly urged upon him — that he would have escaped the heavier trials of his life and done more for the advancement of knowledge, if he had confined himself to his scientific pursuits and let his fellow-men go their way — was true. But it seems to have been Priestley’s feeling that he was a man and a citizen before he was a philosopher, and that the duties of the two former positions are at least as imperative as those of the latter. Moreover, there are men (and I think Priestley was one of them) to whom the satisfaction of throwing down a triumphant fallacy is as great as that which attends the discovery of a new truth; who feel better satisfied with the government of the world, when they have been helping Providence by knocking an imposture on the head; and who care even more for freedom of thought than for mere advance of knowledge. These men are the Carnots who organise victory for truth, and they are, at least, as important as the generals who visibly fight her battles in the field.
Priestley’s reputation as a man of science rests upon his numerous and important contributions to the chemistry of gaseous bodies; and to form a just estimate of the value of his work — of the extent to which it advanced the knowledge of fact and the development of sound theoretical views — we must reflect what chemistry was in the first half of the eighteenth century.
The vast science which now passes under that name had no existence. Air, water, and fire were still counted among the elemental bodies; and though Van Helmont, a century before, had distinguished different kinds of air as gas ventosum and gas sylvestre, and Boyle and Hales had experimentally defined the physical properties of air, and discriminated some of the various kinds of aëriform bodies, no one suspected the existence of the numerous totally distinct gaseous elements which are now known, or dreamed that the air we breathe and the water we drink are compounds of gaseous elements.
But, in 1754, a young Scotch physician, Dr. Black, made the first clearing in this tangled backwood of knowledge. And it gives one a wonderful impression of the juvenility of scientific chemistry to think that Lord Brougham, whom so many of us recollect, attended Black’s lectures when he was a student in Edinburgh. Black’s researches gave the world the novel and startling conception of a gas that was a permanently elastic fluid like air, but that differed from common air in being much heavier, very poisonous, and in having the properties of an acid, capable of neutralising the strongest alkalies; and it took the world some time to become accustomed to the notion.
A dozen years later, one of the most sagacious and accurate investigators who has adorned this, or any other, country, Henry Cavendish, published a memoir in the “Philosophical Transactions,” in which he deals not only with the “fixed air” (now called carbonic acid or carbonic anhydride) of Black, but with “inflammable air,” or what we now term hydrogen.
By the rigorous application of weight and measure to all his processes, Cavendish implied the belief subsequently formulated by Lavoisier, that, in chemical processes, matter is neither created nor destroyed, and indicated the path along which all future explorers must travel. Nor did he himself halt until this path led him, in 1784, to the brilliant and fundamental discovery that water is composed of two gases united in fixed and constant proportions.
It is a trying ordeal for any man to be compared with Black and Cavendish, and Priestley cannot be said to stand on their level. Nevertheless his achievements are not only great in themselves, but truly wonderful, if we consider the disadvantages under which he laboured. Without the careful scientific training of Black, without the leisure and appliances secured by the wealth of Cavendish, he scaled the walls of science as so many Englishmen have done before and since his day; and trusting to mother wit to supply the place of training, and to ingenuity to create apparatus out of washing tubs, he discovered more new gases than all his predecessors put together had done. He laid the foundations of gas analysis; he discovered the complementary actions of animal and vegetable life upon the constituents of the atmosphere; and, finally, he crowned his work, this day one hundred years ago, by the discovery of that “pure dephlogisticated air” to which the French chemists subsequently gave the name of oxygen. Its importance, as the constituent of the atmosphere which disappears in the processes of respiration and combustion, and is restored by green plants growing in sunshine, was proved somewhat later. For these brilliant discoveries, the Royal Society elected Priestley a fellow and gave him their medal, while the Academies of Paris and St. Petersburg conferred their membership upon him. Edinburgh had made him an honorary doctor of laws at an early period of his career; but, I need hardly add, that a man of Priestley’s opinions received no recognition from the universities of his own country.
That Priestley’s contributions to the knowledge of chemical fact were of the greatest importance, and that they richly deserve all the praise that has been awarded to them, is unquestionable; but it must, at the same time, be admitted that he had no comprehension of the deeper significance of his work; and, so far from contributing anything to the theory of the facts which he discovered, or assisting in their rational explanation, his influence to the end of his life was warmly exerted in favour of error. From first to last, he was a stiff adherent of the phlogiston doctrine which was prevalent when his studies commenced; and, by a curious irony of fate, the man who by the discovery of what he called “dephlogisticated air” furnished the essential datum for the true theory of combustion, of respiration, and of the composition of water, to the end of his days fought against the inevitable corollaries from his own labours. His last scientific work, published in 1800, bears the title, “The Doctrine of Phlogiston established, and that of the Composition of Water refuted.”
When Priestley commenced his studies, the current belief was, that atmospheric air, freed from accidental impurities, is a simple elementary substance, indestructible and unalterable, as water was supposed to be. When a combustible burned, or when an animal breathed in air, it was supposed that a substance, “phlogiston,” the matter of heat and light, passed from the burning or breathing body into it, and destroyed its powers of supporting life and combustion. Thus, air contained in a vessel in which a lighted candle had gone out, or a living animal had breathed until it could breathe no longer, was called “phlogisticated.” The same result was supposed to be brought about by the addition of what Priestley called “nitrous gas” to common air.
In the course of his researches, Priestley found that the quantity of common air which can thus become “phlogisticated,” amounts to about one-fifth the volume of the whole quantity submitted to experiment. Hence it appeared that common air consists, to the extent of four-fifths of its volume, of air which is already “phlogisticated”; while the other fifth is free from phlogiston, or “dephlogisticated.” On the other hand, Priestley found that air “phlogisticated” by combustion or respiration could be “dephlogisticated,” or have the properties of pure common air restored to it, by the action of green plants in sunshine. The question, therefore, would naturally arise — as common air can be wholly phlogisticated by combustion, and converted into a substance which will no longer support combustion, is it possible to get air that shall be less phlogisticated than common air, and consequently support combustion better than common air does?
Now, Priestley says that, in 1774, the possibility of obtaining air less phlogisticated than common air had not occurred to him. 6 But in pursuing his experiments on the evolution of air from various bodies by means of heat, it happened that, on the 1st of August 1774, he threw the heat of the sun, by means of a large burning glass which he had recently obtained, upon a substance which was then called mercurius calcinatus per se, and which is commonly known as red precipitate.
“I presently found that, by means of this lens, air was expelled from it very readily. Having got about three or four times as much as the bulk of my materials, I admitted water to it, and found that it was not imbibed by it. But what surprised me more than I can well express, was that a candle burned in this air with a remarkably vigorous flame, very much like that enlarged flame with which a candle burns in nitrous air, exposed to iron or lime of sulphur; but as I had got nothing like this remarkable appearance from any kind of air besides this particular modification of nitrous air, and I knew no nitrous acid was used in the preparation of mercurius calcinatus, I was utterly at a loss how to account for it.
“In this case also, though I did not give sufficient attention to the circumstance at that time, the flame of the candle, besides being larger, burned with more splendour and heat than in that species of nitrous air; and a piece of red-hot wood sparkled in it, exactly like paper dipped in a solution of nitre, and it consumed very fast — an experiment which I had never thought of trying with nitrous air.” 7
Priestley obtained the same sort of air from red lead, but, as he says himself, he remained in ignorance of the properties of this new kind of air for seven months, or until March 1775, when he found that the new air behaved with “nitrous gas” in the same way as the dephlogisticated part of common air does; 8 but that, instead of being diminished to four-fifths, it almost completely vanished, and, therefore, showed itself to be “between five and six times as good as the best common air I have ever met with.” 9 As this new air thus appeared to be completely free from phlogiston, Priestley called it “dephlogisticated air.”
What was the nature of this air? Priestley found that the same kind of air was to be obtained by moistening with the spirit of nitre (which he terms nitrous acid) any kind of earth that is free from phlogiston, and applying heat; and consequently he says: “There remained no doubt on my mind but that the atmospherical air, or the thing that we breathe, consists of the nitrous acid and earth, with so much phlogiston as is necessary to its elasticity, and likewise so much more as is required to bring it from its state of perfect purity to the mean condition in which we find it.” 10
Priestley’s view, in fact, is that atmospheric air is a kind of saltpetre, in which the potash is replaced by some unknown earth. And in speculating on the manner in which saltpetre is formed, he enunciates the hypothesis, “that nitre is, formed by a real decomposition of the air itself, the bases that are presented to it having, in such circumstances, a nearer affinity with the spirit of nitre than that kind of earth with which it is united in the atmosphere.” 11
It would have been hard for the most ingenious person to have wandered farther from the truth than Priestley does in this hypothesis; and, though Lavoisier undoubtedly treated Priestley very ill, and pretended to have discovered dephlogisticated air, or oxygen, as he called it, independently, we can almost forgive him when we reflect how different were the ideas which the great French chemist attached to the body which Priestley discovered.
They are like two navigators of whom the first sees a new country, but takes clouds for mountains and mirage for lowlands; while the second determines its length and breadth, and lays down on a chart its exact place, so that, thenceforth, it serves as a guide to his successors, and becomes a secure outpost whence new explorations may be pushed.
Nevertheless, as Priestley himself somewhere remarks, the first object of physical science is to ascertain facts, and the service which he rendered to chemistry by the definite establishment of a large number of new and fundamentally important facts, is such as to entitle him to a very high place among the fathers of chemical science.
It is difficult to say whether Priestley’s philosophical, political, or theological views were most responsible for the bitter hatred which was borne to him by a large body of his country-men, 12 and which found its expression in the malignant insinuations in which Burke, to his everlasting shame, indulged in the House of Commons.
Without containing much that will be new to the readers of Hobbs, Spinoza, Collins, Hume, and Hartley, and, indeed, while making no pretensions to originality, Priestley’s “Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit,” and his “Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated,” are among the most powerful, clear, and unflinching expositions of materialism and necessarianism which exist in the English language, and are still well worth reading.
Priestley denied the freedom of the will in the sense of its self-determination; he denied the existence of a soul distinct from the body; and as a natural consequence, he denied the natural immortality of man.
In relation to these matters English opinion, a century ago, was very much what it is now.
A man may be a necessarian without incurring graver reproach than that implied in being called a gloomy fanatic, necessarianism, though very shocking, having a note of Calvanistic orthodoxy; but, if a man is a materialist; or, if good authorities say he is and must be so, in spite of his assertion to the contrary; or, if he acknowledge himself unable to see good reasons for believing in the natural immortality of man, respectable folks look upon him as an unsafe neighbour of a cash-box, as an actual or potential sensualist, the more virtuous in outward seeming, the more certainly loaded with secret “grave personal sins.”
Nevertheless, it is as certain as anything can be, that Joseph Priestley was no gloomy fanatic, but as cheerful and kindly a soul as ever breathed, the idol of children; a man who was hated only by those who did not know him, and who charmed away the bitterest prejudices in personal intercourse; a man who never lost a friend, and the best testimony to whose worth is the generous and tender warmth with which his many friends vied with one another in rendering him substantial help, in all the crises of his career.
The unspotted purity of Priestley’s life, the strictness of his performance of every duty, his transparent sincerity, the unostentatious and deep-seated piety which breathes through all his correspondence, are in themselves a sufficient refutation of the hypothesis, invented by bigots to cover uncharitableness, that such opinions as his must arise from moral defects. And his statue will do as good service as the brazen image that was set upon a pole before the Israelites, if those who have been bitten by the fiery serpents of sectarian hatred, which still haunt this wilderness of a world, are made whole by looking upon the image of a heretic who was yet a saint.
Though Priestley did not believe in the natural immortality of man, he held with an almost naïve realism that man would be raised from the dead by a direct exertion of the power of God, and thenceforward be immortal. And it may be as well for those who may be shocked by this doctrine to know that views, substantially identical with Priestley’s, have been advocated, since his time, by two prelates of the Anglican Church: by Dr. Whately, Archbishop of Dublin, in his well-known “Essays”; 13 and by Dr. Courtenay, Bishop of Kingston in Jamaica, the first edition of whose remarkable book “On the Future States,” dedicated to Archbishop Whately, was published in 1843 and the second in 1857. According to Bishop Courtenay,
“The death of the body will cause a cessation of all the activity of the mind by way of natural consequence; to continue for ever UNLESS the Creator should interfere.”
“The natural end of human existence is the ‘first death, the dreamless slumber of the grave, wherein man lies spell-bound, soul and body, under the dominion of sin and death — that whatever modes of conscious existence, whatever future states of ‘life’ or of ‘torment’ beyond Hades are reserved for man, are results of our blessed Lord’s victory over sin and death; that the resurrection of the dead must be preliminary to their entrance into either of the future states, and that the nature and even existence of these states, and even the mere fact that there is a futurity of consciousness, can be known only through God’s revelation of Himself in the Person and the Gospel of His Son."— P. 389.
And now hear Priestley:—
“Man, according to this system (of materialism), is no more than we now see of him. His being commences at the time of his conception, or perhaps at an earlier period. The corporeal and mental faculties, in being in the same substance, grow, ripen, and decay together; and whenever the system is dissolved it continues in a state of dissolution till it shall please that Almighty Being who called it into existence to restore it to life again."—“Matter and Spirit,” p. 49.
“The doctrine of the Scripture is, that God made man of the dust of the ground, and by simply animating this organised matter, made man that living percipient and intelligent being that he is. According to Revelation, death is a state of rest and insensibility, and our only though sure hope of a future life is founded on the doctrine of the resurrection of the whole man at some distant period; this assurance being sufficiently confirmed to us both by the evident tokens of a Divine commission attending the persons who delivered the doctrine, and especially by the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is more authentically attested than any other fact in history."—Ibid., p. 247.
We all know that “a saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn;” but it is not yet admitted that the views which are consistent with such saintliness in lawn, become diabolical when held by a mere dissenter. 14
I am not here either to defend or to attack Priestley’s philosophical views, and I cannot say that I am personally disposed to attach much value to episcopal authority in philosophical questions; but it seems right to call attention to the fact, that those of Priestley’s opinions which have brought most odium upon him have been openly promulgated, without challenge, by persons occupying the highest positions in the State Church.
I must confess that what interests me most about Priestley’s materialism, is the evidence that he saw dimly the seed of destruction which such materialism carries within its own bosom. In the course of his reading for his “History of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light, and Colours,” he had come upon the speculations of Boscovich and Michell, and had been led to admit the sufficiently obvious truth that our knowledge of matter is a knowledge of its properties; and that of its substance — if it have a substance — we know nothing. And this led to the further admission that, so far as we can know, there may be no difference between the substance of matter and the substance of spirit (“Disquisitions,” p. 16). A step farther would have shown Priestley that his materialism was, essentially, very little different from the Idealism of his contemporary, the Bishop of Cloyne.
As Priestley’s philosophy is mainly a clear statement of the views of the deeper thinkers of his day, so are his political conceptions based upon those of Locke. Locke’s aphorism that “the end of government is the good of mankind,” is thus expanded by Priestley:—
“It must necessarily be understood, therefore, whether it be expressed or not, that all people live in society for their mutual advantage; so that the good and happiness of the members, that is, of the majority of the members, of any state, is the great standard by which everything relating to that state must finally be determined.” 15
The little sentence here interpolated, “that is, of the majority of the members of any state,” appears to be that passage which suggested to Bentham, according to his own acknowledgment, the famous “greatest happiness” formula, which by substituting “happiness” for “good,” has converted a noble into an ignoble principle. But I do not call to mind that there is any utterance in Locke quite so outspoken as the following passage in the “Essay on the First Principles of Government.” After laying down as “a fundamental maxim in all Governments,” the proposition that “kings, senators, and nobles” are “the servants of the public,” Priestley goes on to say:—
“But in the largest states, if the abuses of the government should at any time be great and manifest; if the servants of the people, forgetting their masters and their masters’ interest, should pursue a separate one of their own; if, instead of considering that they are made for the people, they should consider the people as made for them; if the oppressions and violation of right should be great, flagrant, and universally resented; if the tyrannical governors should have no friends but a few sycophants, who had long preyed upon the vitals of their fellow-citizens, and who might be expected to desert a government whenever their interests should be detached from it: if, in consequence of these circumstances, it should become manifest that the risk which would be run in attempting a revolution would be trifling, and the evils which might be apprehended from it were far less than those which were actually suffered and which were daily increasing; in the name of God, I ask, what principles are those which ought to restrain an injured and insulted people from asserting their natural rights, and from changing or even punishing their governors — that is, their servants — who had abused their trust, or from altering the whole form of their government, if it appeared to be of a structure so liable to abuse?”
As a Dissenter, subject to the operation of the Corporation and Test Acts, and as a Unitarian excluded from the benefit of the Toleration Act, it is not surprising to find that Priestley had very definite opinions about Ecclesiastical Establishments; the only wonder is that these opinions were so moderate as the following passages show them to have been:—
“Ecclesiastical authority may have been necessary in the infant state of society, and, for the same reason, it may perhaps continue to be, in some degree, necessary as long as society is imperfect; and therefore may not be entirely abolished till civil governments have arrived at a much greater degree of perfection. If, therefore, I were asked whether I should approve of the immediate dissolution of all the ecclesiastical establishments in Europe, I should answer, No. . . . Let experiment be first made of alterations, or, which is the same thing, of better establishments than the present. Let them be reformed in many essential articles, and then not thrown aside entirely till it be found by experience that no good can be made of them.”
Priestley goes on to suggest four such reforms of a capital nature:—
“1. Let the Articles of Faith to be subscribed by candidates for the ministry be greatly reduced. In the formulary of the Church of England, might not thirty-eight out of the thirty-nine be very well spared? It is a reproach to any Christian establishment if every man cannot claim the benefit of it who can say that he believes in the religion of Jesus Christ as it is set forth in the New Testament. You say the terms are so general that even Deists would quibble and insinuate themselves. I answer that all the articles which are subscribed at present by no means exclude Deists who will prevaricate; and upon this scheme you would at least exclude fewer honest men.” 16
The second reform suggested is the equalisation, in proportion to work done, of the stipends of the clergy; the third, the exclusion of the Bishops from Parliament; and the fourth, complete toleration, so that every man may enjoy the rights of a citizen, and be qualified to serve his country, whether he belong to the Established Church or not.
Opinions such as those I have quoted, respecting the duties and the responsibilities of governors, are the commonplaces of modern Liberalism; and Priestley’s views on Ecclesiastical Establishments would, I fear, meet with but a cool reception, as altogether too conservative, from a large proportion of the lineal descendants of the people who taught their children to cry “Damn Priestley;” and with that love for the practical application of science which is the source of the greatness of Birmingham, tried to set fire to the doctor’s house with sparks from his own electrical machine; thereby giving the man they called an incendiary and raiser of sedition against Church and King, an appropriately experimental illustration of the nature of arson and riot.
If I have succeeded in putting before you the main features of Priestley’s work, its value will become apparent when we compare the condition of the English nation, as he knew it, with its present state.
The fact that France has been for eighty-five years trying, without much success, to right herself after the great storm of the Revolution, is not unfrequently cited among us as an indication of some inherent incapacity for self-government among the French people. I think, however, that Englishmen who argue thus, forget that, from the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640, to the last Stuart rebellion in 1745, is a hundred and five years, and that, in the middle of the last century, we had but just safely freed ourselves from our Bourbons and all that they represented. The corruption of our state was as bad as that of the Second Empire. Bribery was the instrument of government, and peculation its reward. Four-fifths of the seats in the House of Commons were more or less openly dealt with as property. A minister had to consider the state of the vote market, and the sovereign secured a sufficiency of “king’s friends” by payments allotted with retail, rather than royal, sagacity.
Barefaced and brutal immorality and intemperance pervaded the land, from the highest to the lowest classes of society. The Established Church was torpid, as far as it was not a scandal; but those who dissented from it came within the meshes of the Act of Uniformity, the Test Act, and the Corporation Act. By law, such a man as Priestley, being a Unitarian, could neither teach nor preach, and was liable to ruinous fines and long imprisonment. 17 In those days the guns that were pointed by the Church against the Dissenters were shotted. The law was a cesspool of iniquity and cruelty. Adam Smith was a new prophet whom few regarded, and commerce was hampered by idiotic impediments, and ruined by still more absurd help, on the part of government.
Birmingham, though already the centre of a considerable industry, was a mere village as compared with its present extent. People who travelled went about armed, by reason of the abundance of highwaymen and the paucity and inefficiency of the police. Stage coaches had not reached Birmingham, and it took three days to get to London. Even canals were a recent and much opposed invention.
Newton had laid the foundation of a mechanical conception of the physical universe: Hartley, putting a modern face upon ancient materialism, had extended that mechanical conception to psychology; Linnaeus and Haller were beginning to introduce method and order into the chaotic accumulation of biological facts. But those parts of physical science which deal with heat, electricity, and magnetism, and above all, chemistry, in the modern sense, can hardly be said to have had an existence. No one knew that two of the old elemental bodies, air and water, are compounds, and that a third, fire, is not a substance but a motion. The great industries that have grown out of the applications of modern scientific discoveries had no existence, and the man who should have foretold their coming into being in the days of his son, would have been regarded as a mad enthusiast.
In common with many other excellent persons, Priestley believed that man is capable of reaching, and will eventually attain, perfection. If the temperature of space presented no obstacle, I should be glad to entertain the same idea; but judging from the past progress of our species, I am afraid that the globe will have cooled down so far, before the advent of this natural millennium, that we shall be, at best, perfected Esquimaux. For all practical purposes, however, it is enough that man may visibly improve his condition in the course of a century or so. And, if the picture of the state of things in Priestley’s time, which I have just drawn, have any pretence to accuracy, I think it must be admitted that there has been a considerable change for the better.
I need not advert to the well-worn topic of material advancement, in a place in which the very stones testify to that progress — in the town of Watt and of Boulton. I will only remark, in passing, that material advancement has its share in moral and intellectual progress. Becky Sharp’s acute remark that it is not difficult to be virtuous on ten thousand a year, has its application to nations; and it is futile to expect a hungry and squalid population to be anything but violent and gross. But as regards other than material welfare, although perfection is not yet in sight — even from the mast-head — it is surely true that things are much better than they were.
Take the upper and middle classes as a whole, and it may be said that open immorality and gross intemperance have vanished. Four and six bottle men are as extinct as the dodo. Women of good repute do not gamble, and talk modelled upon Dean Swift’s “Art of Polite Conversation” would be tolerated in no decent kitchen.
Members of the legislature are not to be bought; and constituents are awakening to the fact that votes must not be sold — even for such trifles as rabbits and tea and cake. Political power has passed into the hands of the masses of the people. Those whom Priestley calls their servants have recognised their position, and have requested the master to be so good as to go to school and fit himself for the administration of his property. In ordinary life, no civil disability attaches to any one on theological grounds, and high offices of the state are open to Papist, Jew, and Secularist.
Whatever men’s opinions as to the policy of Establishment, no one can hesitate to admit that the clergy of the Church are men of pure life and conversation, zealous in the discharge of their duties; and at present, apparently, more bent on prosecuting one another than on meddling with Dissenters. Theology itself has broadened so much, that Anglican divines put forward doctrines more liberal than those of Priestley; and, in our state-supported churches, one listener may hear a sermon to which Bossuet might have given his approbation, while another may hear a discourse in which Socrates would find nothing new.
But great as these changes may be, they sink into insignificance beside the progress of physical science, whether we consider the improvement of methods of investigation, or the increase in bulk of solid knowledge. Consider that the labours of Laplace, of Young, of Davy, and of Faraday; of Cuvier, of Lamarck, and of Robert Brown; of Von Baer, and of Schwann; of Smith and of Hutton, have all been carried on since Priestley discovered oxygen; and consider that they are now things of the past, concealed by the industry of those who have built upon them, as the first founders of a coral reef are hidden beneath the life’s work of their successors; consider that the methods of physical science are slowly spreading into all investigations, and that proofs as valid as those required by her canons of investigation are being demanded of all doctrines which ask for men’s assent; and you will have a faint image of the astounding difference in this respect between the nineteenth century and the eighteenth.
If we ask what is the deeper meaning of all these vast changes, I think there can be but one reply. They mean that reason has asserted and exercised her primacy over all provinces of human activity: that ecclesiastical authority has been relegated to its proper place; that the good of the governed has been finally recognised as the end of government, and the complete responsibility of governors to the people as its means; and that the dependence of natural phenomena in general on the laws of action of what we call matter has become an axiom.
But it was to bring these things about, and to enforce the recognition of these truths, that Joseph Priestley laboured. If the nineteenth century is other and better than the eighteenth, it is, in great measure, to him, and to such men as he, that we owe the change. If the twentieth century is to be better than the nineteenth, it will be because there are among us men who walk in Priestley’s footsteps.
Such men are not those whom their own generation delights to honour; such men, in fact, rarely trouble themselves about honour, but ask, in another spirit than Falstaff’s, “What is honour? Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.” But whether Priestley’s lot be theirs, and a future generation, in justice and in gratitude, set up their statues; or whether their names and fame are blotted out from remembrance, their work will live as long as time endures. To all eternity, the sum of truth and right will have been increased by their means; to all eternity, falsehood and injustice will be the weaker because they have lived.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56