« VorigeDoorgaan »
LIFE AND WRITINGS
WILLIAM ROBERTSON, D. D.
From Dr. Robertson's Birth till the Publication of his History of
Scotland. William ROBERTSON, D. D. late principal of the Uni
, versity of Edinburgh, and historiographer to his majesty for Scotland, was the son of the Reverend William Robertson, minister of the old Gray-Friar's church, and of Eleanor Pitcairn, daughter of David Pitcairn, Esq. of Dreghorn. By his father he was descended from the Robertsons of Gladney in the county of Fife ; a branch of the respectable family of the same name, which has, for many generations, possessed the estate of Struan in Perthshire.
He was born in 1721, at Borthwick (in the county of Mid-Lothian) where his father was then minister; and received the first rudiments of his education at the school of Dalkeith, which, from the high reputation of Mr. Leslie as a teacher, was at that time resorted to from all parts of Scotland. In the year 1733, he again joined his father's family on their removal to Edinburgh; and, towards the end of the same year, he entered on his course of academical study. From this period till the year 1759, when, by the
publication of his Scottish History, he fixed a new era in the literary annals of his country, the habits and occurrences of his life were such as to supply few materials for biography; and the imagination is left to fill up a long interval spent in the silent pursuit of letters, and enlivened by the secret anticipation of future eminence. His genius was not of that forward and irregular growth, which forces itself prematurely on public notice; and it was only a few intimate and discerning friends, who, in the native vigor of his powers, and in the patient culture by which he labored to improve them, perceived the earnests of a fạme that was to last for ever.
The large proportion of Dr. Robertson's life which he thus devoted to obscurity will appear the more remarkable, when contrasted with his early and enthusiastic love of study. Some of his oldest common-place books, still in his son's possession, (dated in the years 1735, 1736, and 1737) bear marks of persevering assiduity, unexampled perhaps at so tender an age ; and the motto prefixed to all of them, (Vita sine literis mors est,) attests how soon those views and sentiments were formed, which, to his latest hour, continued to guide and dignify his ambition. In times such as the present, when literary distinction leads to other rewards, the labors of the studious are often promoted by motives very different from the hope of fame, or the inspiration of genius; but when Dr. Robertson's career commenced, these were the only incitements which existed to animate his exertions. The trade of authorship was unknown in Scotland; and the rank which that country had early acquired among the learned nations of Europe, had, for many years, been sustained entirely by a small number of eminent men, who distinguished themselves by an honorable and disinterested zeal in the ungainful walks of abstract science.
Some presages, however, of better times were beginning to appear. The productions of Thomson and of Mallet were already known and admired in the metropolis of England, and an impulse had been given to the minds of the rising generation, by the exertions of a few able and enlightened men, who filled important sta
tions in the Scottish universities. Dr. Hutcheson of of Glasgow, by his excellent writings, and still more by his eloquent lectures, had diffused among a numerous race of pupils, a liberality of sentiment, and a refinement of taste unknown before in this part of the island; and the influence of his example had extended, in no inconsiderable degree, to that seminary where Dr. Robertson received his education. The professorship of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh was then held by Sir John Pringle, afterwards president of the Royal Society of London ; who, if he did not rival Dr. Hutcheson's abilities, was not surpassed by him in the variety of his scientific attainments, or in a warm zeal for the encouragement of useful knowledge. His efforts were ably seconded by the learning and industry of Dr. Stevenson, Professor of Logic; to whose valuable prelections (particularly to his illustrations of Aristotle's Poetics and of Longinus on the Sublime) Dr. Robertson has been often heard to say, that he considered himself as more deeply indebted, than to any other circumstance in his academical studies. The bent of his genius did not incline him to mathematical or physical pursuits, notwithstanding the strong recommendations they derived from the popular talents of Mr. Maclaurin; but he could not fail to receive advantage from the eloquence with which that illustrious man knew how to adorn the most abstracted subjects, as well as from that correctness and purity in his compositions, which still entitle him to a high rank among our best writers, and which no Scottish author of the same period had been able to attain.
A number of other learned and respectable men, of whose names the greater part now exist in tradition only, were then resident in Edinburgh. A club * or society of these, carried on for some years a private correspondence with Dr. Berkeley, the celebrated bishop of Čloyne, on the subject of his metaphysical publications; and are said to have been numbered by him among
* Called the Rankenian Club, from the name of the person in whose tavern its meetings were held. The learned and ingenious Dr. Wallace, author of the Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind, was one of the leading members.
the few who completely comprehended the scope of his reasonings against the existence of matter. The influence of this society in diffusing that spirit of philosophical research which has since become so fashionable in Scotland, has often been mentioned to me by those who had the best opportunities of observing the rise and progress of Scottish literature.
I have entered into these details, partly as they suggest some circumstances which conspired with Dr. Robertson's natural inclination in fixing his studious habits ;" and partly as they help to account for the sudden transition which Scotland made, about this period, from the temporary obscurity into which it had sunk, to that station which it has since maintained in the republic of letters. A great stock both of genius and of learning existed in the country; but the difficulty of overcoming the peculiarities of a provincial idiom seemed to shut up every avenue to fame by means of the press, excepting in those departments of science where the nature of the subject is such as to dispense with the graces of composition.
Dr. Robertson's ambition was not to be checked by these obstacles; and he appears, from a very early period of life, to have employed, with much perseverance, the most effectual means for surmounting them. Among other expedients he was accustomed to exercise himself in the practice of translation; and he had even gone so far in the cultivation of this very difficult art, as to have thought seriously of preparing for the press a version of Marcus Antoninus, when he was anticipated by an anonymous publication at Glasgow, in the execution of his design. In making choice of this author, he was probably not a little influenced by that partiality with which (among the writings of the heathen moralists) he always regarded the remains of the Stoical philosophy
Nor was his ambition limited to the attainment of the honors that reward the industry of the recluse student. Anxious to distinguish himself by the utility of his labors in that profession to which he had resolved to devote his talents, and looking forward, it is probable,