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LIFE AND WRITINGS
THOMAS REID, D. D. F. R. S.
From Dr. Reid's Birth till the Date of his latest Publication.
The life of which I am now to present to the Royal Society a short account, although it fixes an era in the history of modern philosophy, was uncommonly barren of those incidents which furnish materials for biography; strenuously devoted to truth, to virtue, and to the best interests of mankind; but spent in the obscurity of a learned retirement, remote from the pursuits of ambition, and with little solicitude about literary fame. After the agitation, however, of the political convulsions which Europe has witnessed for a course of years, the simple record of such a life may derive an interest even from its uniformity; and, when contrasted with the events of the passing scene, may lead the thoughts to some views of human nature, on which it is not ungrateful to repose.
Thomas Reid, D.D. late professor of Moral Philosophy in the university of Glasgow, was born on the 26th of April, 1710, at Strachan in Kincardineshire, a country parish situated about twenty miles from Aberdeen, on the north side of the Grampian mountains.
His father, the Reverend Lewis Reid, was minister of this parish for fifty years. He was a clergyman, according to his son's account of him, respected by all who knew him, for his piety, prudence, and benevolence; inheriting from his ancestors, most of whom, from the time of the protestant establishment, had been ministers of the church of Scotland, that purity and simplicity of manners which became his station; and a love of letters, which, without attracting the notice of the world, amused his leisure, and dignified his retirement.
For some generations before his time, a propensity to literature, and to the learned professions; a propensity which, when it has once become characteristical of a race, is peculiarly apt to be propagated by the influence of early associations and habits, may be traced in several individuals among his kindred. One of his ancestors, James Reid, was the first minister of Banchory-Ternan after the Reformation; and transmitted to four sons a predilection for those studious habits which formed his own happiness. He was himself a younger son of Mr. Reid of Pitfoddels, a gentleman of a very ancient and respectable family in the county of Aberdeen.
James Reid was succeeded as minister of Banchory by his son Robert. Another son, Thomas, rose to considerable distinction both as a philosopher and a poet; and seems to have wanted neither ability nor inclination to turn his attainments to the best advantage. After travelling over Europe, and maintaining, as was the custom of his age, public disputations in several universities, he collected into a volume, the theses and dissertations which had been the subjects of his literary contests; and also published some Latin poems, which may be found in the collection entitled, “Deliciæ Poëtarum Scotorum. On his return to his native country, he fixed his residence in London, where he was appointed secreretary in the Greek and Latin tongues to king James I. of England, and lived in habits of intimacy with some of the most distinguished characters of that period. Little more, I believe, is known of Thomas Reid's history, excepting that he bequeathed to the Marischal college of Aberdeen, a curious collection of
books and manuscripts, with a fund for establishing a salary to a librarian.
Alexander Reid, the third son, was physician to King Charles I., and published several books on surgery and medicine. The fortune he acquired in the course of his practice was considerable, and enabled him, besides many legacies to his relations and friends, to leave various lasting and honorable memorials, both of his benevolence, and of his attachment to letters.
A fourth son, whose name was Adam, translated into English, Buchanan's History of Scotland. Of this translation, which was never published, there is a manuscript copy in the possession of the university of Glasgow.
A grandson of Robert, the eldest of these sons, was the third minister of Banchory after the Reformation, and was great-grandfather of Thomas Reid, the subject of this memoir.*
The particulars hitherto mentioned, are stated on the authority of some short memorandums written by Dr. Reid a few weeks before his death. In consequence of a suggestion of his friend Dr. Gregory, he had resolved to amuse himself with collecting such facts as his papers or memory could supply, with respect to his life, and the progress of his studies; but, unfortunately, before he had fairly entered on the task, his design was interrupted by his last illness. If he had lived to complete it, I might have entertained hopes of presenting to the public some details with respect to the history of his opinions and speculations on those important subjects to which he dedicated his talents; the most interesting of all articles in the biography of a philosopher, and of which it is to be lamented, that so few authentic records are to be found in the annals of letters. All the information, however, which I have derived from these notes, is exhausted in the foregoing pages; and I must content myself, in the continuation of my narrative, with those indirect aids which tradition, and the recollection of a few old acquaintance, afford; added to what I
myself have learned from Dr. Reid's conversation, or collected from a careful perusal of his writings.
His mother, Margaret Gregory, was a daughter of David Gregory, Esq. of Kinnairdie, in Banffshire; elder brother of James Gregory, the inventor of the reflecting telescope, and the antagonist of Huyghens. She was one of twenty-nine children; the most remarkable of whom was David Gregory, Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford, and an intimate friend of Sir Isaac Newton. Two of her younger brothers were at the same time professors of mathematics; the one at St. Andrew's, the other at Edinburgh; and were the first persons who taught the Newtonian philosophy in our northern universities. The hereditary worth and genius which have so long distinguished, and which still distinguish, the descendants of this memorable family, are well known to all who have turned their attention to Scottish biography ; but it is not known so generally, that in the female line, the same characteristical endowments have been conspicuous in various instances; and that to the other monuments which illustrate the race of the Gregories, is to be added the Philosophy of Reid.
With respect to the earlier part of Dr. Reid's life, all that I have been able to learn, amounts to this, that after two years spent at the parish school of Kincardine, he was sent to Aberdeen, where he had the advantage of prosecuting his classical studies under an able and diligent teacher; that about the age of twelve or thirteen, he was entered as a student in Marischal college ; and that his master in philosophy, for three years, was Dr. George Turnbull, who afterward attracted some degree of notice as an author; particularly, by a book, entitled, “Principles of Moral Philosophy,” and by a voluminous treatise, long ago forgotten, on Ancient Painting.* The sessions of the college were, at that time, very short, and the education, according to Dr. Reid's own account, slight and superficial.
It does not appear from the information which I have received, that he gave any early indications of future
* Note (B.)