Burnett, James

, lord Monboddo, a learned writer of the eighteenth century, was descended from the ancient family of the Burnetts of Leys, in Kincardineshire, and was born at the family seat of Monboddo, in October or November, 1714. He was first educated at the parish school of Laurencekirk, whence he went to King’s college, Aberdeen, and after the usual courses there, studied civil law at Groningen. On his return in 1738, he was admitted to the Scotch bar, where he acquired considerable practice. During the rebellion in 1745, when the administration of justice was interrupted, he went to London, where he became acquainted with some of the literati of the time, particularly Mallet, Thomson, and Armstrong. These visits he often repeated, and enlarged his acquaintance and correspondence with the succeeding generations of learned men, most of whom he survived. During his practice at the Scotch bar, he was particularly distinguished for the part he took in the celebrated Douglas cause, and was eminently instrumental in assisting the family of Douglas, in the prosecution of a suit which was finally determined in their favour. On the death of his relation lord Milton, in 1767, he was promoted to the bench by the title of lord Monboddo, which political intrigue delayed for some time.

During his periods of leisure, the course of his studies led him to attempt the composition of a work, which should afford, to the confusion and astonishment of the moderns, a complete vindication of the wisdom and eloquence of his admired ancients. The volumes of his “Origin and Progress of Language,” were published about the year 1773, and were very variously treated by the critics. Those who were partial to modern literature, on account of their ignorance of that of antiquity, or who, though not unacquainted with the more popular of the | ancient authors, were, however, strangers to the deeper mysteries of Greek erudition, condemned lord Monboddo’s work with bitter and contemptuous censure. Nothing, it was said, but the strange absurdity of his opinions, could have hindered his book from falling dead-born from the press. In the late Mr. Harris, however, (the philosopher of Malmesbury), he found an admirer and literary friend, who was himself deeply versant in Grecian learning and philosophy, and was exceedingly delighted to meet with one that had cultivated those studies with equal ardour, and worshipped the excellence of the ancient Greeks, as far above all other excellence. Lord Monboddo’s private life was spent in the practice of all the social virtues, and in the enjoyment of much domestic felicity; the latter, indeed, was for a time interrupted by the death of a wife and son whom he tenderly loved; but he endured the loss with a firmness fitted to do honour either to philosophy or religion.

In addition to his office as a judge in the supreme civil court, in Scotland, an offer was made to him of a seat in the court of justiciary, the supreme criminal court. But though the emoluments of this place would have made a convenient addition to his income, he refused to accept it, lest its business should too much detach him from the pursuit of his favourite studies. His patrimonial estate was small, not affording a revenue of more than 300l. a year. Yet he would not raise the rents, would never dismiss a poor old tenant, for the sake of any augmentation of emolument offered by a richer stranger; and, indeed, shewed no particular solicitude to accomplish any improvement upon his lands, save that of having the number of persons who should reside upon them as tenants, and be there sustained by their produce, to be, if possible, superior to the population of any equal portion of the lands of his neighbours.

The vacations of the court of session afforded him leisure to retire every year, in spring and in autumn, to the country; and he used then to dress in a style of simplicity, as if he had been only a plain farmer, and to live among the people upon his estate, with all the kind familiarity and attention of an aged father among his grown-up children. It was there he had the pleasure of receiving Dr. Samuel Johnson, when upon his well-known tour through the islands of Scotland. Johnson admired nothing in | literatureso much as the display of a keen discrimination of human character, a just apprehension of the principles of moral action, and that vigorous common-sense, which is the most happily applicable to the ordinary conduct of life. Monboddo delighted in the refinements, the subtleties, the abstractions, and what may be called the affectations of literature; and in comparison with these, despised the grossness of modern taste and of common affairs. Johnson thought learning and science to be little valuable, except so far as they could be made subservient to the purposes of living usefully and happily with the world on its own terms. Monboddo’s favourite science taught him to look down with contempt upon all sublunary, and especially upon all modern things; and to fit tife to literature and philosophy, not literature and philosophy to life.

As the work on the “Origin and Progress of Language” was intended chiefly to vindicate the honours of Grecian literature, he was induced to undertake another for the purpose of defending the cause of Grecian philosophy. The philosophy of ideas, first interestingly taught by Plato, had been recently pursued by Berkeley and Hume, into consequences of unavoidable scepticism and absurdity; the dialectics and metaphysical arrangements of Aristotle had been exploded by the general reception of the inductive logic of Bacon. To confound the scientific pride of the puny moderns, and to prove that Aristotle and Plato were despised and neglected only because they were not understood, Monboddo wrote his “Ancient Metaphysics,” which extended to six 4to volumes, published at various periods from 1778. This work evinces, like the other, his extravagant fondness for Grecian learning and philosophy, and his scorn for all that was modern. It proves, that, though versed in the science of Aristotle and Plato, he knew not, for want of a sufficient acquaintance with modern literature, how to explain that science to his contemporaries.

Amidst this progress of his literary and philosophical studies, lord Monboddo neglected not his duties as a judge. Whether officiating singly, in the character of lord ordinary or reporting judge; assisting his brother judges in full court; or attending to those parts of his judicial duty which were to be discharged by private study, he was still solemnly and indefatigably diligent in these engagements, in preference to all others. As a lawyer, his arguments. | opinions, and decisions, were sound, learned, marked with acute discrimination, and free from fantastic peculiarity. He was no favourer of the rich in preference to the poor j nor yet of the poor, at the expence of injustice to the rich. All his whimsies and partialities as a scholar disappeared, when he came to determine concerning the rights of his fellow subjects.

He died of a paralytic stroke, at his house in Edinburgh, May 26, 1799.

His character is thus given by one of his successors on the bench, lord Woodhouselee. Lord Monboddo " was a man of great worth, honour, and moral rectitude, but of much singularity of opinions and character, which appeared both in the doctrines contained in his writings, in the strain of his conversation, and in the habits of his life. His notions of the origin of language, arts r and sciences, are much akin to those of the Epicureans, of which Lucretius has given an ample detail in his fifth book ‘De rerurn Natura,’ and which Horace has abridged in the third of his satires:

Cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris,’ &c.

The confirmation of his theory of language, his lordship finds in the condition of savage nations, in those few examples of human creatures discovered in an insulated state, in deserts, and in the rude and defective nature of some languages, and the highly artificial and philosophical structure of others, as the Greek, the Sanscreet, &c. Lord Monboddo carried his admiration of the ancients to such a pitch, as to maintain their superiority over the moderns, not only in philosophical attainments, recondite science, the arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, oratory, and all the various species of literary composition; but even in bodily strength, stature, and longevity; esteeming the present race of mortals a degenerate breed, both with respect to mental and corporeal endowments. Yet, with all these eccentricities of opinion, his writings display great erudition, an uncommon acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature, and a just and excellent spirit of criticism, both on the authors of antiquity, and on the English classical writers of the last and preceding ages.

" His temper was affectionate, friendly, and social, He was fond of convivial intercourse and it was his daily custom to unbend himself, after his professional labours,

| amidst a select party of literary friends, whom he invited to an early supper. The entertainment itself partook of the costume of the ancients; it had all the variety and abundance of a principal meal; and the master of the feast crowned his wine, like Anacreon, with a garland of roses. His conversation, too, had a race and flavour peculiarly its own; it was nervous, sententious, and tinctured with genuine wit. His apothegms were singularly terse and forcible; and the grave manner in which he often conveyed the keenest irony, and the eloquence with which he supported his paradoxical theories, afforded the highest amusement of those truly attic banquets, which will be longremembered by all who had the pleasure of partaking in them." 1
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Gent, and Europ, Magazines.—Brewster’s Cyclopædia.—Tytler’s Life of Lord Kames.