Duncan, William

, professor of philosophy in the marischal college, Aberdeen, and a learned writer, was born in that city in the month of July 1717. His father, William Duncan, was a respectable tradesman in the same place, and his mother, Euphemia Kirkwood, was the daughter of a wealthy farmer in East Lothian, the first district in Scotland where agriculture was much improved. Young Duncan received his grammatical education partly in the public grammar-school of Aberdeen, and partly at Foveran, about fifteen miles distant, where there was a boardingschool, which at that time was greatly frequented, on account of the reputation of Mr. George Forbes, the master. In November 1733, Mr. Duncan entered the marischal college of Aberdeen, and applied himself particularly to the study of the Greek language, under the celebrated professor Dr. Thomas Blackwell. After going through the ordinary course of philosophy and mathematics, which continues for three years, he took the degree of M. A. This was in April 1737, and he never took any other degree. Mr. Duncan appears to have been designed for the ministry, and in this view he attended the theological lectures of the professors at Aberdeen for two winters. Not, however, finding in himself any inclination to the clerical profession, he quitted his native place, and removed to London in 1739, where he became an author by profession. In this capacity various works were published by | him without his name; the exact nature and number of which it is not in our power to ascertain. It is in general understood that he translated several books from the French, and that he engaged in different undertakings which were proposed to him by the booksellers. There is reason to believe that he had a very considerable share in the translation of Horace which goes under the name of Watson. Without, however, anxiously inquiring after every translation, and every compilation in which Mr. Duncan might be concerned, we shall content ourselves with taking notice of the three principal productions upon which his literary reputation is founded. The first, in point of time, was his translation of several select orations of Cicero. It has gone through several impressions, and was much used as a schoolbook, the Latin being printed on one side, and the English on the other. A new edition in this form appeared in 1792. Sir Charles Whitworth, in 1777, published Mr. Duncan’s version in English only, for the benefit of such young persons of both sexes, as have not had the benefit of a liberal education. The publication is in 2 vols. 8vo. In his preface, sir Charles speaks highly, and we believe justly, of Mr. Duncan’s merit as a translator, and ranks him with a Leland, a Hampton, and a Melmoth. Mr. Duncan accompanied his translation with short but judicious explanatory notes.

In 1748, Mr. Robert Dodsley published that work so well adapted to the education of youth, entitled “The Preceptor;” and that it might be executed in the best manner, called in the assistance of some of the ablest men of the age, among whom may be reckoned the names of David Fordyce, Dr. John Campbell, and Dr. Samuel Johnson. The part of logic was assigned to Mr. Duncan, and he discharged the task with an ability that excited general approbation. He has treated logic like one who was a thorough master of it. Disdaining to copy servilely after those who had gone before him, he struck out a plan of his own, and managed it with so much perspicuity and judgment, gave so clear and distinct a view of the furniture of our minds for the discovery of truth, and laid down such excellent rules for the attainment of it, that his work was reckoned one of the best introductions to the study of philosophy and the mathematics in our own, or perhaps any other language. Mr. Duncan’s last production was a translation of Ciesar’s Coaimentaries, which appeared | in the latter end of 1752, in one vol. folio. This work had a double title to a favourable reception from the public, being recommended both by its external and internal merit. It is beautifully printed, and richly adorned with a variety of fine cuts; and as to the translation, it is acknowledged to be the best that has been given in our tongue of the Commentaries of Caesar. Mr. Duncan has in a great measure caught the spirit of the original author, and has preserved his turn of phrase and expression as far as the nature of our language would permit. Previously to our author’s publication of this work, he had been appointed professor of philosophy in the Alarischal college, Aberdeen. The royal presentation, which conferred this office upon him, was signed by the king at Hanover, May 18, 1752. Mr. Duncan, however, remained in London till the summer of 1753, and was not admitted to his professorship of natural and experimental philosophy till Aug. 21, of the same year. While Mr. Duncan resided in the metropolis, he was in the habits of intimacy with several of the learned men who flourished at that time; and among others, George Lewis Scot, and Dr. Armstrong, were his particular friends. Indeed he was held in general esteem on account of his private, as well as his literary character. The sedentary life he had led before he came into the college at Aberdeen, had a good deal affected his constitution, and particularly his nerves; in consequence of which he was subject to an occasional depression of spirits. By this he was unfitted for great exertions, but not for his ordinary employment, or for enjoying the company of his friends. He died a bachelor. May 1, 1760, in the fortythird year of his age. Mr. Duncan cannot so much be said to have possessed genius, as good sense and taste; and his parts were rather solid than shining. His temper was social, his manners easy and agreeable, and his conversation entertaining and often lively. In his instructions as a professor he was diligent and very accurate. His conduct was irreproachable, and he was regular in his attendance on the various institutions of public worship. Soon after his settlement in the Marischal college, he was admitted an elder of the consistory or church session of Aberdeen, and continued to officiate as such till his death. 1


Biog. Brit. communicated by the late Dr. Gerard.