Priestley, Joseph, Lld
Priestley, Joseph, LL.D.
one of the most noted of the English deists of the 18th century, and a scientist of great celebrity, was born of humble but honorable parentage at Fieldhead, March 13. 1733, old style. His mother dying when he was six years of age, he was adopted by a paternal aunt, Mrs. Keigihley, by whom he was sent to a free grammar-school in the neighborhood, where he was taught the Latin language and the elements of the Greek. Hs vacations were devoted to the study of Hebrew under a dissenting minister; and when he had acquired some proficiency in this language he commenced and made considerable progress in the Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic. Ill-health, however, led him to abandon for a while his classical studies, land he gave himself to mercantile pursuits. Though obliged to leave school, he yet continued his studies. Without the aid of a master, he acquired some knowledge of French, Italian, and German. At the age of nineteen (1752) he resumed work as a theological student in the dissenting academy at Daventry. His parents, who were both of the Calvinistic persuasion, as well as his aunt, had omitted no opportunity of inculcating the importance of the Calvinistic doctrine. At the academy he found both the professors and students greatly agitated upon most theological questions which were deemed of much importance, such as liberty and necessity, the sleep of the soul, etc., and kindred articles of orthodoxy and heresy. These were the topics of animated and frequent discussion. The spirit of controversy thus excited was in some measure fostered by the plan for regulating their studies, drawn up by Dr. Doddrige. It specified certain works on both sides of every question which the students were required to peruse and form an abridgment of for their future use. Before the lapse of many months Priestley conceived himself called upon to renounce tile greater number of the theological and metaphysical opinions which he had imbibed in early youth and thus, he himself observes, "I came to embrace what is generally called the heterodox side of the question; . . . but notwithstanding the great freedom of our debates, the extreme of heresy among us was Arianism, and all of us, I believe, left the academy with a belief, more or less qualified, of the doctrine of the Atonement." His waywardness did not interfere with his graduation, and in 1755 he became assistant minister to an Independent congregation at Needham-Market, in Suffolk. Here he made himself unpopular by renouncing the doctrine of the Atonement, and in three years left, in rather bad repute because of his heresy. He found a temporary engagement at Nantwich, in Cheshire, but was again unpopular, and next engaged in teaching with some success, and was finally chosen professor of belles-lettres in Warrington Academy. During the ten years following he produced half a dozen thoughtful works on widely varying subjects-works which of themselves would have given him enduring fame. He busied himself in politics, too, and became known as a vigorous lecturer. He was still poor, but by dint of strict economy he had secured an air pump and an electrical machine, and had already begun his scientific researches.
While at Needham he composed his work entitled The Scripture Doctrine of Remission, which shows that the Death of Christ is no proper Sacrifice nor Satisfaction for Sin; but that Pardon is dispensed solely on account of a Personal Repentance of the Sinner. It was published in 1761. He seems to have rejected all theological dogmas which appeared to him to rest solely upon the interpretation put upon certain passages of the Bible by ecclesiastical authority. It does not, however, appear that these doctrinal errors produced any morally evil results. A visit to the metropolis was the occasion of his introduction to our own celebrated countryman, Dr. Franklin, Dr. Price, and others. To the first of these he communicated his idea of writing a historical account of electrical discoveries, if provided with the requisite books. These Dr. Franklin undertook to procure, and before the end of the year in which Priestley submitted to him the plan of the work he sent him a copy of it in print, though five hours of every day had been occupied in public or private teaching, besides which he had kept up an active philosophical correspondence. The title of this work is The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments (1767; 3rd ed. 1775). By his devotion to learning and his persistent scrutiny of nature, Priestley now unraveled many a tangled web of science, and it was his to make the most valuable discovery in science of the last century; but as he drew nearer natural truth, he became more and more, though perhaps unconsciously, estranged from revealed truth, and by a hot temper and hasty utterances alienated his best friends. A disagreement between the trustees and professors of the academy led to his relinquishing the appointment at Warrington in 1767. His next engagement was with a large congregation at Mill-Hill Chapel, Leeds, where his theological inquiries were resumed, and several works of the kind composed, chiefly of a controversial character. The vicinity of his dwelling to a public brewery was the occasion of his attention being directed to pneumatic chemistry, the consideration of which he commenced in 1768, and subsequently prosecuted with great success. His first publication on this subject was a pamphlet on Impregnating Water with Fixed Air (1772); the same year he communicated to the Royal Society his Observations on Different Kinds of Air, to which the Copley medal was awarded in 1773. He originated other modes of investigation now pursued, and, indeed, nearly ail that is known of the gases has its foundation in the discoveries he made. He discovered oxygen gas, nitrous gas, nitrous-oxide gas, nitrous vapor, carbonic-oxide gas, sulfurous-oxide gas, fluoric-acid gas, muriatic gas, and ammoniacal gas. The discovery of oxygen alone rivaled in importance the great discovery of gravitation by Newton in the preceding century. The pneumatic trough, a vessel by means of which chemists collect gas, was also in good part invented by Priestley. He experimented untiringly, and gave to the world a detailed account of almost every observation he made. For a time he was the idol of men of science. All Europe did him honor. At the height of his reputation he became companion to the earl of Shelburne, with whom he traveled extensively on the Continent. He remained with that nobleman seven years, at the end of which, in 1789, receiving a pension, he settled in Birmingham where he proceeded actively with his philosophical and theological researches, and was also appointed pastor to a dissenting congregation. Having been told by certain Parisian savans that he was the only man they had ever known, of any understanding, who believed in Christianity, he wrote, in reply, the Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever (1780), and various other works containing criticisms on the doctrines of Hume and others.
His public position was now rather a hard one; for while laughed at in Paris as a believer, at home he was branded as an atheist. To escape the odium arising from the latter imputation, he published his Disquisition relating to Matter and Spirit. In this work, while lie partly materializes spirit, he at the same time partly spiritualizes matter. He holds, however, that our hopes of resurrection must rest solely on the truth of the Christian revelation, and that scientifically they have no demonstration whatever. The doctrines of a Revelation and a Resurrection appear with him to have supported one another. He believed in a Revelation, because it declared a Resurrection; and he believed in a Resurrection, because he found it declared in the Revelation. Yet in his Introductory Dissertation to Hartley's Observations on Man he expressed doubts again concerning the immateriality of the sentient principle in man; and in the Doctrine of Necessity-another elucidation of Hartley (q.v.)— published about the same time, largely denied the Christian doctrine of Revelation. But among the many points of Church dogma called in question or altogether repudiated, Dr. Priestley thus far had not openly touched the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1782 he published his History of the Corruptions of Christianity (2 vols. 8vo). A refutation of the arguments contained in this work was proposed for one of the Hague prize essays; and in 1785 the work itself was burned by the common hangman in the city of Dort. Next came a History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ (1786, 4 vols. 8vo), but it failed to make any impression in the literary or theological world. His previous writings, however, gave rise to a lively literary warfare between Priestley and Dr. Horsley. The principal subjects discussed were the doctrines of Free Will, Materialism, and Unitarianism. The victory in this controversy will probably be awarded by most men in accordance with their own preconceived views on the questions at issue. In a letter to Dr. Price, dated Jan. 27,1791, Priestley says: "With respect to the Church, with which you have meddled but little, I have long since drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard, and am very easy about the consequences." While it was a source of wonder to the savans of the Continent that such a man could believe in a God at all, his want of belief shocked the better class of his countrymen, who, although at the time sadly lax in morals, were scrupulous in their adherence to orthodoxy. But he did not confine himself to dealing with churchmen: his object was to obtain for the dissenters what he considered to be their rights, and in the pursuit of which he published about twenty volumes. He attacked certain positions relating to the dissenters in Blackstone's Commentaries with a vigor and acrimony which seems to have surprised his adversary. At the same time he was avowedly partial to the French Revolution, and as he was a man of strong speech and stinging pen, he soon excited the hatred of the High-Church and Tory party. The agitation of the populace had already found vent in riots, and in the month of July Dr. Priestley's house, library, manuscripts, and costly apparatus were committed to the flames by an angry mob. His papers, torn in scraps, carpeted the roads around his desolated home, and he was exposed to great personal danger. He quitted Birmingham foe Hackney, where he became the successor of his deceased friend Dr. Price (q.v.), and so far as money could restore what he had lost, it was liberally given. But his sentiments were unchanged, and he was none the less outspoken because of misuse; and at last, conceiving himself to be insecure against popular rage, he embarked for America.
In the United States he was received with enthusiasm as a martyr to republican principles. He was offered a professor's chair in Philadelphia, which, however, he declined-for, notwithstanding his unparalleled attainments, he modestly felt the want of an early systematic training in the sciences-and, retiring to Northumberland, he was soon again absorbed in his studies. But even here before long he was in the midst of bitter controversy. He had contemplated no difficulty in forming a Unitarian congregation in America; but in this he was greatly disappointed. He found that the majority disregarded religion, and those who paid any attention to it were more afraid of his doctrines than desirous of hearing them. By the American government, the former democratic spirit of which had subsided, he was looked upon as a spy in the interest of France. The democracy he espoused was unpalatably French, the inconsistency of his religious doctrines laid him open to ridicule, and, as he could not long remain silent, a host of critics was soon arrayed against him. His later writings were mostly in defense of his doctrines and discoveries, and his experiments in America did not prove as successful as those of his earlier years. To the day of his death he continued to pursue his literary and scientific pursuits with as much ardor as he had shown at any period of his active life. He died Feb. 6, 1804, expressing the satisfaction he derived from the consciousness of having led a useful life and the confidence he felt in a future state in a happy immortality. When his death became known in Paris, his éloge was read by Cuvier before the National Institute.
Priestley has given us his autobiography down to March 24,1795. He was a man of irreproachable moral and domestic character, remarkable for zeal, for truth, patience, and in his maturer years for serenity of temper. He appears to have been fearless in proclaiming his convictions, whether theological, political, or scientific. Few men in modern times have written so much, or with such facility; yet he seldom spent more than six or eight hours a day in any labor which required much mental exertion. A habit of regularity extended itself to all his studies. He never read a book without determining in his own mind when he would finish it; and at the beginning of every year he arranged the plan of his literary pursuits and scientific researches. He labored under a great defect, which, however, was not a very considerable impediment to his progress. He sometimes lost all ideas both of persons and things with which he had been conversant. He always did immediately what he had to perform. Though he rose early and dispatched his more serious pursuits in the morning, yet he was as well qualified for mental exertion at one time of the day as at another. All seasons were equal to him, early or late, before dinner or after. He could also write without inconvenience by the parlor fire, with his wife and children about him, and occasionally talking to them. In his family he ever maintained the worship of God. See the Memoirs, continued by his son, with observations by T. Cooper; also Life by John Corry (1805); and by Rutt (1832).
Rarely has a man been more variously estimated than Priestley. In Blackwood (1835) he was characterized as "a shallow scholar, an empirical philosopher — who stumbled on his discoveries and lacked the logical capacity to usefully apply them-a malcontent politician, and a heretical religionist." Dr. Parr, on the contrary, speaks of Priestley's attainments as numerous without a parallel, his talents as superlatively great, and his morals as correct without austerity and exemplary without ostentation. These estimates are certainly diverse, but possibly they are equally near the truth. Priestley was much more of an experimentalist than a philosopher. In religion as well as in science he sought novelties. Facts, and facts only, could satisfy him. But his caprice was as noticeable as his positiveness, and his logical inconsistencies were gross. A queer instance of this is found in his adherence to the theory of "phlogiston" — the supposed principle of inflammability, or the matter of fire in composition with other bodies, the absurdity of which was shown by his own discovery of oxygen. In theology, as we have seen, while maintaining the immortality of the soul, he denied its immateriality. He was never widely trusted as a religious leader; although, because of his ability and unimpeachable morality, and his eminence in science, his pulpit services were eagerly sought. His fame rests principally on his pneumatic inquiries. But he was encyclopedic in the range of his writings, which extend to between seventy and eighty volumes. Among them are works on general and ecclesiastical history and biography, on language, on oratory and criticism, on religion and metaphysics. Although many of his opinions were fanciful and manifestly erroneous, there was hardly a subject touched by his pen that was not the brighter and shapelier because of his genius. It is not now, — however, for the first time remarked that the minds best fitted for prosecuting the labors of experimental philosophy are by no means those from which we expect light to be cast into the more obscure region of metaphysical analysis. "Priestley's mind was objective to an extreme; he could fix his faith upon nothing which had not the evidence of sense in some way or other impressed upon it. Science, morals, politics, philosophy, religion, all came to him under the type of the sensational. Tile most spiritual ideas were obliged to be cast into a material mould before they could commend themselves to his judgment or conscience. His intellect was rapid to an extraordinary degree; lie saw the bearings of a question according to its principles at a glance, and embodied his thoughts in volumes, while many other men would hardly have sketched out their plan. All this, though admirable in the man of action, was not the temperament to form the solid metaphysician; nay, it was precisely opposed to that deep, reflective habit, that sinking into one's own inmost consciousness, from which alone speculative philosophy can obtain light and advancement." As a man of science, he has left his mark upon the intellectual history of the century; but besides being a man of science, he aimed at being a metaphysician, a theologian, a politician, a classical scholar, and a historian. With an amazing intrepidity he plunged into tasks the effective performance of which would have demanded the labors of a lifetime. With the charge of thirty youths on his hands, he proposes to write an ecclesiastical history, and soon afterwards observes that a fresh translation of the Old Test. would "not be a very formidable task" (Rutt, Life, 1, 42). He carried on all manner of controversies upon their own ground with Horsley and Badcock, with his friend Price, with Beattie and the Scotch philosophers, with Gibbon and the skeptics, and yet often labored for hours a day at his chemical experiments. So discursive a thinker could hardly do much thorough work, nor really work out or co-ordinate his own opinions. It would be in vain, therefore, to anticipate any great force or originality in Priestley's speculations. At best he was a quick reflector of the current opinions of his time and class, and able to run up hasty theories of sufficient apparent stability to afford a temporary refuge amid the storm of conflicting elements. With such tendencies of mind, therefore, and living in an age the whole bearing of which was away from the ideal to the sensational, it is not surprising that Priestley entered with energy into those principles of Hartley from which he hoped to reduce all mental science to a branch of physical investigation.
The metaphysical position he assumed may be fully seen in his Examination of Reid, Beattie, and Oswald: in fact, it is summed up in one extraordinary sentence, where he affirms that" something has been done in the field of knowledge by Descartes, very much by Mr. Locke, but most of all by Hartley, who has thrown more useful light upon the theory of the mind than Newton did upon the theory of the natural world." Priestley rested the truth of materialism upon two deductions. The first was that thought and sensation are essentially the same thing— that the whole variety of our ideas, however abstract and refined they may become, are, nevertheless, but modifications of the sensational faculty. This doctrine had been more fully maintained in France by Condillac, and is a crude anticipation of the positive view. The second deduction was that all sensation, and, consequently, all thought, arises from the affections of our material organization, and, therefore, consists entirely in the motion of the material particles of which the nerves and brain are composed. It is but justice, however, here to add that Priestley did not push his materialism so far as to evolve any conclusions contrary to the fundamental principles of man's natural religion, or to invalidate the evidence of a future state; for in the full conviction of these truths he both lived and died. And instead of distinctly inferring with modern positivists that we can show nothing of the ultimate nature either of mind or body, Priestley adopted the view that the soul is itself material. According to his quaint illustration, it resembles a razor. The power of thought inheres in it as the power of cutting in the razor. The razor dissolved in acids is annihilated; and, the body destroyed by putrefaction, the power of thinking ceases. But the particles remain in each case; and the soul, like the razor, may again be put together (Price and Priestley On Materialism, p. 82). The advantage of this doctrine, according to Priestley, was that it confirmed bishop Law's theory of the seat of the soul. The soul being, in fact, a piece of mechanism, is taken to pieces at death, and though it may afterwards be put together again by divine power, there is no ground for the superstitions embodied in the doctrine of purgatory. Moreover, it strikingly confirms the Socinian doctrine by removing all pretext for a belief in the pre-existence of Christ. To sum up, then, the precise influence of Priestley upon the progress of sensationalism in a few words, we may say that he succeeded in cutting the last tie which had held Hartley to the poor remains of spiritualism; that he reduced the whole phenomena of mind to organic processes-the mind itself to a material organization, and mental philosophy to a physical science. The whole existing order of things being an elaborate piece of mechanism, we infer the Almighty mechanist by the familiar watch argument (Disquisitions, 1, 187). Indeed, the Deity himself becomes almost phenomenal, and Priestley has considerable trouble in saving him from materiality he denies that a belief in his immateriality would increase our reverence for him (ibid. 1, 185), and declares that he must be in some sense extended, and have some common property with the matter upon which he acts. It would seem, indeed, that God is rather matter of a different kind from the ordinary than in any strict sense immaterial.
Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity led to the most exciting controversy in the latter half of the 18th century. His position may be easily defined. He writes as a Protestant, and, charging the papacy with corrupting tendencies, he pushes one step farther the arguments already familiar in the great controversy of the Protestant world of Christianity with Rome. He is by no means original in his position. Zwicker and Episcopius had anticipated his main theory. There is but a question of degree between Priestley and other Protestant writers upon the early ages of Christianity. He endeavors to draw the limits of the supernatural still more closely than his predecessors. All Protestants admitted that at some early period Christianity has been corrupted. Priestley includes among the corruptions the Trinitarian doctrines, which, as he argues, showed themselves, though in a comparatively undeveloped state, among the earliest of the post-apostolic writers. He continues the attack upon the authority of the Church fathers, as begun by David, and which had then been recently carried on by Middleton and Jortin. He makes Christ a mere man, and places the writers of the New Test. on the same level with Thucydides or Tacitus, while he still believes in the miracles, and quotes texts after the old unhistorical fashion. He is compelled, moreover, to accept the Protestant theory that there was in the earliest ages a body of absolutely sound doctrine, though, in the effort to identify this with Unitarianism he is driven to great straits, and forced to discover it in obscure sects, and to make inferences from the negative argument of silence rather than from positive assertions. Though he makes free with the reasoning of the apostles, he cannot give up their authority; and, accepting without question the authenticity of the Gospels, labors to interpret them in the Unitarian sense. He did not see that the real difficulty is the admission of supernatural agency, and that to call a miracle a very little one is only to encounter the whole weight of rationalistic and of orthodox hostility. His aim, as he explains in his Preface, is to show "what circumstances in the state of things" (notice this slipshod style), "and especially of other prevailing opinions and prejudices," favored the introduction of new doctrines. He hopes that this "historical method will be found to be one of the most satisfactory modes of argumentation" (Corruptions, vol. 1, Preface, p. 14).
Priestley asserts that corruptions appeared, but in practice seems to attribute them to perverse chances rather than to the influence of contemporary opinion, which he professes to trace. Thus in discussing theories of grace, he says, 'It is not easy to imagine a priori what could have led men into such a train of thinking" (ibid. 1, 284), as is exhibited in the speculations about grace, free will, and predestination. After some vague handling of the problem, he remembers that the "principal parts" of the system "were first suggested in the heat of controversy" (ibid. p. 285)— an explanation which seems to him to throw some light upon the question. Obviously, a writer thus incompetent to appreciate the bearings of the most vital doctrines of Christianity was not a very competent historian of thought. Priestley, however, perceives, what was indeed sufficiently palpable, that Platonism had played a great part in the development of Christian dogma. The Platonists, he tells us, "pretended to be no more than the expositors of a more ancient doctrine;" which he traces through Parmenides, the Pythagoreans, and Orpheus, to "the secret lore of the Egyptian priests." Another stream of tradition had reached the Romans from "their Trojan ancestors," who had received it from Phrygia, where it had been planted by Dardanus "as early as the 9th century after Noah's flood." Dardanus brought it from Samothrace, where the "'Three Mighty Ones" were worshipped under the name of the Cabirim. Thus the Platonic Trinity, and the Roman Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, were shown to be simply faint reflections of an early revelation communicated to the patriarchs before the days of Moses (Horsley, Tracts, p. 43-45). See, besides the works above referred to, Brougham, Lives of Philosophers of the Time of George III, p. 83 sq.; De Quincey, Philosophical Writers, 2, 262; Mackintosh, Miscell. Works. 3, 170; Lond. Gentlemaln's Magazine, April, 1804, p. 375 sq.; Edinb. Rev. 1806, p. 136 sq.; Norton, Views of Christian Truth, Piety, and Morality (Lond. 12mo); Lond. Qu. Rev. Dec. 1812, p. 430; Lindsey, Vindiciae Priestleianae (1785, 2 vols. 8vo); Christian Examiner, 12:257 sq.; Stevens, Hist. of English Thought in the 18th Century, 1, 429 sq.; Leckey, Hist. of Rationalism, and his Hist. of the 18th Century; Morell, Hist. of Modern Philosophy, p. 101 sq.; Taylor, Retrospect of Religious Life in England (1845); Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines, 2, 441 sq.; N. Y. Christian Advocate, 1877; Perry, Hist of the Church of England, 3, 432-434; Blakey, Hist. of the Philosophy of Mind, 3, 230 sq., 302 sq.; Cousin, Hist. of Modern Philosophy, lect. 13:14.