1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Kames

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:114-17.



This celebrated lawyer, philosopher, and critic, was the son of a Scotch country-gentleman of small fortune, and was born in the year 1696. He was privately educated, and at the age of sixteen was put to learn the profession of a solicitor or law-agent. He had nothing to depend upon but what he could realize by his own father had involved himself in debt very deeply. The branch of the profession which he was now studying, if it did not offer the most dazzling objects of ambition to a young and ardent mind, presented at least the surest and steadiest road to moderate competency. But young Home was soon fired to aim at greater things than were designed for him. Being sent one evening by his master with some papers to one of the judges, he was admitted to his lordship's presence, and very handsomely treated by him and his daughter; the combination of dignity and elegance which the young man saw in the manners and situation of the venerable judge and his accomplished daughter, so wrought upon his fancy, that, from that moment, he determined that nothing less should satisfy him than the attainment of the highest honours of the legal profession. He commenced a most laborious course of study, as well in the departments of literature and science as in the knowledge more peculiarly appropriate to his intended profession, and made a rapid progress in them all.

In addition to the study of the classical and the principal modern languages, his attention was closely directed to metaphysical investigations. In early life he carried on a correspondence with Andrew Baxter, Dr. Clarke, and other celebrated metaphysicians. Dr. Clarke had some years before published his celebrated Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. Home, at the age of 27, wrote him a long letter, proposing objections to different parts of his treatise. It was a clever but rather forward production, and was briefly answered by the Doctor.

In January, 1724, Home was called to the bar. For some years he had to struggle against the established ascendancy of several able and eloquent seniors in the profession. He did so gallantly, and his exertions were finally rewarded by abundant practice and high reputation. In 1728 he published a volume of Remarkable Decisions, in which he evinced great acuteness and indefatigable industry. In 1732 he published a volume of legal essays, which contributed still farther to advance his professional fame. Business now flowed in upon him; and the road to the attainment of his most ardent hopes was fairly opened to him. His manner as a barrister, says his biographer Lord Woodhouselee, "was peculiar to himself. He never attempted to speak to the passions, or to captivate his hearers by the graces of oratory; but addressing himself to the judgment, and employing a strain of language only a little elevated above that of ordinary discourse, — which even by its peculiar tone and style fixed the attention of the judge, while it awakened no suspicion of rhetorical artifice, — he began by a very short and distinct statement of the facts of the case, and a plain enunciation of the question of law thence arising. Having thus joined issue with his adversary on what he conceived to be the fair merits of the case, he proceeded to develope the principle on which he apprehended the decision ought to rest, and endeavoured with all the acuteness of which he was master to show its application to the question in discussion."

In 1741 Mr. Home published, in two volumes fol, The Decisions of the Court of Session, from its institution to the present time, abridged and digested under proper heads in the form of a Dictionary. In 1747 he published a volume of essays on various points of law antiquarianism. In 1751 appeared his Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion. This work was occasioned by the appearance of his friend David Hume's Philosophical Essays. Hume had assigned utility as the foundation of morals. This appeared to Home a very dangerous doctrine, as tending to annihilate all distinction of right and wrong in human actions, and to make good and evil depend on the fluctuating opinions of men with respect to the general good. In the Essays he has, therefore, subjected this theory to examination, and succeeded in pointing out its defects though certainly not in erecting a sounder system in its place. Hume's doctrine of cause and effect is also subjected to a rigid scrutiny in the Essays. The conclusion come to by Home on this point is, — that although the connexion between cause and effect is not demonstrable, yet are we assured of its reality: our conviction with respect to it resting on the same ground as that of the fact of our own existence, and the existence of the material world, — the evidence, namely, of intuitive perception, creating a belief that is irresistible, constant, and universal. Some of the doctrines advanced in the Essays, however, proved highly offensive to many, and Home was included with Hume in the proposed vote of censure meditated in the general assembly of the Church of Scotland.

In the month of February, 1752, Mr. Kames was elevated to the bench, and took his seat as a lord of session, by the title of Lord Kames. The promotion gave great and universal satisfaction, and he acquitted himself, as a judge, in a manner which commanded the highest approbation of intelligent men. He has been censured by some for severity as a criminal judge, but without just grounds, we think. Amidst his various judicial and public duties, he found means to publish several useful professional works. In 1761 he published a small volume entitled An Introduction to the Art of Thinking; and, in the following year, his most celebrated work, the Elements of Criticism, appeared in three volumes 8vo. "In this elaborate work," says his biographer, "the author proceeds on this fundamental proposition, — that the impressions made on the mind by the productions of the Fine Arts, are a subject of reasoning as well as feeling; and that, although the agreeable emotion arising from what is beautiful or excellent in those productions may be a gift of nature, and, like all other endowments, very unequally distributed among mankind, yet it depends on certain principles or laws of the human constitution which are common to the whole species. Whence it follows, that, as a good taste consists in the consonance of our feelings with these fixed laws, our judgments on all the works of genius are only to be esteemed just and perfect when they are warranted by the conclusions of sound understanding, after trying and comparing them by this standard." These principles are doubtless sound, and Lord Kames deserves to be regarded as the first who reduced the rules of philosophical criticism to the form of a science. We are doubtful, however, of his right to being considered as the discoverer of these principles, which appear to us to have been known from the days of Aristotle.

Lord Kames's next great work is his Sketches of the History of Man, first published in 1774, in two volumes 4to. The leading doctrine of this singular work appears to be, that man originally existed in a state of utter savageism, and that all his subsequent advancement has been the mere result of the progressive development of his natural powers by natural means. In these Sketches, notwithstanding, there is an affected deference paid to the Mosaic history.

The latter part of his lordship's active life was still crowded with official, public, and literary business. Amidst the overwhelming multiplicity of details to which his attention was perpetually called, he contrived to devote some of his time to rural pursuits and the improvement of the agriculture of his country. He conceived and partly executed the magnificent idea of draining the great moss of Kincardine; and executed very extensive and tasteful improvements on his estate of Blair-Drummond. His constitution was an admirable one, and did not show any signs of breaking up until he had long passed his "threescore years and ten." So late as the winter session of 1782 he took his seat on the bench with his brother-judges; but he soon became sensible that he was now tasking nature beyond her feeble strength. After a few days' attendance he took a separate and affectionate farewell of each of his brethren, and, in eight days thereafter, was gently released from the evils of mortality by the friendly hand of death.

Lord Kames's memoirs have been ably drawn up by his friend Lord Woodhouselee, in two volumes 4to. These volumes, besides a very full and acute delineation of their principal subject, contain many interesting sketches of the literary history of Scotland during the greater part of last century.