1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lord Kames

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:208-09.



HENRY HOME (1696-1782), a Scottish lawyer and judge, in which latter capacity he took, according to a custom of his country, the designation of Kames, was a conspicuous member of the literary and philosophical society assembled in Edinburgh during the latter part of the eighteenth century. During the earlier part of his life he devoted the whole powers of an acute and reflective mind, and with an industry calling for the greatest praise, to his profession, and compilations and treatises connected with it. But the natural bent of his faculties towards philosophical disquisition — the glory if not the vice of his age and country — at length took the mastery, and, after reaching the bench in 1752, he gave his leisure almost exclusively to metaphysical and ethical subjects. His first work of this kind, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, combats those theories of human nature which deduce all actions from some single principle, and attempts to establish several principles of action. He here maintained philosophical necessity, but in a connection with the duties of morality and religion, which he hoped might save him from the obloquy bestowed on other defenders of that doctrine; an expectation in which he was partially disappointed, as he narrowly escaped a citation before the General Assembly of his native church, on account of this book.

The Introduction to the Art of Thinking, published in 1761, was a small and subordinate work, consisting mainly of a series of detached maxims and general observations on human conduct, illustrated by anecdotes drawn from the stores of history and biography. In the ensuing year appeared a larger work, perhaps the best of all his compositions — The Elements of Criticism, three volumes, a bold and original performance, which, discarding all arbitrary rules of literary criticism derived from authority, seeks for a proper set of rules in the fundamental principles of human nature itself. Dugald Stewart admits this to be the first systematic attempt to investigate the metaphysical principles of the fine arts.

Lord Kames had, for many years, kept a commonplace book, into which he transcribed all anecdotes of man, in his various nations and degrees of civilisation, which occurred in the course of his reading, or appeared in the fugitive publications of the day. When advanced to near eighty years of age, he threw these together in a work entitled Sketches of the History of Man (two vols., 4to., 1773), which shows his usual ingenuity and acuteness, and presents many curious disquisitions on society, but is materially reduced in value by the absence of a proper authentication to many of the statements presented in it as illustrations. A volume, entitled Loose hints on Education, published in 1781, and in which he anticipates some of time doctrines on that subject which have since been in vogue, completes the list of his philosophical works.

Lord Kames was also distinguished as an amateur agriculturist and improver of land, and some operations, devised by him for clearing away a superincumbent moss from his estate by means of water raised from a neighbouring river, help to mark the originality and boldness of his conceptions. This taste led to his producing, in 1777, a volume entitled The Gentleman Farmer, which he has himself sufficiently described as "an attempt to improve agriculture by subjecting it to the test of rational principles."

Lord Kames was a man of commanding aspect and figure, but easy and familiar manners. He was the life and soul of every private company, and it was remarked of him that no subject seemed too great or too frivolous to derive lustre from his remarks upon it. The taste and thought of his philosophical works have now placed them out of fashion, but they contain many views and reflections from which modern inquirers might derive advantage.