James Harris

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 17:171-78.

JAMES HARRIS, esq. an English gentleman of very uncommon parts and learning, was the eldest son of James Harris, esq. of the Close of Salisbury, by his second wife the lady Elizabeth Ashley, who was third daughter of Anthony earl of Shaftesbury, and sister to the celebrated author of the Characteristics, as well as to the Hon. Maurice Ashley Cooper, the elegant translator of Xenophon's Cyropaedia. He was born July 20, 1709. The early part of his education, was received at Salisbury, under the rev. Mr. Hele, master of the grammar-school, in the Close, who was long known and respected in the West of England as an instructor of youth. From Mr. Hele's school, at the age of sixteen, he was removed to Oxford, where he passed the usual number of years as a gentleman commoner of Wadham college. His father, as soon as he had finished his academical studies, entered him at Lincoln's-Inn, not intending him for the bar, but, as was then a common practice, meaning to make the study of the law a part of his education.

When he had attained his twenty-fourth year, his father died. This event, by rendering him independent in fortune, and freeing him from all controul, enabled him to exchange the study of the law for other pursuits that accorded better with his inclination. The strong and decided bent of his mind had always been towards the Greek and Latin classics. These he preferred to every other sort of reading; and to his favourite authors he now applied himself with avidity, retiring from London to the house in which his family had very long resided in the Close of Salisbury, for the sake of enjoying without interruption his own mode of living.

His application during fourteen or fifteen years to the best writers of antiquity continued to be almost unremitting, and his industry was such as is not often exceeded. He rose always very early, frequently at four or five o'clock in the morning, especially during the winter, and by these means he was enabled to mix occasionally in the society of Salisbury and its neighbourhood, without too great a sacrifice of his main object, the acquisition of ancient literature. But it was not until many years after his retirement from London, that he began to read Aristotle and his commentators, or to inquire, so deeply as he afterwards did, into the Greek philosophy. He had imbibed a prejudice, very common at that time even among scholars, that Aristotle was an obscure and unprofitable author, whose philosophy had been deservedly superseded by that of Mr. Locke, a notion which his own writings have since contributed to correct, with no small evidence and authority.-In the midst, however, of his literary labours he was not inattentive to the public good, but acted regularly and assiduously as a magistrate for the county of Wilts; giving, in that capacity, occasional proofs of a manly spirit and firmness, without which the mere formal discharge of magisterial duty is often useless and inefficient.

The first fruit which appeared to the world of so many years spent in the pursuit of knowledge, was a volume published in 1744, containing "Three Treatises. The first concerning Art. — The second concerning Music, Painting, and Poetry. — The third concerning Happiness." These treatises, in addition to their merit as original compositions, are illustrated by a variety of learned notes and observations, elucidating many difficult passages of ancient writers, the study and examination of whom it was his earnest wish to promote and to facilitate. Lord Monboddo, speaking of the dialogue upon Art, praises it, as containing "the best specimen of the dividing, or diaeretic manner, as the ancients called it, that is to be found in any modern book with which he is acquainted."

In July 1745 he was married to miss Elizabeth Clarke, daughter and eventually heiress of John Clarke, esq. of Sandford, near Bridgewater, in the county of Somerset. Five children were the issue of this marriage, of whom two daughters, and a son, the present lord Malmsbury, survived their father. — This change in his state of life by no means withdrew his attention from those studies in which be had been used to take so great delight, and which he had cultivated with such advantage and reputation; for in 1751 he published another work, entitled "Hermes, or a philosophical inquiry concerning Universal Grammar," 8vo. Of this work, Dr. Lowth, the late bishop of London, says, "Those who would enter deeply into the subject (of universal grammar) will find it fully and accurately handled, with the greatest acuteness of investigation, perspicuity of explication, and elegance of method, in a treatise entitled Hermes, by James Harris, esq. the most beautiful example of analysis that has been exhibited since the days of Aristotle." What first led Mr. Harris to a deep and accurate consideration of the principles of universal grammar, was a book which be held in high estimation, and has frequently quoted in his Hermes, the "Minerva" of Sanctius. To that writer he confessed himself indebted for abundance of valuable information, of which it appears that be knew well how to profit, and to push his researches on the subject of grammar to a much greater length, by the help of his various and extensive erudition. Mr. Harris's system in this work still maintains its ground in the estimation of most men of taste, notwithstanding the coarse attack made on it by Horne Tooke.

From the period of his marriage until 1761, he continued to live entirely at Salisbury, except in the summer, when he sometimes retired to his house at Darnford, near that city. It was there that he found himself most free from the interruption of business, and of company, and at leisure to compose the chief, part of those works which were the result of his study at other seasons. His time was divided between the care of his family, in which be placed his chief happiness, his literary, pursuits, and the society of his friends and neighbours, with whom he kept up a constant and cheerful intercourse. The superior taste and skill which he possessed in music, and his extreme fondness for hearing it, led him to attend to its cultivation in his native place with uncommon pains and success insomuch, that under his auspices, not only the annual musical festival in Salisbury flourished beyond most institutions of the kind, but even the ordinary subscription-concerts were carried on, by his assistance and directions, with a spirit and effect seldom equalled out of the metropolis. Many of the beautiful selections made from the best Italian and German composers for these festivals and concerts, and adapted by him, sometimes to words selected from Scripture, or from Milton's "Paradise Lost," sometimes to compositions of his own, have survived the occasions on which they were first produced, and are still in great estimation. Two volumes of these selections have been lately published by Mr. Corfe, organist of Salisbury cathedral; the rest remain in manuscript in possession of lord Malmsbury.

In 1761, by the interest of his near relation, the late Edward Hooper, esq. of Hurn court in Hampshire, he was chosen one of the representatives in parliament for the borough of Christ-church, which seat he retained to the day of his death. The year following he accepted the office of one of the lords of the admiralty, from whence he was promoted in 1763 to be a lord of the treasury. He remained in that situation until the ministry with which he was connected went out of office in 1765; and after that time he did not hold any employment until 1774, when he became secretary and comptroller to the queen. This appointment was always valued by him exceedingly; not only by reason of the handsome and flattering manner in which it was conferred upon him by her majesty, but also on account of the frequent occasions it afforded him of experiencing her majesty's gracious kindness and condescension, of which he had a very high sense, and which were continued to him, without interruption, to the end of his life; for in her service he died.

Although assiduous in the discharge of his parliamentary duty, and occasionally taking a share in debates, he never contracted any violent spirit of party. He abhorred faction of every kind; nor did he ever relinquish, for public business, those still more interesting pursuits which had made the delight and occupation of his earlier years. If they were somewhat intermitted during the sitting of parliament, he renewed them with increased relish and satisfaction on his return into the country. In 1775 he published his "Philosophical Arrangements," a part only of a larger work that he had meditated, but did not finish, upon the peripatetic logic. So far as relates to the "Arrangement" of ideas s is complete; but it has other objects also in view. It combats with great force and ability, the atheistical doctrines of chance and materialism, doctrines which we have seen revived in France, under the specious garb of modern philosophy, and which issuing thence, overspread a great part of Europe; destroying the happiness of mankind, by subverting, in every part of their progress, the foundations of morality and religion.

The last of Mr. Harries productions was printed in 1780, by the name of "Philological Inquiries," but not published sooner than 1781. It is a more popular work than any of his former ones; and contains rather a summary of the conclusions to which the philosophy of the ancients had conducted them in their critical inquiries, than a regular and perfect system. The principles on which those conclusions depend are therefore omitted, as being of a more abstruse nature than was agreeable to his design, which was to teach by illustration and example, not by strict demonstration. "Indeed this publication," says his biographer, "is not only a retrospective view of those studies which exercised his mind in the full vigour of his life, but likewise a monument of his affection towards many of his intimate friends. I cannot, therefore, but consider it as a pleasing proof of a mind retaining, at an advanced age, a considerable degree of its former energy and activity, together with what is still more rarely to be found, an undiminished portion of its candour and benevolence."

Before this last volume was entirely concluded, his health began to be very much impaired. He never enjoyed a robust constitution; but for some time, towards the end of his life, the infirmities under which he laboured had gradually increased. His family at length became apprehensive of a decline, symptoms of which were very apparent, and by none more clearly perceived than by himself. This was evident from a variety of little circumstances, but by no means from any impatience or fretfulness, nor yet from any dejection of spirits, such as are frequently incident to extreme weakness of body, especially when it proves to be the forerunner of approaching dissolution. On the. contrary, the same equable and placid temper which had distinguished him throughout his whole life, the same tender and affectionate attention to his surrounding family, which he had unceasingly manifested while in health, continued, without the smallest change or abatement, to the very last; displaying a mind: thoroughly at peace with itself, and able without disturbance or dismay to contemplate the awful prospect of futurity. After his strength had been quite exhausted by illness, he expired calmly on the 22d of December, 1780, in the seventy-second year of his age. His remains were deposited in the north aile of the cathedral church of Salisbury, near those of his ancestors, and a monument was soon after erected to his memory.

In 1801 his son, lord Malmsbury, published a magnificent edition of the works before mentioned in two volumes quarto, with two fine portraits and other plates. Prefixed is an affectionate biographical sketch, from which the present article has been taken. This is concluded by the noble author with the following general view of Mr. Harris's character, which, from every information, we have reason to think is just and impartial.

"The distinction by which he was most generally known, and by which he is likely to survive to posterity, is that of a Man of Learning. His profound knowledge of Greek, which be applied more successfully, perhaps, than any modern writer has done, to the study and explanation of ancient philosophy, arose from an early and intimate acquaintance with the excellent poets and historians in that language. They, and the best writers in the Augustan age, were his constant and never-failing recreation. By his familiarity with them, he was enabled to enliven and to illustrate his deeper and more abstruse speculations, as every page almost (of his works) will abundantly testify. But his at attainments were not confined to ancient philosophy and classical learning. He possessed likewise a general knowledge of modern history, with a very distinguishing taste in the fine arts, in one of which, as before observed, be was an eminent proficient. His singular industry empowered him to make these various acquisitions, without neglecting any of the duties which he owed to his family, his friends, or his country. I am in possession of such proofs, besides those already given to the public, of my father's laborious study and reflection, as I apprehend, are very rarely to be met with. Not only was he accustomed, through a long series of years, to make copious extracts from the different books which he read, and to write critical remarks and conjectures on many of the passages extracted, but he was also in the habit of regularly committing to waiting such reflections as arose out of his study, which evince a mind carefully disciplined, and anxiously bent on the attainment of self-knowledge and self-government. And yet, though habituated to deep thinking and laborious reading, he was generally cheerful even to playfulness. There was no pedantry in his manners or conversation, nor was he ever seen either to display his learning with ostentation, or to treat with slight or superciliousness those less informed than himself. He rather sought to make them appear partakers of what he knew, than to mortify them by a parade of his own superiority. Nor had he any of that miserable fastidiousness about him which too often disgraces men of learning, and prevents their being amused or interested, at least their choosing to appear so by common performances and common events.

"It was with him a maxim, that the most difficult, and infinitely the preferable, sort of criticism, both in literature and the arts, was that which consists in finding out beauties rather than defects; and although he certainly wanted not judgment to distinguish and to prefer superior excellence of any kind, he was too reasonable to expect it should very often occur, and too wise to allow himself to be disgusted at common weakness or imperfection. He thought, indeed, that the very attempt to please, however it might fall short of its aim, deserved some return of thanks, some degree of approbation; and that to endeavour at being pleased by such efforts, was due to justice, to good-nature, and to good sense.

"Far at the same time from that presumptuous conceit which is solicitous about mending others, and that moroseness which feeds its own pride by dealing in general censure, he cultivated to the utmost that great moral wisdom, by which we are made humane, gentle, and forgiving; thankful for the blessings of life, acquiescent in the afflictions we endure, and submissive to all the dispensations of Providence. He detested the gloom of superstition, and the persecuting spirit by which it is so often accompanied; but he abhorred still more the baneful and destructive system of modern philosophy; and from his early solicitude to inspire me with a hatred of it, it would almost seem that he foresaw its alarming approach and fatal progress.

"My father's affection to every part of his family was exemplary and uniform. As a husband, a parent, a master, he was ever kind and indulgent; and it deserves to be mentioned to his honour, that he thought it no interruption of his graver occupations, himself to instruct his daughters, by exercising them daily both in reading and composition, and writing essays for their improvement, during many of their younger years. No man was a better judge of what belonged to female education, and the elegant accomplishments of the sex, or more disposed to set a high value upon them. But he had infinitely more at heart, that his children should be early habituated to the practice of religion and morality, and deeply impressed with their true principles. To promote this desirable end, he was assiduous both by instruction and example; being himself a constant attendant upon public worship, and enforcing that great duty upon every part of his family. The deep sense of moral and religious obligation which was habitual to him, and those benevolent feelings which were so great a happiness to his family and friends, had the same powerful influence over his public as his private life. He had an ardent zeal for the prosperity of his country, whose real interests he well understood; and in his parliamentary conduct he proved himself a warm friend to the genuine principles of religious and civil liberty, as well as a firm supporter of every branch of our admirable constitution."