Your correspondent M. N. must have paid a very superficial attention to the controversy in which he has taken a part, otherwise he could not have asserted that any thing was quoted, in page 230 of your Magazine, from the Introduction to the fourth edition of Dr. Beattie's Essays. [I suppose he must mean the Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth; for there has been only one edition of the Essays.] There is, indeed, in page 112, a quotation, not from that Introduction, but from the Preface to the Essays. M. N. says, "he is sorry to find the Doctor has long since laid aside his Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Moral Truth." I do not readily conceive how an author could lay aside a book that has been printed and reprinted again and again: I therefore suppose M. N. means the Inquiry concerning the Universality and Immutability of Moral Truth. This want of accuracy in expression is, however, of no great importance; but M. N.'s letter must be noticed on other accounts.
M. N. obliquely charges Dr. Beattie with breach of promise; but respecting this matter of the Inquiry, I apprehend no promise ever existed. Dr. B.'s words in page 213 of the fourth edition of his Essay on Truth, are these: "From the number of historical as well as philosophical disquisitions, which I found it necessary to introduce, the Inquiry concerning the Universality and Immutability of Moral Truth, which I thought to have comprised in a few pages, soon swelled into a treatise. I meant to have finished it some years ago, but have been hitherto prevented by a number of unforeseen accidents."
There is certainly a wide difference between giving an expectation, and making a promise; and if the preceding expressions imply the former, they surely cannot be construed into the latter. Were a person even absolutely to promise to publish a work in a specified time, and illness should intervene, and prevent the publication, there could be no pretence for treating such a person illiberally: on the contrary, in such a circumstance, illiberal treatment must be deemed by all the sensible and humane, not only undeserved, but cruel.
What M. N. terms Dr. B.'s excuse is not a mere excuse, but a valid reason. The Doctor's indisposition is not only tenderness of constitution, but a real disease, which incapacitates him for most kinds of literary pursuits, even for what M. N. so fastidiously terms "his late performances, uninteresting poetry, and trivial essays on trite subjects." Dr. B. has published no poetry since the first publication of the Essay on Truth in 1770, the Minstrel excepted: the first part in 1771; and the second in 1774; and both written some considerable time previous to their appearance. The only essays of Dr. B—'s, which I know of, are those printed with his Essay on Truth, in the quarto edition of 1776; and these, though then first printed, had been long written. The Essay on Poetry and Music, I believe those who have a taste for those pleasing arts, will not be easily induced to think trivial; but my business is not to applaud Dr. B.'s writing, but to defend his conduct. This Essay was written in 1762; the Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition, was written in 1764; and the Essay on Classical Learning in 1769. Your correspondents, Mr. Urban, are rather unlucky in their assertions. Crito positively asserted what he could not prove. M. N. positively asserts that Dr. B. wrote an Essay on Humour, addressed to Samuel Foote, Esq. If M. N. by this Essay on Humour, means the Essay on Laughter, &c. abovementioned, he is grossly mistaken, for that Essay is not addressed to any person whatsoever. If he does not mean that, it is incumbent upon him to shew when and where this Essay on Humour was published, and that it was actually written by Dr. Beattie; unless he, the said M. N. chuses to be considered as the inventor, or, at least, the propagator of a direct and injurious falsehood. That Dr. B. and the late Mr. Foote, persons totally dissimilar in sentiment, taste, and conduct, should have connexion enough for either of them to dedicate a work to the other, is too glaring an improbability for any thinking man to credit.
M. N. need not have called so impetuously on Dr. Beattie to state to the public his reasons for not answering Dr. Priestley: they are already stated. Dr. B. speaking of the objections of several, whom he politely terms "ingenious authors," and among whom he doubtless meant to include Dr. Priestley, thus proceeds: "Some objections will, perhaps, be found obviated by occasional remarks and amendments interspersed in this edition. I once intended to have offered a more compleat vindication, and had actually prepared materials for it; but finding them swell to a considerable bulk, and recollecting that disputes of this nature, when once begun, are not soon terminated, and are apt to grow less useful as they are more voluminous, I was easily prevailed with to lay aside this design, at least till Providence should be pleased to grant me better health. Even, then, the prosecution of this controversy may not, perhaps, be found requisite. To the wise a word is said to be enough. If the principles of this book be good, they need no further support; if erroneous, or bad, they need none." Preface to Essays, in quarto, 1776, p. 9.
M. N. talks in high language about Dr. B.'s want of gratitude to the public. For my part I know of no obligations that Dr. B. or any other author is under to the public. When a writer publishes a book, he does not compel any person to purchase it; if it be a good one, some readers will buy it to instruct or amuse themselves; if it be a bad one, nobody will buy it to serve him. The obligation, indeed, if there is any, seems to lie on the other side. An author commonly endeavours, whether successfully or not, to give pleasure to his readers; and surely I am obliged to him who does his best to please me. Authors, however, would be in a mortifying situation indeed, if, after publishing two or three valuable performances, they were necessitated to obey every person's peremptory command to publish more.
I heartily wish Dr. Beattie's health would have permitted him to have undertaken the task of defending himself, as he could have performed it much better than I have. His disposition is so amiable, that I think him incapable of doing any thing that might procure him a personal enemy; I cannot, therefore, but suppose that those who have attacked him on the present occasion, are either some furious sons of orthodoxy, whom his modesty has offended, or some disguised sceptics, who, under pretence of espousing the cause of truth and virtue, have made their feeble efforts to injure an established and superior character.
—Telumque imbelle sine ictu
Yours, &c. A. B.