Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Bonar
Joseph Priestley (17331804)
[Joseph Priestley was born near Leeds in 1733, was educated at Daventry, and became in 1755 minister at Needham Market, Suffolk, and from 175861 minister and schoolmaster at Nantwich. From 176167 he was teacher at Warrington Dissenters Academy, where he found time to write on grammar, biography, and education, as well as to gain the title F.R.S. for a book on Electricity. In 1767 he went to Leeds, first to a chapel and then as librarian to Lord Shelburne (177380). In 1768 he wrote on Civil Government, in 1770 on Perspective. In 1773 he got the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for valuable discoveries in regard to fixed air. In 1776 he published discoveries on Respiration. Books on Natural and Revealed Religion (177274), and on philosophy and science followed fast; and his profession of materialism (Matter and Spirit, 1777) and belief in Philosophical Necessity (appendix to Matter and Spirit), and perhaps also his devotion to Hartley, estranged him from Shelburne. In 1780 accordingly he left Leeds and settled in Birmingham at his old clerical duties. There, amongst other things, he wrote on the History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), and used the book to draw Gibbon into a correspondence, the publication of which by Priestley was no doubt improper, and certainly imprudent, but as the means of preserving a masterpiece of vituperation (Gibbons Letters, No. cxliv.) hardly now to be regretted.
Priestley, at Birmingham, was a militant dissenter and Unitarian; he was also a warm defender of the French Revolution. Accordingly in the riots of 14th and 15th July 1791 his house was wrecked and his books and instruments were destroyed or stolen. The story is well told in the New Annual Register, 1791 (History, pp. 2103). He was only one sufferer out of several; and the rioters were put on their trial and two of them hung. But Priestley left Birmingham to succeed his friend Richard Price at Hackney; and finally, in 1794, he left England for Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where in 1804 he died. His works fill nearly eighty volumes, and he left an autobiography and correspondence, published soon after his death.]
PRIESTLEYS services to science are his most considerable achievement. Gibbon wrote to him: Give me leave to convey to your ear the almost unanimous and not offensive wish of the philosophic world that you would confine your talents and industry to those sciences in which real and useful improvements can be made. But he was not only a great chemist. His sturdy force of character made him a man of influence in England. His ideas of education were broad and enlightened; he laid down (and indeed had taught) all the main articles of what is now called the education of the Citizen. He would supplant, or at least supplement, the old classical training by a course of law and history, economic and demographical principles, and not least an acquaintance with political and local institutions.
In philosophy he followed David Hartley in regarding the association of ideas as the key to psychological difficulties; indeed he went beyond Hartley in becoming materialist, while still like Hartley remaining theist. He praised Jonathan Edwards; of philosophical necessity, as opposed to freedom of the will, he says, There is no truth of which I have less doubt (Examination of Reid, p. 169). He is said by Bentham to have suggested to him (by his Civil Government, 1768) the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In his criticisms of the common-sense philosophy of Reid, Beattie, and Oswald, he treats his opponents with something of the arrogance once supposed to be characteristic of the savant. But these were times when men had not learned to express disagreement in an agreeable manner. It must be said that while his theological controversy with Bishop Horsley was equally warm it was more temperate in terms.
Though, pace Bentham, there is nothing new in Priestleys views of Civil Government, or in his Letters to Burke on the French Revolution, his political writings have features of some historical interest. In the Civil Government he makes clear the distinction between political liberty and civil liberty. In the Letters, he pleads for French reformers in the language of an English dissenter who has suffered through intolerance and injustice in his own country, and there is as much said about England and America as about France.
The style of this author is adequate to his thought. There is little flexibility or vivacity; the diction is heavy, and occasionally the preacher bestows on us the tediousness and prolixity too frequently associated with sermons. He has usually something to prove, and, if he does not prove it, the fault is not in the manner but in the matter of statement.