Thursday, April 3, 2008

the morals of a moral philosophy professor

John Wilson to Thomas De Quincey

{In 1820 Wilson, on the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh.}

53 Queen Street, August [1820].

My Dear Friend,

In your letter of the 26th you proposed to send in a day or two your review of Malthus. It is now the 5th of August, and I am beginning to fear that something may have occurred to stop your composition. . . Two sheets of the magazine was a promise that raised the mortal to the skies; so do not draw the devil down!

I am quite at a stand respecting my lectures, but have been reading some books, some of which even I understand. What is good in Clark's 'Light of Nature'? He is an insufferable beast as to style, and seems to me to have no drift but to leewards. If you think otherwise, give me notice of those parts of his book that you think worth reading. As I have to lecture on Moral Philosophy, I should merely give such general views of the intellectual part of our nature as are essential to the understanding of Man as a Moral Being: and first of the physical nature of Man.

What should I treat of in the Senses appetites and bodily powers? It seems to me perhaps I said it before that I should have a lecture on 'The Origin of Knowledge' when treating of the Senses. What are the books? and what theory is the true one? And your objections to Locke.

Of the Intellectual Powers, I send you to-day a sketch by the late Professor Brown my predecessor. He had a great character here, and the book seems exceedingly ingenious. I wish during the winter probably about the 1st of December, to explain his Theory to my students; and hope that you will read it, at your leisure, and discuss its merits and demerits fully and freely exactly as you opine them to be, in letters addressed to me. I forget if I mentioned to you that I intend giving half-a-dozen lectures on the Greek Philosophy, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, &c. Have you any books about them and their systems; or can you write me some long letters about either, or their philosophy?

What does, in your belief, constitute moral obligation? and what ought to be my own doctrine on that subject? Are there good essays on the Stoic and Epicurean Philosophy, and where? What books ought I to read for disquisitions and views respecting the duties created by society. This branch, if I treat it at all this winter, and I think I must, is most exigeant.

I sincerely hope that you will not delay, should you not have written to me already, to send me such information as I now seek, for time is flying rapidly, and I have few books.

I write this letter, which probably contains repetitions, to remind you of the necessities of my present situation; and that nothing in the world would benefit me so much as your advice and assistance at the present juncture. In what I have said about your articles for the Magazine, do not imagine that I have any intention however remote of doubting that you will send them if you can. That, however, I know, does, with all men, depend on a thousand circumstances. I tried to convince Blackwood that you never had engaged to write for the Magazine, and his face was worth ten pounds for it was as pale as a sheet. I told him, however, that now you were engaged, so that if the articles don't come now, he will become a sceptic even in religion, and end in total disbelief of Earth, Heaven and Hell.

Believe me to be, my dear Friend, ever yours most truly,
John Wilson.

P. S. Stewart's 'Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind ' consists of 2 vols. the latter of which contains ' Reason/ &c., and the former ' Imagination,' &c. Whatever of these you have not, I will send to you. There is a third volume of separate Essays, which I will send too immediately if you have it not; do let me know how the matter stands.

I have received your long and entertaining letter of the 5th, so delayed sending this letter. Not hearing from you to-day (7th), I send it off. I see the necessity of secrecy. But I am working away. Can you give your letters a less mysterious outward form; and, pray, do not write anything on the backs. Time flies. I will not write again till I bear from you again. Adopt in your letters some ingenious disguise as to your object in writing.
J. W.

-from The de Quincey Memorials: Being Letters and other Records, here first Published from Communications from Coleridge, the Wordsworths, Hannah More, Professor Wilson, and Others. Edited, with Introduction, Notes, and Narrative by Alexander H. Japp in Two Volumes (London: William Heinemann, 1891) vol. ii

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