525 Years in the Pursuit of Truth Podcast: James Beattie (1735-1803): Philosopher and Poet

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In 1773 James Beattie, professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College, Aberdeen, visited London to petition (successfully) for a royal pension on the back of his sudden fame as author of An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, In Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism (1770), an attack on the ‘infidelity’ of the times, and the writings of David Hume in particular.

While in London, Beattie sat for the preeminent English portrait painter of the age, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who, as Beattie wrote in a letter of 21 August 1773 to his friend Elizabeth Montagu, planned ‘a sort of allegorical portrait [of Beattie] representing the triumph of truth over scepticism and infidelity’. Exhibited in 1774 at the Royal Academy, Reynolds’s ‘The Triumph of Truth, with a Portrait of a Gentleman’, shows Beattie, in his Doctor of Laws gown and band, dramatically lit against a stormy background; he smiles modestly, and grips a copy of his book of philosophy, while his enemies, Voltaire and Hume, are confounded and thrust into the darkness. Reynolds’s portrait generated criticism of artist and sitter, the former for his ridiculed suggestion that Beattie was a greater philosopher than Hume or Voltaire, the latter for vanity. Yet ‘The Triumph of Truth’ succeeds in capturing the drama of philosophical controversy in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Professor Jones examines Beattie’s response to Hume and Voltaire across his career, in a variety of genres, with particular reference to his manuscript prose allegory, ‘The Castle of Scepticism’ (composed 1767), his Essay on […] Truth, and his poem The Minstrel; or, the Progress of Genius (Book One: 1771; Book Two: 1774). In the nineteenth century, The Minstrel would function as an important precursor text for Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18) and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (posthumously published 1850). Beattie’s philosophy and poetry sheds light not only on the debates that animated King’s and Marischal colleges in the eighteenth century, but also on the role of the Aberdeen Enlightenment in the development of Romanticism in Scotland and beyond.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of Aberdeen
Media of outputOnline
Publication statusPublished - 20 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

A podcast in the series: 525 Years in the Pursuit of Truth: A New History of The University of Aberdeen


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