James Beattie

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James Beattie (1753-1803), a philosopher and poet, was born on October 25, 1735 in a farmhouse near Laurencekirk, Kincardineshire, Scotland.

He was the youngest of six children born to James Beattie, a small shop keeper and farmer, and Jean Watson. In 1749 he began studying at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and was awarded the MA degree in 1753. While an undergraduate, he became close friends with James Ramsay, then a student from King’s College,Aberdeen; Ramsay was to become known for his strong views favouring the abolition of the slave trade. After graduating, Beattie's first job was as parish schoolmaster in Fordoun, not far from his birthplace, but he continued his studies on a part-time basis, reading Divinity at both Marischal and King’s Colleges. In 1757, Beattie was appointed master at Aberdeen Grammar School. In 1760, Beattie was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College, and soon after was elected to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, founded in 1758 by Thomas Reid (1710-1796) and John Gregory (1724-1773).

In 1761, he married Mary Dunn, the only daughter of Dr James Dunn, rector of Aberdeen Grammar School, and they had two sons. Beattie´s later years were not happy; his wife went mad and was committed to an asylum; his elder son died in 1790 and the younger in 1796. After several strokes, Beattie died in Aberdeen on August 18, 1803.

Essay on Truth

In 1770, Beattie published the work for which he was best known, An Essay on The Nature and Immutability of Truth In Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism (1770) asserted the sovereignty of common sense while attacking the ideas of David Hume (1711-1776), the major philosopher of the time. The work earned him a doctorate of laws from Oxford; an audience with King George III; and a Crown pension of 200 pounds a year. Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson were among those impressed, and his portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Essay was translated into French, German, and Dutch, and in 1784 Beattie was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.


Ah! who can tell how hard it is to climb
The steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar!
Ah! who can tell how many a soul sublime
Hath felt the influence of malignant star,
And wag'd with Fortune an eternal war!
Check'd by the scoff of Pride, by Envy's frown,
And Poverty's unconquerable bar,
In life's low vale remote hath pin'd alone
Then dropt into the grave, unpitied and unknown!
And yet, the languor of inglorious days
Not equally oppressive is to all.
Him, who ne'er listen'd to the voice of praise,
The silence of neglect can ne'er appal.
There are, who, deaf to mad Ambition's call,
Would shrink to hear th' obstreperous trump of Fame;
Supremely blest, if to their portion fall
Health, competence, and peace. Nor higher aim
Had he, whose simple tale these artless lines proclaim.

(opening verses of The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius)[1]


  1. The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius by James Beattie; from Representative Poetry Online