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PRIESTLEY. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 1.
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Que Phomme done s'estime son prix.—it a en lui la capacité de counôitre la vérité, et d'etre henreux: mais il n'a point de vérité, ou constante, ou satisfaisante. Je voudrois done porter Phomme à désirer d'en trouver; à etre prèt et dégagé des passions pour la suivre on il la trouvera.” —Pascal.
Among the select classes of men to whom the common race looks up with the heart-throb of mingled reverence and sympathy, none is perhaps so eminent as that of sufferers for opinion. If ever we are conscious of a breathing of the God-head in man, it is in the sanctified presence, actual or ideal, of martyrs to truth. Such men, as a class, are liable to particular faults, are usually marked by the imperfections which attend their virtues, as shadows are a consequence of sunshine. But in no case are men in general so tolerant of faults as in theirs;—I do not mean in their own day, when they are not commonly recognised as confessors and martyrs,—but when they stand out from the records of time, complete characters in history. The turbulence, jealousy, and self-will of such men are allowed for more liberally than the same faults in other orders of men.—more slightly noticed,—more eagerly extenuated. And why? Because, of all men, they most infallibly and extensively command sympathy. As truth is the one eternal good, the single pursuit of truth is the one eternal virtue which wins and elevates all human souls.—But when, as in some rare instances, this devotion to truth is seen purified from the failings which else-where seem its natural accompaniments.—when the here is seen holy, harmless, and undefiled as the sage.—when no regrets need mingle with the admiration of the disciple, as delicious a contemplation is afforded to the moral taste as the moral creation yields.
Such was Priestley, the single-minded martyr, but the meek inquirer: the intrepid confessor, but the humble Christian: the gentle philosopher, the sympathising friend. Circumstances have been unfavourable to a wide, but not to a full knowledge of his character. The comparatively few to whom his mind and heart have, been absolutely laid open, regard him with a love which is only not idolatrous because it is perfectly reasonable. The many know him as a man who was driven away from Birmingham by a mob who destroyed his house, papers. and philosophical apparatus, burned his church, and sought his life: and that he took refuge in America, and died there. Some go on to belive what was said at the time—that he eas a turbulent man, a mischiefmaker, and either a conceited smatterer in theology and philosophy, or a deep malignant infidel,—they do not know which. Others hold him to have been a good kind of man, who rashly drew upon his own head the tempests of his time, and had to bear only the natural though hard consequences of his own impuradence. But those whose knowledge of him is complete can tell that his imputed turbulence was intellectual activity; his conceit a simplicity too lofty for the apprechension of his enemies; his infidelity a devout constancy to truth. His depth was all of wisdom: his hatreds were of cant. hypoerisy, and designed obstruction of truth. He exposed himself to tribulation as innocently and unconsciously as he bore it meekly and heroically. He never shought martyrdom, for he loved life and its comforts in the bosom of his family and friends; he valued repose for his pjilosophical pursuits, and thought his daily probation sufficient for every man's strngth. He was playing backgammon with his wife after super when the mob came upon him: he was so wholly unprepared that his MSS. and private letters lay all exposed to the rioters; and the philosopher suffered.—calmly and bravely suffered—the anguish of feeling himself a hated and an injured man. Yet, thus taken by surprise, his emotions were not for himself, or for the many near and dear friends who were being overwhelmed with him. While he stood looking over a garden hedge where he could see the flames devouring his church, and hear the shouts of the mob which was demelishing his house he dropped a natural expression of pity for the misery of those poor people when they should discover what mischeif they had done. No word was ever heard from him about the effect which the sufferings of the day would have upon any body's mind. or upon any future time. He simply did the daty. and bore the probation of the hour, leaving unconsciously an example of subline patience which has raised and kindled more minds than the highest order of good men ever dream of influencing. and whose force will not be spent while man are moved by disinterestedness. or thrilled by heroism.
Of his retirment in America we have many particulars. but still not enough. Enough can never be learned of the course of life of one whose more homely virtus were now put to the severest test. after those which are commonly asteemed more lofty had well stood their trail. The following passage delivers over to us the impression of the philosopher's latter days. which Priestley's own correspondence, and the notices of his friends leave on the mind of an affectionate admirer of the man.
“There in one of its remote recesses, on the outer margin of civilization. he, who had made a part of the world's briskest acticity, who had led on the speed of its progress. whose mind had kept pace with its learning. and overtaken its science. and outstripped is freedom and its morality, gathered together his resources of philosophy and devotion: thence he looked forth on the vicissitudes and prospectus of Europe, with melancholy, but hopeful interest, like the prophet from his mount, on the land whose glories he was not to see. But it was not for such an energetic sprit as his to pass instantaneously into the quietude of exile without an irrecoverable shock. He had not that dreamy and idle pietism which could enwrap itself in the mists of its own contemplations, and believe Heaven nearer in propation as earth became less distinct. The shifting sights and busy murmurs that reached him from afar. remainded him of the circulation of social toils which had plied his hand and heart. Year after year passed on, and bought him no summons of duty back into the stir of men; all that he did he had to devise and execute by his own solitary energies, apart from advice and sympathy, and with no hope but that of benefitting the world was soon to quit. The effort to exchange the habits of the city for those of the cloister was astonishingly successful. But his mind was never the same again: it is impossible not to perecive a decline of power, a tendency to garrulity of style and eccentricity of speculation in his American publications. And yet. while this slight, though perceptible shade fell over his intellect, a softened lightv seemed to spread itself over his character. His feelings, his moral perceptions, were mellowed and ripened by years. and assumed a tenderness and refinement not observable before. Thanks to the genial and heavenly clime which Christianity sheds round the soul. the aged stem burst into blossom. And so it will always be when the mind is really pervaded by so noble a faith as Priestley's. There is no law of nature, there are no frosts of time, to shed a snoe-blight on the heart. The feelings die out when their objects come to an end; and if there be no future, and its treasures drop off. and its attractions are spent, and a few links only of its hours remain in the hand, well may there be no heart for effort, and no eye for beauty, and well may love gather itself up to die. But open perfection to its veneration, and immortality to its step; tell it of one who is and always will be the inspirer of genius, the origninator of truth, the lifeof emotion; assure it that all which is known shall enlarge for ever, that all which is felt shall grow intenser for ever, and the proximity of death will quicken instead of withering the mindl; the eye will grow dim on the open page of knowledge; the hand will be found clasping in death the instruments of human good; the haert's last pulse will heat with some new emotion of benignity. In Priestley's case there was not merely a sustainment, but a positive advancement of character in later years. The symptoms of restlessness gradually disappear without abatement of his acticity; a quictude as of one who waits and listens comes over him; there are touches of sentiment and traces of tears in his letters, and yet an obvious increase of screnity and hope; there is a disposition to devise and accomplish more good for the world, and ply himself while an energy remained, and yet no anexiety to do what was beyond his powers. He successively followed to the grave a son and a wife; and the more he was left alone, the more did he learn to love to be alone; and in his study, surrounded by the books which had been his companions for half a century, and over half the earth, and sitting beneath the pictures of friends under the turf, he took his last survey of the world which had given him so long a shelter: like a greatful guest before his departure, he numbered up the bright and social, or the adventurous hours which had passed during his stay; and the philosophers who had welcomed him in his anual visits to London,— the board, sabacious face of Franklin, the benignant intelligence of Price, rose up before him, and the social voices of the group of heretics round the fireside of Essex Street, floated on his ear; and as the full moon shone upon his table, and glistened in his electrical machine, his eye would dream of the dining philosophers of the Lunnar Society, and glisten to greet again the doughty features of Darwin, and the clear, calculating eye of Watt. Yet his retrospective thoughts were but hints to suggest a train of prospective far more interesting. The scenes which he loved were in the past, but most of the objects which clothed them with associations of interest were already transferred to the future: there they were in reserve for him, to be recovered (to use his win favourite phrase, slightly tinged with the melancholy sprit of his solitude) under more favourable circumstances: and thither, with all his attachment to the world, whose boundary ocean already murmured beneath, he hoped soon to emigrate.”*
Priestley had much to suffer in America. His severest woes behalf him there. There he lost beloved son Harry; then his wife departed: and trails which exceeded even these put his Christian acquiescence to fullest proof. To an intimate friend he writes—“From how much trouble has my wife been relived! She had a great mind, but the events that have taken place since her death would have affected her deeply. My trails, now towards the close of life, are as great as I can bear, though I doubt not that a wise and good Providence overrules all events, and I have daily a more habitual respect to it. Nothing else could support me. . . . We are frail, imperfect beings, and our faith is at best but weak, and requires to be strengthened by reading and reflection. I never omit reading, and I do it with more satisfaction than ever, a considerable portion of Scripture every day, and by this means my mind is much relieved.”
This is not the device of the devotee, the refuge of the disappointed man who takes to religion as the only resource left him. This is the declaration of a philosopher, whose youth and whose riper years were given to the close study of the book which was now the pillow of his age.
I know not how it may appear to persons less familiarised than myself with the sprit of the man, and the eloquent moderation of his language, but I have always regarded the letter on the death of his son Harry as an exquisite revelation of a healthy mind in sorrow:—
“Monthly Repository,” New Series, vol. vii., p. 235.