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Fordyce’s Moral Philosophy

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Source: Introduction to Fordyce's The Elements of Moral Philosophy, in Three Books with a Brief Account of the Nature, Progress, and Origin of Philosophy, ed. Thomas Kennedy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).

Introduction by Thomas Kennedy

David Fordyce stands among the foremost of those philosophers who achieve a not always deserved resting place in darkest obscurity despite having been influential and highly regarded shortly after their deaths. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin’s proclivity to attribute Fordyce’s works to Francis Hutcheson1 may be said to have foreshadowed Fordyce’s historical fate of being dismissed as a lesser Francis Hutcheson. Despite his confusion, Franklin thought highly of Fordyce’s works, purchasing the second volume of Fordyce’s anonymously authored Dialogues Concerning Education(London, 1745 and 1748) soon after it became available, and identifying the Dialogues as among the works most influential upon his own Proposals Relating to the Education of  Youth in Pennsilvania (October 1749).

Franklin was by no means alone among Americans in his admiration for Fordyce’s thought. Dr. Samuel Johnson, President of King’s College (now Columbia University), was likewise impressed.2 Nor was it only the earlier work of Fordyce that received high praise. Fordyce’s The Elements of Moral Philosophy circulated widely as a unit of Robert Dodsley’s The Preceptor (London, 1748)3 both in Britain and in America. Soon after its separate publication, Fordyce’s The Elements of Moral Philosophy (London, 1754) was introduced into the curriculum of the American universities, where it became a standard text at Harvard University and one of the most widely used texts in American universities in the second half of the eighteenth century.4The Elements of Moral Philosophy was successful not only in America but in Europe as well. Within three years of its publication, it had been translated into French and German, and only six years after his death Fordyce was described in Germany as a “celebrated” author.5 Fordyce’s celebrity status, however quickly achieved, was likewise quickly lost.

David Fordyce was born at Broadford, near Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1711, the second son of George Fordyce, a frequent provost of Aberdeen, and Elizabeth Brown Fordyce. David Fordyce was one of their twenty children, among whom were the touted pulpiteer, James (famously attacked by Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of  Women), the highly esteemed physician, William, and the infamous rogue banker, Alexander. Elizabeth Fordyce was a relative, probably the niece, of Thomas Blackwell, the elder, minister and principal of Marischal College, Aberdeen. Blackwell left his church in Paisley in 1700 to pastor a congregation in Aberdeen. In 1711 he was selected for the chair of divinity at Marischal College. Following a purge of Jacobite sympathizers on the faculty in 1717, Blackwell became principal of the college as well, a position he held from 1717 to 1728, during which time David Fordyce was himself a student at Marischal.

David Fordyce entered Marischal College in 1724 and received his master of arts degree in 1728, after which he studied divinity with James Chalmers, who had succeeded Blackwell in the chair of divinity. Fordyce was then licensed to preach; however, he was unable to secure a patron and thus received no call to serve a congregation, a lifelong disappointment for him. The next several years of his life are something of a mystery. His father died in 1733, and Fordyce was then home for a time to comfort his mother.6

In the mid-1730s David Fordyce spent some time in Glasgow, where he heard Francis Hutcheson lecture and where he developed a friendship with William Craig, then a student at Glasgow University and later a Moderate minister of the Wynd Church, Glasgow. Back in Aberdeen, and writing to Craig in August of 1735 from his mother’s home in Eggie, Fordyce complained of intellectual loneliness: “I have none here with whom I can enter into the Depths of Philosophy or from whom by a friendly Communication of Sentiments I can receive or strike out new Lights.”7 But if stimulating conversation was not to be had in Aberdeen, he could at least engage Craig in the philosophical dialogue he was missing. Thus, Fordyce suggested to Craig that his mentor, Francis Hutcheson, had failed to attend sufficiently to “the Authority and Dignity of Conscience,” a far greater defect of Hutcheson’s moral theory than of the theory of Lord Shaftesbury, Fordyce argued. Their philosophical “conversations” continued at least another four months, with Fordyce writing a lengthy missive to Craig in December of 1735 objecting that Craig overplayed the role of benevolence and underplayed “other Principles in our Nature which must be taken into our account of moral Approbation,” for example, trust, gratitude, and piety, traits of character themselves worthy of respect, independent of their relation to benevolence.8

By the late 1730s Fordyce had established connections with Philip Doddridge, preacher and master of the dissenting academy at Northampton, England, and John Aiken, Doddridge’s young protégé. Aiken, Doddridge’s first student in his academy at Kibworth, had received his master of arts degree from King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1737 and then moved to Northampton to assist Doddridge. Doddridge himself had been awarded the doctor of divinity degree from the Aberdeen colleges in 1736, so by the mid-1730s there was a warm relationship between Doddridge and the English dissenters and the Aberdeen colleges. Fordyce was a welcome visitor to Doddridge’s community.

It is unclear how much time Fordyce spent with Doddridge in Northampton, but Fordyce did visit him and observe his teaching and the workings of the academy in Northampton during a sojourn in England in the mid- to late 1730s. Philip Doddridge was impressed with and supportive of Fordyce, in a letter describing him as “an excellent Scholar” and professing that he had never met a young person who had made “deeper and juster Reflections of Human Nature.”9 He made generous introductions of Fordyce to his friends in London, including the Anglican cleric William Warburton, whose first volume of The Divine Legation of Moses (London, 1738) had recently been published, and the nonconformist minister at St. Albans, the Reverend Samuel Clark. Warburton was initially quite taken with Fordyce, assuring Doddridge, “Young Fordyce has great merit, and will make a figure in the world, & do honor to Professor Blackwell, whom I have a great esteem for.”10 However, Warburton, never the easiest of men to get along with, was later to complain to Doddridge that he had been abused by Fordyce, after which Doddridge quickly intervened to allay the ill will that had arisen between the two.11 The young Fordyce enjoyed his time in London, listening to the debates in Parliament and mixing with the coffee-shop society.

As a result of Doddridge’s influence, Fordyce served from September of 1738 to November of 1739 as something of an interim minister at Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, after which he became the private tutor and chaplain for the family of John Hopkins of Bretons, near Romford, Essex. Fordyce lived with the Hopkins family for about a year and a half.

The spring of 1741 brought another change of circumstances for Fordyce. Leaving his position with the Hopkins family, he traveled to France, returning to Scotland at the end of June for rambles in the south and north of his homeland. By early fall of 1741 he was in place as an assistant minister to George Wishart at the Tron Kirk, High Street, Edinburgh, and was pleased with his place. Fordyce assessed Wishart, brother of the principal of the University of Edinburgh, William Wishart, as “one of the most eloquent preachers and worthiest men we have in this country.”12 This position, too, lasted for little more than a season. In June of 1742 Fordyce returned to Aberdeen, and in September of that year he took up his position as regent at Marischal College.

At Marischal College Fordyce had the usual duties of a regent; during the 1742/43 school year, his responsibilities were for the tertians, or third-year students, with lectures on natural philosophy. Fordyce saw this group of students through their final year, 1743/44, with lectures on moral philosophy. His complete rotation with a class of students began in the 1744/45 school year with the semis, or second-year students, when he lectured on civil and natural history. This class he would see through their final three years of education at Marischal.

Fordyce did not find his teaching labors light or entirely to his liking. In June of 1743 he wrote to Doddridge, reaffirming his desire to serve as minister and commenting on his duties as regent:

I wish the Business was confined as you seem to think it is to the teaching of moral philosophy; since that Province would sute my Taste most; but the Professors of Philosophy in our University have a larger sphere assigned them, being obliged to go the Round of all the Sciences, Logics, Metaphysics, Pneumatics, Ethics strictly so called & the Principles of the Law of Nature and Nations with natural and experimental Philosophy which last is to be my task next Winter. I had last winter besides my public class a private one to which I read Lectures on Morals, Politics & History upon that Plan of which I showed you a small Part when in England. I believe I shall have a great deal of Pleasure in inspiring the minds of the Youth with just & manly Principles of Religion & Virtue, & doubt not but I shall reap Advantage myself by the practice of Teaching.13

Fordyce remained at Marischal as a regent until his death in September of 1751. In 1750 he had secured a leave of absence from the college in order to travel in France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. In February of 1751 he wrote playfully to his mother that he had been enjoying Carnival and while in Rome had seen the Pretender as well as the Pope, although he had not yet had the opportunity to kiss the Pope’s hand. He closed his letter, “Pray keep warm, drink heartily & keep merry till I come home & we shall laugh till our sides crack.”14 But that reunion was not to be. In September of 1751 Fordyce set sail from Amsterdam on his voyage home aboard the Hopewell of Leith. When a storm overtook the ship, David Fordyce was one of the passengers lost at sea.

Fordyce’s eight years as a regent at Marischal were prosperous, at least in literary terms. The first volume of his Dialogues Concerning Education, anonymously authored, was published in London in 1745. A second volume, also anonymous, followed in 1748. Fordyce had begun work on the Dialogues perhaps as early as 1739. In October of that year he sent to Doddridge an “essay on Human Nature,” of which he said:

I believe you will find some of the passions considered in a light that is not quite so common, & connexions in human nature seized that I have not seen traced elsewhere; some difficulties attempted to be explained that have not before been, as I know of, at all considered, an endeavour to distinguish some powers of the mind that have been confounded, & to explain some beautiful allegories and maxims of antiquity particularly the grand rule of the heathen moralists, that of living according to Nature. It was the work of some years; therefore you may expect a difference in the style & compositions, several repetitions, a deal of rubbish, an intolerable luxury of fancy & language.15

Fordyce went on to suggest that he could probably reduce the essay by as much as one-third, an assessment with which many readers of the Dialogues would have no quarrel.

With the success of the first volume of his Dialogues Concerning Education, Fordyce made ready his second volume. About this same time, the London poet and bookseller Robert Dodsley, sensing a need for a text that would equip young men to ably and virtuously fulfill the duties of their respective “stations of life,” began collecting material for a new textbook, The Preceptor. Perhaps due to the success in England of Fordyce’s own Dialogues, Dodsley contracted with Fordyce to write the essay on moral philosophy for his textbook. Fordyce presented Dodsley with “The Elements of Moral Philosophy,” which was published as section 9 of The Preceptor.

The Preceptor met with great success, for Dodsley had secured talented authors for his project, including Dr. Samuel Johnson.16 One of those impressed by Dodsley’s Preceptor was William Smellie, editor and compiler of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1771), who used a generous selection of Fordyce’s Preceptor  work on moral philosophy as the article “Moral philosophy, or Morals” for the encyclopedia. Fordyce’s essay remained a major entry in the encyclopedia well into the nineteenth century.

Smellie’s judgment of the value of Fordyce’s essay was anticipated shortly after its publication by a review of the Elements in the Monthly Review of May 1754. There, William Rose described the essay as “the most entertaining and useful compendium of moral philosophy in our own, or perhaps in any other, language.”17

Fordyce’s The Elements of Moral Philosophy was thus available in three forms in the third quarter of the eighteenth century—as section 9 of Dodsley’s Preceptor, as a treatise published posthumously by Robert and John Dodsley in 1754, and as an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Few essays of eighteenth-century moral philosophy can be said to have circulated so widely.

Several other works written by Fordyce were published posthumously, chief among them his Theodorus: A Dialogue Concerning the Art of Preaching (London, 1752) and The Temple of Virtue (London, 1757), both edited by his brother James.

[1.]Franklin, in a letter to William Smith, 3 May 1753, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. L. W. Labaree (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961), vol. 4, 79, cited in Peter Jones, “The Polite Academy and the Presbyterians, 1720–1770,” in J. Dwyer et al., eds., New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1982), 177.

[2.]Peter Jones quotes Johnson as describing the Dialogues as “the prettyest thing in its kind, and the best System both in physical, metaphysical and moral philosophy as well as the conduct of life that I have seen.” Ibid., 167.

[3.]Dale Randall discusses the reception of The Preceptor at Rutgers University in “Dodsley’s Preceptor—A Window into the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of the Rutgers University Library 22 (December 1958): 10–22.

[4.]See Norman Fiering, Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century Harvard (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 51; and David W. Robson, Educating Republicans: The College in the Era of the American Revolution 1750–1800 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985).

[5.]T. E. Jessop, A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy from Francis Hutcheson to Lord Balfour (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966), viii.

[6.]The most detailed information available about David Fordyce’s life appears in Alexander Chalmers, The General Biographical Dictionary containing an historical and critical account of the lives and writings of the most eminent persons in every nation, particularly the British and Irish, from the earliest accounts to the present time, new edition, revised and enlarged (London: J. Nichols & Son, 1812–17), vol. 14, 468–70. Chalmers professes to be drawing upon material from a sixth and unpublished volume of Andrew Kippis’s Biographia Britannica (London: C. Bathurst, 1778–93).

[7.]David Fordyce to William Craig, 24 August 1735, National Library of Scotland, MS 584, 971. To say that there were none in Aberdeen with whom he might have entered into the “depths of philosophy” was clearly a mistake. Thomas Reid, one year older than Fordyce, was at the time of this letter the librarian at Marischal College.

[8.]David Fordyce to William Craig, 23 December 1735, National Library of Scotland, MS 2670, f. 158.

[9.]Philip Doddridge to Samuel Clark, 27 February 1738, Dr. Williams’ Library, LNC MS L1/10/47.

[10.]William Warburton to Philip Doddridge, 12 February 1738, Dr. Williams’ Library, LW MS 24.180.

[11.]Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Calendar and Correspondence of Philip Doddridge, DD (1702–1751), Historical Manuscripts Commission, Joint Publications Series 26 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1979), 615–16.

[12.]David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 22 August 1741, Dr. Williams’ Library, London, LNC MS L1/5/170.

[13.]David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 6 June 1743, Dr. Williams’ Library, London, LNC MS L1/5/171.

[14.]David Fordyce to Elizabeth Fordyce, 16 February 1750/51, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, NLS MS 1707, f. 33.

[15.]David Fordyce to Philip Doddridge, 3 October 1739, Dr. Williams’ Library, London, MS L1/5/167.

[16.]In his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., James Boswell wrote of The Preceptor: Mr. Dodsley this year brought out his PRECEPTOR, one of the most valuable books for the improvement of young minds that has appeared in any language; and to this meritorious work Johnson furnished “The Preface,” containing a general sketch of the book, with a short and perspicuous recommendation of each article; as also, “The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit, found in his Cell,” a most beautiful allegory of human life, under the figure of ascending the mountain of Existence. The Bishop of Dromore heard Dr. Johnson say, that he thought this was the best thing he ever wrote. (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 2 vols. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1933], vol. 1, 129).

[17.]William Rose in Monthly Review 10 (May 1754): 394.

Last modified April 10, 2014