It is honorable to Scotland, that, in proportion to its population, it has produced, at least, as large a number of men distinguished for intellectual and scientific acquirements, as any country on the face of the globe. Classical and polite literature flourished in this northern clime, even during what may be called barbarous ages, tempering their rudeness with amenities; and, in later times, while all the various sciences have been cultivated in an equal degree to the rest of the civilized world, medicine and chemistry in particular obtained a high national rank among the studies for which the school of Edinburgh was justly famed.

It might have been expected that the same masculine sense, and the same inquisitiveness of mind, which led to eminence in these branches of human cultivation, would, when applied to "the noblest study of mankind," lead to important results, and farther illustrate the spirit and intelligence of the Scottish people. Accordingly, Dr. Reid arose, and with him almost a new system of philosophy, emulating the immortality of a Bacon and a Locke. And even the great "Interpreter of Nature," as he has been finely styled, was fortunate in a disciple and follower like Dugald Stewart. To him we are chiefly indebted for the early and wide diffusion of Reid's principles, — for their enforcement and improvement, — for their generalization and acceptation. As a writer, and perhaps still more as a teacher, did he contribute to this effect; spread ing the northern light of inquiry, from the chair of the Professor of Moral Philosophy, throughout the most distant corners of Europe, and winning the golden opinions of all sorts of men to the theory of his illustrious predecessor and master. [1/2]

When Reid's work was published in 1763, Dugald Stewart was ten years old, having been born in the College of Edinburgh on the 22d of November, 1753. He was the only son who survived of the family of Dr. Matthew Stewart, Professor of Mathematics in the University; and at the age of seven was sent to that excellent seminary the High School, where he attracted notice by his quickness and aptitude for instruction. When the customary course of education was finished here, he was entered as a student at the College; and, under the immediate inspection of his father, made rapid progress in learning, and especially in the exact sciences. Dr. Stevenson, the Professor of Logic, and Dr. Adam Ferguson, who filled the Moral Philosophy chair, were also his able teachers; and his uncommmon proficiency rewarded their labours in the way most delightful to master and scholar. At the age of eighteen he lost his mother, and soon after removed to Glasgow, where Dr. Reid was then developing those principles of metaphysics which it became the leading object of his pupil's life to incul cate and expand. The declining health of his father, however, allowed him to attend only one course of these lectures: he was recalled to Edinburgh, where he taught the Mathematical class with so much celebrity, that it grew to a greater prosperity under the youthful assistant than it had ever previously enjoyed. As soon as he had completed his twenty-first year, he was officially recognized in this station; and, in 1785, on the death of his parent, he succeeded, as had been settled, to the vacant chair.

At this laborious season of his life, Professor Stewart's exertions were almost unexampled, and the fertility of his mind was wonderful. In 1778, when Dr. Adam Ferguson accompanied the Commissioners to America, he supplied his place in the Moral Philosophy class; and with so short a preparation, that the facility and knowledge he displayed could not be considered as less than extraordinary. Thus, while delivering daily an extempore discourse for an hour, on a subject comparatively new to him, he was also teaching two classes of Mathematics, and giving, for the first time, a course [2/3] of Lectures on Astronomy — the whole forming, as has been well observed, (see Annual Obituary, &c. for 1829,) a very singular instance of intellectual vigour.

In 1780, he began to receive young noblemen and gentlemen into his house, as pupils under his immediate superintendence, and numbered among them several persons of high rank, as well as individuals of future professional and literary eminence. In the summer of 1783, he was enabled to visit the Continent, for the first time, as the associate of one of these, the late Marquis of Lothian; and on his return, he married Miss Helen Bannatine, who died in 1787, the daughter of Mr. Neil Bannatine, a merchant of Glasgow. In 1790, he married Miss Cranston, of the noble house of Crailing. — In 1785, Mr. Stewart entirely exchanged the Mathematical for the Moral Philosophy class; in which he acquired his great reputation as a moralist and metaphysician. As a public speaker he was fluent, animated, and impressive; his manner at once graceful and dignified; and his eloquence often so powerful as to bear along his auditory with irresistible force. He made them love the dryest science, and from his mouth disquisition frequently flowed with the sweetness of poetical composition: abstract truths assumed agreeable forms, and the mysteries of mind were unfolded in the style of a pleasant companion, seducing his hearer by the charms of social conversation. These qualities were consequently productive of the most advantageous results; and "no teacher (says a clever writer in Blackwood's Magazine) ever before so completely succeeded in awakening in the minds of his admiring pupils, that deep and ardent love of science, which, in many cases, was never afterwards effaced."

It appears to have been near upon his fortieth year, when he first began to arrange some of his metaphysical papers with the view to publication, though several of them had been written in his very youth. — “The Essay on Dreaming,” in Volume I., of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, was composed when he was a student in Glasgow, at the age of eighteen. In 1792 he came before the world as an author, with the [3/4] volume we have just mentioned; and briskly followed up his success by publishing his Outlines of Moral Philosophy, and Dr. Adam Smith's Essays, with a Biographical Memoir and Dissertation. His subsequent editions of the Lives and Writings of Dr. William Robertson, and [Lives and Writings of] Dr. Reid; his Philosophical Essays; his Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, on which he engrafted his General View of the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy, since the Revival of Letters in Europe — and other works of less importance — widely extended the sphere of his usefulness and fame.

Previous to the publication of the Philosophical Essays, in 1810, Professor Stewart had the misfortune to lose his second and youngest son; and it imparted a melancholy interest to this work, to know that its author had devoted himself to it as a relief from the mournful thoughts which preyed upon him in consequence of that event. To this epoch of his life also, is to be referred the speculations on Political Economy, which he embodied in Lectures; and which added much to the popularity of this rather novel branch of science. The death of his son, and the progress of years, induced Mr. Stewart to relinquish his chair in the University, and retire to Kinneil House, a seat belonging to the Duke of Hamilton, on the banks of the Forth, about twenty miles from the capital; and it was from this philosophical retirement, that all his latest productions are dated. While occupying, during his active literary career, so marked a place in the circle of learning, he had been the corre spondent and friend of a multitude of scholars, at home and abroad. Those who visited Scotland sought his society; those whom he met in his own excursions to England and the Continent, became known to him; and those whom circumstances forbade from either personal gratification, courted his intercourse by epistolary communications. At Kinneil House, the same state of respected intimacy was continued; and the retreat of the philosopher was often enlivened by the introduction of distinguished strangers, and always cheered [4/5] by the attentions of old and honored friends. At the close of eighteen years so spent, the learned and venerable professor published his third Volume of the Philosophy, containing the Investigation of the Active and Moral Powers of Man, which he finished only within a few weeks of the termination of his mortal race. In 1822, he had endured a stroke of palsy, which nearly deprived him of the powers of utterance, and enfeebled his frame so much as to make him altogether dependent for his comforts, on the assistance which affection was prompt to bestow. But this sad calamity, while it broke down the body, neither impaired the faculties of his mind, nor interrupted the vigorous activity of his understanding. With his daughter, as an amanuensis, he partook with cheerfulness of all the gratifications which it was still permitted him to enjoy; and to the last exhibited an admirable example of serenity and calm, as he passed gradually to the grave. The Quiete, et pure, et eleganter actce cetatis, placida ac lenis senectus, of the mighty Roman orator and philosopher, was never more applicable, than to his sunset of life.

On the 11th of June, 1828, he breathed his last, at Ainslie Place, Edinburgh, and was interred, with solemn ceremony, in the Canongate churchyard; the members of the University, and the civic authorities, uniting to pay this tribute to his remains. Shortly before, he had received an honorable testimony to his character as a profound and admired contributor to the literary glory of his country, by the presentation of one of the two Gold Medals annually adjudged, by the Royal Society of Literature, to individuals the most distinguished by productions of learning or genius. It was acknowledged, in a letter to the Council of the Society, which showed how highly this proof of approbation was appreciated, and may well embalm the memory of the gift as an heirloom to the latest of his posterity. [5/6]

With regard to an appreciation of Mr. Stewart as one of the ornaments of the age in which he lived, we cannot perhaps do better than transcribe the glowing picture, which we have reason to believe was drawn by the pencil of his surviving son; and which, though it may be tinged with the colours of filial loye, is not the less congenial to the lines of natnre and of truth. “His writings are before the world, and from them future generations may be safely left to form an estimate of his style of composition— of the extent and variety of his learning and scientific attainments — of the singular cultivation and refinement of his mind— of the purity and elegance of his taste— of his warm relish for moral and for natural beauty— of his enlightened benevolence to all mankind, and of the generous ardour with which he devoted himself to the improvement of the human species— of all which, while the English language endures, his works will continue to preserve the indelible evidence. But of one part of his fame no memorial will remain, but in the recollection of those who have witnessed his exertions. As a public speaker, he was justly entitled to rank among the very first of his day; and had an adequate sphere been aflbrded for the display of his oratorical powers, his merit in this line alone would have sufficed to secure him an eternal reputation. Among those who have attracted the highest admiration in the senate and at the bar, there are still many living who will bear testimony to his extraordinary eloquence. The ease, the grace, and the dignity of his action; the compass and harmony of his voice, its flexibility and variety of intonation; the truth with which its modulation responded to the impulse of his feelings, and the sympathetic emotions of his audience; the clear and perspicuous arrangement of his matter; the swelling and uninterrupted flow of his periods; and the rich stores of ornament which he used to borrow firom the literature of Greece and of Rome, of France and of England, and to interweave with his spoken thoughts with the most apposite application, were perfections, not possessed in a superior degree by the most celebrated orators of the age; nor in any of the greatest speakers of the time (perhaps) were they to an equal degree united.

Such is the hardly partial sketch of a near relative; but common consent has placed Dugald Stewart on quite as elevated a pinnacle. [6/7]

He reminds us (says another writer and an eminent critic) of the character given by Cicero of one of his contemporaries, who expressed “refined and profound thought in soft transparent diction.” He is another proof that the mild sentiments have their eloquence, as well as the vehement passions. It will be difficult to name a work in which so much refined philosophy is joined with so fine a fancy, as the Introduction to the Encyclopaedia; and so much elegant literature, with such a delicate perception of the distinguishing excellence of great writers, and with an estimate in general so just of the services rendered to knowledge by a succession of philosophers. It is pervaded by a philosophical benevolence, which keeps up the ardour of his genius, without disturbing the serenity of his mind. It is felt in his reverence for knowledge, in the gene rosity of his praise, and in the tenderness of his censure. It is still more sensible in the general tone with which he relates the successful progress of the human understanding among many formidable enemies. Those readers are not to be envied who limit their admiration to particular parts, or to excellences merely literary, without being warmed by the glow of that honest triumph in the advancement of knowledge, and of that assured faith in the final prevalence of truth and justice, which breathe through every page, and give the unity and dignity of a moral purpose to the whole of this classical work.”

Such are the opinions ascribed to Mr. Francis Jeffrey. Other critics have questioned the religious principles of Mr. Stewart; but although it was not the object of any of his philosophical works to inculcate any particular creed or mode of faith, it must be felt that he advanced no doctrine incompatible with the most orthodox belief. He was therefore universally esteemed as a public writer.

In more private life he seems to have been equally happy. Though somewhat reserved in company, he was inclined to be amused with the sallies of wit and gaiety; and from a natural excellence of disposition, improved by intercourse with refined minds, his deportment was always free and gentlemanlike — not an invariable concomitant of learned [7/8] weight and philosophical consideration. But Mr. Stewart had mixed with the world in the best sense of the word, and his acquaintance with elegant literature was as familiar, as his range of erudition was immense. He was, therefore, alike full of instruction and anecdote — a person with whom none could cope, as the Duke says of Jaques, in his humours, without reaping both entertainment and information. In his domestic circle he was all but adored; and if great acquire ments, and an innate nobleness of nature, entitle the memory of a man to lustre, that lustre will be universally accorded to the memory of Dugald Stewart.

Related material


National Portrait Gallery of Illustrious and Eminent Personages of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. William Jerdan. London: Fisher, Son, & Jackson, 1830. Vol. 1. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Yale University Library. Internet Archive copy from an unidentified library without portraits reproduced. Web. 28 June 2020.

Last modified 28 June 2020