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HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS
PRINCE AUGUSTUS FREDERICK,
DUKE OF SUSSEX, K.G. D.C.L.
PRESIDENT OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY;
THESE MEMOIRS OF A PHILOSOPHER
WHOSE SPLENDID DISCOVERIES
ILLUMINED THE AGE IN WHICH HE LIVED,
ADORNED THE COUNTRY WHICH GAVE HIM BIRTH,
AND OBTAINED FROM FOREIGN AND HOSTILE NATIONS
THE HOMAGE OF ADMIRATION AND
THE MEED OF GRATITUDE,
ARE, BY THE GRACIOUS PERMISSION OF HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS,
DEDICATED WITH SENTIMENTS OF PROFOUND RESPECT,
THE reflecting portion of mankind has ever felt desirous of becoming acquainted with the origin, progress, habits, and peculiarities of those whom the powers of genius may have raised above the plane of intellectual equality; but neither the nature of the information, nor the extent of the detail that may be necessary to satisfy so laudable a curiosity, can ever be estimated by any common standard, since it is not in our nature to contemplate an object of admiration, but with reference to our own predilections and sympathies; and hence every reader will form a scale for himself, according to the degree of interest he may feel for the particular character under review. The Poetical enthusiast, who could not sufficiently express his gratitude on being told that Milton wore shoe-buckles, would very probably have not given four farthings,' as Gray says, to know that the shoes of Davy were tanned by catechu; and yet if the relative value of this information were fairly estimated, it must be admitted that the former is a matter of barren curiosity, the latter a fact of some practical utility. In a word, we very naturally connect the man with his works, and we care not to extend our acquaintance with the one, but in proportion as we have derived pleasure from the other.
In like manner, very different estimates will be formed of the degree of praise due to a distinguished philosopher, because the few who are deeply imbued with a knowledge of the science he may have adorned and enlightened
must not only appreciate the value of his labours, but understand the difficulties which opposed the accomplishment of them, before they can arrive at a sound decision upon the question; and here again the judgment of the most scientific may be unfortunately warped; it may be corrupted by secret passions or sinister influences; be distorted by the prejudices of education and habit, or unduly biassed by invincible prepossessions.
No man ever soared, like an eagle, to the pinnacle of fame, without exciting the envy and perhaps the hatred of those who could only crawl up half way; while, on the other hand, where no rivalry can exist, the splendour of such an ascent will captivate the bystander, and by exciting intemperate triumph and unqualified admiration, change without diminishing the sources of erroneous judgment, and substitute adulation for calumny. Under such circumstances, an allusion even to the common frailties of genius becomes offensive; the biographer is called upon for the delineation of a perfect man; but the world is satisfied with nothing short of a faultless monster;' and yet, while they would impose upon him the same restraint as Queen Elizabeth laid upon her artist-to execute a portrait without a single shadow, they little imagine how completely they obscure the features of their idol, by the haze of incense in which they continually envelope it. These are evils against which a future historian will not have to contend; for time tries the characters of men, as the furnace assays the quality of metals, by disengaging the impurities, dissipating the superficial irridescence, and leaving the sterling gold bright
Nor can the extent of our obligations to a philosopher be appreciated until time shall have shown the various important purposes to which his discoveries may administer. The names of Mayow and Hales might have been lost in the stream of discovery, had not the results of Priestley and Lavoisier shown the value and importance of their statical experiments on the chemical relations of air to other substances. The discoveries of Dr. Black on the subject of latent heat could never have obtained that celebrity they now enjoy, had
not Mr. Watt availed himself of their application for the improvement of the steam-engine; and the views of Sir H. Davy respecting the true nature of chlorine become daily more important from the discovery of new elements of an analogous nature. In future ages, the metals of the alkalies and earths may admit of applications, and open new avenues of knowledge, of which at present we can form no idea; but it is obvious that, in the page of history, his name will gather fame in proportion as such discoveries unfold themselves.
It must be admitted, that such considerations may furnish an argument against the propriety of writing the life of a contemporaneous philosopher; and yet I will never admit, with Mr. Babbage, that "the volume of his biography should be sealed, until the warm feelings of surviving kindred and admiring friends shall be cold as the grave, from which remembrance vainly recalls his cherished form, invested with all the life and energy of recent existence."
Is it not possible that the errors of partiality, which have so frequently been charged upon the writer on these occasions, may often be ascribed, with greater truth and justice, to the prejudices of the reader that, after all, the distortion might not have existed in the portrait itself, but in the optics of the observer? Such an opinion, however, even were it true, carries along with it no consolation to the biographer; for I know of no method by which the picture can be adapted to the focus of every eye.
If, however, contemporaneous biography has its difficulties and impediments, so has it also its advantages. Dr. Johnson has remarked, in his Life of Addison, that " History may be formed from permanent monuments and records; but Lives can only be written from personal knowledge, which is growing every day less, and in a short time is lost for ever. The delicate features of the mind, the nice discriminations of character, and the minute peculiarities of conduct, are soon obliterated."
I did not enter upon this arduous and delicate task, without a distinct conception of the various difficulties which would necessarily oppose its