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James Beattie to Thomas Gray, 1 May 1770

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To Thomas Gray Esquire Regius Professor of Modern History Cambridge with a Book---To be forwarded by Mr Dilly

Dear Sir

I troubled You with a letter some months ago, enclosing a specimen of a Poem, which I have some thoughts of finishing when I find myself at leisure.—The design of this, is to solicit Your acceptance of a Book called An Essay on Truth which Mr Dilly Bookseller in London sends You by my desire. It is not such a present as I wish to make, but it is the best that is now in my power. You will think perhaps that I am very anxious to become a voluminous Author; but that is not the case. The present publication is the consequence of necessity rather than choice. I expect neither praise nor profit from it; nay, though it were to be succesful, which I am confident cannot happen, my vanity would not be flattered in the least; for I set no value on such performances. The occasion of my writing it was this. The business of my profession obliged me, when I first entered upon it, to be more conversant than I could have wished with our modern moral & metaphysical writers. I had little relish for them from the first, and as I began to understand them better, I hated and despised them the more. Their principles and method of investigation seemed to me to be equally unfavourable to Science virtue and good taste. I saw with concern, that the Publick in general, and the people of this country in particular, were every day growing more and more attached to them; and I also saw, or thought I saw, that those who admired them most, understood them the least. I used to express myself on this subject with so little reserve in my Publick Lectures, that some degree of curiosity was excited in the small circle where I am known; and I found it was become necessary for me, if I would clear myself of the imputation of being a mere Declaimer and retailer of paradoxes, to publish my sentiments at large, with the grounds of them. This is what I have endeavoured to do in the book which now craves the honour of Your acceptance; I have not the face to add—and of Your perusal, for I should really be sorry to see You so ill employed, as in the study of a metaphysical controversy. Besides I know, that in England Metaphysick has not got such a footing as with us. Whether it be owing to the attachment which many among us have to a Countryman, or to something of a minute and sophistical spirit in the genius of our people, I know not; but certain it is, that we Scots are at present much inclined to be scepticks and metaphysicians. Every body here who can read, reads metaphysick, our writers write it, and our parsons preach it.—If You should at any time do my book the honour to look into it, may I hope that You will favour me with Your opinion of the Style: As to the doctrine, I dare say we are of the same mind. The style falls far short of my idea of good English: it is often stiff and pedantick in spite of all my endeavours to the contrary. I have indeed studied perspicuity more than elegance; because I know that my doctrine will be most favourably received by those who understand it best. I have frequently given a little into declamation, and something of a flippant drollery, both which I know are unsuitable to a philosophical enquiry. I did this, partly to amuse myself, and partly to [render m]y subject not altogether unentertaining.

[In my l]ast I complained of bad health; I am no[w] much [better], and should be glad to hear that You a[re] well and happy.

For I am, with the most perfect regard and esteem Dear Sir
Your affectionate & most humble servant
J Beattie

I know not what Mr Foulis has done with his Milton. I thought it would have been finished long before now. I hope he has not neglected to send Your Homer.

Letter ID: letters.0600 (Source: TEI/XML)


Writer: Beattie, James, 1735-1803
Writer's age: 34
Addressee: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Addressee's age: 53


Date of composition: 1 May 1770
Date (on letter): 1st May 1770
Calendar: Gregorian


Place of composition: Aberdeen, United Kingdom
Address (on letter): Aberdeen
Place of addressee: Cambridge, United Kingdom

Physical description

Addressed: To Thomas Gray Esquire Regius Professor of Modern History Cambridge with a Book---To be forwarded by Mr Dilly


Language: English
Incipit: I troubled You with a letter some months ago, enclosing a specimen...
Mentioned: Beattie, James, 1735-1803
Hume, David

Holding Institution

AU MS 30/24/7/3, AU MS 30, Papers of James Beattie (1735-1803), Historic Collections, Special Libraries and Archives, King's College, University of Aberdeen Library , Aberdeen, UK <>
Availability: The original letter is extant and usually available for academic research purposes; a photostat is in MS. Toynbee d.32, Bodleian Library, Oxford

Print Versions

  • Correspondence of Thomas Gray, 3 vols. Ed. by the late Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, with corrections and additions by H. W. Starr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 [1st ed. 1935], letter no. 522, vol. iii, 1130-1132