James Beattie (1735-1803)

James Beattie was born the son of a shop-keeper on 25 October, 1735, in Laurencekirk, a small village in Kincardineshire. After attending the local parish school, he entered Marischal College, Aberdeen in 1749, at the age of fourteen. While there he became close friends with the future abolitionist James Ramsay.

After Marischal, Beattie served five years as a parish schoolmaster in the hamlet of Fordoun. Following this, he returned to Aberdeen to teach at the city’s Grammar school. Two years later, in 1760, he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal. He soon became a member of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, also referred to as ‘The Wise Club,’ whose members included Thomas Reid and George Campbell.

In 1767 Beattie married Mary Dun. Unfortunately, she suffered from mental illness for much of their married life, and was required to spend some time in an asylum. The Beatties had two sons, James Hay and Montagu. The former was his father’s pride and joy, and the two became colleagues at Marischal in 1787. Sadly, James died three years later at the age of only twenty-two. Montagu tragically also died young, in 1796, when he was just eighteen.

Beattie’s most well-known work of philosophy (he also published several volumes of poetry, as well as collections of essays) was An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770), a harsh critique of the skepticism of David Hume, which he saw as a moral danger to society. While from a philosophical perspective it is hardly a refutation of Hume’s thought (with the exception of Beattie’s attack on Hume’s remarks on the natural inferiority of black-skinned people), the Essay was very popular, and led to an audience with King George III, as well as an annual pension.

Beattie’s other major work was his Elements of Moral Science (2 volumes, 1790, 1793), an abridged version of the lecture notes for his class on Moral Philosophy. It contains, among other things, an extended and at times impassioned argument for the abolition of slavery.

James Beattie died on 18 August, 1803.

Fred Ablondi, Hendrix College