Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 46.djvu/342

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


Jewry, on 4 Nov. 1789), which is described as the ‘red rag that drew Burke into the arena,’ Price observed: ‘I could almost say, Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation. … After sharing in the benefits of one revolution, I have been spared to be a witness to two other revolutions, both glorious.’ Burke, in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France,’ attempts to fasten on Price an allusion, in these words, to the scenes of riot and carnage, ending in the abduction of the king and queen, which had taken place at Versailles on the previous 6 Oct. But Price, in the preface to the fourth edition of the sermon, maintains (and the context of the sermon is consistent with the contention) that he was alluding not to the 6th of October, but to the 14th of July (the date of the destruction of the Bastile), and the subsequent days, when the king ‘shewed himself to his people as the restorer of their liberty.’ Price, indeed, by this sermon, together with a speech subsequently delivered at a public dinner at the London tavern, had rendered himself peculiarly obnoxious to Burke, and brought down on his head some of the fiercest denunciations in that writer's impassioned work on the French Revolution. Walpole speaks of his talons being drawn by Burke, who had killed the Revolution Club ‘as dead as the Cock Lane Ghost.’ Dr. Johnson naturally placed Price in the same category with Horne Tooke, John Wilkes, and Dr. Priestley, and resolutely refused to meet him; Gibbon compared him to the ‘wild visionaries’ who formed the ‘constituent assembly’ of 1789.

The darker side of the Revolution Price happily did not live to see. On 19 April 1791 he died, worn out with suffering and disease. His funeral was conducted at Bunhill Fields by Dr. Kippis, and his funeral sermon was preached by Dr. Priestley, names which, like his own, are specially honourable in the roll of English nonconformist divines.

Price's reputation at the present time rests mainly upon the position which he occupies in the history of moral philosophy. His ethical theories are mostly contained in ‘A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals,’ of which the first edition was published in 1757, and the third, expressing ‘the author's latest and maturest thoughts,’ in 1787. This work is professedly directed against the doctrines of Hutcheson [see Hutcheson, Francis, (1694–1746)], but the treatment as a whole is constructive rather than polemical. The main positions are three: 1. Actions are in themselves right or wrong. 2. Right and wrong are simple ideas incapable of analysis. 3. These ideas are perceived immediately by the intuitive power of the reason or understanding, terms which (therein differing from Kant) he employs indifferently. When the reason or understanding has once apprehended the idea of right, it ought to impose that idea as a law upon the will, and thus it becomes, equally with the affections, a spring of action.

The English moralist with whom Price has most affinity is Cudworth [see Cudworth, Ralph]. The main point of difference is that, while Cudworth regards the ideas of right and wrong as νοήματα or modifications of the intellect itself, existing first in germ, and afterwards developed by circumstances, Price seems rather to regard them as acquired from the contemplation of actions, though acquired necessarily, immediately, and intuitively. The interest of his position, however, in the history of moral philosophy, turns mainly on the many points of resemblance, both in fundamental ideas and in modes of expression, which exist between his writings and those of Kant, whose ethical works are posterior to those of Price by nearly thirty years. Among these points are the exaltation of reason; the depreciation of the affections; the unwillingness of both authors to regard the ‘partial and accidental structure of humanity,’ the ‘mere make and constitution of man,’ as the basis of morality—in other words, to recognise ethical distinctions as relative to human nature; the ultimate and irresolvable character of the idea of rectitude; the notion that the reason imposes this idea as a law upon the will, becoming thus an independent spring of action; the insistence upon the reality of liberty, or ‘the power of acting and determining;’ the importance attached to reason as a distinct source of ideas; and, it may be added, the discrimination (so celebrated in the philosophy of Kant) of the moral (or practical) and the speculative reason.

On the other hand, Price's ethical theories are almost the antithesis of those of Paley, whose ‘Moral and Political Philosophy’ appeared in 1785. Speaking of this work in his third edition, Price says, ‘Never have I met with a theory of morals which has appeared to me more exceptionable.’

The best portrait of Price is that by Benjamin West in the possession of the Royal Society at Burlington House, which was engraved by Thomas Holloway in 1793. In the Hope collection at Oxford are two engraved portraits—one published by J. Sewell, 1 Nov. 1792, drawn and engraved by Louison; and another published by R. Baldwin on 1 June 1776; besides a caricature, representing Dr. Price as standing in a tub,