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NOTICE AND CHARACTER

OF

PROFESSOR PLAYFAIR.*

OF Mr. Playfair's scientific attainments,-of his proficiency in those studies to which he was peculiarly devoted, we are but slenderly qualified to judge: But, we believe we hazard nothing in saying that he was one of the most learned Mathematicians of his age, and among the first, if not the very first, who introduced the beautiful discoveries of the later continental geometers to the knowledge of his countrymen; and gave their just value and true place, in the scheme of European knowledge, to those important improvements by which the whole aspect of the abstract sciences has been renovated since the days of our illustrious Newton. If he did not signalize himself by any brilliant or original invention, he must, at least, be allowed to have been a most generous and intelligent judge of the achievements of others; as well as the most eloquent expounder of that great and magnificent system of knowledge which has been gradually evolved by the successive labours of so many gifted individuals. He possessed, indeed, in the highest degree, all the characteristics both of a fine and a powerful understanding, at once penetrating and vigilant, - but more distinguished, perhaps, for the caution and sureness of its march, than for the brilliancy or rapidity of its movements,—and guided and adorned through all its pro

* Originally printed in an Edinburgh newspaper of August, 1819. A few introductory sentences are now omitted.

PROF. PLAYFAIR- HIS INTELLECTUAL ENDOWMENTS. 685

gress, by the most genuine enthusiasm for all that is grand, and the justest taste for all that is beautiful in the Truth or the Intellectual Energy with which he was habitually conversant.

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To what account these rare qualities might have been turned, and what more brilliant or lasting fruits they might have produced, if his whole life had been dedicated to the solitary cultivation of science, it is not for us to conjecture; but it cannot be doubted that they added incalculably to his eminence and utility as a Teacher; both by enabling him to direct his pupils to the most simple and luminous methods of inquiry, and to imbue their minds, from the very commencement of the study, with that fine relish for the truths it disclosed, and that high sense of the majesty with which they were invested, that predominated in his own bosom. While he left nothing unexplained or unreduced to its proper place in the system, he took care that they should never be perplexed by petty difficulties, or bewildered in useless details; and formed them betimes to those clear, masculine, and direct methods of investigation, by which, with the least labour, the greatest advances might be accomplished.

Mr. Playfair, however, was not merely a teacher; and has fortunately left behind him a variety of works; from which other generations may be enabled to judge of some of those qualifications which so powerfully recommended and endeared him to his contemporaries. It is, perhaps, to be regretted that so much of his time, and so large a proportion of his publications, should have been devoted to the subjects of the Indian Astronomy, and the Huttonian Theory of the Earth: And though it is impossible to think too highly of the ingenuity, the vigour, and the eloquence of those publications, we are of opinion that a juster estimate of his talent, and a truer picture of his genius and understanding, is to be found in his other writings; in the papers, both biographical and scientific, with which he has enriched the Transactions of our Royal Society; his account of Laplace, and other articles

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which he contributed to the Edinburgh Review,—the Outlines of his Lectures on Natural Philosophy,—and, above all, his Introductory Discourse to the Supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, with the final correction of which he was occupied up to the last moments that the progress of his disease allowed him to dedicate to any intellectual exertion.

With reference to these works, we do not think we are influenced by any national, or other partiality, when we say that he was certainly one of the best writers of his age; and even that we do not now recollect any one of his contemporaries who was so great a master of composition. There is a certain mellowness and richness about his style, which adorns, without disguising the weight and nervousness which is its other great characteristic, a sedate gracefulness and manly simplicity in the more level passages, and a mild majesty and considerate enthusiasm where he rises above them, of which we scarcely know where to find any other example. There is great equability, too, and sustained force in every part of his writings. He never exhausts himself in flashes and epigrams, nor languishes into tameness or insipidity: At first sight you would say that plainness and good sense were the predominating qualities; but by and bye, this simplicity is enriched with the delicate and vivid colours of a fine imagination, the free and forcible touches of a most powerful intellect, -and the lights and shades of an unerring and harmonising taste. In comparing it with the styles of his most celebrated contemporaries, we would say that it was more purely and peculiarly a written style,—and, therefore, rejected those ornaments that more properly belong to oratory. It had no impetuosity, hurry, or vehemence,-no bursts or sudden turns or abruptions, like that of Burke; and though eminently smooth and melodious, it was not modulated to an uniform system of solemn declamation, like that of Johnson, nor spread out in the richer and more voluminous elocution of Stewart; nor, still less, broken into that patchwork of scholastic pedantry and conversational smartness which

PLAYFAIR-EXCELLENCE OF HIS STYLE.

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has found its admirers in Gibbon. It is a style, in short, of great freedom, force, and beauty; but the deliberate style of a man of thought and of learning; and neither that of a wit throwing out his extempores with an affectation of careless grace, nor of a rhetorician thinking more of his manner than his matter, and determined to be admired for his expression, whatever may be the fate of his sentiments.

HABITS OF COMPOSITION.

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His habits of composition were not perhaps exactly what might have been expected from their results. He wrote rather slowly, and his first sketches were often very slight and imperfect, -like the rude chalking for a masterly picture. His chief effort and greatest pleasure was in their revisal and correction; and there were no limits to the improvement which resulted from this application. It was not the style merely, nor indeed chiefly, that gained by it: The whole reasoning, and sentiment, and illustration, were enlarged and new modelled in the course of it; and a naked outline became gradually informed with life, colour, and expression. It was not at all like the common finishing and polishing to which careful authors generally subject the first draughts of their compositions, nor even like the fastidious and tentative alterations with which some more anxious writers assay their choicer passages. It was, in fact, the great filling in of the picture, the working up of the figured weft, on the naked and meagre woof that had been stretched to receive it; and the singular thing in his case was, not only that he left this most material part of his work to be performed after the whole outline had been finished, but that he could proceed with it to an indefinite extent, and enrich and improve as long as he thought fit, without any risk either of destroying the proportions of that outline, or injuring the harmony and unity of the original design. He was perfectly aware, too, of the possession of this extraordinary power; and it was partly, we presume, in consequence of it that he was not only at all times ready to go on with any work in which he was engaged, without waiting for favourable moments or hours of greater

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688 PLAYFAIR - - HIS CONSTANT COMMAND OF HIS FACULTIES.

alacrity, but that he never felt any of those doubts and misgivings as to his being able to get creditably through with his undertaking, to which we believe most authors are occasionally liable. As he never wrote upon any subject of which he was not perfectly master, he was secure against all blunders in the substance of what he had to say; and felt quite assured, that if he was only allowed time enough, he should finally come to say it in the very best way of which he was capable. He had no anxiety, therefore, either in undertaking or proceeding with his tasks; and intermitted and resumed them at his convenience, with the comfortable certainty, that all the time he bestowed on them was turned to account, and that what was left imperfect at one sitting might be finished with equal ease and advantage at another. Being thus perfectly sure both of his end and his means, he experienced, in the course of his compositions, none of that little fever of the spirits with which that operation is so apt to be accompanied. He had no capricious visitings of fancy, which it was necessary to fix on the spot or to lose for ever, no casual inspirations to invoke and to wait for, no transitory and evanescent lights to catch before they faded. All that was in his mind was subject to his controul, and amenable to his call, though it might not obey at the moment; and while his taste was so sure, that he was in no danger of over-working any thing that he had designed, all his thoughts and sentiments had that unity and congruity, that they fell almost spontaneously into harmony and order; and the last added, incorporated, and assimilated with the first, as if they had sprung simultaneously from the same happy conception.

But we need dwell no longer on qualities that may be gathered hereafter from the works he has left behind him. They who lived with him mourn the most for those which will be traced in no such memorial! And prize far above those talents which gained him his high name in philosophy, that Personal Character which endeared him to his friends, and shed a grace and a dignity over all the society in which he moved. The same

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