See also: The Writings of Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor, the Platonist
A Biographical and Bibliographical Sketch.
By William E. A. Axon. (1890)
Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, has been variously judged.1
“To strain human curiosity to the utmost limits of human credibility,” says Isaac Disraeli, “a modern Plato has arisen in Mr. Thomas Taylor, who consonant to the Platonic Philosophy, religiously professes polytheism! At the close of the eighteenth century, be it recorded, were published many volumes in which the author affects to avow himself a zealous Platonist, and asserts that he can prove that the Christian religion is ‘a bastardized and barbarous Platonism.’ The divinities of Plato are the deities to be adored, and we are to be taught to call God, Jupiter; the Virgin, Venus; and Christ, Cupid! The Iliad of Homer allegorized, is converted into a Greek Bible of the Arcana of Nature!”—(Curiosities of Liturature: Modern Platonism.)
T. J. Mathias styles Taylor “the would-be restorer of unintelligible mysticism and superstitious pagan nonsense,” and speaks of—
“The hymns that Taylor, England’s Gentile priest,
Sung spousal at fair Psyche’s marriage feast.”
Another critic, writing in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1825, said:
“The man is an ass, in the first place; secondly, he knows nothing of the religion of which he is so great a fool as to profess himself a votary; and thirdly, he knows less than nothing of the language about which he is continually writing.” (Quoted by Dr. Allibone.)
De Quincey also had a poor opinion of him, yet read what Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his conversation with Wordsworth, has said:—
“I told him it was not creditable that no one in all the country knew anything of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, whilst in every American library his translations were found. I said, ‘If Plato’s Republic were published in England, as a new book, today, do you think it would find any readers?’ He confessed it would not; ‘and yet,’ he added, after a pause, with that complacency which never deserts a true-born Englishman, ‘and yet we have embodied it all.’” (Emerson’s Representative Men, London, 1850, p. 39. See also pp. 18, 38, 40-44.)
The singular and interesting man who is known to us as Taylor, the Platonist, was born in London in the year 1758, and his parents we are told were “obscure but worthy.” His father was Joseph Taylor, staymaker, of Round Court, St. Martins-le-Grand, where the future Platonist was probably born.2 He was a weakly child, and signs of consumption induced his family to send him into Staffordshire. He returned to the metropolis in his ninth year, and was admitted at St. Paul’s School, April 10th, 1767. His parents designed him for the Nonconformist ministry. His affection for philosophy, as distinguished from the mere verbal acquaintance with classics, was so marked, that when an ethical or specially grand sentence occurred in an author he was construing, the surmaster, Mr. William Rider, would say, “Come, here is something worthy the attention of a philosopher.” He early discovered critical powers, which enabled him to notice and correct a blunder in the printing of a Latin Testament. He had now to disappoint his father, whose reverence for the ministerial office led him to regard it as “the most desirable and most enviable employment upon earth, and who was correspondingly troubled when he found that his talented son had no desire to occupy that office, and had so great a dislike to the public school teaching and languages—as it then was—that he begged to be taken home again. He had also been for a time a pupil of Mr. Worthington, the dissenting minister of Salter’s Hall. Taylor was precocious in another direction, for his passion for the lady who was afterwards his wife began when he was only twelve years old.
At home young Taylor picked up a copy of Ward’s Young Mathematician’s Guide, and this gave him a turn for mathematics, in which he afterwards excelled, and to which he himself ascribed no small share of his success afterwards as a translator of Greek philosophy. Owing to his father’s opposition his early studies in mathematics were pursued in hours stolen from rest, and he slept with a tinder-box under his pillow. He was sent at fifteen to work under an uncle-in-law at Sheerness Dockyard, but rather than endure this unpleasant situation he attempted to fall in with his father’s views and became pupil to a dissenting minister. He studied Greek and Latin in the day, courted Miss Morton in the evening, and at night read Simson’s Conic Sections in the Latin edition. His judgment on Newton, after reading the Principia, was that he was a great mathematician but no philosopher! Miss Morton’s father intended his daughter for a richer man, but the young couple decided upon the immediate performance of the marriage ceremony, whilst postponing married life until the return of the bridegroom from Aberdeen University, where he was to finish his education. The stepmother3 of Taylor found out the secret, and the young couple had a bad time of it. The bride’s father was induced when dying to leave any payments to her to the discretion of a relative whose fault was not that of open-handed liberality. For about a year the philosopher and his wife had only about seven shillings a week on which to live. Taylor obtained a situation as usher, and was only able to see his wife upon the Saturday afternoon. He next obtained a position in Lubbock’s Bank at a salary of fifty pounds, paid quarterly, and endured great privations from want of money, so that frequently from want of food he would be in a fainting condition on reaching home. Even under these discouraging circumstances Taylor did not neglect study, and turned his mind to the unprofitable consideration of Becker’s Physica Subterranea and quadrature of the circle. His first essay, a quarto pamphlet, entitled A New Method of Reasoning in Geometry, bears upon the last-named subject, and its substance is reproduced in a note to his translation of Proclus On Euclid. A passage in Sir Kenelm Digby sent him to the writings of Aristotle, and he was soon able to read him in the original. He used to say himself that he learned Greek rather through the Greek philosophy than the Greek philosophy through Greek. The earnest student was always engaged at the bank until seven and often until ten, and in order to continue his abstract researches seldom went to bed until two or three o’clock in the morning. He had that power of abstraction from the common cares of life that is indispensable for successful thinking. The fact that he was accurate and “business-like” in his employment did not in the least prevent him from digesting, whilst walking about delivering the bills of the bank, that which he had read in Aristotle and his interpreters. He paid great attention to the commentaries upon Aristotle. He next proceeded to study Plato with equal or greater avidity. In this new path he soon came upon Plotinus and Proclus, whose dissertation on the theology of Plato he found so profound that it was not until he had thrice read it over that he thoroughly comprehended its abstruse matter.
Whilst engaged with Proclus he had residing in his house Mary Woollstoncraft and her friend Miss Blood. Their three months’ company was mutually agreeable. The lady listened attentively to his explanations of Plato, called his study the “Abode of Peace,” but avowed her preference for an active, rather than a contemplative life. He called upon her when she lived in George Street, and there drank wine with her out of a tea-cup; Mrs. Woollstoncraft observed at the time, that she did not give herself the trouble to think whether a glass was a necessary utensil in a house. He has also heard her say “that one of the conditions she should make previous to marriage, with the man she intended for her husband, would be this—that he should never presume to enter the room in which she was sitting, till he had first knocked at the door.”
After six years at the Bank, the drudgery proved too much, even for the philosophic spirit of Taylor. Nights of arduous study following days of uncongenial employment had injured his health. He had a notion that a perpetual lamp might be made, and he gave an exhibition of his invention at the “Freemasons’ Tavern.” He found that oil and salt boiled formed a fluid vehicle, which when phosphorus was immersed in it, both preserved and increased the splendour of light. Unfortunately, at the exhibition the phosphorus took fire, “and thus raised a prejudice against the invention which could never afterwards be removed.” The failure was not, however, without result, for it attracted the attention of Mr. George Cumberland, who, with other friends, enabled Taylor to leave the bank “and procure subsistence for himself and his family by literary toil”—but of what nature is not stated. Flaxman, the sculptor, induced him to write twelve lectures on the “Platonic Philosophy,” which were read at the artist’s house, where he had amongst his auditors Sir William Fordyce, the Hon. Mrs. Darner, Mrs. Cosway, Mr. Romney and others. Flaxman also introduced him to Bennet Langton, who thrice mentioned him to the king as “a gigantic reader.” George III. expressed his admiration of Taylor’s ability and industry, but did not take any further notice of his Platonic subject. But if royalty was not liberal another patron arose. A wealthy man, Mr. William Meredith, of Harley Place, who had become acquainted with Plato in the fine translation of Sydenham, took him by the hand, and enabled him to print his translations of the Hymns of Orpheus, the Commentaries of Proclus on Euclid, and the Fable of Cupid and Psyche. In William Meredith and his brother George, who was one of the architects who early studied Gothic, Taylor had liberal and sympathetic friends.
It was at this period that the Marquis de Valady lodged with Taylor. The extraordinary letter in which the marquis introduced himself is dated “12 Xbre 1788, vulg. æra,” was printed by Taylor, and is quoted in Fraser’s Magazine, Nov., 1875. The Frenchman professed to be a Pythagorean, and thought that the philosophic doctrine of community should be extended to the conjugal relations. He asked the English Pythagorean’s opinion; but Taylor severely condemned the loose morality of the suggestion.4
Taylor had the true literary dislike of critics. Dining once at Mr. Bennet Langton’s, with Dr. Burney and other eminent scholars, he exclaimed to his friend, as soon as he left the. house, “God keep me from critics!” This was occasioned by a dispute which arose at that time, respecting the propriety of the epithet ocean stream, which Mr. Taylor had made use of in his translation of one of his Orphic hymns. Mr. Taylor urged, in his defence, that this epithet was employed by Homer, Hesiod, and Plato; To this Dr. Burney replied, that Homer indeed had the expression ὼκεᾶνός ποταμος the ocean river, but that a river was not a stream. Mr. Taylor then observed that these words were considered as synonymous, by no less poets than Milton and Denham. By Milton, when speaking of the leviathan (Paradise Lost, Book i.) he says:—
“——————— or that sea beast
Leviathan, whom God of all his works
Created hugest, that swim th’ ocean stream.”
And by Denham, in the first of his famous lines on the Thames:—
“O, could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great exemplar, as it is my theme.”
Soon after the departure of the marquis, Mr. Taylor and his wife became possessed of six or seven hundred pounds, by the death of one of her relations. A great part of this he spent in relieving some relatives, and the rest he lost in a loan to one of his early friends. The transaction was creditable to his heart if not to his head. Five or six years after he was again in embarrassment, and in seven months translated some of the abstrusest of the Dialogues of Plato and then sold the copyright for forty pounds. For his versions of Sallust On the Gods and the World, the Pythagoric Sentences of Demophilus, the Five Hymns of Proclus, the Two Orations of the Emperor Julian and Five books of Plotinus he received twenty pounds. His translation of Pausanias was the work of ten months. When the work was undertaken Mr. Samuel Patterson, the literary auctioneer, said of the task that “it was enough to break a man’s heart.” “Oh,” replied the bookseller, “nothing will break the heart of Mr. Taylor.” He injured his health by the execution of this task, for which he received £60. One result was that he lost the use of his forefinger in writing.
Under the encouragement of an anonymous patron Taylor undertook to translate all the Platonic dialogues that had not been turned into English by Mr. Sydenham. For this purpose he visited the Bodleian at Oxford in 1797, and was “handsomely treated” by the University. The Merediths engaged him to translate Aristotle’s Metaphysics.5 Mr. Thomas Brand Hollis was another of his friends.
The elder Disraeli wrote a now forgotten novel, entitled Vaurien, which appeared anonymously in 1797. In this there is a satirical sketch of the Platonist. It is not easy to select passages from it sufficiently brief and unobjectionable. Vaurien waits in conversation with the wife of the Platonist until he has completed his morning worship:—
“By this time the Platonist had concluded his long hymn to Apollo. Vaurien now ascended with difficulty. At the bottom of the stairs was a large kennel of dogs of various nations, who lived in a good understanding with each other, excepting when a bone was thrown among them, for then the dogs behaved like men, that is, they mangled and tore each other to pieces with sagacity and without remorse. Monkeys and apes were chained on the banisters. A little republic of cats was peaceably established on the first landing place. He passed through one room which was an aviary and another which was an apiary. From the ceiling of the study of the Platonist, depended a polished globe of silvered glass, which strongly reflected the beams of the sun. Amidst this aching splendour sat the Platonist, changing his seat with the motions of his god, so that in the course of the day he and the sun went regularly round the apartment. He was occupied in constructing a magic lanthorn, which puerile amusement excited the surprise of Vaurien.”
The Platonist accounted for it.
“My dissertation on the Eleusinian mysteries is not all understood. The whole machinery, reflected on a white sheet, will be more intelligible than any I could give on a sheet of paper. In the presence of the gods, in the most holy of the mysteries, dæmons appeared with the heads of dogs; Pletho says this, who lived a thousand years after the mysteries. Then I have ‘omniform and terrific monsters;’ then the demiurgus, the progress of purgation, inspection, crowning, torch-bearing, and, finally, friendship with the gods. But here is the great difficulty. How shall I represent ‘the intolerable effulgence of the divine light?’ Much it grieves me, that for this sublime purpose a candle and a piece of coloured tin are all I can get into the lanthorn. The gods are not always favourable to my attempts. After long experiments, I conceived I had discovered the perpetual sepulchral lamp of the ancients. Last week I invited my friends to a philosophical lecture on my perpetual lamp; I triumphed in my discovery; but ere my lecture closed my lamp was suddenly extinguished. Good Gods!”—(Vol. II., p. 192.)
After more, which is best left untouched, we read:—
“Vaurien having felicitated the Platonist on the new world he had opened to himself, said, ‘You propose to overturn Christianity by the publications of the Platonists, and to erect a Pantheon, that the gods may be honourably reverenced.’
“’That is my important pursuit; I have already prepared the soaring and ecstatic Olympiodorus, the noble and obscure Heraclius; I join the Asiatic luxuriancy of Proclus, divinely explained by Jamblichus, and profoundly delivered by Plotinus. Plotinus, who was surnamed ‘Intellect’ by his contemporaries, such was the fervour of his mind, that he was accustomed to write without attending to the orthography or the revision of his works, which perhaps occasions their divine unintelligibility; for the celestial vigour rendered him incapable of trifling concerns, and he therefore committed them, as fast as he wrote, to Porphyry, who, perhaps labouring under the same divine influence, was equally incapable of orthography or sense.’ The Platonist concluded this conversation with an invective, of which the style appears to us so curious that we shall give the exact expressions, as a specimen of the Platonic effervescence in a Ciceronian period:—
“’I have long perceived the ignorance and malevolence of Christian priests, from the most early fathers to the most modern retailers of hypocrisy and cant; every intelligent reader must be alternately excited to grief and indignation, to pity and contempt, at the barbarous mythological systems of the moderns; for in these we meet with nothing but folly and delusion, opinions founded either on fanaticism or atheism, inconceivably absurd, and inextricably obscure, ridiculously vain, and monstrously deformed, stupidly dull, and contemptibly zealous, apostolically delirious, or historically dry, and, in one word, such only as arrogance and ignorance could conceive, impiety propagate, and the vapid spirit of the moderns be induced to admit.’
“’My dear Platonist,’ exclaimed Vaurien, ‘if you can roll periods like these, your genius will be rewarded by yourself being chosen by the nation to lay the first stone of a Pantheon in London, for “the ascent of excellent dæmons”.’” (Vol. II., p. 213)
There is nothing to show that D’lsraeli was personally acquainted with Taylor the Platonist, and the sketch in Vaurien is too obviously caricatured to be worthy of much attention.
Taylor, after leaving the bank, “had a place in one of the public offices, to the fatigues of which, finding his strength by no means adequate, and the employment appearing to him at the same time extremely servile, he relinquished it almost immediately after his nomination,” and composed the following lines on the occasion:—
To ev’ry power that reigns on high,
Swifter than light my thanks shall fly,
That, from the B * * * dark dungeon free,
I once more hail sweet liberty!
For sure, I ween, fate ne’er me doom’d
To be ‘midst sordid cares entomb’d,
And vilely waste in groveling toil
The mid-day blaze and midnight oil,
To some poor darkling desk confin’d;
While the wing’d energies of mind
Oppress’d, and crush’d, and vanquish’d lie,
And lose at length, the power to fly.
A doom like this be his alone
To whom truth’s charms were never known;
Who many sleepless nights has spent,
In schemes full fraught with cent per cent.
The slave of av’rice, child of care,
And lost to all that’s good and fair.
Mr. Taylor finally, by the influence of his friends, was appointed assistant secretary of the Society of Arts.
Amongst Taylor’s friends was Thomas Lovell Peacock, whose grand-daughter says:—
“My grandfather’s friends were especially Mr. Macgregor Laird and Mr .Coulson, also the two Smiths of the ‘Rejected Addresses;’ Barry Cornwall (Mr. Procter), and a remarkable man, Mr. Thomas Taylor, of Norwich, commonly called ‘Pagan Taylor,’ who always addressed grandpapa as ‘Greeky Peeky’; he sacrificed lambs in his lodgings to the ‘immortal gods,’ and ‘poured out libations to Jupiter,’ until his landlord threatened to turn him out; hence his nickname of ‘Pagan.’”
It is rather amusing here to see Thomas Taylor confounded with Taylor of Norwich, as on other occasions he has been confounded with Robert Taylor, the Devil’s Chaplain, and even with Isaac Taylor! The origin of the story about the sacrifice, which has more than once been taken seriously, was probably no more than a good-natured jest.
Let us now endeavour to chronicle the various publications of this extraordinary man. They are all of them in a certain degree rare, and some of them are so in an exceptional degree:—
[We here omit Axon’s bibliography and forward the reader to our more complete bibliography, which includes links to scans of the original publications]
For further biographies, see:
Thomas Taylor: The English Platonist, Philaletheians
Thomas Taylor: The English Platonist, Prometheus Trust
1. The materials for the following sketch are in Allibone’s Dictionary of English Literature; An Annotated Catalogue of an unique and exceptionally complete Set of the Works of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, by Orlin Mead Sandford, New York, 1885; also in Book Lore, vols. 2, and 3; The Antiquary, August, 1888 (by Edward Peacock); The Survival of Paganism (Fraser’s Magazine, November, 1875); Lowndes’ Bibliographer’s Manual, British Museum General Catalogue ; Barker’s Literary Anecdotes; Publick Characters, 1798-1799 (this is, if not autobiographical, evidently based on information supplied by the subject; there is a portrait of him, representing a rather ascetic but kindly face); Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature; Mathias’ Pursuits of Literature; Nouvelle Biographie Générale, par Hœfer; A Brief Notice of the Life of Mr. Thomas Taylor, tile Celebrated Platonist, with a Catalogue of his Works, London, 1831, signed J. J. W. [i.e., James Jacob Welsh.]
2. Mr. Edward Peacock says that he was born 15th May, 1758, in a street at or near Bunhill Fields, London.—(Antiquary, vol. xviii. p. I.)
3. It is said to be the mother-in-law in the sketch in Public Characters, but the context seems to indicate that it was his father’s wife.
4. There is a biographical sketch of J. G. C. S. X. J. J. Izarn de Valady in the Lives of the Remarkable Characters of the French Revolution, and it is limned in very dark colours. “The persons to whom he was known assert with him madness was the result of immorality, not immorality the result of madness.” He acted with the Girondins, and was arrested at Perigueux, and condemned to death, 5th December, 1794.
5. Mr. Peacock states that the translations of Aristotle were published at the expense of the Duke of Norfolk.