Biography John Arbuthnot

John Arbuthnot

photo of John Arbuthnot
  • Time Period1667 - 1735
  • Place
  • CountryScotland

Poet Biography

one of the constellation of wits in the reign of queen Anne, and the most learned man of the whole body, was the son of a Scottish clergyman, who bore a near relationship to the noble family of this name and title. He was born at Arbuthnot in Kincardineshire, soon after the Restoration, and received his education at the University of Aberdeen, where he took the degree of M.D. The father of Arbuthnot was one of those members of the church of Scotland, who, not being able to comply with the presbyterian system introduced at the Revolution, were obliged to resign their charges. He retired to a small estate, which he possessed by inheritance; while his sons, finding their prospects blighted in their own country, were under the necessity of going abroad to seek their fortune. John carried his jacobitism, his talents, and his knowledge of physic, to London, where he at first subsisted as a teacher of mathematics. His first literary effort bore a reference to this science: it was an "Examination of Dr Woodward’s Account of the Deluge," a work which had been published in 1695, and which, in Dr Arbuthnot’s estimation, was irreconcilable with just philosophical principles. This publication, which appeared in 1697, laid the foundation of the author’s literary reputation, which not long after received a large and deserved increase by his "Essay on the usefulness of Mathematical Learning." The favour which he acquired by these publications, as well as by his agreeable manners and learned conversation, by degrees introduced him into practice as a physician. Being at Epsom, when Prince George of Denmark was suddenly taken ill, he was called in, and had the good fortune to effect a cure. The Prince immediately became his patron, and, in 1709, he was appointed fourth physician in ordinary to the queen, (prince George’s royal consort,) in which situation he continued till her majesty’s death in 1714. In 1704, Dr Arbuthnot had been elected a member of the Royal Society, in consequence of his communicating to that body a most ingenious paper on the equality of the numbers of the sexes; a fact which he proved by tables of births from 1629, and from which he deduced the reasonable inference that polygamy is a violation of the laws of nature. In 1710, he was elected a member of the Royal College of Physicians.

This was the happy period of Dr Arbuthnot’s life. Tory principles and tory ministers were now triumphant; he was in enjoyment of a high reputation, of a lucrative practice, and a most honourable preferment. He also lived in constant intercourse with a set of literary men, almost the greatest who had ever flourished in England, and all of whom were of his own way of thinking in regard to politics. This circle included Pope, Swift, Gray, and Prior. In 1714, he engaged with Pope and Swift, in a design to write a satire on the abuse of human learning in every branch, which was to have been executed in the humorous manner of Cervantes, the original inventor of this species of satire, under the history or feigned adventures. But the prosecution of this design was prevented by the queen’s death, which lost Arbuthnot his situation, and proved a death-blow to all the political friends of the associated wits. In the dejection which befell them, they never went farther than an essay, chiefly written by Arbuthnot, under the title of the First Book of the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus. "Polite letters," says Warburton in his edition of Pope’s works, "never lost more than in the defeat of this scheme; in the execution of which, each of this illustrious triumvirate would have found exercise for his own particular talents; besides constant employment for those which they all had in common. Dr Arbuthnot was skilled in every thing which related to science; Mr Pope was a master in the fine arts; and Dr Swift excelled in a knowledge of the world. Wit they had in equal measure; and this so large, that no age perhaps ever produced three men to whom Nature had more bountifully bestowed it, or Art had brought it to higher perfection." We are told by the same writer that the Travels of Gulliver and the Memoirs of a Parish Clerk were at first intended as a branch of the Memoirs of Scriblerus. In opposition to what Warburton says of the design, we may present what Johnson says of the execution. "These memoirs," says the doctor, in his life of Pope, "extend only to the first part of a work projected in concert by Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot. Their purpose was to censure the abuses of learning by a fictitious life of an infatuated scholar. They were dispersed; this design never was completed; and Warburton laments its miscarriage, as an event very disastrous to polite letters. If the whole may be estimated by this specimen which seems to be the production of Arbuthnot, with a few touches by Pope, this want of more will not be much lamented; for the follies which the writer ridicules are so little practised, that they are not known; nor can the satire be understood but by the learned. He raises phantoms of absurdity, and then drives them away. He cures diseases that were never felt. For this reason, this joint production of three great writers has never attained any notice from mankind." With the opinion of Dr Johnson we entirely coincide so far as the Scriblerus is concerned; but we think that Arbuthnot was unfortunate in the part of the design which he selected and that in satirising more pa1pible follies, he might have been more successful. The success of Swift, in ridiculing mankind in general in his Gulliver is surely a sufficient reason, if no other existed, for the lamentation of Warburton.

At the death of the Queen, when it pleased the new government to change all the attendants of the court, the immortal suffered with the mortal. Arbuthnot, displaced from his apartments at St James’s, took a house in Dover-street remarking philosophically to Swift, that he "hoped still to be able to keep a little habitation warm in town." His circumstances were never so prosperous or agreeable after this period. With the world at large success makes merit—and the want of it the reverse—and it is perhaps impossible for human nature to think so highly of a man who has been improperly deprived of some external mark of distinction and honour, as of him who wears it without so much desert. The wit, left to his own resources and with a rising family to support, seems to have now lived in some little embarrassment.

In 1717, Arbuthnot, along with Pope, gave assistance to Gay, in a farce entitled, "Three Hours after Marriage," which, strange to say, was condemned the first night. A rival wit wrote upon this subject:-

"Such were the wags who boldly did adventure
To club a farce by tripartite adventure;
But let them share their dividend of praise,
And wear their own fool’s cap instead of bays."

The failure is easily explained, and the explanation partly involves Arbuthnot’s character as a literary wit. The satire of the principal character was too confined, too extravagant, and too unintelligible to a general auditory to meet with success on the stage. It would thus appear that Arbuthnot, like many other similar men, had too refined a style of wit in his writings—not that broad, open, palpable humour which flashes at once upon the conceptions of all men, but something too rich and rare to be generally appreciated. His learning led his mind to objects not generally understood or known; and, therefore, when he wrote, he was apt to excite the sympathies of only a very limited class.

In 1722, Dr Arbuthnot found it necessary for his health to indulge in a visit to Bath. He was accompanied on this occasion by a brother, who was a banker at Paris, and whose extraordinary character called forth the following striking description from Pope: "The spirit of philanthropy, so long dead to our world, seems revived in him: he is a philosopher all fire; so warmly, nay so wildly, in the right, that he forces all others about him to be so too, and draws them into his own vortex. He is a star that looks as if it were all on fire, but is all benignity, all gentle and beneficial influence. If there be other men in the world that would serve a friend, yet he is the only one I believe that could make even an enemy serve a friend." About this time, the Doctor thus described himself in a letter to Swift: "As for your humble servant, with a great stone in his right kidney, and a family of men and women to provide for, he is as cheerful in public affairs as ever."

Arbuthnot, in 1723, was chosen second censor of the Royal College of Physicians; in 1727, he was made an Elect, and had the honour to pronounce the Harveian oration for the year. In 1727, also appeared his great and learned work entitled, "Tables of Ancient Coins, Weights, and Measures, explained and exemplified in several Dissertations." He continued to practice physic with good reputation, and diverted his leisure hours by writing papers of wit and humour. Among these may be mentioned one, which appeared in 1731, in the shape of an epitaph upon the infamous colonel Charteris, and which we shall present in this place as perhaps the most favourable specimen of Dr Arbuthnot’s peculiar vein of talent:—

"Here continueth to rot the body of Francis Charteris, who, with an inflexible constancy, and inimitable uniformity of life, persisted, in spite of age and infirmities, in the practice of every human vice; excepting prodigality and hypocrisy; his insatiable avarice exempted him from the first, his matchless impudence from the second. Nor was he more singular in the undeviating pravity of his manners, than successful in accumulating wealth; for, without trade or profession, without trust of public money, and without bribe-worthy service, he acquired, or more properly created, a ministerial estate. He was the only person of his time, who could cheat with the mask of honesty, retain his primeval meanness when possessed of ten thousand a year, and, having daily deserved the gibbet for what he did, was at last condemned to it for what he could not do.—Oh! indignant reader! Think not his life useless to mankind! Providence connived at his execrable designs, to give to after ages a conspicuous proof and example of how small estimation is exorbitant wealth in the sight of God, by his bestowing it on the most unworthy of all mortals." [This paragon of wickedness, who was a native of Scotland, is thus described by Pope, but, we believe, as in the epitaph itself, with much exaggeration. "Francis Charteris, a man infamous for all vices. When he was an ensign in the army, he was drummed out of the regiment for a cheat; he was banished Brussels, and turned out of Ghent on the same account. After a hundred tricks at the gaming-tables, he took to lending of money, at exorbitant interest, and on great penalties, accumulating premium, interest and capital into a new capital, and seizing to a minute when the payment became due; in a word, by a constant attention to the vices, wants, and follies of mankind, he acquired an immense fortune. * * * He was twice condemned for rapes and pardoned, but the last time not without imprisonment in Newgate, and large confiscations. He died in Scotland, in 1731, aged 62. The populace, at his funeral, raised a great riot, almost tore the body out of the coffin, and cast dead dogs, &c. into the grave along with it." We may add, that the mourners had to defend themselves from the mob with their swords. See Traditions of Edinburgh. One remarkable feature of Charteris’ character is not generally known: though a bully and a coward, he had his fighting days; he would suffer himself to be kicked for refusing a challenge one day, and the next would accept another and kill his man.]

Arbuthnot, about this time, wrote a very entertaining paper on the "Altercations or Scolding of the Ancients." In 1732, he contributed towards detecting and punishing the scandalous frauds and abuses that had been carried on under the specious name of "The Charitable Corporation." In the same year, he published his "Treatise on the Nature and Choice of Ailments," which was followed, in 1733, by his "Essay on the Effects of Air on Human Bodies." He is thought to have been led to these subjects by the consideration of his own case; an asthma, which, gradually increasing with his years, became at length desperate and incurable. A little before his last publication, he had met with a severe domestic affliction in the loss of his son, Charles, "whose life," he says in a letter to Swift, "if it had so pleased God, he would willingly have redeemed with his own." He now retired, in a state of great debility to Hampstead; from whence, in a letter to Pope, July 17th, 1734, he gives the following philosophic, and we may add, touching, account of his condition:

"I have little doubt of your concern for me, nor of that of the lady you mention. I have nothing to repay my friends with at present, but prayers and good wishes. I have the satisfaction to find that I am as officiously served by my friends, as he that has thousands to leave in legacies; besides the assurance of their sincerity. God Almighty had made my distress as easy as a thing of that nature can be. I have found some relief, at least sometimes, from the air of this place. My nights are bad, but many poor creatures have worse.

"As for you my good friend I think since our first acquaintance, there have not been any of those little suspicions or jealousies that often affect the sincerest friendships; I am sure not on my side. I must be so sincere as to own that, though I could not help valuing you for those talents which the world prizes, yet they were not the foundation of my friendship, they were quite of another sort; nor shall I at present offend you by enumerating them; and I make it my last request, that you will continue that noble disdain and abhorrence of vice, which you seem naturally endowed with, but still with a due regard to your own safety; and study more to reform than to chastise, though the one cannot be effected without the other.

"Lord Bathurst I have always honoured, for every good quality that a person of his rank ought to have: pray, give my respects and kindest wishes to the family. My venison stomach is gone, but I have those about me, and often with me, who will be very glad of his present. If it is left at any house, it will be transmitted safe to me.

"A recovery in my case, and at my age, is impossible; the kindest wish of my friends is euthanasia. Living or dying, I shall always be,—Yours, &c."

In a letter about the same time to Swift, he says he came to Hampstead, not for life, but for ease. That he had gained in a slight degree from riding; but he was "not in circumstances to live an idle country life;" and he expected a return of the disorder in full force on his return in winter to London. He adds, "I am at present in the case of a man that was almost in harbour, but was again blown back to sea; who has a reasonable hope of going to a good place, and an absolute certainty of leaving a very bad one. Not that I have any particular disgust at the world, for I have as great comfort in my own family, and from the kindness of my friends, as any man; but the world in the main displeaseth me; and I have too true a presentiment of calamities that are like to befall my country. However, if I should have the happiness to see you before I die, you will find that I enjoy the comforts of life with my usual cheerfulness. * * * My family give you their love and service. The great loss I sustained in one of them gave me my first shock; and the trouble I have with the rest, to bring them to a good temper, to bear the loss of a father who loves them, and whom they love, is really a most sensible affliction to me. I am afraid, my dear friend, we shall never see one another more in this world. I shall, to the last moment, preserve my love and esteem for you, being well assured that you will never leave the paths of virtue and honour for all that is in the world. This world is not worth the least deviation from that way," &c. In such a strain did this truly good man discourse of his own certain and immediate death, which accordingly took place, February, 1735, in his house, Cork-street, Burlington Gardens, to which he had returned from Hampstead at the approach of winter.

Arbuthnot’s character was given by his friend Swift in one dash: "he has more wit than we all have, and more humanity than wit." "Arbuthnot," says Dr Johnson in his life of Pope, "was a man of great comprehension, skilful in his profession, versed in the sciences, acquainted with ancient literature, and able to animate his mass of knowledge by a bright and active imagination; a scholar with great brilliancy of wit; a wit, who, in the crowd of life, retained and discovered a noble ardour of religious zeal." Lord Orrery has thus entered more minutely into his character. "Although he was justly celebrated for wit and learning, there was an excellence in his character more amiable than all his other qualifications, I mean the excellence of his heart. He has shown himself equal to any of his contemporaries in wit and vivacity, and he was superior to most men in acts of humanity and benevolence. His very sarcasms are the satirical strokes of good nature: they are like slaps in the face, given in jest, the effects of which may raise blushes, but no blackness will appear after the blow. He laughs as jovially as an attendant upon Bacchus, but continues as sober and considerate as a disciple of Socrates. He is seldom serious except in his attacks upon vice; and then his spirit rises with a manly strength, and a noble indignation. His epitaph upon Charteris (allowing one small alteration, the word permitted, instead of connived at,) is a complete and a masterly composition in its kind. No man exceeded him in the moral duties of life; a merit still more to his honour, as the ambitious powers of wit and genius are seldom submissive enough to confine themselves within the limitations of morality. In his letter to Mr Pope, written as it were upon his death-bed, he discovers such a noble fortitude of mind at the approach of his dissolution, as could be inspired only by a clear conscience, and the calm retrospect of an uninterrupted series of virtue. The Dean (Swift) laments the loss of him with a pathetic sincerity. ‘‘The deaths of Mr Gay and Doctor," says he to Mr Pope, "have been terrible wounds near my heart. Their living would have been a great comfort to me, although I should never have seen them: like a sum of money in a bank, from which I should receive at least annual interest, as I do from you, and have done from Lord Bolingbroke."

The wit, to which Swift’s was only allowed the second place, was accompanied by a guileless heart, and the most perfect simplicity of character. It is related of its possessor, that he used to write a humourous account of almost every remarkable event which fell under his observation, in a folio book, which lay in his parlour; but so careless was he about his writings after he was done with them, that, while he was writing towards one end of this work, he would permit his children to tear out the leaves from the other, for their paper kites. This carelessness has prevented many of the works of Dr Arbuthnot from being preserved, and no correct list has ever been given. A publication in two volumes, 8vo, at Glasgow, in 1751, professing to be his "Miscellaneous Works," was said by his son to consist chiefly of the compositions of other people. He was so much in the habit of writing occasional pieces anonymously, that many fugitive articles were erroneously attributed to him: he was at first supposed to be the author of Robinson Crusoe. He scarcely ever spoke of his writings, or seemed to take the least interest in them. He was also somewhat indolent. Swift said of him, that he seemed at first sight to have no fault, but that he could not walk. In addition to this, he had too much simplicity and worth to profit by the expedients of life: in Swift’s words,

"He knew his art, but not his trade."

Swift also must be considered as insinuating a certain levity of feeling, with all his goodness, when he says, in anticipation of his own death,

"Poor Pope will grieve a month, and Gay
A week, and Arbuthnot a day!"

Though the habitual cheerfulness of his disposition may have been all that the poet had in his eye. The only other work ascertained as Arbuthnot’s, besides those mentioned, is the celebrated History of John Bull, a political allegory, which has had many imitations, but no equal. He also attempted poetry, though without any particular effort. A philosophical poem of his composition, entitled "Know Yourself" is printed in Dodsley’s Miscellanies. He left a son, George, who was an executor in Pope’s will, and who died in the enjoyment of a lucrative situation in the Exchequer office towards the end of the last century; and a daughter, Anne, who was honoured with a legacy by Pope. His second son, Charles, who died before himself, had been educated in Christ church college, Oxford, and entered into holy orders.