Barratt, Alfred (DNB00)

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BARRATT, ALFRED (1844–1881), philosophical writer, eldest son of Mr. James Barratt, solicitor, was born at Heald Grove, Manchester, on 12 July 1844. He showed extraordinary precocity; he could pick out all the letters of the alphabet when twelve months old; and at three he knew by heart a story in twenty-eight verses, read to him only three times. When eight years old he was sent to a small day-school, where he learnt modern as well as the classical languages. Four years later he went to a school at Sandbach, where he picked up in play-hours the rudiments of Hebrew and Arabic and a little Persian from an under-master. At fourteen he went to Rugby, where he continued to distinguish himself, gaining twenty-nine prizes. In 1862 he entered Balliol, and became a scholar in his first term. He took a double first in moderations and a first-class in the classical, mathematical, and law and modern history schools in 1866, thus achieving the unequalled distinction of five first classes ‘within four years and two months’ from beginning residence. He obtained a fellowship at Brasenose a year later, and in January 1869 he published his ‘Physical Ethics,’ with which he had ‘amused himself’ in leisure hours at Oxford. In 1870 he obtained the Eldon law scholarship. He studied law under Vice-chancellor Wickens and Mr. Horace Davey, and was called to the bar in 1872. In May 1876 he married Dorothea, sister of an old school friend, the Rev. R. Hart Davis. Soon after his marriage he began a work called ‘Physical Metempiric,’ and his absorption in philosophical studies, together with a natural diffidence, interfered with his devotion to the bar. In the autumn of 1880 he became secretary to the Oxford University Commission. The pressure of combined legal, official, and literary labours was great, and his health suddenly collapsed. After finishing the report of the commission, by working till late hours, in April 1881, he was attacked by paralysis on 1 May and died on 18 May 1881, leaving a widow and infant daughter. His unfinished book on ‘Physical Metempiric,’ was arranged by Mr. Carveth Read for publication. The book also contains some articles from ‘Mind,’ and a touching prefatory memoir by his widow, from which the foregoing facts are taken. It includes letters from Dr. Jex Blake, the present master of Balliol (Professor Jowett), the warden of All Souls (Sir William Anson), and an old friend, Mr. Farwell. Their testimony to Barratt's singular charm of character, his simplicity, friendliness, and modesty, is as striking as their recognition of his remarkable accomplishments. Besides a wide knowledge of classical and modern languages, he had a cultivated taste for music and painting. His teachers were amazed at the ease with which he absorbed knowledge, whilst apparently idling and taking part in social recreation. They ascribe it to his powers of concentration and to the habit of occasionally dispensing with exercise and working at unusual hours. His early death, however, was probably ascribable to excessive labour.

The book on ‘Physical Ethics’ is a most remarkable performance for a youth of twenty-four, showing wide reading and marked literary power. The leading idea is the unity of all knowledge and the necessity of bringing ethics into harmony with the physical sciences. The theory resembles, though on certain points it diverges from, that of Mr. Herbert Spencer, whom the author recognises as ‘the greatest philosopher of the age.’ Barratt describes himself as an egoist, and in a vigorous article called ‘The Suppression of Egoism’ defends his theory against Mr. Sidgwick. His editor, Mr. Carveth Read, holds that his divergence from the ‘universalist utilitarians’ upon this point is partly a question of classification (Mind, xxx. 274). The later book was unfortunately left in a very imperfect state. It starts from the principle that every physical state is the symbol of a state of consciousness, and argues that feeling is not the effect but the efficient cause of motion. It leads to a system of monadism which would have been compared with Leibnitz's doctrine and with modern theories such as Clifford's ‘mindstuff.’ Though fragmentary, it is full of interesting suggestions.

[Preface to Physical Metempiric; Mind, Nos. xxiii. and xxx.]

L. S.