Taylor, Thomas (1758-1835) (DNB00)

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TAYLOR, THOMAS (1758–1835), Platonist, son of Joseph Taylor, staymaker, of St. Martin's-le-Grand, London, was born on 15 May 1758, and was admitted on 10 April 1767 at St. Paul's school. He was removed after three years, during which he suffered more by the cane than he profited by the classics. Three years later, having meanwhile taken a fancy to mathematics and Mary Morton, daughter of a coal merchant in Doctors' Commons, he was placed at Sheerness, under charge of his father's brother-in-law, who was employed in the dockyard. There he pursued his mathematical studies, besides dabbling in the philosophical essays of Bolingbroke and Hume. Leaving Sheerness in his nineteenth year a complete sceptic, he began to study for the dissenting ministry under Mr. Worthington of Salters' Hall meeting-house, but, on marrying Mary Morton soon afterwards, he obtained an usher's place in a school at Paddington, and eventually a clerkship in Lubbock's bank, which enabled him to take a small house, 9 Manor Place, Walworth. There, in hours stolen from sleep, he grappled with Greek philosophy, inverting the usual order of study by beginning with Aristotle; and read mathematics and chemistry. The latter researches bore fruit in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Elements of a new Method of Reasoning in Geometry applied to the Rectification of the Circle,’ London, 1780, 4to, and in a lamp which was to afford perpetual light, but which on exhibition at Freemasons' Tavern exploded, and all but caused a conflagration. He made friends, however, among them Thomas Love Peacock, Romney the portrait-painter, Bennet Langton (who made him free of his library), and Flaxman, at whose house he delivered twelve lectures on Plato. In quest of a metaphysic of mathematics he passed from Plato to Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists. In their mystical works Taylor discovered the perfect blending of philosophy and religion, and constituted himself their interpreter to the modern world (see bibliographical note infra). His fame reached Paris, and drew thence the neo-Pythagorean ‘philosophe’ De Valadi, who was his guest during the winter of 1788–9. In his house, too, lodged for a while Mary Wollstonecraft, whose ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ he somewhat heavily parodied in his anonymous ‘Vindication of the Rights of Brutes,’ London, 1792, 8vo. Popular rumour credited Taylor with an almost superstitious regard for the numerous pets with which he surrounded himself at Manor Place, and it is not improbable that he had adopted the theory of metempsychosis.

‘An Abridgment of Mr. [Bryan] Edwards's Civil and Commercial History of the British West Indies,’ London, 1794, 8vo, is attributed to Taylor, and was probably but one among other pieces of anonymous hackwork by which he eked out his slender means. Delivered from this drudgery by the generosity of William Meredith, a retired tradesman, who settled an annuity of 100l. upon him, Taylor resigned his clerkship, and obtained in 1798 the post of assistant secretary to the Society of Arts, which he resigned in 1806 in order to devote himself more assiduously to the work of translating and expounding the ancient thinkers. His equipment for this enterprise left much to be desired. Critical faculty he had none. No doubt of the historic personality of Orpheus or the authenticity of the hymns ascribed to him ever crossed his mind; the mystical neo-Pythagorean mathematics he esteemed the true science, which the Arabians and their European successors had corrupted; and he rejected the common opinion of an essential antagonism between the Platonic and Peripatetic philosophies, only to resuscitate the forced and fanciful syncretism of the ancient commentators. His style, formed on the Johnsonian model, retained its stiffness to the last. But with an ardour which neither neglect nor contempt could damp, he plodded laboriously on until he had achieved a work never so much as contemplated in its entirety by any of his predecessors. Widely read in America, his works had never much vogue in England, where his frank avowal of philosophic polytheism created a strong feeling against him. He was, however, patronised by the Duke of Norfolk [see Howard, Henry Charles, thirteenth Duke of Norfolk], who subscribed for the entire impression of his Plato, and locked the bulk of it up in his library; and when he visited Oxford in the summer of 1802 he met with a hearty welcome from the dons, though he was hardly reconciled to the ‘monkish gloom’ and ‘barbaric towers and spires’ of the place by the good cheer of New College and the free use of the Bodleian Library (cf. his letter, dated 20 June 1802, in The Antiquary, July 1888). He figures as the half-crazy enthusiast in Isaac D'Israeli's novel ‘Vaurien,’ as ‘the modern Pletho’ in the same author's ‘Curiosities of Literature’ (i. 316), and as ‘England's gentile priest’ in Mathias's ‘Pursuits of Literature’ (iii. 31–2). He died at Walworth on 1 Nov. 1835, and was buried (6 Nov.) in the graveyard (since turned into a recreation-ground) of St. Mary's, Newington Butts.

Taylor was twice married. By his first wife, Mary Morton (d. 1 April 1809), he had, with two daughters, four sons, of whom the youngest, Thomas Proclus Taylor, wrote for the stage (Notes and Queries, 7th ser. ix. 194). His second wife, by whom also he had issue, died on 25 April 1823 (Gent. Mag. 1823, i. 571). A few fragments of Taylor's correspondence are collected in ‘The Platonist’ (Orange, N. J.), April–May 1884. His portrait, by Evans, is in the National Portrait Gallery; another, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, belonged to his patron, William Meredith.

Taylor's translations, dissertations, and miscellanies, all of which, when not otherwise described, appeared at London, are as follows:

I. TRANSLATIONS.—Orphic Hymns: ‘The Mystical Initiations or Hymns of Orpheus, with a preliminary Dissertation on the Life and Theology of Orpheus,’ 1787, 12mo; reprinted as ‘The Hymns,’ &c., 1792, 8vo; new and enlarged edition, entitled ‘The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus, demonstrated to be the Invocations which were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries,’ Chiswick, 1824, 8vo; reprinted, London, 1896. Plotinus: 1. ‘Concerning the Beautiful, Ennead I. vi.,’ 1787, 8vo. 2. ‘Five Books, viz. On Felicity; on the Nature and Origin of Evil; on Providence; on Nature, Contemplation, and the One; and on the Descent of the Soul. With an Introduction,’ 1794, 8vo. 3. ‘Select Works, and Extracts from the Treatise of Synesius on Providence. With an Introduction containing the substance of Porphyry's Life of Plotinus,’ 1817, 8vo; reprinted in Bohn's ‘Philosophical Library,’ 1895. 4. ‘On Suicide, to which is added an Extract from the Harl. MS. of the Scholia of Olympiodorus on the Phædo of Plato respecting Suicide. Two Books on Truly Existing Being, and Extracts from his Treatise on the manner in which the multitude of ideas subsists, and concerning the Good, with additional Notes from Porphyry and Proclus,’ 1834, 8vo. Proclus: 1. ‘On the First Book of Euclid's Elements, and his Life by Marinus. With a preliminary Dissertation on the Platonic Doctrine of Ideas. To which are added A History of the Restoration of the Platonic Theology by the later Platonists,’ 1788–9, 3 vols. 8vo. 2. ‘On the Theology of Plato,’ 1816, 2 vols. 4to. 3. ‘On the Timæus of Plato,’ 1820, 2 vols. 4to. 4. ‘Fragments,’ 1825, 8vo. 5. ‘Two Treatises, the former consisting of ten Doubts concerning Providence, and a Solution of those Doubts, and the latter containing a Development of the Nature of Evil,’ 1833, 8vo. Plato: 1. ‘Phædrus,’ 1792, 4to. 2. ‘Cratylus, Phædo, Parmenides, and Timæus,’ 1793, 8vo. 3. ‘Works, viz. his fifty-five Dialogues and twelve Epistles,’ 1804, 5 vols. 8vo [see Sydenham, Floyer]. Aristotle: 1. ‘Metaphysics, to which is added a Dissertation on Nullities and Diverging Series,’ 1801, 4to. 2. ‘History of Animals and Treatise on Physiognomy,’ 1809, 4to. 3. ‘Works; with copious Elucidations from the best of his Greek Commentators,’ 1806–12, 9 vols. 4to. 4. ‘Rhetoric, Poetic, and Nicomachean Ethics,’ 1818, 2 vols. 8vo; 3rd edit. without the Ethics, 1821, 8vo. Sallust: ‘On the Gods and the World, and the Pythagoric Sentences of Demophilus, and Five Hymns by Proclus; to which are added Five Hymns by the translator,’ 1793, 8vo; reprint of the ‘Pythagoric Sentences’ in Bridgman's Translations from the Greek, 1804. Julian (the emperor): 1. ‘Two Orations, one to the Sovereign Sun, and the other to the Mother of the Gods; with Notes and a copious Introduction,’ 1793, 8vo. 2. ‘Arguments against the Christians. To which are added Extracts from the other Works of Julian relative to the Christians,’ 1809, 8vo; reprinted 1873. Celsus: ‘Arguments relative to the Christians,’ 1830, 12mo. Apuleius Madaurensis: 1. ‘The Fable of Cupid and Psyche; to which are added a Poetical Paraphrase on the Speech of Diotima in the Banquet of Plato; Four Hymns, With an Introduction, in which the meaning of the Fable is unfolded,’ 1795, 8vo. 2. ‘Metamorphosis, or Golden Ass, and Philosophical Works,’ 1822, 8vo. Maximus Tyrius: ‘Dissertations,’ 1804, 2 vols. 8vo. Miscellaneous Fragments: 1. ‘Political Fragments of Archytas, Charondas, Zaleucus, and other ancient Pythagoreans, preserved by Stobæus, and also Ethical Fragments of Hierocles, the celebrated commentator on the Pythagoric verses preserved by the same author,’ Chiswick, 1822, 8vo. 2. ‘Ocellus Lucanus on the Nature of the Universe. Taurus, the Platonic Philosopher, on the Eternity of the World; Julius Firmicus Maternus of the Thema Mundi, in which the positions of the stars at the commencement of the several mundane periods is (sic) given; Select Theorems on the Perpetuity of Time by Proclus,’ 1831, 8vo. Iamblicus: 1. ‘Life of Pythagoras, or Pythagoric Life, accompanied by fragments of the Ethical Writings of certain Pythagoreans in the Doric Dialect, and a Collection of Pythagoric Sentences from Stobæus,’ 1818, 8vo. 2. ‘On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians,’ Chiswick, 1821, 8vo; reprinted, London, 1895, 8vo. Porphyry (cf. Plotinus): ‘Select Works, containing his Four Books on Abstinence from Animal Food; his Treatise on the Homeric Cave of the Nymphs, and his Auxiliaries to the perception of Intelligible Natures. With an Appendix explaining the Allegory of the Wanderings of Ulysses,’ 1823, 8vo. Pausanias: ‘Description of Greece,’ 1794, 3 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit. 1824. Hederich: ‘Græcum Lexicon Manuale’ (new recension), 1803, 4to.

II. Dissertations and Miscellanies:

  1. ‘A Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries,’ 1790, 8vo.
  2. ‘A New System of Religion,’ 1791, 12mo (both these works bear the fictitious imprint Amsterdam).
  3. ‘Answer to Dr. Gillies' Supplement to his New Analysis of the Works of Aristotle,’ 1804, 8vo.
  4. ‘Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, containing the Triumph of the Wise Man over Fortune according to the doctrine of the Stoics and Platonists; the Creed of the Platonic Philosopher; a Panegyric on Sydenham,’ 1805; 2nd edit. 1820, 16mo.
  5. ‘Collectanea; or Collections consisting of Miscellanies inserted in the European and Monthly Magazines. With an Appendix containing some Hymns never before printed,’ 1806, 8vo.
  6. ‘The Elements of the true Arithmetic of Infinites. In which all the Propositions on the Arithmetic of Infinites invented by Dr. Wallis relative to the summation of fluxions are demonstrated to be false, and the nature of infinitesimals is unfolded,’ 1809, 4to.
  7. ‘A Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle in four books, in which his principal physical and metaphysical dogmas are unfolded, and it is shown from indubitable evidence that his philosophy has not been accurately known since the destruction of the Greeks. The insufficiency also of the philosophy that has been substituted for that of Aristotle is demonstrated,’ 1812, 4to.
  8. ‘Theoretic Arithmetic, in three books, containing the substance of all that has been written on this subject by Theo of Smyrna, Nicomachus, Iamblicus, and Boetius. Together with some remarkable particulars respecting perfect, amicable, and other numbers,’ 1816, 8vo.
  9. ‘The Elements of a new Arithmetical Notation and of a new Arithmetic of Infinites,’ 1823, 8vo.

Taylor contributed some brief articles to the ‘Classical Journal,’ xvi–xxi.

[St. Paul's School Adm. Reg. ed. Gardner; Public Characters, 1798, p. 127; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. viii. 484; Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham, ix. 237; Welsh's Brief Notice of Mr. Taylor, 1831; Trans. of the Soc. of Arts, vols. xvi–xxiii.; Athenæum, 1835, p. 874; Gent. Mag. 1836, i. 91; Fraser's Mag. November 1875; Book Lore, November–December 1885; Axon's Thomas Taylor the Platonist, 1890; Campbell's Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1896; Watson's Life of Porson, p. 204; Barker's Lit. Anecd. 1852, i. 143; Blakey's Hist. of the Phil. of Mind, iv. 66; Morell's Hist. of Phil.; Niebuhr's Life and Letters, 1852, i. 143; Platonist and Bibl. Platon. St. Louis Mo. May 1881–December 1890; Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire's Victor Cousin sa Vie et Corresp. iii. 238, 245; Penny Cyclop.]

J. M. R.