Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tucker, Abraham

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TUCKER, ABRAHAM (1705–1774), philosopher, born in London on 2 Sept. 1705, was the son of a London merchant, descended from a Somerset family, by Judith, daughter of Abraham Tillard. His parents dying during his infancy, he was left to the guardianship of his uncle, Sir Isaac Tillard. Sir Isaac was an honourable and generous man, who earned the warm gratitude of his nephew both by his precept and by his example. He was less distinguished for literary than for religious culture, and when the boy had to write formal letters to relations told him to adopt as a model the epistles of St. Paul. Tucker was at a school at Bishop Stortford till 1721, when he was entered as a gentleman commoner at Merton College, Oxford. There, besides studying philosophy and mathematics, he became a good French and Italian scholar, and cultivated a considerable talent for music. He was entered at the Inner Temple, and made himself a fair lawyer, though he was never called to the bar, and only used his knowledge in the discharge of his duties as justice of the peace. He made a few vacation tours, one of them on the continent, and in 1727 bought Betchworth Castle, near Dorking, with a considerable landed estate. He studied agriculture carefully, and made collections from works upon the subject. On 3 Feb. 1736 he married Dorothy, daughter of Edward Barker of East Betchworth, cursitor baron of the exchequer. She died on 7 May 1754, leaving two daughters. He is said to have been a most affectionate husband, and transcribed his correspondence with his wife, calling it a ‘Picture of artless Love.’ After her death he undertook the education of his daughters. He cared little for politics, and refused to stand for the county. Once he attended a county meeting at Epsom, and was ridiculed in a ballad by Sir Joseph Mawbey [q. v.], which represented him as overwhelmed by the eloquence of the whig leaders. He made fun of his own performance, and set the ballad to music.

About 1756 he began to write the book by which he is known, ‘The Light of Nature Pursued.’ He spent much time and labour over this, writing out the whole twice and translating classical authors to improve his style. He found, however, that ‘correction was not his talent’ (Introduction), and finally made little alteration in the first draft. In 1763 he published a specimen on ‘Freewill, Foreknowledge, and Fate, by Edward Search,’ which was criticised in the ‘Monthly Review.’ Tucker replied to some strictures in a very good-humoured pamphlet called ‘Man in Quest of himself, by Cuthbert Comment,’ 1763. In 1768 he printed the first four volumes of his book, still calling himself ‘Edward Search.’ The last three were posthumously published, edited by his daughter Judith, in 1778. He became blind in 1771. He accepted the infirmity with admirable equanimity, laughed at the blunders into which it led him, and invented a machine to enable himself to write. His daughter attended to him most affectionately, transcribed all his work for the press, and learnt enough Greek to be able to read to him his favourite authors. He finished his book in 1774, and died with ‘perfect calmness and resignation’ on 20 Nov. in the same year. There is a tablet to his memory in Dorking church. Tucker, though not strong, was a man of very active habits. He rose early to work at his book, and took regular exercise. In the country he superintended the management of his estates. In London, where he spent some months of the year, he was fond of the society of congenial spirits, and famous for his skill in ‘Socratic disputations.’ He kept up his walking in town by various pretexts, going from his house in Great James Street to St. Paul's to see what it was o'clock. He does not seem to have been known in literary circles, and his chief friend was a cousin, James Tillard, known only as one of the objects of Warburton's antipathy. A portrait, by Say, was at Betchworth Castle.

Tucker's eldest daughter, Judith, inherited his estates, and died unmarried on 26 Nov. 1794. His other daughter, Dorothea Maria, married Sir Henry Paulet St. John, bart., of Dogmersfield Park, Hampshire, on 27 Oct. 1763, and died on 5 May 1768, leaving an only child, Sir H. P. St. John Mildmay, who prefixed a short notice of his grandfather's life to the 1805 edition of the ‘Light of Nature.’ Betchworth Park was bought in 1834 by Henry Thomas Hope, who dismantled the house and added the park to that of Deepdene. The ruins of the house remain. Tucker is an example of a very rare species—the philosophical humourist, and is called by Mackintosh a ‘metaphysical Montaigne.’ The resemblance consists in the frankness and simplicity with which Tucker expounds his rather artless speculations, as he might have done in talking to a friend. He was an excellent country squire, not more widely read than the better specimens of his class, but of singularly vivacious and ingenious intellect. His illustrations, taken from the commonest events and objects, are singularly bright and happy. He has little to say upon purely metaphysical points, in which he accepts Locke as his great authority; but his psychological and ethical remarks, though unsystematic and desultory, are full of interest. He was obviously much influenced by Hartley, whom, however, he seems to have disliked. His chief interest was in ethical discussions. Paley, in the preface to his ‘Moral and Political Philosophy,’ confesses his obligations to Tucker, and their doctrines are substantially the same. Paley found in Tucker more original thinking upon the subjects treated ‘than in any other [writer], not to say than in all others put together.’ He tried, he says, to state compactly and methodically the thoughts diffused through Tucker's ‘long, various, and irregular work.’ Tucker's garrulity and constant repetitions have no doubt repelled readers who cannot stand seven volumes of rambling philosophical gossip, but it is impossible to dip into any chapter without finding some charm in the quaint and good-humoured naïveté of the writer. Hazlitt tried to make Tucker acceptable by an abridgment (1807), which, though apparently well executed, loses the dramatic charm of Tucker's erratic speculations. The book, if philosophically obsolete, has charmed many other critics. Mackintosh praises him with discrimination, and gives some specimens of his felicities (Ethical Philosophy, 1872, p. 174, &c.; Mackintosh, Miscell. Works, 1851, pp. 83–5, and Life, i. 455). In Sir James Stephen's essay upon Isaac Taylor in the ‘Ecclesiastical Biography’ is a warm eulogy upon Tucker, followed by an imitation of one of his best chapters, the ‘Vision.’

Tucker's works are:

  1. ‘The Country Gentleman's Advice to his Son on the Subject of Party Clubs,’ 1755.
  2. ‘Freewill, Foreknowledge, and Fate: a Fragment by Edward Search,’ 1763.
  3. ‘Man in Quest of himself, by Cuthbert Comment,’ 1763 (reprinted in Parr's ‘Metaphysical Tracts,’ 1837).
  4. ‘The Light of Nature Pursued, by Edward Search,’ 4 vols., 1768; the remaining three volumes, as ‘Posthumous Works of Abraham Tucker,’ edited by his daughter, appeared in 1778; second edition, with a ‘life’ by Mildmay (see above), in 7 vols. 8vo, appeared in 1805; a third edition in 2 vols. 8vo (with the ‘life’) in 1834; reprinted in 1836, 1837, 1842, 1848; it was also published in America in 1831 and later.
  5. ‘Vocal Sounds, by Edward Search,’ privately printed in 1773; an attempt to fix the sounds represented by letters, with a queer specimen of English hexameters.

[Life prefixed to his works as above; Manning and Bray's Surrey, i. 558–9, iii. p. cvii.]

L. S.