Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Constitution of Man

Lawyer and phrenologist George Combe, author of “The Constitution of Man” died on August 14, 1858.  Combe’s work, which was published in Walter Scott’s lifetime (1828), downplays the role of religion and philosophy in human behavior, in favor of physical characteristics of the human skull.  

In his role as a lawyer, Combe disagreed with Walter Scott on aspects of the legal profession.   From Charles Gibbon’s “The Life of George Combe: Author of “The Constitution of Man”:

" In Sir Walter Scott's autobiography, just published  by John Gibson Lockart, his son-in-law, Sir Walter states various reasons for declining an offer made to him by his father to become his partner as a writer to the signet, to which profession Sir Walter had served an apprenticeship with his father, and for preferring the bar, the import of which is disparaging to the inferior branch of the profession.    I do not know what might be the relative  character in  moral  and intellectual respectability of writers to the signet and advocates in Sir Walter's day, but I know what they have been in mine, and I am twenty years his junior, and I differ considerably from his estimate.    The points on which there can be no dispute are, that the gentlemen of the bar have by their education and professional practice greater knowledge of composition, written and oral, more comprehensive views of the principles of law; and greater talents of reasoning, than the writers to the signet ; and if Sir Walter had  confined himself to  this  claim  of superiority it would have been undoubtedly  well founded.

But he insinuates that the morale, of the attorney is inferior to that of the barrister, and to this I demur.

" In Scotland, writers to the signet are employed in various branches. Some act chiefly as agents in litigations. These are the men with whom the barristers come chiefly into contact; and as litigation is a warfare in which victory is contended for at all hazards, within the limits of the rules prescribed by the law and by the forms of court, it is naturally to be supposed that the most adroit, energetic, and able combatant will be preferred by those who need to hire a champion…’

Combe’s work was controversial.  Writing in 1837, five years after Walter Scott’s death, author William Scott, in “The Harmony of Phrenology with Scripture..” invokes Sir Walter’s name in refuting Combe’s phrenological theories:

‘…Sir Walter Scott did not avail himself of the lights of Phrenology, yet his representations of character are, in many cases, such as no phrenologist could presume to mend. These are but two instances out of many. Various others might be cited, among our dramatists, poets, historians, and moralists, of writers who possessed an intuitive perception of the motives and springs of human action, and whose analysis of mental feelings agrees almost entirely with that which would be given by a phrenologist. Almost the only exceptions to this among our great writers, occur in the case of the metaphysicians; and the reason seems to be, that they have studied human nature in their closets, and not in the world. But many of our eminent divines, in their sermons and other compositions, shew a thorough practical knowledge of the human heart; and sometimes hold up a glass, in which the sinner may see his character portrayed with fearful accuracy. Upon the whole, therefore, I am inclined to anticipate, that when Phrenology has been brought to a higher state of cultivation than it has hitherto reached, there will be found much less difference between the views which it offers, and those which have been hitherto entertained by men of practical good sense, than Mr Combe seems to suppose. That it will prove of essential benefit to society I entertain not the least doubt; but that it will ever, as he supposes, reach to revolutionize, reform, and regenerate the world, I look upon to be a dream as vain and unsubstantial as the wildest chimeras of the alchemists…’

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