Nature's Laws

Fellow travellers Thomas Anson and Simon Degge were elected to the Royal Society on May 14th 1730. (1)

A connection with the Royal Society is hardly surprising. Thomas's uncle, the 1st Earl of Macclesfield (1666? - 1732), had been proposed as a memberby Isaac Newton in 1712 and after his disgrace one of his rare appearances in public was as a pall bearer at Newton's funeral in 1727. Anson's cousin and fellow barrister of the Inner Temple, the astronomer George Parker, soon to be the 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, had been proposed by his tutor William Jones (c1675-1749) in 1722.

Anson and Degge were proposed to the Royal Society by William Jones and Rev. Zachary Pearce, both of whom were intimately connected with Thomas's uncle Lord Macclesfield and the Parker family.

Zachary Pearce, was at one time Chaplain to the 1st Earl of Macclesfield and by 1730 both Chaplain to the King (1721-1739) and Rector of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster (1724-1756).

Pearce seems to have been a toady to the Earl of Macclesfield and the typical image of an 18th century cleric who was more interested in classics than religion. In his own autobiography, written in the third person, he tells how he came to be known to the Earl:

"In the year 1716, he caused his first edition of "Cicero de Oratore",, with notes and emendations, to be printed at the press of that University." (Cambridge). "When that work was almost finished, a friend of his, and fellow of the college, asked him, ‘to whom he designed to dedicate that edition to ?' His answer was, ' that he had not the happiness to be acquainted with any of those great men, to whom such things are usually dedicated.'

"His friend immediately replied, ' I have the honour to be so well known to Lord Parker (then Chief Justice of the King's Bench), that I will undertake to ask his Lordship's leave for your dedicating it to him, if you will give your consent for my doing so.' Mr. Pearce returned the gentleman his thanks, and readily consented to it." (2)

His friend asked the then Lord Chief Justice Parker who accepted the dedication. Pearce was not able to thank Parker personally for a while but when he was finally able to go to London he….

"made a visit to his patron Lord Parker, who received him in a very obliging manner, invited him to dine with him the next day, at Kensington, and there put into his hands a purse which contained fifty guineas. Mr. Pearce, at times, renewed his visits to his Lordship, and was always very kindly received by him.''

Parker immediately offered Pearce the post of Chaplain, not, it is clear, on any religious basis but on the strength of his edition of Cicero.

"His Secretary came soon out to Mr. Pearce, and said, that his Lordship desired him to stay till all the company was gone, and that then he would see him. He did so, and being brought to the Lord Chancellor, he, among other things, said, that ' he should now want a chaplain to live with him in his house;' and he asked Mr. Pearce, ‘if it would suit with his convenience to live with him in that capacity.' With this Mr. Pearce very readily, and with thanks, complied; and, as soon as his Lordship had provided himself with a proper house, he went into his family as his chaplain, and there continued three years."

Pearce worked his way up to more profitable positions with Parker's support but it seemed appropriate that a more senior clergyman should have a Doctorate of Divinity, which Parker did not have.

"Then said the Lord Chancellor, ' the Archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Wake, has the power of conferring a Doctor's degree in Divinity, and I will ask him to bestow that favour on you.' I thanked his Lordship, and he spoke to the Archbishop some few days after, who readily consented to it, and the degree was conferred accordingly, June 1st, 1724."

In thanks for this Pearce dedicated his edition of "Longinus on the Sublime" to Parker - not, of course, a theological work but a Hellenistic treatise on beauty. Perhaps, if Thomas Anson knew Pearce through his uncle's household, any relationship they may have had would have been on the basis of Cicero and Longinus rather than theology. Pearce was not, though, purely a classicist. He published theological works and sermons, arguing for the truth of miracles and for missionary works to New World. In his earlier days he had also written occasional satirical pieces for the literary journals.

This kind of use of influence to gain places for friends or flatterers was absolutely commonplace in the early 18th century. Thomas Anson would not have been immune.

Zachary Pearce had a part to play in Isaac Newton's Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms. A shorter version of this study of biblical history had appeared and had been criticised for its unscientific lack of references. Pearce met Newton through Macclesfield. His autobiography tells how

"In the year 1725, and about five months before Sir Isaac died, I had the honour of a visit from him at my house in St. Martin's Church-yard, to which he walked, at his great age, from his house near Leicester-fields. He staid with me near two hours, and our conversation chiefly turned upon his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms.."

Newton explained that he had no wanted the short version published and Pearce advised him to produce a final copy, from many manuscripts, that could be published as a definitive version. Newton set about doing this, with a further visit from Pearce to Newton's house.

"A few days before he died, I made him a visit at Kensington, where he was then for his health, and where I found Mr. Innys the bookseller with him: he withdrew as soon as I came in, and went away; and I mention this, only for confirming my account by one circumstance, which I shall mention before I conclude. I dined with Sir Isaac on that day, and we were alone all the time of my stay with him: I found him writing over his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, without the help of spectacles, at the greatest distance of the room from the windows, and with a parcel of books on the table casting a shade upon his paper. Seeing this, on my entering the room, I said to him, ‘ Sir, you seem to be writing in a place where you cannot so well see.' His answer was, ‘A little light serves me,' He then told me, ‘that he was preparing his Chronology for the press, and that he had written the greatest part of it over again for that purpose.'"

William Jones was an associate of Isaac Newton, and a free thinker. William Stukely, the antiquarian, wrote that he was invited to meetings of an "infidel Society" in 1720 by Martin Folkes, a senior figure in the Royal Society and that "Will Jones the mathematician and others of a heathen stamp" attended. (3) Stukeley declined the invitation. Jones was an active freemason and proposed Masonic friends to the Royal Society.

Jones's lasting contribution to mathematics was the establishment of the symbol "pi" and it was his publication on this which brought him to the notice of Newton. Jones became tutor to Philip Yorke in about 1706. At the same time Jones became tutor to George Parker. Jones's son, the poet and expert on Indian culture, Sir William Jones, (1746-1794) believed his father had been connected with George Anson early in his career:

"From his earliest years Mr. Jones discovered a propensity for mathematical studies, and, having cultivated them with assiduity, he began his career in life by teaching mathematics on board a man-of-war; and in this situation attracted the notice and obtained the friendship of Lord (Mr.) Anson." (4)

This is impossible as far as the dates go, but the idea may have stemmed from a misremembered anecdote about his father's link with Anson. It seems highly likely that Jones would have acted as tutor in mathematics, including navigation, to Thomas and George Anson as well as to their cousin George Parker and Philip Yorke, later Lord Hardwicke. Jones would, then, stand out as a very important influence linking these people together early in their lives. The Dictionary of National Biography mentions that one reason for his intimate connection with the Parkers is that he had helped George Parker resolve an "Italian Marriage", presumably a product of George's Italian tour in 1720.

Jones continued to be closely connected to the Parkers. He helped build up the library at Shirburn Castle, in Oxfordshire, with George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield. The library was "large and splendid...the most valuable of mathematical books to be found in England."(5) The library survived until it was finally sold in 2004.

Once having been elected to the Royal Society Thomas Anson,not surprisingly forsuch an elusive character,vanishes from the record. He did not sign the Charter Book or pay admission fees,but there is no trace of him having been ejected. Simon Degge, on the other hand, continued to be listed as a Fellow of the Royal Society until 1760.

The family connections with the Earl of Macclesfield and the names of Pearce and Jones on the proposal of Thomas Anson to the Royal Society suggest a personal link with the great scientist, Isaac Newton. It is hard to imagine that Anson would not have known him. Though his involvement in the Royal Society may not have been very deep there are other clues that he had a serious interest in Newton's ideas. There were original editions of Newton's "Principia" and his more esoteric "Chronology of the Ancient Kingdom" in the Shugborough library, according to the catalogue of the great sale in1842 when the bulk of the contents were sold off to pay for the 1st Earl's gambling debts. Also, in 1728, the year after Newton's death "Thomas Anson Esq." was one of the subscribers of Henry Pemberton's "A view of Isaac Newton's Philosophy". Pemberton was another scientist who had assisted Newton in his old age. (6)

At this time there were very close links between the Royal Society and Freemasonry. A large number of people were both Fellows of the Royal Society and freemasons. In the 1720s and 1730s Freemasonry was being developed into an organised structure and its rituals, derived from ancient lodges of stonemasons, were being developed into a complicated symbolic system. The most important figure in this process, and the most likely creator of the modern rituals, was Dr Desaguliers, a leading supporter of Newton and the Royal Society. Both Dr. Desaguliers and William Jones, amongst others, regularly proposed their masonic colleagues to the Royal Society.

There is no sign that Thomas or George Anson were ever freemasons. This may seem surprising considering their connection with William Jones. Though the records of early Masonic lodges are incomplete the relationship between freemasonry and the Royal Society has been studied in depth by Masonic historians. (6)

William Jones, a member of the Queen's Head Lodge, is known to have proposed at least 8 fellow freemasons to the Royal Society between 1711 and 1738, twice as many as Dr Desaguliers, by far the most influential figure in both organisations at the time. Neither Thomas Anson nor Simon Degge appears in the list.

Though Anson might have known Newton and had a serious interest in his new scientific views there is a possibility that he might not have been attracted by the society or the order. The worldview that tended to dominate both the Royal Society and Freemasonry was quite different from the worldview of philosophers inspired by Ancient Greece. Newtonian science tended (though this is, of course, an oversimplification) to be materialistic, stressing the mechanical laws of nature. A person who fell under the spell of Platonc philosophy would argue that matter may not exist at all in a meaningful way.

Men like William Jones and Dr Desaguliers influenced the spread of Deism in both the Royal Society and Freemasonry. "Deists"were clerics who adapted their theology to the new science. God was the creator, but there was no room for the supernatural in the machine. Religion was a system of divinely ordained moral laws that were a counterpoint to the physical laws of the universe. This rapidly became the dominant view of the Church of England. (8)

There were various opponents to such a view. "Enthusiasts", and reformers like John Wesley, might accept the Newtonian universe but still believe in the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit and in miracles. Another alternative philosophy was Idealism, which went back to a completely radical starting point usually inspired by ancient philosophy.

The most extreme Idealist was George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. Berkeley opposed Locke and Newton by arguing that, in effect, there was no such thing as a material universe. Science could and should help us understand material things (or what appear to be material things), but ultimately there is no material reality. Berkeley enjoyed making logical arguments against the reality of matter but it is wrong to think that he simply claimed matter does not exist. The Idealist view is that reality is what we experience. Matter is subservient. What is real is what is in the Mind - and, if an Idealist is also a Platonist, the Mind is also the Mind of God. (Berkeley is not directly connected to the circle examined by this book, though his son was at one time engaged to Catherine Talbot, friend of Lady Anson and Elizabeth Carter. Carter enjoyed his book "Siris" though she wrote to Miss Talbot: "I fairly confess I have no clear idea what one half of it means.")

Amongst the circle around Thomas Anson James Harris stands out asthe philosopher ofthe Greek Revival. His Idealism is more directly inspired by Ancient Greece than Berkeley's. Harris is the key source of information on Thomas Anson's later activities, and was a friend ofother key characters in the story, particularly the architect James Stuart.

His work seems to put on record the ideas which lie behind the movement as a whole and behind the development of Shugborough, particularly in his "Three Treatises", philosophical dialogues which take place on walks through theidyllic landscapes of English country houses, in fact inspired by Wilton Housenear Salisbury. "Three Treatises" (1744) was in the library at Shugborough and could be read as the sacred text of the Greek Revival - not just for its dialogues on Art, Music and Happiness but for the immense amount of references to Greek philosophers included in voluminous footnotes.Harrisexpressed his Platonic view of the world in a visible climactic point in his "Hermes",a theoretical study of language.The sense of importance of his statement (guaranteed to antagonise Dr Johnson) is emphasised by the wonderful way in which the text is reduced to only two lines on the page. The rest is a mass of small print annotations and Greek references:

"The WHOLE VISIBLE WORLD exhibits nothing more, than so many passing Pictures of the immutable Archetypes." (9)

The Archetypes are the fundamental realities in the Mind of God. Harris's world is deeply Platonic and idealistic, though the majority of his writing is Aristotelian.

Harris's Hermes is dedicated to Lord Hardwicke and its later editions have a frontispiece by James "Athenian" Stuart, the most important artist of the Greek Revival. Harris's family archives are the principal source of information about Thomas Anson's musical life and he passes on one of the most important anecdotes about him in his "Philological Enquiries".

The poet and translatorElizabeth Carter, closest friendof the architect Thomas Wright, rebuilder of Shugborough and designer of its first monuments,loved Plato more than Aristotle. In her poem to her friend Miss Lynch she is thinking very precisely of this Platonic, emanationist, world-view:

"…trace perfection to th' eternal spring:
Observe the vital emanations flow,
That animate each fair degree below..."(10)

She fussed about Harris's strictly adherence to Aristotle in a letter to Mrs Montagu ( June 17th 1769):

"Aristotle is, no doubt, very respectable from an amazing depth and precision of understanding; but it was unenlivened by a single ray of poetic genius, and utterly destitute of the colouring of imagination." (11)

In fact Harris, in both his "Three Treatises" and "Hermes" praises Imagination as a way of approaching truth.

A generation later Sir William Jones, the son of the mathematician, became the first European to love deeply Indian culture and he saw the similarity between the Hindu concept of "maya", illusion, and Harris's "passing Pictures." As a young lawyer and poet Jones lived with Earl and Lady Spencer as tutor to their son. At the time Jones published his first poetry James "Athenian" Stuart was completing the spectacular classical decoration of her London home, Spencer House, on the other side of St James Square from Thomas Anson's house, where he was also working. Jones, in the introduction to his "Hymn to Narayena" explains Maya as:

"…the system of perceptions…which the Deity was believed by Epicharmus, Plato, and many truly pious men, to raise by his omnipresent spirit in the minds of his creatures…"(12)

To the Hindu, Truth may be approached by rejecting all the images (not just the ones you don't like):

"Delusive Pictures! Unsubstantial shows!

My soul absorb'd One only Being knows,

Of all perceptions One abundant source,

Whence ev'ry object ev'ry moment flows:

Suns hence derive their force,

Hence planets learn their course;

But suns and fading worlds I view no more:

God only I perceive; God only I adore." (13)

Jones could hardly make the parallel between his Hindu universe and Neo-Platonism clearer. Compare his:

"Of all perceptions One abundant source,

Whence ev'ry object ev'ry moment flows"

With Elizabeth Carter's lines

"….the vital emanations flow,
That animate each fair degree below."

And the same concept is behind Harris's:

"so many passing Pictures of the immutable Archetypes."

Even Thomas Wright, who had no classical education, revealed that he saw the universe this way in his "Second Thoughts". He suggests that matter is not a thing having its own existence but is "an eternal and infinite mode of the Divine Imagination."(14)

The Deist and Idealist debate may seem esoteric but it has immensely important implications. For a materialist or a Deist Creation is separate from God (if God is involved at all) and is therefore something which may be used or exploited by man with his intellect and power. To the Idealist, the world is not separate from the divine but is an "emanation", part of a cosmos which is ultimately a unity. Beauty and truth as experienced in nature and the arts are not merely symbols of the sacred but are actual experiences of thesacred seen througha world which is only apparently material.

Such an attitude leads to a very high regard for nature and art and a detached attitude to the merely material. Such attitudes were an important force in the romantic movement of the late 18th century but they were there in the earlier Greek Revival. Jones, and Thomas Taylor the Platonist, who continued the translating of the works of Plato begun by Harris's friend Floyer Sydenham, are the links between these feint sparks of Platonic thought in the mid 18th century and William Blake and the romantics.

These ideas were revolutionary and could be distrusted, hated, or mocked by generally very good people like Dr Johnson. Johnson was on the opposite side politically to the Ansons and a man of the "real world", of enormous compassion and sense. He parodied James Harris's views in his novel "Rasselas", and famouslymocked Bishop Berkeley(by kicking a heavy stone he said "I refute it thus!" of Berkeley's "immaterialism" - actually not a logical argument at all) but he was a lifelong friend of Elizabeth Carter. He said that his "old friend Mrs Carter could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus." (Puddings were a speciality of Elizabeth Carter and are described in her letters to Catherine Talbot. Sometimes they were spoiled by too much alcohol.)

In the 1750s an Idealist may delight in sitting in his Doric Temple and gazing at nature and beyond to the world of Platonic Ideas and Divine Truth but by the end of the 18th century, with war, commerce and the industrial revolution revealing the power of materialism, a Platonist like Thomas Taylor could cry out that

" Materialism, and its attendant Sensuality, have darkened the eyes of the many, with mists of error...Impetuous ignorance is thundering at the bulwarks of philosophy, and her sacred retreats are in danger of being demolished...Rise, then, my friends and the victory will be ours."(15)

This was no philosophical game but a serious battle for the souls of Britain.

Taylor was a self-confessed pagan but a Platonist or Idealist may also be an orthodox Christian. Berkeley's Idealism was designed to show that all reality was in the Mind of God. George Lyttelton and Elizabeth Carter were devout Anglicans (with some touches of controversy in Carter's case). James Harris lived in the Close at Salisbury and enjoyed cathedral worship however intensely classical he could be in his philosophy. He very strongly states that his purpose is to revive ancient philosophy to argue against the materialism of John Locke and against atheism.

Thomas Anson himself, of course, tells usnothing directly of his ownbeliefs (even omitting any kind of religious language in his will, an unusual document for the period), but it begins to be clear that the rather hazy movement which can conveniently be called "The Greek Revival" is first and foremost a revival of ideas, a revival of Greek philosophy as a weapon against materialism and as an inspiration for a high regard for beauty in art and nature. Thomas Anson stands at the very centre of the movement and as glimpses of his life emerge he begins to appear as key figure in promoting these ideals. Shugborough, his estate, was, and still should be, the sacred centre of this world.



1) See Royal Society on-line database. I also have a copy of the relevant page of the record book supplied by the Royal Society.

2) Stuart Piggott: William Stukeley, an eighteenth century antiquarian (Thames & Hudson, 1985)

3) Mr Burdy: The Lives of Dr. Edward Pocock: The Celebrated Orientalist by Leonard Twells, Dr Zachary Pearce, Bishop of Rochester and Dr Thomas Newton, Bishop of Bristol, b themselves and of the Rev Philip Skelton (Rivington, London, 1816) Available on Google Books

4) Sir John Barrow: The Life of George, Lord Anson (John Murray, 1839) Available on Google Books

5) For William Jones and the relationship between the Royal Society and Freemasonry see Trevor Stewart: English speculative freemasonry: Some possible origins, themes and developments - in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Vol. 117 (For the Council of the Quatuor Coronati Correspondence Circle Limited, 2005)

6) Henry Pemberton: A View of Isaac Newton's Philosophy (1728). Available on Google Books.

7) Trevor Stewart op. cit.This article lists everyone known to be both an FRS and a member of a Masonic lodge, as well as of other contemporary clubs dedicated to esoteric thought, including

John Byrom's "Cabala Club".

8) For Deism I referred to Gordon Mursell: English Spirituality, vol. 2,(SPCK, 2001) and for Idealism I have referred to the introduction by Howard Robinson in George Berkeley: Principles of Human Knowledge, Three Dialogues

(Oxford 's World's Classics, 1996)

9) James Harris: Hermes, or a Philosophical Enquiry concerning Universal Grammar, (J Nourse, 1751) Avialable on Google Books.

10) Elizabeth Carter: Poems on several occasions (1759) Third edition (1776) Available on Google Books.

11) Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, to Mrs. Montagu, Between the Years 1755 and 1800. Ed. Montagu Pennington, 1817

12) Sir William Jones, Hymn to Narayena. Quoted in Kathleen Raine: Blake and Tradition, (Princeton University Press, 1968)

13) Ibid

14) Thomas Wright of Durham : Second or Singular Thoughts upon the Theory of the Universe, edited M A Hoskin (Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1968)

15) Thomas Taylor, Concerning the Beautiful, (1792)