Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Bonar
Richard Price (17231791)
[Richard Price, son of the Rev. Rhys Price, was born in Glamorganshire, 1723, and became, like his father, a dissenting minister. His first charge was at Newington Green, 1755. In the intervals of sermon writing he composed his chief philosophical book, The Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals, 1758; and his studies of the theory of probabilities, expectation of life and kindred subjects, gained him admission to the Royal Society. He wrote also Dissertations on Providence, etc., 1767, which attracted some notice. But he became soon much better known by his Observations on Reversionary Payments (1769), and by his Appeal to the Public on the Subject of the National Debt (1772). It is admitted that Pitt derived from him the credit (or discredit) of his New Sinking Fund. Price incurred much obloquy by his Observations on Civil Liberty (1776), in which he went further than Burke in his defence of the revolted colonies. He looked to the United States as now the hope and likely soon to become the refuge of mankind. He taught for a short time in the Dissenting College at Hackney on its foundation (1787), and the College is associated with him, as that at Hoxton with William Godwin. Price was soon again before the public as an ardent champion of the French Revolution, which is the subject of his Discourse on the Love of our Country, delivered on 4th November 1789, at the Meeting-House in the Old Jewry. Burke shows him no mercy in the Reflections on the French Revolution (1790), but there is something of real pathos and eloquence in the old mans visions of a new era. He died in the spring of 1791.]
IF a man could be judged by his friends, Prices deserts would be high. He was intimate with Benjamin Franklin and John Howard; he corresponded with Hume and Turgot. He was visited by Lyttelton, Shelbourne, and Mrs. Montague. The now nearly-forgotten Mrs. Chapone has written high praise of him in the character of Simplicius (Miscellanies, Essay I.); Simplicius is modest, learned, and candid. Nevertheless he has not left a name worthy to be called great in our literature. He was a man of vigorous, independent judgment, who did good public service in his generation. He stimulated discussion on philosophical, theological, and political questions, and showed taste and sobriety in dealing with opponents. He had the moral courage to advocate unpopular causes.
But, unlike greater men who had made greater mistakes than he ever committed, Price has left the first principles of ethics, politics, and finance substantially where he found them. When he is asked, What is the power within us that perceives the distinctions of right and wrong? he answers The understanding. Moral distinctions are founded on the fitness of things, and are necessary truths like those relating to space or causation. The more we inquire, the more indisputable, I imagine, it will appear to us that we express necessary truths when we say of some actions they are right and of others they are wrong. He is opposing Humes Human Nature on the principles of Plato, Aristotle, Cudworth, and Bishop Butler. Sensation cannot give us general notions; and yet general notions are not therefore false, on the contrary they are therefore necessary. Kant has once for all amended this contention, and put the argument in the form in which it must be met; and at this distance of time Prices arguments seem only valuable historically, as interesting protests against Hutchesons moral sense and Humes utility.
In theology he was then considered too latitudinarian; but though a Unitarian he was in many matters of faith hardly less orthodox than Archdeacon Paley, while he was certainly more emotional. In finance, though pronounced by a great contemporary by no means an able calculator, he was the cause of able calculation in other men, one of whom (William Morgan) was at pains to edit his chief financial tracts, as well as to write his Life (1815).
In political philosophy he abode by the principles of Lockes Civil Government, and did no harm by re-affirming them in 1776 and 1789. He gave Burke occasion to point out the weak points in Lockes case, and to press home the general principle that in politics general principles must never be pressed home. Price had strong faith in the natural improvableness of the human race; but it was Godwin whose exaggerations of this doctrine brought out the full strength of the case against it.