PROFESSOR CAMPBELL FRASER.
Not long ago I was back in the Old University — how well I remember pointing it out as the jail to a stranger, who had asked me to show him round. I was in one of the library ante-rooms, when some one knocked, and I looked up, to see Campbell Fraser framed in the doorway. I had not looked on that venerable figure for half a dozen years. I had forgotten all my metaphysics. Yet it all came back with a rush. I was on my feet, wondering if I existed strictly so called.
Calderwood and Fraser had both their followings. The moral philosophers wore an air of certainty, for they knew that if they stuck to Calderwood he would pull them through. You cannot lose yourself in the back garden. But the metaphysicians had their doubts. Fraser led them into strange places, and said he would meet them there again next day. They wandered to their lodgings, and got into difficulties with their landlady for saying that she was only an aggregate of sense phenomena. Fraser was rather a hazardous cure for weak intellects. Young men whose anchor had been certainty of themselves went into that class floating buoyantly on the sea of facts, and came out all adrift — on the sea of theory — in an open boat — rudderless — one oar — the boat scuttled. How could they think there was any chance for them, when the professor was not even sure of himself? I see him rising in a daze from his chair and putting his hands through his hair. “Do I exist,” he said, thoughtfully, “strictly so called?”
The students (if it was the beginning of the session) looked a little startled. This was a matter that had not previously disturbed them. Still, if the professor was in doubt, there must be something in it. He began to argue it out, and an uncomfortable silence held the room in awe. If he did not exist, the chances were that they did not exist either. It was thus a personal question. The professor glanced round slowly for an illustration.
“Am I a table?” A pained look travelled over the class. Was it just possible that they were all tables? It is no wonder that the students who do not go to the bottom during their first month of metaphysics begin to give themselves airs strictly so called. In the privacy of their room at the top of the house, they pinch themselves to see if they are still there.
He would, I think, be a sorry creature who did not find something to admire in Campbell Fraser. Metaphysics may not trouble you, as it troubles him, but you do not sit under the man without seeing his transparent honesty and feeling that he is genuine. In appearance and in habit of thought he is an ideal philosopher, and his communings with himself have lifted him to a level of serenity that is worth struggling for. Of all the arts professors in Edinburgh, he is probably the most difficult to understand, and students in a hurry have called his lectures childish. If so, it may be all the better for them. For the first half of the hour, they say, he tells you what he is going to do, and for the second half he revises. Certainly he is vastly explanatory, but then he is not so young as they are, and so he has his doubts. They are so cock-sure that they wonder to see him hesitate. Often there is a mist on the mountain when it is all clear in the valley.
Fraser’s great work is his edition of Berkeley, a labour of love that should live after him. He has two Berkeleys, the large one and the little one, and, to do him justice, it was the little one he advised us to consult. I never read the large one myself, which is in a number of monster tomes, but I often had a look at it in the library, and I was proud to think that an Edinburgh professor was the editor. When Glasgow men came through to talk of their professors, we showed them the big Berkeley, and after that they were reasonable. There was one man in my year who really began the large Berkeley, but after a time he was missing, and it is believed that some day he will be found flattened between the pages of the first volume.
The “Selections” was the text-book we used in the class. It is sufficient to prove that Berkeley wrote beautiful English. I am not sure that any one has written such English since. We have our own “stylists,” but how self-conscious they are after Berkeley! It is seven years since I opened my “Selections,” but I see that I was once more of a metaphysician than I have been giving myself credit for. The book is scribbled over with posers in my handwriting about dualism and primary realities. Some of the comments are in short-hand, which I must at one time have been able to read, but all are equally unintelligible now. Here is one of my puzzlers: “Does B here mean impercipient and unperceived subject or conscious and percipient subject?” Observe the friendly B. I dare say further on I shall find myself referring to the professor as F. I wonder if I ever discovered what B meant. I could not now tell what I meant, myself.
As many persons are aware, the “Selections” consist of Berkeley’s text with the professor’s notes thereon. The notes are explanatory of the text, and the student must find them an immense help. Here, for instance, is a note: “Phenomenal or sense dependent existence can be substantiated and caused only by a self-conscious spirit, for otherwise there could be no propositions about it expressive of what is conceivable; on the other hand, to affirm that phenomenal or sense dependent existence, which alone we know, and which alone is conceivable, is, or even represents, an inconceivable non- phenomenal or abstract existence, would be to affirm a contradiction in terms.” There we have it.
As a metaphysician I was something of a disappointment. I began well, standing, if I recollect aright, in the three examinations, first, seventeenth, and seventy-seventh. A man who sat beside me — man was the word we used — gazed at me reverently when I came out first, and I could see by his eye that he was not sure whether I existed properly so called. By the second exam his doubts had gone, and by the third he was surer of me than of himself. He came out fifty-seventh, this being the grand triumph of his college course. He was the same whose key translated cras donaberis hædo “To-morrow you will be presented with a kid,” but who, thinking that a little vulgar, refined it down to “To-morrow you will be presented with a small child.”
In the metaphysics class I was like the fountains in the quadrangle, which ran dry toward the middle of the session. While things were still looking hopeful for me, I had an invitation to breakfast with the professor. If the fates had been so propitious as to forward me that invitation, it is possible that I might be a metaphysician to this day, but I had changed my lodgings, and, when I heard of the affair, all was over. The professor asked me to stay behind one day after the lecture, and told me that he had got his note back with “Left: no address” on it. “However,” he said, “you may keep this,” presenting me with the invitation for the Saturday previously. I mention this to show that even professors have hearts. That letter is preserved with the autographs of three editors, none of which anybody can read.
There was once a medical student who came up to my rooms early in the session, and I proved to him in half an hour that he did not exist. He got quite frightened, and I can still see his white face as he sat staring at me in the gloaming. This shows what metaphysics can do. He has recovered, however, and is sheep-farming now, his examiners never having asked him the right questions.
The last time Fraser ever addressed me was when I was capped. He said, “I congratulate you, Mr. Smith,” and one of the other professors said, “I congratulate you, Mr. Fisher.” My name is neither Smith nor Fisher, but no doubt the thing was kindly meant. It was then, however, that the professor of metaphysics had his revenge on me. I had once spelt Fraser with a “z.”
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