Admirable Urquhart

From The London Review of Books (20 September 1984), some piffle of the highest order:

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who is known today, if at all, as the 17th-century translator of part of Rabelais, must have been a most peculiar man. At a guess, he may have had to a preternatural degree that quality of mind, not unknown among modern scholars, that causes a man to believe that whatever he thinks, says or does is infallibly true and right, and that whatever he observes in the world is true and right only insofar as it coincides with what is already in his mind. It would be wrong and unkind to call him a liar, as he has been called: he simply stated his own truths. Since he also seems to have been almost completely devoid of common sense, and to have been given to violence, he was hardly likely to have had a smooth life. The wonder, indeed, is that his troubles were not more immediately fatal; what saved him, I suppose, is that no one took him seriously.

The little we know about Urquhart’s early life comes mostly from his own pen, and is therefore not likely to be true. But there is one incident, vouched for in the records, that seems somehow emblematic. In 1636, after his father had succeeded in wasting most of the family estates (around Cromarty, in the north of Scotland), and presumably because of this, Sir Thomas and his younger brother imprisoned their father in an upper room for five days. When the father gained his freedom he instituted legal proceedings, but nothing much came of them, and eventually all were reconciled. What is interesting is the question of Sir Thomas’s motives. Did he think his action would win back the estates or increase his patrimony? Did he propose to keep his father prisoner permanently? Did he suppose the neighbouring gentry would come out in favour of rebellious sons? But it was still a valiant act.

It is reasonably certain that some time before this incident he had been at university in Aberdeen, and had gone on an extended Grand Tour. After 1636, as a Royalist and an Episcopalian, he engaged in some minor warfare with his neighbours, and then took refuge in England, where (according to his own testimony) he was knighted by Charles I in 1641. In 1645 he brought out the Trissotetras, a work which apparently ‘expresses trigonometrical formulae logarithmically’. Urquhart’s biographer, Willcock, says that ‘no one is known to have read it or to have been able to read it,’ and that it ‘dropped at once into the depths of oblivion’. This last statement, at least, is not quite true: Samuel Colvil, in 1681, said of another peculiar book that it

          comes from Brains which have a Bee,
    Like Urquhart’s Trigonometrie.

After that he returned to Scotland, and finally joined the Royalist army that was crushed by Cromwell at Worcester in 1651, in the last battle before Charles II fled abroad. Urquhart, with many others, was taken to London as a prisoner, where, apparently, he determined to recover his freedom and his estates by using his pen. His first effort was a genealogy in which he names and describes his ancestors, going back to Adam. 

. . . .

In Bacon’s phrase, Urquhart studied words and not matter, and while he undoubtedly had a way with words, it is mostly a very long-winded way. Even one of his longer sentences – and there are many of them – would be too long to quote here.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

4 thoughts on “Admirable Urquhart”

  1. Narcissistic Sociopath:

    “One noted difference between a narcissistic sociopath and people with narcissism alone is that the narcissist with the sociopathy reacts strongly and sometimes even violently to negative feedback. True sociopaths generally do not respond to criticism or care what others may think of them. A narcissistic sociopath is unable to tolerate criticism and needs constant praise, as well as deference from other people. ”

    Hmm, admirable?
    Not the adjective I’d use. 😀

        • No mistake. When everybody is special then no-one is: if only all those special people out there realised this.

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