A Great English Platonist
Thomas Taylor was born in London on 15th of May, 1758. His father was a Nonconformist minister of limited means. He intended his son for the same calling and sent him at the age of nine years to St. Paul’s School. Here he remained for three years, when he persuaded his father to take him home.
Shortly afterwards he met his future wife, Mary Morton, and fell deeply in love with her. About this time he became interested in mathematics, and, although his father looked upon such studies with disfavour, Thomas, by keeping a tinder-box under his pillow, managed during the night to gratify his thirst for knowledge.
In 1773 he was sent to his uncle, to an office at the dockyard at Sheerness, and there endured three years of what he considered a state of slavery. After this he returned to London, where for two years he became a pupil of a Rev. Mr. Worthington with a view to entering the ministry. During this period he applied himself to Greek and Latin in the day, paid his addresses to Mary Morton in the evening, and had the courage to begin and read through the Latin quarto of Simson’s Conic Sections at night.
Miss Morton’s father, however, had other plans for his daughter’s future and intended to marry her to a man of wealth when Thomas Taylor was safely away at Aberdeen University. In order to avoid this, she consented to marry her lover, now twenty-one years old, on condition that the marriage should be a purely formal one until he had finished his studies at Aberdeen. But unfortunately Miss Morton’s mother discovered the secret, and the young couple were abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves.
At this period, for nearly a year, they had only seven shillings a week to live on. At last, however, Thomas Taylor managed to get an usher’s place at a school in Paddington. He was for some time unable to remove his wife from Camberwell, and could only see her on Saturday afternoons. His next employment was in a bank, from which he received an income of fifty pounds a year paid quarterly. The work was hard: he was often unable to procure enough nourishment in the day, and was sometimes so exhausted by the time he reached home in the evening that he fell senseless on the floor.
At length he was able to rent a small house at 9, Manor Place, Walworth, where he lived for the remainder of his life. About this time his studies were mainly in chemistry. He did not, however, neglect mathematics, and at the age of twenty-two he published a work entitled “A New Method of Reasoning in Geometry”.
He next began work on Aristotle, and being engaged at the bank until late in the evening, he was obliged to devote part of the night to study. He also made it a rule to digest what he had learned from Aristotle while he was walking about with bills. After the study of Aristotle he applied himself to Plato, and next to Plotinus and Proclus. While he was engaged in the study of Proclus, the celebrated Miss Mary Wollstonecraft visited him. She frequently complimented him on the tranquillity of his manners, and called the little room which he made his study “the abode of peace”.
After six years at the bank he found his health so much impaired by the combination of severe bodily and mental work that he determined to try to live by his talents. His first effort was the invention of a perpetual lamp. This he exhibited at a Freemason’s Tavern, but the room being warm the phosphorus caught fire and this raised against the invention a prejudice which could not be removed. The exhibition, however, procured him some devoted and influential friends. He next composed twelve lectures on the Platonic philosophy, which he delivered at the house of Mr. John Flaxman. These lectures were unfortunately not published.
At the age of twenty-nine, in 1787, he published “The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus”, and in the same year “Plotinus on the Beautiful”. Five years later his two volumes of “Proclus on Euclid” appeared, a work which contained also Proclus’ “Theological Elements”, a dissertation on the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, the lives of Proclus, Iamblichus, Plotinus and Porphyry, and a history of the restoration of the Platonic Theology.
In the latter part of 17 88 the Marquis de Valadi, a philosophic French nobleman, visited England. On learning that Thomas Taylor was considered the principal Pythagorean in England, he at once wrote to him an enthusiastic letter:
“O Thomas Taylor! Mayest thou welcome a brother Pythagorean to thy divine school. I have loved Wisdom ever since a child, and have found the greatest impediments and been forced to great struggles, before I could clear my way to the source of it. . . I met with thy works but two days past. A divine man! A prodigy in this iron age.”
For some time the Marquis stayed in Walworth and imbibed philosophy at this fountain head.
In 1791, Taylor’s “Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries” was published, in 1792 a version of Plato’s “Phaedrus”, and in the next year four more Platonic dialogues. By this time Taylor’s writings were attracting a certain amount of attention, and through the generosity of his friends he was enabled to become a private teacher of languages and mathematics, with much more spare time for the work upon which his heart was set. At the age of forty years he secured the post of Assistant Secretary of a Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.
In 1804, through the support of the Duke of Norfolk, he published a complete translation of Plato in five volumes with copious notes. In 1812 appeared the complete works of Aristotle in nine volumes, the cost of which was borne by two of his wealthy friends, William and George Meredith. The year 1816 brought forth the work which can in some respects be considered as his masterpiece – “Proclus’ Theology of Plato”.
He resigned his secretaryship in 1806, and, through the goodness of William Meredith, was able to live in retirement for the rest of his life working at translations and commentaries.
He married twice. Mary Morton, who shared his early struggles, died in 1809. She was the mother of two daughters and four sons.
Thomas Taylor died on November 1st, 1835. He was buried on November 6th at St. Mary’s Newington Butts.
The value of his work is incalculable. Like many great men he was not appreciated during his life; in fact, the reviewers of his time mocked and harassed him. After his death his writings seem to have sunk for a time into oblivion and are only now beginning to take their true place in the philosophical world. Opposed by difficulties which at times were sufficient to overwhelm completely most men, hampered by ill-health and continual financial anxiety, unappreciated save by a select few, he yet produced work which, apart from its inestimable intrinsic value, has in quantity alone seldom been equalled, for he gave to the English language the whole range of the ancient Mystery Teachings and the philosophy founded upon them.
He has laid a foundation upon which others may build, and is a resplendent link in that Golden Chain of Venerable Ones who labour for the restoration to mankind of the Wisdom which was before the ages.
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Bibliography of Thomas Taylor
– Mystical Hymns of Orpheus
– Plotinus on the Beautiful
– Treatise on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries
– Proclus on Euclid; Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius – 2 vols
– Platonic Dialogues: Cratylus, Phaedo, Parmenides, Timaeus, and Phaedrus
– Sallust on the Gods and the World
– Two Orations of Julian
– Five Books of Plotinus
– Apuleius, Cupid and Psyche
– Pausanias’ Description of Greece – 2 vols.
– Metaphysics of Aristotle
– A New Edition of Hederic’s Greek Lexicon
– Complete Works of Plato – 5 vols
– Demophilus’ Pythagorean Sentences
– Collectanea (Chaldean Oracles, etc)
– Emperor Julian’s Argument against the Christians
– Complete Works of Aristotle – 9 vols
– Theoretic Arithmetic
– Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle
– Proclus’ Theology of Plato – 2 vols
– Iamblichus on Pythagoras
– Commentaries of Proclus on the Timaeus – 2 vols
– Iamblichus on the Mysteries
– Pythagorean Fragments and Hierocles
– Works of Apuleius
– Select Works of Porphyry
– Fragments of Proclus, Archytas and others
– Elements of a New Arithmetical Annotation
– Many Hymns to the Gods, and Poems
– Celsus’ Argument against the Christians
– Proclus – Two Treatises on the Demiurgus
– Plotinus and Olympiodorus on Suicide
– Ocellus Lucanus on the Nature of the Universe