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HARRIS, James (1709–1780)

Three treatises . The first concerning art. The second music, painting, and poetry. The third happiness

London: printed for H. Woodfall, jun. For J. Nourse; and P. Vaillant, 1744
8vo: π2 B–Z8 2A4 (–2A4), 181 leaves, pp. [4] 357 [1]. Stubs between leaves G5 and 6, I7 and 8, Q6 and 7 and S6 and 7 but it is not clear which leaves are cancelled.
Condition: 201 x 120mm.
Binding: Contemporary gilt ruled calf, red lettering piece, sprinkled edges. A little wear, joints cracked but sound.
Provenance: Earls of Portsmouth with engraved bookplate of the second Earl (Franks F.30719).
First edition. Later editions were published in 1765, 1772, 1783 and 1792.
Bibliography: ESTC t70375; Alston III, 846.

This contains the important ‘Essay on happiness’. It was the first publication of ‘Hermes Harris’ and widely read in its time, though denigrated by later commentators. Probyn points out that Harris never recovered from Samuel Johnson's attack, calling him ‘a sound sullen scholar ... a prig and a bad prig’. The problem was Harris’ unfashionable adherance to Greek and Roman philosophy and rejection of the philosophy of Lock and empiricism: Harris rejected ‘Air-Pumps and ‘Electrical Apparatus’. The most important of the three treatises is the third, his ‘Essay on Happiness’. ‘Its essential thesis is that happiness is synonymous with “the sovereign good”, which in turn is synonymous with “rectidude of conduct”; each of these is defined collectively as the attempt “to live perpetually selecting, as far as possible, what is congruous to nature, and rejecting what is contrary; making our end that selecting and that rejecting”. Thus happiness is not a conclusion but a process; not, in the end, an achievable state, but an ideal which we would be “fools” to neglect.’ (Probyn p. 260).
‘The first treatise, “Concerning Art, A Dialogue,” avoids the commonplace mimetic theories and introduces into English critical discussion of the important aesthetic distinction between energy (energeia) and work (kinesis) derived from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. “A Discourse on Music, Painting, and Poetry” is notable for the supreme position allotted to poetry and for its praise of the musical-verbal symbiosis achieved in the Handelian oratorio. “Concerning Happiness, A Dialogue” urges the primacy of imagination as a mode of intellection.’ (Dictionary of eighteenth-century British philosophers.)
Literature: Clive T. Probyn, ‘Johnson, James Harris, and the Logic of Happiness’, The Modern Language Review 73 (1978) 256–266.