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October 09: Walking Stewart: A Forgotten Great Freethinker by Ron Heisler

Lecture to the Ethical Society 23 March 2003 Published in the Ethical record, June 2003

The colourful life of John Stewart (1749-1822), who was generally known as Walking Stewart, has completely overshadoved his singular, often difficult, writings. But it remains a story worth retelling before we get onto the substance of his thought. His idiosyncratic nature took a quite dysfunctional turn in his school years. His father, a prosperous London linen draper, sent him to a boarding school at the age of six, from which he had to be ‘liberated’ from the 'authority of its cruel pedagogue'. Harrow came next, from whence at the age of twelve, with the full approval of the staff, he passed on to Charterhouse, where he concentrated on 'play, sports and illegal enterprises'. Later, Stewart recalled that ‘the most important action of my life, in the production of happiness, was to uneducate myself, and wipe away all the evil propensities and erudite nonsense of school instruction.'

Stewart the traveller

Having been decreed an academic dunce, at the age of sixteen Stewart was sent by his father out to India as a writer in the service of the East India Company. This proved to be the Traveller's making. He learned several oriental languages, including Persian, and rose far. His integrity, however, disrupted his harmonious relationship with the Company, for he wrote a tasteless letter to the directors complaining of the endemic corruption among its officials. It was time for the parting of the ways, and Stewart landed up in the service of the despotic Hyder Ali, as an interpreter at first. Given charge of one of Hyder's regiments, he turned it into the army's most efficient fighting force, largely through the odd device of paying his men on time instead of 'embezzling their pay as was the custom. Involved in several battles, he was made a general. He also received a one inch deep gash in the crown of his head, which permanently marked him. A lingering wound, which Hyder's doctors could not cure, led him to seek permission to go back into East India Company territory to obtain English medical assistance. Hyder granted the request, but arranged for assassins to follow Stewart, who escaped by swimming across a river.

Next Siewart served as an interpreter to the Nabob of Arcot, becoming the Nabob's prime minister at one stage. In five years, the Traveller saved £4,000, with which he bought a life annuity. Tiring of India, he made his way back to England, mostly on foot. However, taking passage in an Arab dhow from the East Indies to cross the Persian Gult, all was not plain sailing. A fierce storm arising, the Muslim crew were convinced Stewart had an evil spirit. They were on the point of throwing him overboard, but a satisfactory compromise was reached. He was immured in a hen-coop, which was slung from the main-yard, for a fortnight, food being shoved between the bars. Diogenes, it will be recalled, merely lived in a barrel.

Steward walked through Persia and Turkey, studying the Turcoman people in the process, then across Europe. In England he became an instant celebrity and, no doubt with the backing of Sir Joseph Banks, was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1776. The following year, the Traveller published a long article, the first in English, on Tibet and its religion, in the Society's Transactions. William Blake, the poet-artist, attended a literary salon in the 1780s which he satirised in a piece entitled An Island in the Moon. The Blake industry has long puzzled over the identities of the characters Blake was making fun of. The evidence in Steward’s own writings leave us satisfied that ‘Steelyard the Lawgiver' was based upon Stewart.

The restless Stewart could not be confined to one town for long, however. Michael Kelly, the great opera singer, recorded meeting Stewart in Vienna, whilst he later travelled in the 1780s to the far north of Europe and, inevitably, to America and Canada. Dr Benjamin Rush, the well-known American revolutionary, met Stewart on some occasions, although paling somewhat at the Traveller's endless chatter.

Stewart – A Ciassic Enlightenment Radical

Back in England, Stewart proceeded to publish his first book, The Apocalypse of Nature, in two volumes in 1789-90. This is a landmark in giving the first sketch of his philosophy, with its vital chapter on 'The Dialectics of Nature’. The French Revolution intervened at this juncture to arouse Steward’s wild enthusiasm. He moved to Paris, where he invested £3,000 in French Funds. A classic Enlightenment radical, hard-line atheist and egalitarian, with plenty of interesting fads in addition, Stewart was embraced by spritely Gallic intellectuals as a soul-mate. There he became familiar with the great Condorcet and his mathematical formulae for depicting social phenomena. The Cercle Social, a faction of the revolutionary Girondists, pushed Stewart's name before the public. The journalist involved was Nicholas de Bonneviile, Thomas Paine's bosom friend; and Paine and Stewart remained life-long friends, although with diverging politics.

The French Revolution turned sour, however. The liquidation of many of the Girondists by way of the guillotine, combined with Stewart's French Funds becoming valueless, turned him against the Revolution, paranoid with fear of social upheaval, yet without altering or repudiating the mass of his ideas. The story survives that William Wordsworth, ardent Jacobin in Paris as he was, fled the French capital after Stewart had warned him that his life was at risk.

Back in London, where he had often met up with William Godwin, the anarchist, Stewart, now virtually penniless, attempted to earn his crust by giving public lectures in which he expounded his ideas. But the political atosphere had become reactionary – authority suspected him – and economic survival proved near impossible. A state spy recorded in 1792 how  ‘Steward, who went off [to France] with [Thomas] Muir, I heard on Monday, was in London last week, from whence he shipped himself off to Norway...' But during this period Steward was engaged in editing a work by another friend, the Venetian Count Zenobio. To An Essay on Civil Government he appended one hundred pages of close printed notes, which arguably constitute the most advanced commentary on the French Revolution by any contemporary British author on the left. One prescient passage in particular deserves quotation:

‘Men are already beginning visibly to divide more by opinion than nations, tending towards a division into the two grand classes, not badly named Aristocrats and Democrats, i.e. the rich, masters, employers, oppressors, all on one side; and the poor, dependent, employed, and oppressed, all on the other; – the proprietors and non-proprietors; the rulers and ruled’.

Stewart saw the working classes as a rising force in society; but his vocabulary for describing them was inadequate. Yet in one respect he anticipated Karl Marx remarkably, regarding the peasantry, whose ‘mental processes' are so totally suppressed, that extreme labour’ leaves them 'no time to acquire consciousness or intellectual existence’. Never invoking 'class consciousness' as such, he uses 'consciousness' on several occasions with a rich complex of meanings.

Stewart serialised in Carlile's The Republican

Finding England inhospitable, Steward placed his hopes on a sojourn in America, where he published several works. But he had not reckoned that whilst in the Old World religion was in retreat, the New World was a Puritan paradise, with the religious very firmly in the saddle. The Traveller's outspoken materialism and atheism aroused the fury of the hell and damnation stiffnecks, who discouraged his audiences. But it was in America that Stewart found a most important disciple in Elihu Palmer, the blind preacher, who was involved with what was dubbed the Columbian Society of Illuminati. A deist, Palmer's notorious work was The Principles of Nature, which was written, according to Palmer's widow, in consultation with Steward, and which some asserted had a full chapter composed by the Traveller. Richard Carlile produced the first English edition in 1819, and for his pains, being found guilty of blasphemy, was sentenced to a year in gaol. Carlile was to serialise Stewart's 'Discourses' in The Republican in 1826.

Returning to England, the Traveller's life look yet another unexpected turn. The East India Company was settling the financial affairs of the late Nabob of Arcot. They agreed to pay Stewart £10,000, thus ensuring his creature comfort for the rest of his days. He was one of the most easily recognisable people in London; for a while he adopted Armenian headgear, and famously was to be seen every morning sitting by Westminster Bridge, contemplating the world as it went by.

Acquiring a house in Cockspur Street, Stewart installed an organ, for he loved music, especially by Handel; there a salon grew up, which many distinguished intellectuals keenly attended, for they enjoyed his company and ideas, Robert Owen being among the 'cherished friends' as well as the essayist Thomas de Ouincey. Wordsworth came on occasion. Buying annual tickets for the theatres, Steward would attend primarily to hear the pit orchestras playing, rather than view the plays. He had little time for Shakespeare, whom he dismissed as ‘a remarkable example of lettered imbecility’, producing 'the somnolency of intellectual life in the temperament of Britain with his lettered rubbish’. He always refused to write an account of his actual travels, stating that ‘his were travels of the mind’. And his prejudices, usually of a national type, never waned. The Irish were a particular butt. ‘Man was an anticipatory animal,' he declared; the Irish 'were not'. But the Irish had qualities he appreciated as well: 'I have seen twenty Irishmen at Philadelphia beat the whole crew of a French privateer,' he once wrote.

Stewart – A forefather of ecology

Stewart was a great experimenter in matters of food. Dr Rush, in 179l, reported that ‘He formerly lived on animal and vegetable food alternatively, viz,, animal in winter and vegetable in summer, beginning on the 1st of May, after which time he had the best of health. He now lives wholly on two pounds of unleavened bread, with half a pound of cheese, or four apples, alternatively every day’. Stewart told how he had 'had a very dangerous gangrene' in his leg, curing it 'by a regimen of roasted apples, eating only half a dozen, with a small piece of bread, in twenty four hours’. He recommended the use of the 'warm mud bath' as a regular practice. His end was mysterious. When he died, an empty bottle of laudanum was found in his bedroom. Suicide was suspected.

Stewart is a true forefather of the modern ecological movement, who saw that men ‘have glutted on the Tree of Knowledge, on arts and sciences, and abandoned the Tree of Life, that is, the knowledge of Self in the laws of sensation, and the relation of men with all surrounding nature’. He aimed to 'harmonise’ men wrh ‘the great organism of the universe'; and defined the state of nature as 'when appropriation of things and persons shall cease’.

Despite his ongoing interest in military affairs (he witnessed the battle of Jemappe), violence of any sort appalled Stewart. He insisted, in fact, that men ‘must 'do no violence to any part of animal nature'. In the words of his friend, John Taylor, he maintained 'it was the eternal interest of man to exempt as much as possible all sensitive beings from pain, as, when he had lost the human form, he would become a part of all inferior animals of every description, and consequently the matter of which he once consisted would bear a portion of ihe pain inflicted’ by any physical evil. Stewart was inevitably opposed to capital punishment. And a foe of slavery, he declared as an ardent feminist that 'the state of half the population of the globe, where the female is subjected to the male sex, is a state of far worse slavery'. He even quoted at length from Mary Wollstonecraft on the rights of women.

Stewart's materialism is an advance on the mechanistic systems pioneered by the French philosophes such as d'Holbach, which he points out were trapped in the conundrum of cause and effect. If law controls everything in nature, then we end up with infinite chains of causality – a stultifying kind of determinism. Stewart argues instead that in nature 'we see order and disorder everywhere'; and that 'even in gravitation, nature is subject to irregularity’. The 'causation must ... possess within itself its own independent energy,' he concluded.

Stewart – a pioneer in dialectics

Stewart’s was a form of pantheism with God left out, man, the world and the cosmos seen as a unity. The relationship of the parts with the whole was a recurrent theme with him. Where he is at his most original is in his discusiions of dialectics – and here he is several years in advance of the German idealist philosophers such as Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. In fact, we can demonstrate how they would have known of Stewart and his ideas, the circumstantial evidence being quite compelling. His philosophic outlook equates with what today is usually described as 'realism'. Taking John Locke to task for 'confounding ideas with things, and probability with certainly,' he rejected the empiricist ideology that dominated the British scene. For Stewart there was – to borrow a modern term – a 'deep structure’ to reality, which men were capable of uncovering the application of dialectics. He mocked any 'silly doctrines' that the ‘mind can have no certitude beyond experience'; and he argued that 'probability’ can function quite as well as 'certitude', a position that makes much sense in some areas of science.

Logic, Stewart assures us, 'keeps man stationary in existence, dialectic leads on to the perfectibility of his nature’. He writes of language, 'this dialectic having no other quality but intelligibility, could not fail to bring all mankind to one common standard of good...'  Dialectic for Steward is bound up with change, with reform and improvement. Whilst logic (ordinary or scholastic) takes 'its criterion from the contracted relations of custom,' dialectic is to do with the 'perfectibility of custom'. 'Self', by the operation of dialectic, ‘is discovered to be an inseparable functional part of the great whole of existence’. Human 'intellect, in its attempt to approximate to progressive truth, must take in simultaneously all possible relations of an idea, which forms the true character of dialectic’. If some readers feel impelled at this point to exclaim 'shades of Hegel!’, they will have even more to exclaim as Steward explains that 'The use of reason' leads us "to move on a double centre, viz. the base of practice and the apex of theory’.
Stewart, in his radical phase, overflows with ideas of socio-political improvement. Republican and anti-aristocratic, he was much taken with utopian schemes of great imaginative force, which are as close to anarchism as to Marxism. In 1790 he proposed 'social subdivisions' consisting of 'no more than one hundred males, and one hundred females; they should live in one house, eat at the same table, participate in labour and pleasure in common, and cultivate a general volition as their guide'. Twenty of these would form a 'community' and twenty cornmunties might form a "province'. In 1808 he advocated a future society in which 'there can exist no relation of kindred property or persons. Individuals must first be associated into residences or barracks, containing as many persons as can hear the familiar conversation of each other, which might amount to the number of one hundred, governed in all their conduct by the majority of voices’. Every week there would be assemblies 'in town meeting houses, containing two or three thousand persons’, whilst every month 'auditories of one million' persons would be held.

The blanket ignorance of British academics regarding Stewart’s philosophic ideas, contrasting with the almost obscene way they have avidly pursued the tritest intellectual fads emanating from the Continent, speaks of an essentially impoverished milieu. Stewart’s own reputation for eccentricity has not helped, it is true. And his writing-style can be abominable – the spasms of brilliant insight are smothered by the dullness of so many passages littered with his endless neologisms. The British Mercury wrote brutally of The Apocalypse of Nature: ‘The Critics say that Walking Stewart has walked over all Countries, and his Phraseology over the English language. It is not yet absolutely known in what language it is written.’ De Quincey had to admit of his friend that he 'was a man of genius, but not a man of talents; at least his genius was out of all proponion to his talents...' And de Quincey also confessed that the great Traveller was ‘Crazy beyond all reach of hellebore'. But 'J.W.C.', writing in 1861, rightly said of Stewart: ‘A rough man certainly, but the world wants rough men sometimes.'

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