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Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones

The article in the Dictionary of National Biography, by Henry Morse Stephens

William Jones, The article in the Dictionary of National Biography, by Henry Morse Stephens
URL: http://www.unifi.it/testi/700/jones/Jones_DBN_article.html
Html edition for Eliohs by Guido Abbattista (June 1999)

Jones, Sir William 1746-1794

[from the Dictionary of National Biography]

Name: Jones, Sir William

Dates: 1746-1794

Active Date: 1786

Gender: Male


Field of Interest: Scholarship and Languages

Occupation: Oriental scholar

Place of Birth: Beaufort Buildings, Westminster

Education: Harrow School,   University College [Oxford],   Middle Temple

Death: Calcutta

Burial: Calcutta

Spouse: Anna Maria, eldest daughter of Dr. Shipley

Sources: Jones's Memoirs, by Lord Teignmouth, were first published in The Works of Sir William Jones, 6 vols. 4to, London, 1799, vol. I

Contributor: H. M. S. [Henry Morse Stephens]

Jones, Sir William 1746-1794, oriental scholar, youngest child of William Jones (1675-1749) [q.v.] the mathematician, was born at Beaufort Buildings, Westminster, on 28 Sept. 1746, and lost his father while a child of three years old. His mother, a woman of exceptional ability, superintended his early education, and his precocious genius was encouraged by his father's scientific friends. He was entered at Harrow School in the Michaelmas term of 1753, and spent more than ten years there under the masterships of Dr. Thackeray and Dr. Sumner. His extraordinary capacities marked him out at this early age from his schoolfellows. He not only became a thorough classical scholar, but learned French and Italian, and the rudiments of Arabic and Hebrew, in his leisure hours. His chief amusement seems to have been chess, but for change of pastime he and two of his companions, Dr. Bennet, afterwards bishop of Cloyne, and the future scholar, Dr. Parr, occasionally mapped out the neighbourhood of Harrow into the states of Greece, and acted the famous events of ancient history. His father's friends recommended that he should be sent from school to the chambers of a special pleader; but he took a dislike to law on the ground that old English law books were written in bad Latin, and resolved to go to the university.

On 15 March 1764 Jones was matriculated at Oxford as a commoner of University College, and on 31 Oct. 1764 he was elected to a scholarship. His mother's means were not sufficiently large to maintain him at college without assistance, and on the strength of his brilliant Harrow reputation he was in 1765 appointed private tutor to Lord Althorp, the only son of the first Earl Spencer, and brother of Georgiana, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire. His pupil was only a boy of seven, and Jones continued for five years to superintend his early education, while still keeping his terms at Oxford. This connection proved of the greatest advantage to Jones. He went abroad more than once with the Spencer family, and he maintained his friendship with his former pupil and the Duchess of Devonshire until his death. While connected with the Spencer family, Jones considerably increased his knowledge of languages. He mastered Arabic and Persian with the assistance of a Syrian Mirza, whom he brought to Oxford; he improved his knowledge of Hebrew, and gained some acquaintance with Chinese; and he became a fluent scholar in German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Nor did he disdain accomplishments. He took lessons in riding and fencing from Angelo, shared his pupil's dancing lessons, and learnt the use of the broad-sword from an old Chelsea pensioner. In 1766 he was elected a fellow of University College, Oxford; in 1768 he graduated B.A., and in 1773 M.A.

In 1768 Christian VII of Denmark had brought to England a life of Nadir Shah in Persian, and it was proposed to Jones that he should undertake the translation of it into French. He at first declined, but when it was represented to him that the honour of translating it would then fall to a Frenchman, he complied with the wishes of his friends. The translation - his first book - appeared in 2 vols. 4to, in 1770, the year in which he left Lord Spencer's family, and was received with universal commendation. It was followed in the same year by another work in French, a Traité sur la Poésie Orientale, accompanied by a metrical translation of some of the odes of Hafiz. In 1771, in a Dissertation sur la littérature Orientale, Jones defended the Oxford scholars against the strictures of Anquetil du Perron, the French orientalist, published in the introduction to the latter's translation of the Zendavesta, and in the same year he issued the first edition of his Grammar of the Persian Language. Johnson sent a copy of the grammar to Warren Hastings on 30 March 1774. His literary activity at the time was very great. In 1772 he issued Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick Languages, with two Essays on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations, and on the Arts called Imitative (2nd edit. 1777), and in 1774 Poeseos Asiaticć Commentariorum Libri Sex. The latter work was suggested by Lowth's famous Prćlections on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, and finally established his reputation as an oriental scholar. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1772, and in the spring of 1773, at the same time as Garrick, a member of the Literary Club, of which Dr. Johnson was the presiding genius. He became intimate with many of the most distinguished scholars on the continent, and among his own countrymen with Burke and Gibbon.

But Jones soon found that the study of oriental literature, though it might bring him reputation, did not furnish a means of livelihood. He therefore turned his thoughts to a legal career, and was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1774. He threw himself with characteristic ardour into the uncongenial work, and though he never became a learned English lawyer in the technical sense, he eventually showed himself a profound jurist. In 1776 he was appointed one of the sixty commissioners of bankrupts, an office of small emolument, and in 1778 he showed the influence of his new profession in his translation of the Speeches of Isćus in Causes concerning the Law of Succession to Property at Athens. In 1780 he published An Inquiry into the Legal Mode of Suppressing Riots, and in 1781 an essay On the Law of Bailments. In the Essay on Bailments he criticised the celebrated analysis of Lord Holt in Coggs v. Bernard, and the authority of his work has always stood high (cf. Smith, Leading Cases, 9th edit. i. 225, &c.). In America the reputation of the treatise has been even more conspicuously recognised than in this country, and Justice Story declared that had Jones never written anything but this essay «he would have left a name unrivalled in the common law for philosophical accuracy, elegant learning, and finished analysis» (North American Review, November 1817, vi. 46-7). Jones also took a keen interest in politics, and in 1780 he offered himself as a candidate for the representation of the university of Oxford in the House of Commons. But his liberal opinions, his detestation of the American war and of the slave-trade were too strongly expressed to be agreeable to the voters, and he withdrew from the contest in order to avoid an overwhelming defeat. In spite of law and politics, however, his chief interest was still centred in the study of oriental literature. In May 1780 it appears from his printed address in the Bodleian Library that he was an unsuccessful candidate for the lord almoner's professorship of Arabic at Oxford. In 1781 he completed his translation of The Moallakat, or the Seven Arabian Poems which were suspended on the Temple at Mecca; the volume was published in 1783.

Jones had long desired an appointment as judge of the high court at Calcutta. The office promised him means to marry and a comfortable income, besides the opportunity of prosecuting his oriental studies in India itself. But his avowed hostility to the American war delayed the realisation of his wish. Lord North was naturally reluctant to give Jones preferment. In 1783, however, the strong representations of Dunning, lord Ashburton, induced the coalition ministry of the Duke of Portland to appoint Jones to the desired judgeship. He was knighted on 19 March 1783. He had long been engaged to Anna Maria, eldest daughter of Dr. Shipley, bishop of St. Asaph and a member of the Literary Club. In April he married her and set sail for India.

The ten years from December 1783 to his death in April 1794, which Jones spent in India, were the most important of his life. He performed his judicial functions with great ability, but his main pursuits were literary and juristical. His first work was the foundation of the Bengal Asiatic Society in January 1784, and his eleven anniversary discourses to the society as president, and his contributions to the society's Asiatic Researches mark an era in the study of the Indian languages, literature, and philosophy. The titles of his Discourses are: 'On the Orthography of Asiatick Words,' 1784; 'On the Gods of Greece, Italy, and India,' 1785; 'On the Hindus,' 1786; 'On the Arabs,' 1787; 'On the Tartars,' 1788; 'On the Persians,' 1789; 'On the Chinese,' 1790; 'On the Borderers, Mountaineers, and Islanders of Asia,' 1791; 'On the Origin and Families of Nations,' 1792; 'On Asiatick History, Civil and Natural,' 1793; 'On the Philosophy of the Asiaticks,' 1794 (Asiatic Researches, vols. i.-iv.).

Many Englishmen, notably Warren Hastings, who had spent long years in India, had become profoundly versed in the languages and literature of the country; but they were too much occupied with the practical work of administration to embody their knowledge and researches in literary and scientific form. Jones, on the other hand, came to India with a mind imbued not only with enthusiasm for oriental studies, but with a wider knowledge of classical and other literatures than men sent to India in their early manhood ordinarily possessed. Moreover, he could express himself in writing with rapidity and elegance. No subject was too abstruse or too trifling for Jones to investigate. Hindu chronology, music, and chess were all studied and described by him. He planned an exhaustive work on the botany of India, and paid attention to the local zoology. The famous Asoka tree of Indian mythology and poetry is known to botanists as Jonesia asoka, and was so named by Dr. William Roxburgh (1759-1815) [q.v.] in honour of Sir William Jones. But the study of language and literature remained his favourite pursuit.

Jones was the first English scholar to master Sanskrit, and the immense development of comparative philology which was to arise from the knowledge of it was foreshadowed by him in a sentence in a private letter dated 27 Sept. 1787: «You would be astonished at the resemblance between that language [Sanskrit] and both Greek and Latin» (Lord Teignmouth, Memoirs of Sir William Jones, ed. 1807, ii. 128). He felt it to be his life's mission to communicate some of his knowledge of and enthusiasm for oriental literature to the Western world by means of translations of the Asiatic classics. During his residence at Calcutta he tried to solve one of the chief difficulties of the undertaking in his Dissertation on the Orthography of Asiatick Words in Roman Letters. His translations included versions of the Hitopadesa of Pilpay, of the Sakúntala, or Fatal Ring, the celebrated drama by Kalidása (completed in 1789, but not published till 1799), of various Hindustani hymns, and of some extracts from the Vedas. Colebrooke, who appreciated his work very highly, owed much of his eminent success as a Sanskrit scholar to the circumstance that he followed instead of preceding Jones (Professor Max Müller, Chips from a German Workshop, iv. 415).

As a great jurist Jones understood that the power of England in India must rest on good administration, and that the first requisite was to obtain a thorough mastery of the existing systems of law in India, and to have them codified and explained. In short, in his own words, «he purposed to be the Justinian of India» (Teignmouth, ii. 88). With this idea in his mind, he decided to prepare a complete digest of Hindu and Muhammadan law, as observed in India; and to assist him in the colossal labour he collected round him learned native pundits and Muhammadan lawyers. He did not live long enough to complete this task, but he was enabled to publish the first stages in his masterly rendering of the Institutes of Hindu Law, or the Ordinances of Menu (Mánu), 1794, 8vo, 2nd edit. 1797, 8vo (cf. Professor Max Müller, iv. 339-40), in his Mahomedan Law of Succession to Property of Intestates, and in his Al-Sirájiyyah, or Mohammedan Law of Inheritance. The authorities gave him all the assistance in their power. He was on terms of intimate friendship with the successive governors-general of India, Warren Hastings, Sir John Macpherson, Lord Cornwallis, and Sir John Shore (afterwards Lord Teignmouth), and the directors of the East India Company, and Dundas, president of the board of control, recognised the value of his labours. But his exertions overtaxed his strength. His wife's health was failing, and in December 1793 he was greatly depressed by her departure for Europe. On 27 April 1794 he died at Calcutta in the forty-eighth year of his age, and was buried there. He was universally regretted, and the directors of the East India Company showed their sense of his services by the erection of a monument to him in St. Paul's Cathedral. His wife also placed a monument to his memory, executed by Flaxman, in the ante-chapel of University College, Oxford.

The reputation of Sir William Jones during his lifetime was immense. The extraordinary range of his knowledge caused him to be regarded as a prodigy of learning. He is said to have known thirteen languages thoroughly and twenty-eight fairly well. But by posterity he is chiefly remembered as the pioneer of Sanskrit learning. His personal character stood very high, and his amiability made him widely beloved. Courtenay, in his Moral and Literary Character of Dr. Johnson, calls him «Harmonious Jones», and Dr. Barnard, in his verses assigning a function to each prominent member of the club, bids «Jones teach me modesty and Greek» (Boswell, Johnson (ed. G. B. Hill), i. 223, iv. 443). His sympathy with orientals and their manner of thought is especially noteworthy. He felt none of the contempt which his English contemporaries showed to the natives of India. On these points the words of Lord Teignmouth, his intimate friend in India and his biographer, deserve quotation. «I could dwell with rapture - says Lord Teignmouth - on the affability of his conversation and manners, on his modest, unassuming deportment; nor can I refrain from remarking that he was totally free from pedantry, as well as from that arrogance and self-sufficiency which sometimes accompany and disgrace the greatest abilities; his presence was the delight of every society, which his conversation exhilarated and improved. His intercourse with the Indian natives of character and abilities was extensive: he liberally rewarded those by whom he was served and assisted, and his dependents were treated by him as friends. Nor can I resist the impulse which I feel to repeat an anecdote of what occurred after his demise; the pundits who were in the habit of attending him, when I saw them at a public durbar a few days after that melancholy event, could neither restrain their tears for his loss, nor find terms to express their admiration at the wonderful progress which he had made in the sciences which they professed» (ibidem, ii. 306, 307). The only note of discordance with the universal opinion of Sir William Jones's merits is a remark of his old schoolfellow, Dr. Parr, who is said to have observed that «when Jones dabbled in metaphysics he forgot his logic; and when he meddled with oriental literature he lost his taste» (Memoir of John, first Lord Teignmouth, by his son, ii. 79). But Dr. Parr contradicted this criticism in his eulogium on his friend in the «Notes» to his Spital Sermon, and it was perhaps caused by his annoyance in not being selected as Jones's biographer.

A portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds belongs to Earl Spencer. It was engraved by Heath in 1779, and by J. Hall in 1782 as the frontispiece to Jones's Moallakat. Another portrait is at University College, Oxford.

A collective edition of the works of Sir William Jones was published by Lord Teignmouth and Lady Jones in 6 vols. 4to, 1799. Two supplementary volumes appeared in 1801, and a life by Teignmouth in an additional volume in 1804. The whole were reprinted in 13 vols. 8vo in 1807. An edition of his Poems was also published at Calcutta in 1800, and another in London in 1810; they were included in Chalmers's Collections of the British Poets. His Persian Grammar reached a seventh edition in 1809, and was re-edited by Professor Samuel Lee in 1823 and 1828, 4to. The Essay on Bailments was reissued in London in 1798 (ed. Balmanno), in 1823 (ed. J. Nichol), and in 1834 (ed. W. Theobald), while in America it was edited by Brattleborough (1813) and Halstead (1828), and was reissued in Philadelphia in 1836. A collection of Jones's manuscript letters is at Spencer House, of which a few only were printed by Teignmouth (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. 13).


Jones's Memoirs, by Lord Teignmouth, were first published in 1 vol. 4to in 1804, were prefixed (2 vols.) to the 8vo edition of his works, and were reprinted in 1 vol. 8vo in 1815, and in 2 vols. 8vo in 1835. Some information has been kindly supplied by Sir George Birdwood, K.C.I.E.

Contributor: H. M. S. [Henry Morse Stephens]

published  1891