Tales and Traditions of the High Peak

By William Wood (1862)

Transcription by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2009

Old Gregory

or, THE VILLAGE PHILOSOPHER.

“He never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion.”Epipsychidion.

IT is the province, as it is the heart-inspiring duty of genius, even of the humblest grade, to rescue from partial oblivion the traits and memories of those characters whose honoured and holy mission on earth seems to have been to elevate their fellow-mortals in the scale of being - who have given an impetus, however slight, to whatever has an essential and genuine tendency to confer happiness on the universe of mankind. The opinion here expressed may seem to have been borrowed from the true and consolatory adage, “Whatever is good must not - cannot perish”. Be this as it may, there is one thing certain in the sentiment of the time-tried adage - it is strictly compatible with the wisdom and goodness of an all-controlling providence. hence the indescribable [Page 176] satisfaction which warms the heart of him who sits down to portray the characteristics of one whom, however humble in social station, we deem to have been an instrument in rending the vale of ignorance which still forms a barrier between mankind and wisdom, and its necessary concomitant - happiness.

In the village of ____, in the Peak, there resided, until his death, some forty years ago, an individual of singular mental acquirements. Old Gregory, for such was the name by which he was known throughout the country, was born on the lap of one of the most conspicuous of the Peak mountains; and even in his childhood, he was remarkable for an insatiate thirst after knowledge. Indeed, his inquiries and pursuits, even in his days of boyhood, were of a class and nature that excited the wonder of his mountain brethren. By his parents the young philosopher was regarded as a prodigy of knowledge; and the youngsters of the locality, notwithstanding their natural rusticity and rudeness of manners, acknowledged in numberless instances the superior and commanding intellect of Gregory. In his day the means of acquiring knowledge were, in comparison to the present, excessively limited; still the ardent mind of the mountain student discovered channels of information, and fountains of knowledge, even among the hills and valleys of his nativity. At the age of twenty the mind of Gregory had expanded almost immeasurably; at the dazzling shrine of knowledge he continued increasingly to worship, and [Page 177] that too with a devotion bordering on delirious enthusiasm. In history, science, and poetry, he revelled at large, grasping also with the energy of a heaven-gifted intellect, the endless and airy subtleties of metaphysical science. Such, indeed, were the accomplishments of this admirable peasant when he had grown to a state of manhood.

It would be a task to enumerate the impressions which the novel pursuits and studies of Gregory made on the minds of the peasantry of the Peak. From his astronomical attainments, they deemed he could “rule planets, cast nativities, and predict events”, and hence he was regarded with a kind of superstitious awe. Whilst the rustics were regarding the mental acquisitions of the philosopher as something savouring of presumption, he meanwhile was conning over some of the philosophical maxims of the but little understood philosopher, Hobbes, who among his numberless sublime observations, says - “Happiness, in our present state, is impossible; for our nature is inseparable from desires, and the very feeling - desire - implies that our present felicity is incomplete”. Of this truth Gregory had a clear conviction: but there were others also which had become indelibly imprinted on his heart. He knew - although he might be said to live in hermit-like seclusion - that for him who does not cultivate his talent almost for the benefit of others, who is satisfied in being thought a good hermit, at the foolish expense of being a bad citizen, - who looks from below [Page 178] the screen of life, reckless of making any redemption for some misspent, - that for him “seclusion loses its dignity, philosophy its comfort, benevolence its hope, and even religion its balm”. He knew, also, that there is one mode - one only way of attaining what may be designated mortal happiness, a hearty, sincere, and unrelaxing activity for the well-being, the self-denying happiness of others. In this admirable maxim is concentrated whatever can triumph over the wrecks of time; whatever is noble in mortality, “sublime in religion, and unanswerable in truth”. Yes! he knew well that could he be successful in the practice of this maxim, it would leave imprinted on his memory a life-lasting blessing; that his remembrance would be crowned by a halo of imperishable glory; and that it would preserve for ever upon his name, as on a signet, the glorious and hallowed influence of the hour in which his great end was affected, and “treasure up the relics of heaven[1] in the bright sanctuary of a human frame”.

Relying on these holy facts, and indulging in these sublime contemplations, Gregory passed his days to a good old age. In a sketch of this kind, a great number of the incidents in connection with his life must be necessarily omitted: one or two only, at the close of his career, must suffice for the present. Up to “the age of man”, threescore and ten years, this remarkable individual maintained, with unabated ardour, a desire to [Page 179] accumulate knowledge; to the private libraries of every one in the district he had welcome access; a favour which he often and thankfully accepted. In the evening of his days, his eccentricity of dress - consisting principally of an old grey coat, girt round the waist by a flaxen cord - was peculiarly characteristic: but his striking placidity of countenance, white hair, and solemn features were most singularly expressive.

A few months before the death of this venerable being, the then worthy Rector of ___ paid him a visit, and eagerly pressed him to accept a new suit of clothes, as his present habiliments had seen no less than twenty winters. “No”, said the venerable patriarch, “I feel the finger of death, and my sinking frame shall not be garnished at last by the vestments of charity and the offerings of pride”.

It has justly been remarked that children have a quick perception of those individuals who possess a kind heart, a mild and good disposition. This was strikingly exemplified in Gregory; for no sooner had he crossed the threshold of his cottage for a short walk than he was surrounded by children who made the greatest familiarity with the hoary philosopher.

Time and increasing infirmities brought him at last to the verge of death. As he lay on a wooden settle but a few minutes before he completed his sojourn on earth, some one observed that it would be better to raise his head a little, on which he opened his eyes and said, with quivering lips, “bring a sod or stone for [Page 180] that purpose: now will my mortal body be a handful of dust” After a brief and transient smile he expired, and now, increasingly proud of his local, but philosophical fame,

“They keep his bones at ____
The mountain village where he died.” - BYRON.
Notes
[1] Bacon. De Augmentis Scientiarum.

Transcribed by Rosemary Lockie in January 2009.

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