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08 Aug

Francis Hutcheson’s Schooldays

An 18th century school interior. Rows of boys sit, each with a book. To the left the teacher sits at a desk correcting the work on one boy. To the right, two others are writing. Two small children are seated on the ground.

At Killyleagh during last year’s Francis Hutcheson event, someone asked what the school Francis Hutcheson attended there would have been like. This is an expanded version of the answer given then.

In Francis Hutcheson’s day education was officially provided at (Church of Ireland) parish level, with higher level diocesan schools and Royal schools (grammar schools) in each diocese. However in reality many parishes and dioceses had no schools so there were many schoolmasters and schoolmistresses running private schools for pay1. There were also schools providing elementary education associated with other churches.

From the age of eight, Francis Hutcheson attended the school associated with his grandfather’s church. It was run by John Hamilton in a disused meeting house near Saintfield, probably in very basic conditions (a later school in the area had a dirt floor and no ceiling). In addition to the elementary education provided, it is likely that Hutcheson’s grandfather Alexander Hutcheson tutored the more advanced students 2.

While no record of Hutcheson’s basic education exists, William King (Archbishop of Dublin), who was born into a Presbyterian family, recorded the memories of his school days in the Ulster of the 1660s 3. King was sent to school at eight having failed to learn the alphabet at another school when aged five. A variety of ages and both sexes were catered for; King records that the school had seventy or eighty pupils including adolescents eager to get an education denied by the wars of the previous decade. After six months he successfully learned the alphabet. He then managed to sound out words, but only truly learned to read when he picked up a bible alone and managed to make sense of the words. (The reading material his schoolmistress gave him was the Westminister Confession.)

A later master taught mathematics (King was barred from the lessons due to his untidy writing but managed to teach himself). After a brief time with a master who taught Latin, King then went to the Royal school in Dungannon when it opened in November 1662 (King was twelve). Without proficient Latin it was impossible to attend university. The order of subjects (reading, then writing, then mathematics and other subjects) seems to be the same as was taught in the later hedge schools4.

Hutcheson’s education was vastly more settled than King’s: he received the equivalent of elementary and grammar education in one school. We can imagine, given Leechman’s report of young Hutcheson’s “sweetness of temper, his great capacity and application to his learning”5, it was also more pleasant. (King was “urged…to learn with whippings” in both his first school and his second, and risked being flogged for teaching himself mathematics.) While King was proficient enough in Latin to attend Trinity College Dublin when he was almost seventeen, Hutcheson was ready for university level education at fourteen.

To become a Presbyterian minister required a degree (agreed by the General Synod of Ulster in 1691) and four years study of divinity (agreed by the General Synod in 1702). Only members of the Church of Ireland could graduate from Trinity, and while the Scottish universities were open to Dissenters, it involved travel and expense. Since the 1660s philosophy schools had been established in Ulster to provide the first three years of an arts degree. Indeed, Hutcheson’s father, John, had taught at a philosophy school in Newtownards in the 1680s 6

However, though their elementary schools seem to have been ignored, Latin schools and philosophy schools run by Dissenters faced opposition. The 1665 Act of Uniformity (17 and 18 Chas II cap. 6) required all schoolmasters obtain a licence from the local Church of Ireland bishop7. The Presbyterian synod in 1698 complained of interference with schoolmasters, possibly relating to the instructions given by William King (then Bishop of Derry) that masters of Latin schools should be put on trial, in line with the law. The philosophy school at Killyleagh also faced opposition from the Bishop of Down and Connor in the 1690s on the basis it was illegal, despite the teacher James McAlpine having had the foresight to obtain the required licence. Concern centred on the teaching of divinity. In 1705 a resolution was passed in the Irish House of Commons in Dublin condemning “instruction and education of youth in principles contrary to the Established Church and government’ 8 Regardless, Killyleagh survived until 1714 when the teacher McAlpine accepted a call to the congregation of Ballynahinch.

Leechman describes the course in Killyleagh as consisting of the “ordinary Scholastic Philosophy which was in vogue in those days” 9. Surviving lecture notes from a student, John King, support that evaluation. Those notes show that John King was proficient in Latin, could write in shorthand and could even note the odd word in Greek when he entered Killyleagh.

The academic session in Killyleagh ran from October to May. It is likely that the local minister, James Bruce (an uncle of Hutcheson’s), assisted McAlpin in managing the studies. The first year consisted of logic, laid out in a scholastic form of questions and answers, which break down into further questions and answers. As a whole the logic course attempts to define all terms and show their use. Its starting point is philosophy and the place of logic within it, moving on to the use of reason and an analysis of different disciplines.

In the notebook, metaphysics and ethics were studied in parallel. (It seems likely that was not the case for Hutcheson, since he was there for three years.) Metaphysics concentrated on the study of “being” (ontology), including issues around spirit and matter, and necessity (ie. something having to exist) and contingency (something existing only through another thing). The ethics course, unlike ethics teaching in Glasgow which used natural law theory, was based around a Christianised version of Aristotle’s moral theory, a virtue theory where the highest good aimed at was “beatitude” – an enduring peace with God10

Glasgow University 1650.

Glasgow University, 1650.  Wikimedia, Public Domain



The course was markedly different from the Glasgow curriculum and much less up-to-date, probably reflecting the course McAlpin studied in Glasgow in 1690. When Hutcheson arrived in Glasgow, his classmates who had studied under Carmichael for the previous three years had covered:11:

in logic, the Ars cogitandi or Port Royal logic, amended by the writings of John Locke and Jean Leclerc; in metaphysics, the Determinationes ontologicae et pneumatologicae of Gerard de Vries, qualified by the writings of Locke and Malebranche; in moral philosophy, Samuel Pufendorf ’s De officio hominis et civis, supplemented by the Reformed scholastic treatises of Adrien Heereboord and Francis Burgersdyck and modified by the political writings of John Locke

Somehow Hutcheson must have caught up with those three years. The Latin works on logic and metaphysics published under his name in the 1740s are very similar to the courses in Glasgow. These works were probably composed in Dublin in the 1720s for the use of his students. 12. Hutcheson explicitly acknowledges the importance of Carmichel’s teaching in the introduction to his text on moral philosophy, which bears important similarities to Carmichael’s work13

Glasgow must have been a huge change for Francis Hutcheson: a complete break from his extended family for the first time and a larger town than any he had lived in before. Hutcheson seems to have loved his time there, judging from his memories included in his Inaugural Oration when appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy in 173014:

I expected that I would be quite delighted (as indeed I am) to see again the very places where, happy, cheerful, and free of care, I once passed my days, the very buildings, the gardens, the fields, and the river banks where we used to lie.[…] How I rejoice to see these places again, where I imbibed the first elements of the inquiry after truth; where I had my first taste of the immortal sublimities of Homer and Virgil, of the charm, the felicity and dexterity, the humor and wit of Xenophon and Horace, of Aristophanes and Terence; likewise the abundant grace and dignity of Cicero in every branch of philosophy and his eloquent and vigorous contention in pleading. Here I first sought the nature and causes of virtue[…] It was here too that all these things settled deeply in my mind and developed there, after they had been often weighed in gentle, friendly converse or in free and modest debate among friends and companions, as we walked in the gardens of the university or in the lovely countryside around the city, which the Glotta washes with its gentle stream.

Even allowing for the fact one is likely to praise ones new employer, Hutcheson’s words suggest that Glasgow was where his mind was broadened, where he received much of his classical education including his favourite Cicero and where the first stirrings of philosophical enquiry were felt. Yet on the face of it the class style was not inspiring: the norm was for the lecturer to sit at his desk and read out his notes in Latin, which were then taken down by the students. (Lecturing in English was instituted by Hutcheson in 1730.) “It is little wonder that Hutcheson found refuge…in the enthusiasm of classwork done for Dunlop [the Professor of Greek]; and it is probable that to this influence may be attributed his study of Greek literature.”15.

After graduating from arts, Hutcheson moved on to study Divinity. His teacher Simson was another influence, espousing a more optimistic view of human nature and of the relationship of God and man. By the time Hutcheson left the university, he was confident enough to write to the philosopher Samuel Clarke criticising his a priori proof of God16.

Hutcheson’s education was wide-ranging: from Aristotlean virtue theory and Cicero to 17th century natural law and the latest metaphysics. All of these would play their part in his philosophical system, to be developed in Dublin where Hutcheson taught his own school.

An 18th century school interior. Rows of boys sit, each with a book. To the left the teacher sits at a desk correcting the work on one boy. To the right, two others are writing. Two small children are seated on the ground.Featured Image: Late 18th- century educational picture board from the school of Zlatá Koruna (near Český Krumlov). A school interior. Wikimedia, Public Domain.


  1. Antonia McManus (2004) The Irish Hedge School and Its Books Dublin:Four Courts Press
  2. William Robert Scott (1900) Francis Hutcheson, his life, teaching and position in the history of philosophy, pp. 6-7 (archive.org). Robert Whan (2013) The Presbyterians of Ulster, 1680-1730, p. 23
  3. William King (1908) “Quaedam Vitae Maae Insigiora” in Charles Simeon King (ed) A Great Archbishop of Dublin, William King, D.D., 1650-1729 London: Longmans, Green and Co, pp. 2-6.
  4. McManus (2004), p. 111.
  5. William Leechman (1755) “Preface” to Francis Hutcheson (1755) System of Moral Philosophy, Foulis, p. ii
  6. David Steers (2012) “‘The very life-blood of Nonconformity is education’: The Killyleagh Philosophy School, County Down”, Familia, no. 28, pp. 61-79.
  7. J. C. Beckett (2008/1948) Protestant Dissent in Ireland, London: Faber Finds, pp. 29, 40-1
  8. Steers (2012), p. 67.
  9. Leechman (1755), p. iii
  10. Steers (2012), p.
  11. James Moore (2004) “Hutcheson, Francis (1694–1746)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  12. James Moore (2006) “Introduction” in James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (eds) Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, transl. Michael Silverthorne, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (online)
  13. Francis Hutcheson (2007) Philosophiae moralis institutio compendiaria with a Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (online).
  14. Francis Hutcheson (1930/2006) “On the Natural Sociability of Mankind” in James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (eds) Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, transl. Michael Silverthorne, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (online)
  15. Scott (1900), p. 13
  16. Scott (1900) pp. 16-17
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