Our most famously neglected son

Martyn Hooper celebrates the life of Wales’ most original thinker

Richard Price is Wales’ most famously neglected son. He was hated and feared by some, while others revered him. He offered salvation to many while to others he was the devil incarnate. He was venerated by the poor and wealthy alike and admired and respected by some of the greatest scientists of his day. And yet today, outside of the insurance industry and the small group of academics who study the enlightenment, his name and achievements are largely forgotten.

Meeting to launch the Richard Price Society

A public meeting is being held this coming Saturday 24 March to establish a Society to promote the work of Dr Richard Price. It will take place at 11am at the Richard Price Centre, Llangeinor, Bridgend.

Dr. Richard Price was born at Tynton Farm in Llangeinor on 23 February 1723 in an age when people were questioning the very nature of society. No longer were people accepting a life that was, for the vast majority, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. The Divine Right of Kings was being questioned and the structure and function of society was subject to the type of scrutiny that had never been examined before. This was the age that would see the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution where science would meet agriculture and go on to transform industry.  Society in all its forms would change rapidly due to new ideas and inventions – and Richard Price was to play a large part in bringing about those changes.

Believing that any time spent away from his calling as a preacher, it is remarkable that Richard Price could have found time to contribute to the intellectual life of the 18th Century at all. But he did somehow find time to contribute to the foundations of what would become the modern world to the extent that when he rode his half blind pony through Covent Garden, the costermongers would clear a path for him – he was a major celebrity of his time.

Richard Price’s contribution to the 18th Century can be seen in three separate areas:

  • There was his contribution to the great questions surrounding theology, especially those relating to morals.  Price believed that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were distinct notions that couldn’t be compromised. Consequently his works predate Kant, who said much the same thing, by some thirty years. His works on ethics alone should have guaranteed that his name would live on and be remembered long after his death in 1791. Yet beyond a small group of theologians his name has been forgotten, even though his theory of what constitutes a right action underpins the way in which democratic governments are supposed to behave, even to this day. So well received was his work on morals that he was awarded his Doctorate by a Scottish college.
  • It is due to Price answering correctly the questions posed by Thomas Bayes that we have everything from a sound insurance industry to the possibility of creating true artificial intelligence and the ability to predict the likelihood of events happening.  One singular mathematical work that had been started by Bayes and finished by Price led to him being elected to the Royal Society – something quite remarkable when you consider that, because he was not a member of the Church of England, he was unable to attend any University.
  • It was Price’s writings on the American and later French Revolutions for which he was most notorious. As one writer has put it, he was the “first and original Left Wing Intellectual”.  Marx referred to him in both favourable and unfavourable terms in das Capital. To the French Revolutionaries he was the “Apostle of Freedom” and he was asked by the newly formed United States Government to become an American citizen and take charge of all aspects of the fledgling country’s finances – which he declined citing his age.  He was spied upon, may have been recruited as a spy and was at one point in grave danger of being assassinated as he was regarded not as a friend of freedom but a dangerous radical who was as treacherous as he was famous.  He was a regular and welcome visitor to No. 10 and regular callers to his home included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Pitt the Younger, along with David Hume and Adam Smith. Yale University awarded an honorary doctorate on the same day as George Washington.

Price’s view of the world, and the way in which governments should conduct themselves, is as important today as it was in the 18th Century.  He would have strong views on the revolutions that have taken place in the past year and he would consider today’s National Debt as not only being financially disastrous but also nothing less than evil and the result of a lack of morality among politicians.

Richard Price deserves to take his place among the revered and famous names of those who have contributed to the evolution of society which is, hopefully, better than the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short way which was the norm at the time of his birth. We now have ‘responsible government’ which is answerable, in some form, to us. And we live in a society where we have rights that are guaranteed by law and where discrimination due to class, race, gender and sexual orientation is not only outlawed but seen by the vast majority of people as abhorrent. We may not live in a perfect society, but it is a society far more lenient and open than the one in which Richard Price lived. It is because of his ideas, vision and values that we can claim to live in a free and fair society.

Martyn Hooper is Chairman of the Pernicious Anaemia Society

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