‘Orientalist Jones’: Sir William Jones, Poet, Lawyer, and Linguist, 1746-1794

Thomas Keymer writes:

Sir William Jones, the Enlightenment polymath who established the shared origins of Indo-European languages and cultures, certainly didn’t lack a capacity for big vision. But he was also keen on details, with no time for broad-brush talk about the seven ages of man. He was 47 – still in Jaques’s fifth age (‘And then the justice … with eyes severe’) – when he died in 1794, in the fancy Calcutta suburb of Garden Reach. Two decades earlier he had drawn up a more fine-grained scale of his own, which he called the ‘Andrometer’. This had 63 points, starting with the Lockean blankness of a newborn child (‘Ideas received through the senses’) and ending in septuagenarian piety (‘Preparation for eternity’). Jones didn’t mean, his first biographer, Baron Teignmouth, nervously added, that we shouldn’t be preparing for eternity the whole time. But it was secular immortality he really had in view as he worked his way through the demanding regime of intellectual and practical attainments laid out in the Andrometer. One thing drove him above all: ‘Glory I shall pursue,’ he told a Hungarian colleague in 1771, ‘through fire and water, by night and by day.’

(LRB 9 May 2013)