Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

A Selection of Quotations By and About Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)


It is surely unreasonable to ask an author whose theological works alone run to more than twenty large volumes that he be a master of style if not of concision. Priestley’s writings are often infuriatingly prolix and repetitive and while this can become a kind of virtue in the transparent honesty of Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air it does put an uncommon burden on the casual reader’s patience. Priestley tells of writing at the fireside with his children about him and, like Shakespeare (in Ben Jonson’s eyes), it sometimes seems as if “he never blotted out a line”. One can only echo Jonson’s “would he had blotted a thousand.” But for Priestley, language was a tool and a weapon and as he freely admitted “my object was not to acquire the character of a fine writer, but of an useful one.” When the occasion arose and the spirit moved Priestley could, however, be pithy or poetic, sage or savage, occasionally aphoristic though rarely witty. It is hoped that the following by no means random selection of quotations by and about Joseph Priestley may enable the reader to arrive at a plausible, but inevitably partial, portrait of this quite extraordinary man.