George Mackenzie is the only Stoic philosopher I know of to have acquired a reputation as an evil poltergeist. Many tourists, often under the auspices of ghost-tour enterprises, visit the Grayfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Scotland where his mausoleum – and the nearby prison space for his enemies the Covenanters – are located. Many report that they feel chills, or even get scratched by some invisible entity, who is duly described at the “Mackenzie Poltergeist.” Mackenzie’s wicked spirit has even been blamed for setting fires in properties near the kirkyard.
But whatever the poltergeist may be, if it exists, I am not aware of any proof that it’s George Mackenzie. Let us go on another kind of “ghost hunt,” looking for the real George Mackenzie and his significant if controversial contributions to Stoicism – as author, statesman, jurist, defender of alleged witches and foe of Presbyterians. George Mackenzie was born in 1636, but perhaps the real year was 1638. Born in Dundee, George went to Aberdeen University and studied law in Bourges, France.
In Edinburgh, around the time of Charles II’s restoration to the throne, Mackenzie became a lawyer. He also published a bad novel, Aretina. He married in 1662. The young lawyer promptly received an important assignment from the royal government. The prisons were filling to bursting with suspected witches. Doubtful of many of these accusations but determined to clear the court dockets, the Privy Council sent Mackenzie and others as judges into the supposedly witch-plagued areas to resolve the numerous charges. Mackenzie examined witchcraft cases in Lothian where men and women – but mostly women – had been kept in prison in dismal conditions, and often subjected to illegal torture (for legal torture, see below). One woman told Mackenzie that she had confessed to being a witch because, locked up and deserted by everyone, she had despaired of her life and confessed in hopes she would be executed. Mackenzie helped release innocent suspects, and the skepticism of royal officials like Mackenzie helped stop the witch-panic.
Mackenzie unsuccessfully represented the Duke of Argyll, an alleged traitor from the period of the civil wars, and did his best though he and his colleagues faced possible treason charges themselves if they were overzealous. Agryll was executed – but at least the lawyers were spared.
In 1663, while busy with his legal practice, Mackenzie published Religio Stoici, With a Friendly Addresse to the Phanaticks of all Sects and Sorts. The “phanaticks” Mackenzie had in mind were the ultra-Presbyterians, many of them “Covenanters” who wanted to establish a Presbyterian polity, at least in Scotland (and ideally in England and Ireland as well). This agenda put the Presbyterians at odds with King Charles, who imposed an episcopal form of church government – a Protestant church managed by royally-appointed bishops. The Presbyterians wanted the church governed by meetings of pious ministers and elders independent of (and potentially hostile to) the king.
In addition to the turbulence of the late civil wars, Mackenzie may have been influenced, in his views of the “phanaticks,” by the recent witch-panic, when Presbyterian ministers would often meet with the suspects in prison and pressure them to admit having dealings with the devil.
Human beings were so arrogant, wrote Mackenzie in Religio Stoici, that they would be inclined to be atheists, had not a “natural instinct” made men acknowledge a God higher than themselves. Mackenzie quoted an unnamed “wise Stoick” as declaring that “it were impossible to live in a world void of God, and void of providence.” The Stoics were “were in all pro[ba]bility a tribe of John Baptist’s,” preparing the way for Christ. “And certainly, if men had disbanded that execrable troup of Lusts, against which [the Stoics] preached, and had listnd (as the Stoicks Book of Discipline enjoyned) to their own private consciences, and had by retiredness abstracted themselves from the reach of temptations, it had facilitated much their conversion.” Stoicism could have taught the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22) to despise riches, and would have led the rich Dives to avoid the gluttony which brought him to hell (Luke 16:19-31). Nicodemus (John 3:2-21), if he had been a Stoic, would have approached Jesus publicly, not secretly, despite the risk of punishment – the Stoic “doctrine might have taught [Nicodemus], that fear was a passion unworthy to be lodged in the soul of man: And that there is nothing here [on earth] which a man either should, or needeth, to fear.” (pp. 2, 10, 12-13, 15-16).
Why, Mackenzie wondered, were ultra-Presbyterians so obsessed with the details of regulating religion? God’s “decrees of saving or damning [the world’s] citizens, is a trade we shall never be able to practice: why should we have such an itch to understand it?” Mackenzie rejected the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination by which man had no choice in whether he was saved or damned. To Mackenzie it was more consistent both with Christianity and Stoicism to view creation as comparable to a watch – the maker (God) allowed it the most part to run on, while intervening occasionally to fix it (miracles). To the Stoic, such a doctrine fits best with good philosophy, “because it pulls the hand of the sluggard from his bosome, and sets them awork to prepare for himself, and not to repose his unreasonable hopes upon divine providence.” (pp. 21, 27, 31-33) (William Paley’s much-abused watch would be invoked for a different purpose than Mackenzie’s timepiece).
“These embodyed angels; the Stoicks,” recognized that mere fortune and fate could not be resisted, so they “slighted” fortune” and “submitted to” fate, thus gaining “a calmness of spirit” in spite of “external accidents.” (p. 36) So Mackenzie’s views of free will seemed complicated, but in any case were opposed to those of the Presbyterians.
Despite superficial differences, wrote Mackenzie, all Christians were of “one religion,” and “Speculations in Religion are not so necessary, and are more dangerous than sincere practice.” Believers should have faith in Christ and do good deeds, and as for those details “not absolutely necessary to being saved” people should recognize whichever practices were imposed by law in the established church. (pp. 40-45, 51-52, 86-87, 141)
Mackenzie appeared to depart a little from Stoicism in a book he first published in 1665, in which he urged the readers to shun public life and live in rural solitude. While there were Senecan precedents for philosophical retirement, especially for elderly philosophers and those facing a government they could not in good conscience work for (Margaret Graves and A. A. Long (ed. and trans), Seneca Letters on Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 70, 71, 74, 79, 80, 204, 539-40), Mackenzie seemed to go further, praising retirement for its own sake. Almost as a reluctant concession, Mackenzie allowed for public service for those summoned to duty for their country, but rejected government service as a life plan (Mackenzie, Solitude, 103-06). In all this, Mackenzie seemed to come closer to the Epicureans, with their distrust of public life, than to the Stoics (Eugene O’Connor, ed. and trans., The Essential Epicurus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), 64-66, 71, 72, 81, 83, 84, 101). But if Mackenzie was Epic-curious, it did not keep him out of public life.
Returning to more recognizably Stoic themes in his 1667 book Moral Gallantry, Mackenzie sought to appeal to the nobles and gentry of Scotland with the argument that virtue was honorable and that vice was “mean” (dishonorable). The nobles had a strong sense of aristocratic honor, but Mackenzie complained this was a mistaken idea of honor, where the nobles contended for position and lived grandly at their creditors’ expense. To bring the nobles into a more correct sense of honor, Mackenzie proposed not to merely repeat Stoic precepts, but to show how these precepts fit with the nobles’ own aristocratic prejudices. Not only could the nobles themselves be led down the path to virtue, the lower orders would be encouraged to follow the nobles’ example. (pp. 16-17, 19)
Here is Mackenzie’s argument against vindictiveness, aimed at an aristocratic audience: “It is one of the most picquant revenges to undervalue our enemies so far, as not to think them worth our noticeing.” (pp. 130-31)
Similarly, virtue would help a nobleman seeking political advancement. Who would “cabal” with an untrustworthy man? Fame could best be attained by virtuous deeds – “who can so justly expect universal praise, as these who design universal advantage?” (pp. 33, 36, 38, 112-13)
Vice involved the most un-aristocratic failing imaginable: “fear…that unmanly passion.” A brave man would rather suffer than be a coward or a liar. (pp. 46-47, 56-57)
More vices were listed, as well as their “mean” attributes: vanity (falsehood), envy (sneakiness), Adultery and fornication (earning criticism from one’s own servants), greed (serving riches, even though a man’s riches should be his servant) (pp. 49-50, 60-61, 64, 82-88, 118-21).
Mackenzie gave considerable attention to the vice of drunkenness, which he seemed to consider a particular problem with the nobility. Proof that drunken carousing was “mean” was that nobles were afraid to be seen at their revels by their own servants, and that the expense of drunken parties wasted the reveler’s estate. (pp. 102-08)
Don’t be arrogant in good fortune or angry when fortune deserts you, Mackenzie advised his readers, because it is “more gallant to bear adversity with a generous courage, than to be a fool or flattered by prosperity, which vanquishes as oft, those for whom, as those against whom, it fights.” Don’t be proud of “Estates and Territories,” since Pompey gave kingdoms to his slaves “yet Epictetus, who was a slave, is more admired, than” Pompey. Any man has the world and the “glorious heavens” available to him, while “the meanest beggar pours out his excrements” on the estates of the wealthy. (pp. 121-22)
Mackenzie reached an unadorned Stoic conclusion: “Vertue and true Honor teacheth us to subject our interest to our selves, and puts it in our own power to make our selves happy.” If you “brave” suffering, you show that only guilt can make you tremble, not the vicissitudes of fortune. (pp. 129 ff.)
Mackenzie served for a while in the Scottish Parliament (Scotland and England had a common king but separate Parliaments). Here Mackenzie was part of the opposition group centered around the Duke of Hamilton. Being in the opposition in this Parliament generally involved being part of an ineffectual minority, protesting royal measures. Mackenzie protested unfair taxes and tax policies, royal monopolies on salt, brandy and tobacco, and unjust court procedures. When the Parliament approved negotiations for a Union between England and Scotland, Mackenzie vainly sought safeguards to prevent England from swallowing up its poorer neighbor in any Union deal. (Negotiations were in any case dropped and no Union would be agreed to until 1707, after Mackenzie’s death).
The Earl of Lauderdale, the King’s minister in Scotland, pursued a double-minded policy regarding the Presbyterians. On the one hand, some royally-approved Presbyterian clergy were allowed to minister to their congregations. But without such an “indulgence,” preachers and laity who defied the bishops faced the government’s wrath. Illegal Presbyterian meetings were styled “Conventicles” and subject to punishment. Landlords who allowed their tenants to attend conventicles faced fines, while the ministers and parishioners faced forced labor in the Crown’s overseas colonies.
Mackenzie continued to deplore the religious divisions of his country. About 200 Presbyterian ministers had been purged in the early 1660s, and, as Mackenzie saw it, this had unnecessarily alienated the parishioners and “join’d them all in one common discontent.” Mackenzie still saw some good signs in the religious gloom, as Robert Leighton, bishop of Dunblane and then archbishop of Glasgow, “drew many into Episcopacy, by his exemplary life, rather than debates….His great principle was, that devotion was the great affair about which churchmen should employ themselves; and that the gaining of souls, and not the external government, was their proper talk” (Mackenzie, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland, pp. 77-78, 161-62). Leighton seemed to embody the religious broad-mindedness Mackenzie had preached in Religio Stoici. Sadly for Mackenzie’s hopes, there were not a lot of Leightons prominent on either side.
The Pentland Rising, a Covenanter revolt in 1666, was suppressed, and several participants were tried for treason. Mackenzie was the lawyer for some of the defendants, and asked the court to spare the rebels’ lives because they had allegedly been promised to be spared if they surrendered. No such consideration was granted, and Mackenzie’s clients were executed.
In 1668, after the death of his first wife and some of his children, an ailing Mackenzie wrote a friend about his remaining children’s inheritance if he died. “Think me not apprehensive but cautious in this,” he wrote, “for truly I fear not death now in the least. My thoughts are, God be praised, very much of my Maker, and I live as much out of duty as inclination” (Lang, 77-78). He remarried soon thereafter, and acquired the lands of Rosehaugh, which gave him a title as well.
In the mid-1670s, Mackenzie went over from the opposition to support of the royal government. Such switches of allegiance were common in Restoration-era politics, and raised suspicions of opportunism. Were such suspicions fair to Mackenzie? Let us look at his own account of how he came to switch. The chief royal minister in Scotland, Lauderdale, agreed to free Scotland from the onerous monopolies on brandy, salt, and tobacco, but Mackenzie claims to have been shocked to find that the Opposition did not welcome this move, being more interested in using the issue of the monopoly to get Lauderdale out of power than in actually alleviating the burdens of the people.
Mackenzie also alleged a personal betrayal by his opposition friends. Along with other lawyers in Scotland, he wanted the Scottish Parliament, not the king’s courts, to have final jurisdiction in law cases. But King Charles banned parliamentary appeals. While the Scottish lawyers were figuring out how to deal with this development, Mackenzie claims he discovered a plot to break solidarity and leave him (Mackenzie) to suffer alone in the controversy. Opposition figures were supposedly implicated in this betrayal. Mackenzie decided to accept the king’s order regarding appeals – Mackenzie believed it was appropriate to submit to his legitimate king. Fear of civil war was in the air, and Mackenzie thus had another reason to drift into the government’s orbit, given his hatred of fratricidal conflict. Mackenzie grew friendlier with Lauderdale until the latter had Mackenzie appointed as King’s Advocate – roughly the Attorney General or chief prosecutor of Scotland – in 1677.
A year into his new job, Mackenzie published The laws and customes of Scotland, in matters criminal, which became an influential legal commentary. In the section of the book dealing with witchcraft, Mackenzie made use of the knowledge he had acquired as a judge in witchcraft cases and from reading historical accounts of other witchcraft trials. He said witchcraft did in fact exist – after all, both the Bible and the Scottish criminal code prohibited it – but “from the horridness of this Crime, I do conclude, that of all Crimes it requires the clearest relevancy, and most convincing probation. And I condemn, next to the witches themselves, these cruel and too forward judges who burn persons by the thousand as guilty of this crime.” Mackenzie deplored abuses such as mass arrests, supervision of the trial process by people without legal training, the illegal torture of suspects, and unduly-credulous acceptance of confessions potentially produced by torture or despair. Mackenzie censured the “Prickers” who offered to stick pins into suspects’ flesh, in hopes of discovering a “devil’s mark.” The whole thing was a “meer cheat,” said Mackenzie, citing a “Pricker” who had been arrested for unrelated crimes and admitted that his supposed expertise was bogus. (pp. 91-92)
Mackenzie also called for rejection of any testimony about witches supposedly changing shape or flying through the air, which he proclaimed impossible (without God’s assistance, which of course would not be afforded to witches). (pp. 80 ff) Putting his teachings into practice, Mackenzie, on the government’s behalf, dismissed charges against four alleged witches in 1680. It is likely that the influence of Mackenzie’s treatise contributed to the abatement of Scottish witch-panics.
The Episcopalian-versus-Presbyterian issue came to a head after Mackenzie took office, and the new King’s Advocate gave his support to the government’s policy of repression. The militant Presbyterians increasingly met in menacing outdoor Conventicles, bearing arms to fend off government attackers. Mackenzie recalled later that dignitaries in the rebellion-prone west advised that the only way to peacefully address the problem in the region was by abolishing the Episcopal establishment. To Mackenzie and the government, thus “Sacrificing the Laws to the Humours [whims] and Passions of private Men” would be to embolden the Presbyterians with concessions, going down the road which had led the previous king (Charles I) to surrender his prerogative and then lose his head (Mackenzie, A Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of Charles II, p. 12). Mackenzie considered the Presbyterian “fanaticks” dangerous on political not theological grounds, given their devotion to the Covenant to impose Presbyterianism by force. And now they were meeting in arms to defy the established order, threatening a renewal of civil war.
To subdue the discontented areas by force, the government sent soldiers from the Highlands to live on the property of dissenting landlords. Persistent dissenters were again sent to the colonies. A radical faction of Covenanters, known as Cameronians, declared war on the government, and an assassination plot led to the killing of Archbishop James Sharp of Glasgow. Goaded into rebellion, the Covenanters were defeated with the help of English troops at the June 21, 1679 battle of Bothwell Bridge.
About 1,400 prisoners from this battle were brought to Edinburgh, and held for trial in a portion of what later became Grayfriars Kirkyard. The prisoners were held on huts, where conditions were, says historian Ian B. Cowan, “almost” better than conditions in regular prisons (Cowan, pp. 99-102). The prisoners were held during the summer months, not for the lengthy periods Mackenzie had earlier observed with witchcraft suspects. All but 300 pledged not to rebel again and were released. The stubborn 300 were put on a ship for servitude in Barbados, but the prison ship sank in Scottish waters and fewer than 40 people survived.
Mackenzie obtained an opinion from the leading judges of Scotland that anyone suspected of supporting the Cameronian terrorists could be ordered to disavow the group’s pro-assassination manifesto on pain of death. By this procedure, soldiers sometimes shot defiant Cameronians on the spot – earning this era the sobriquet of the “Killing Times.” Even if Presbyterian dissenters did not belong to the small Cameronian sect, fines and colonial servitude were still invoked. Mackenzie superintended the prosecution of several defendants in murder and treason cases during this period, and his biographer Andrew Lang found that the King’s Advocate sometimes cut legal corners to get convictions, and in several instances went along with the torture of suspects (Lang, pp. 194-202, 235-74). To be legal, torture required the approval of the Scottish Parliament or Privy Council. There were only 39 approved uses of torture in the 100-year period ending in 1690, and Mackenzie shared responsibility for some of this handful.
Donald Cargil, the only surviving Cameronian minister, published a decree in September 1680 purporting to excommunicate King Charles and his Scottish ministers, including Mackenzie. In describing the crimes for which Mackenzie was “deliver[ed] up to Satan,” Cargil not only listed the persecution of “the people of God,” but also Mackenzie’s “pleading for Sorcerers, Murderers, and other Criminals.” Finally, Cargil’s proclamation condemned Mackenzie “for his ungodly, erroneous, phantastick and blasphemous Tenets printed to the world in his Pamphlets and Pasquills” – in other words, Mackenzie’s published works (Cargil, pp. 15-16). Mackenzie may be the only Stoic author to be put on the equivalent of a religious hit list for his books (Cargil was executed in 1681).
1684 marked the publication of two treatises by Mackenzie. There was The institutions of the law of Scotland, which would become another of Mackenzie’s influential legal treatises. The other 1684 work was Jus Regium, a defense of monarchical government, opposing Presbyterian theorists who justified revolt against kings. Mackenzie wrote that neither the people nor the Kirk (Church) could hold the king accountable for alleged wrongdoing – only God could do that. Mackenzie acknowledged that there was a danger that a king might be a tyrant, though the fear of rebellion (even though rebellion was always wrong) might keep a tyrant in check. In any case, it was better to submit prayerfully to the rule of a tyrannical king than to rebel and bring on the far worse evils of civil war. Mackenzie also defended the unqualified right of the Catholic James Duke of York, brother to King Charles (who had no legitimate children) to inherit the crown.
With Charles’ death in 1685, the Duke of York became King James VII (known as James II in England). Mackenzie lost his job in 1686 when, along with the Scots Parliament, he refused to let Catholics worship openly or hold office, as the Catholic James wanted. While back at work as a private lawyer, Mackenzie represented several clients accused of participating as rebels at Bothwell Bridge, and got all but one acquitted. Then Mackenzie got his government job back, only to lose it again as William of Orange, military leader of the Dutch, invaded England and provoked a revolt against James in Scotland as well. When a Scottish revolutionary convention declared William III the new king, Mackenzie was one of a handful who attended the convention and voted against the measure. Since Mackenzie was hearing rumors of his own planned assassination, and was in any case anxious about suffering retaliatory prosecution from his enemies under a change of regime, his opposition vote took some courage.
But Mackenzie thought it the better part of valor to leave Scotland altogether after the convention, posting letters on the way to prominent people – avowing his peaceful intentions toward the new order of things. He feared retaliation from the enemies he had made as King’s Advocate: “I punisht crimes but committed none & yet I will not return [to Scotland] till things be setld, for others may want [lack] justice tho’ I want not innocencie” (Lang, 303). He even professed a willingness to live in Holland – the home ground of the new king – but he ended up stopping at the University of Oxford, England, instead – an institution sympathetic to monarchists like himself.
Mackenzie had finally reached the quiet retirement he had preached in the mid-1660s. Far from being idle, he took up his pen to write his two final published works. First was A Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of Charles II – Mackenzie blamed the Presbyterian Covenanters as the aggressors (see, e. g., pp. 3-4, 8-9, 25-26). Finally Mackenzie wrote one more Stoic work, published just after his death in 1691. The Moral History of Frugality urged readers to be content with what wealth they had, and if they had a large amount, to use it to help others. Mackenzie observed that frugality had been praised by the Stoics, Pythagoras, “and even Epicurus himself.” This providentially paved the way for Christ, since the pagan public grew accustomed to the pagan philosophers’ objections to the sins Christ condemned. Mackenzie commended the Quakers as exemplars of frugality. Luxury – living large and buying vanities for oneself – was a vice which harmed the public. “I think there would be no Poor were it not for luxury and Avarice, for all would have somewhat, and none would have too much.” (pp. 12-13, 25-27, 84, 95) So Mackenzie’s parting advice, as he left this world, was to live simply so that others could simply live. Curious behavior for an alleged future poltergeist.
- Donald Cargil, Torwood Excommunication (Posthumously published 1741, no place of publication given)
- Ian B. Cowan, The Scottish Covenanters 1660-1688 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1976)
- Epicurus (Eugene O’Connor, ed. and trans.), The Essential Epicurus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993)
- Andrew Lang, Sir George Mackenzie King’s Advocate, of Rosehaugh His Life and Times 1636(?)-1691 (London: Longman’s, Green and Company, 1909)
- The works of George Mackenzie can be found by doing a bibliographic search at Early English Books Online, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebogroup/
- George Mackenzie, Institutions of the Laws of Scotland (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1684)
- ____, Jus regium, or, The just, and solid foundations of monarchy in general, and more especially of the monarchy of Scotland : maintain’d against Buchannan, Naphthali, Dolman, Milton, &c. (Edinburgh: 1684)
- ___, The laws and customes of Scotland, in matters criminal wherein is to be seen how the civil law, and the laws and customs of other nations do agree with, and supply ours (Edinburgh: James Glen, 1678)
- ___, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland from the Accession of King Charles II (Edinburgh, 1821 (posthumous)
- ___, A Moral Essay, Preferring Solitude to Public Employment, and all it’s Appanages, such as fame, Command, Riches, Pleasure, Conversation, &c. (Edinburgh: Robert Brown, 1666 [2nd edition]), in George Mackenzie, John Evelyn, Brian Vickers (ed.), Public and Private Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Mackenzie-Evelyn Debate (Delmar, NY: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1986), 1-122
- ___, The Moral History of Frugality (London: Printed for J. Hindmarsh, 1691)
- ___, Moral Gallantry, a discourse, wherein the author endeavors to prove, that point of honor (abstracting from all other tyes) oblige ment o be virtuous and that there is nothing so mean (or unworthy of a gentle mind) as vice. Edinburgh: Printed for Robert Brown, 1667
- ___, Religio Stoici (Edinburgh: R. Broun, 1665
- ___, A Vindication of the Government in Scotland, During the Reign of Charles II. Against Misrepresentations in Several Scandalous Pamphlets (Edinburgh: James Watson, 1712 [reprint of 1691 London edition])
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Margaret Graves and A. A. Long, ed. and trans), Seneca Letters on Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician, For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War, and numerous articles in print and online.