MartinFrost.ws index page
Birth: April 26, 1711 (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Death: August 25, 1776 (Edinburgh, Scotland)
School/tradition: British Empiricism/Scottish Enlightenment
Main interests: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Mind, Ethics, Politics, Aesthetics, Religion
Notable ideas: Problem of causation, Is-ought problem
Influenced: Locke, Berkeley, Hutcheson, Newton Kant, Bentham, Darwin, Russell
David Hume (April 26, 1711 – August 25, 1776)
David Hume another biography
HEADS OF AN INDICTMENT LAID BY J. J. ROUSSEAU, PHILOSOPHER. AGAINST D. HUME, Esq.
David Hume (April 26, 1711 – August 25, 1776) was a philosopher and historian from Scotland. Along with Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, Hume was one of the most important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Many regard Hume as the third and most radical of the so-called British Empiricists, after the English John Locke and the Anglo-Irish George Berkeley.
Historians most famously see Humean philosophy as a thoroughgoing form of Scepticism, but many commentators have argued that the element of naturalism has no less importance in Hume's philosophy. Hume scholarship has tended to oscillate over time between those who emphasize the sceptical side of Hume (such as Reid, Greene, and the logical positivists), and those who emphasize the naturalist side (such as Don Garrett, Norman Kemp Smith, Kerri Skinner, Barry Stroud, and Galen Strawson). Hume was heavily influenced by empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley, along with various Francophone writers such as Pierre Bayle, and various figures on the Anglophone intellectual landscape such as Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and Joseph Butler.
- Ideas and impressions
- The problem of causation
- The problem of induction
- The bundle theory of the self
- Practical reason: instrumentalism and nihilism
- Moral anti-realism and motivation
- Free will versus determinism
- The is-ought problem
- The problem of miracles
- The design argument
- Conservatism and political theory
3 . Works
4 . Quotes
By his own account, Hume "was born the 26th April 1711, old style calendar, at Edinburgh". From time to time throughout is life, he repaired to the family home at Ninewells by Chirnside, Berwickshire, Scotland. He attended Edinburgh University from the age of twelve. At first he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his words, "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning."
He did some self-study in France, where he also completed ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’ at the age of twenty-six. Although many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy, the public in Britain did not at first agree. Hume himself described the (lack of) public reaction to the publication of the Treatise in 1739–40 by writing that the book "fell dead-born from the press."
After a few years of service to various political and military figures, Hume went back to his studies. After deciding that the Treatise had problems of style rather than of content, he reworked some of the material for more popular consumption in ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. It did not prove extremely successful either but was more successful than the Treatise.
Hume failed to gain chairs of philosophy in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, probably due to charges of atheism, and to the opposition of one of his chief critics, Thomas Reid. However, between philosophical pursuits, Hume did achieve literary fame as an essayist and historian. Attention to his works grew after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumber" (circa 1770).
Critics of religion during Hume's time needed to express themselves cautiously. Less than 15 years before Hume was born, an 18-year-old college student was put on trial for saying openly that he thought Christianity was nonsense, was convicted and hanged for blasphemy. Hume followed the common practice of expressing his views obliquely, through characters in dialogues. Hume did not acknowledge authorship of Treatise until the year of his death, in 1776. His Two Essays ("Of Suicide", "Of the Immortality of the Soul") and ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ were held from publication until after his death (published 1778 and 1779, respectively), and they still bore neither author's nor publisher's name. So masterful was Hume in disguising his own views that debate continues to this day over whether Hume was actually a deist or an atheist.
Though Hume wrote in the 18th century, his work seems still uncommonly relevant in the philosophical disputes of today compared to that of his contemporaries. A summary of some of Hume's most influential work in philosophy might include the following::
Ideas and impressions
Hume believed that all human knowledge comes to us through our senses. Our perceptions, as he called them, can be divided into two categories: ideas and impressions. He defines these terms thus in his ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’: "By the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned." He further specifies ideas, saying, "It seems a proposition, which will not admit of much dispute, that all our ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses." This forms an important aspect of Hume's scepticism, for he says that we cannot be certain a thing, such as God, a soul, or a self, exists unless we can point out the impression from which the idea of the thing is derived.
The problem of causation
When one event continually follows after another, most people think that a connection between the two events makes the second event follow from the first. Hume challenged this belief in the first book of his ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ and later in his ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. He noted that although we do perceive the one event following the other, we don't perceive any necessary connection between the two. And according to his sceptical epistemology, we can only trust the knowledge that we acquire from our perceptions. Hume asserted that our idea of causation consists in little more than expectation for certain events to result after other events that precede them. Such a lean conception robs causation of all its force, and some later Humeans like Bertrand Russell have dismissed the notion of causation altogether as something akin to superstition. But this defies common sense, thereby creating the problem of causation – what justifies our belief in a causal connection and what kind of connection can we have knowledge of? – a problem which has no accepted solution. Hume held that we (and other animals) have an instinctive belief in causation based on the development of habits in our nervous system, a belief that we cannot eliminate, but which we cannot prove true through any argument, deductive or inductive, just as is the case with regard to our belief in the reality of the external world.
For relevant contemporary work, see Beauchamp and Rosenberg's Hume and the Problem of Causation and Wesley Salmon Causality and Explanation.
The problem of induction
Main article: Problem of induction
Most of us think that the past acts as a reliable guide to the future. For example, physicists' laws of planetary orbits work for describing past planetary behaviour, so we presume that they'll work for describing future planetary behaviour as well. But how can we justify this presumption – the principle of induction? Hume suggested two possible justifications and rejected them both:
The first justification states that, as a matter of logical necessity, the future must resemble the past. But, Hume pointed out, we can conceive of a chaotic, erratic world where the future has nothing to do with the past – or, more tamely, a world just like ours right up until the present, at which point things change completely. So nothing makes the principle of induction logically necessary.
The second justification, more modestly, appeals only to the past reliability of induction – it's always worked before, so it will probably continue to work. But, Hume pointed out, this justification uses circular reasoning, justifying induction by an appeal that requires induction to gain any force.
The problem of justifying induction remains with us. Hume seems to hold the view that we (as well as other animals) have an instinct-like belief that the future will resemble the past based on the development of habits in our nervous system, a belief that we cannot eliminate but which we cannot prove true by any kind of argument, deductive or inductive, just as is the case with regard to our belief in the reality of the external world.
For relevant contemporary work, see Richard Swinburne's compilation ‘The Justification of Induction’.
The bundle theory of the self
We tend to think that we are the same person we were five years ago. Though we've changed in many respects, the same person appears present as was present then. We might start thinking about which features can be changed without changing the underlying self. Hume, however, denies that there is a distinction between the various features of a person and the mysterious self that supposedly bears those features. After all, Hume pointed out, when you start introspecting, you notice a bunch of thoughts and feelings and perceptions and such, but you never perceive any substance you could call "the self". So as far as we can tell, Hume concludes, there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions. Note in particular that, on Hume's view, these perceptions do not belong to anything. Rather, Hume compares the soul to a commonwealth, which retains its identity not by virtue of some enduring core substance, but by being composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements. The question of personal identity then becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion of one's personal experience. (Note that in the Appendix to the Treatise, Hume said mysteriously that he was dissatisfied with his account of the self, and yet he never returned to the issue!)
For relevant contemporary work, see Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons.
Practical reason: instrumentalism and nihilism
Most of us find some behaviours more reasonable than others. Eating aluminium foil, for example, seems to have something unreasonable about it. But Hume denied that reason has any important role in motivating or discouraging behaviour. After all, reason is just a sort of calculator of concepts and experience. What ultimately matters, Hume said, is how we feel about the behaviour. His work is now associated with the doctrine of instrumentalism, which states that an action is reasonable if and only if it serves the agent's goals and desires, whatever they be. Reason can enter the picture only as a lackey, informing the agent of useful facts concerning which actions will serve his goals and desires, but never deigning to tell the agent which goals and desires he should have. So, if you want to eat aluminium foil, reason will tell you where to find the stuff, and there's nothing unreasonable about eating it or even wanting to do so (unless, of course, one has a stronger desire for health or the appearance of sensibility). Today, however, many commentators argue that Hume actually went a step further to nihilism and said there's nothing unreasonable about deliberately frustrating your own goals and desires ("I want to eat aluminium foil, so let me wire my mouth shut"). Such behaviour would surely be highly irregular, granting reason no role at all, but it would not be contrary to reason, which is impotent to make judgments in this domain.
For relevant contemporary work, see Jean Hampton's The Authority of Reason and David Schmidtz's Rational Choice and Moral Agency.
Moral anti-realism and motivation
Drawing on his attack on reason's role in judging behaviour, Hume argues that immoral behaviour is not immoral by being against reason. He first claims that moral beliefs are intrinsically motivating – if you believe killing is wrong, you will be ipso facto motivated not to kill and to criticize killing and so on (moral internalism). He then reminds us that reason alone can motivate nothing – reason discovers matters of fact and logic, and it depends on our desires and preferences whether apprehension of those truths will motivate us. Consequently, reason alone cannot yield moral beliefs. Hume proposed that morality ultimately rests upon sentiment, with reason only paving the way for our sensitive judgments by analysis of the moral matter in question. This argument against founding morality on reason is now one in the stable of moral anti-realist arguments; Humean philosopher John Mackie argued that, for moral facts to be real facts about the world and, at the same time, intrinsically motivating, they would have to be very weird facts. So we have every reason not to believe in them.
For relevant contemporary work, see J. L. Mackie's Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Mackie's Hume's Moral Theory, David Brink's ‘Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics’, and Michael Smith's ‘The Moral Problem’.
Free will versus determinism
Just about everyone has noticed the apparent conflict between free will and determinism – if your actions were determined to happen billions of years ago, then how can they be up to you? But Hume noted another conflict, one that turned the problem of free will into a full-fledged dilemma: free will is incompatible with indeterminism. Imagine that your actions are not determined by what events came before. Then your actions are, it seems, completely random. Moreover, and most importantly for Hume, they are not determined by your character – your desires, your preferences, your values, etc. How can we hold someone responsible for an action that did not result from his character? How can we hold someone responsible for an action that randomly occurred? Free will seems to require determinism, because otherwise, the agent and the action wouldn't be connected in the way required of freely chosen actions. So now, nearly everyone believes in free will, free will seems inconsistent with determinism, and free will seems to require determinism. Hume's view is that human behaviour, like everything else, is caused, and therefore holding people responsible for their actions should focus on rewarding them or punishing them in such a way that they will try to do what is morally desirable and will try to avoid doing what is morally reprehensible. (See also Compatibilism.)
For a relevant contemporary work, see Daniel C. Dennett's Freedom Evolves.
The ‘is-ought’ problem
Hume noted that many writers talk about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is (is-ought problem). But there seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (what is) and prescriptive statements (what ought to be). Hume calls for writers to be on their guard against changing the subject in this way without giving an explanation of how the ought-statements are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'? That question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible. (Others interpret Hume as saying not that one cannot go from a factual statement to an ethical statement, but that one cannot do so without going through human nature, that is, without paying attention to human sentiments.) G. E. Moore defended a similar position with his "open question argument", intending to refute any identification of moral properties with natural properties—the so-called "naturalistic fallacy".
It was probably Hume who, along with his fellow members of the Scottish Enlightenment, first advanced the idea that the explanation of moral principles is to be sought in the utility they tend to promote. Hume's role is not to be overstated, of course; it was his countryman Francis Hutcheson who coined the utilitarian slogan "greatest happiness for the greatest numbers". But it was from reading Hume's Treatise that Jeremy Bentham first felt the force of a utilitarian system: he "felt as if scales had fallen from [his] eyes". Nevertheless, Hume's proto-utilitarianism is a peculiar one from our perspective. He doesn't think that the aggregation of cardinal units of utility provides a formula for arriving at moral truth. On the contrary, Hume was a moral sentimentalist and, as such, thought that moral principles could not be intellectually justified. Some principles simply appeal to us and others don't; and the reason why utilitarian moral principles do appeal to us is that they promote our interests and those of our fellows, with whom we sympathize. Humans are hard-wired to approve of things that help society – public utility. Hume used this insight to explain how we evaluate a wide array of phenomena, ranging from social institutions and government policies to character traits and talents.
The problem of miracles
One way to support a religion is by appeal to miracles. But Hume argued that, at minimum, miracles could never give religion much support. There are several arguments suggested by Hume's essay, all of which turn on his conception of a miracle: namely, a violation of the laws of nature by God. One argument claims that it's impossible to violate the laws of nature. Another claims that human testimony could never be reliable enough to countermand the evidence we have for the laws of nature. The weakest and most defensible claims that, due to the strong evidence we have for the laws of nature, any miracle claim is in trouble from the get-go, and needs strong supporting evidence to defeat our initial presumptions. In a slogan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This point has been most applied to the question of the resurrection of Jesus, where Hume would no doubt ask, "Which is more likely – that a man rose from the dead or that this testimony is mistaken in some way?" Or, more blandly, "Which is more likely – that Uri Geller can really bend spoons with his mind or that there is some trick going on?" This is somewhat similar to Occam's Razor. This argument is the backbone of the sceptic's movement and a live issue for historians of religion.
For a critical and technical (Bayesian) analysis of Hume, see John Earman's Hume's ‘Abject Failure’ – the title of which gives you an idea of his assessment. For a rebuttal of Earman's interpretation of Hume, see Robert Fogelin's A Defense of Hume on Miracles.
The design argument
One of the oldest and most popular arguments for the existence of God is the design argument – that all the order and 'purpose' in the world bespeaks a divine origin. Hume gave the classic criticism of the design argument in ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ and ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ and though the issue is far from dead, many are convinced that Hume killed the argument for good. Here are some of his points:
For the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless processes like generation and vegetation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and 'purpose'.
Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognise human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and a brick wall. But in order to point to a designed Universe, we would need to have an experience of a range of different universes. As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied.
Even if the design argument is completely successful, it could not (in and of itself) establish a robust theism; one could easily reach the conclusion that the universe's configuration is the result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human design.
If a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God's mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer, and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind; but then why not rest content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?
Often, what appears to be purpose, where it looks like object X has feature F in order to secure some outcome O, is better explained by a filtering process: that is, object X wouldn't be around did it not possess feature F, and outcome O is only interesting to us as a human projection of goals onto nature. This mechanical explanation of teleology anticipated natural selection. (see also Anthropic principle)
For relevant contemporary work, see J. C. A. Gaskin's Hume's Philosophy of Religion, and Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God; for a view from a philosopher of biology, see Elliott Sober's Philosophy of Biology, ch. 2.
Conservatism and political theory
Many regard David Hume as a political conservative, sometimes calling him the first conservative philosopher. He expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled people not to resist their governments except in cases of the most egregious tyranny. However, he resisted aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, and he believed that we should try to balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority, without sacrificing either. He supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy, when suitably constrained. It has been argued that he was a major inspiration for James Madison's writings, and the Federalist No. 10 in particular. He was also, in general, an optimist about social progress, believing that, thanks to the economic development that comes with the expansion of trade, societies progress from a state of "barbarism" to one of "civilization". Civilized societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens are as a result much happier. It is therefore not fair to characterise him, as Leslie Stephen did, as favouring "that stagnation which is the natural ideal of a sceptic". (Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1876), vol. 2, 185.)
Although strongly pragmatic, Hume produced an essay titled "Towards a Perfect Commonwealth", where he detailed what any reforms should seek to achieve. Strong features for the time included a strict separation of powers, decentralisation, extending the franchise to anyone who held property of value and limiting the power of the clergy. The Swiss militia system was proposed as the best form of protection. Elections were to take place on an annual basis and representatives were to be unpaid, which was aimed at keeping the interests of constituents in the minds of politicians.
For more, see Douglas Adair's "That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science: David Hume, James Madison and the Tenth Federalist" in Fame and the Founding Fathers; Donald W Livingston, Hume's Philosophy of Common Life; John B Stewart, Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy; Bradley C. S. Watson, "Hume, Historical Inheritance, and the Problem of Founding" in The American Founding and the Social Compact.
A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. (1739–40)
Book 1: "Of the Understanding" His treatment of everything from the origin of our ideas to how they are to be divided. Important statements of Scepticism.
Book 2: "Of the Passions" Treatment of emotions.
Book 3: "Of Morals" Moral ideas, justice, obligations, benevolence.
Hume intended to see whether the Treatise met with success, and if so to complete it with books devoted to Politics and Criticism. However, it did not meet with success (as Hume himself said, "It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots"), and so was not completed.)
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).
Contains reworking of the main points of the Treatise, Book 1, with the addition of material on free will, miracles, and the argument from design.
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)
Another reworking of material from the Treatise for more popular appeal. Hume regarded this as the best of all his philosophical works, both in its philosophical ideas and in its literary style.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (posthumous)
Discussion among three fictional characters concerning arguments for the existence of God, most importantly the argument from design. Despite some controversy, most scholars agree that the view of Philo, the most sceptical of the three, comes closest to Hume's own.
Essays Moral and Political (first ed. 1741–2)
A collection of pieces written over many years and published in a series of volumes before being gathered together into one near the end of Hume's life. The essays are dizzying and even bewildering in the breadth of topics they address. They range freely over questions of aesthetic judgement, the nature of the British government, love, marriage and polygamy, and the demographics of ancient Greece and Rome, to name just a few of the topics considered. However, certain important topics and themes recur, especially the question of what constitutes "refinement" in matters of taste, manners and morals. The Essays are written in clear imitation of Addison's Tatler and The Spectator, which Hume read avidly in his youth.
The History of England (1754–62)
This forms more a category of books than a single work, a monumental history spanning "from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688". This work brought Hume the most fame during his own lifetime, going through over 100 editions. Many considered it the standard history of England until the publication of Thomas Macaulay's own monumental History of England.
‘Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we can draw any inference from the appearance of one to the existence of another’. - A Treatise Of Human Nature, Bk 1 Pt 3.8
‘Be a philosopher, but, amid all your philosophy, be still a man.’ -An Inquiry Concerning Human Nature,
HUME, DAVID, the celebrated metaphysician, historian, and political economist, was the second son of Joseph Hume of Ninewells, near Dunse, and was born in the Tron church parish, Edinburgh, on the 26th of April, 1711, O. S. His mother was daughter to Sir David Falconer, a judge of the court of session under the designation of lord Newton, and for some years president of the college of justice. The family of Hume of Ninewells was ancient and respectable, and the great philosopher has himself informed us, that on the side both of father and mother, he was the descendant of nobility, a circumstance from which he seems to have derived a quiet satisfaction, probably owing more to his respect for the manners and feelings of the country and age in which he lived, than to his conviction of the advantages of noble birth. It is to be regretted that little is known about the early life of Hume, and the habits of his boyish years. There are indeed very few instances, in which the information which can be derived about the early habits and inclinations of a man who has afterwards distinguished himself, repays the labour of research, or even that of reading the statements brought forward; while many who have busied themselves in such tasks have only shown that the objects of their attention were by no means distinguished from other men, in the manner in which they have spent their childhood; but it must be allowed that in the case of Hume, a narrative of the gradual rise and development of that stoical contempt towards the objects which distract the minds of most men, that industry without enthusiasm, that independence without assumption, and strict morality founded only on reason, which distinguished his conduct through life, might have taught us a lesson of the world, and would at least have gratified a well grounded curiosity. The absence of such information allows us, however, general inference, that no part of the conduct of the schoolboy was sufficiently remarkable to be commemorated by his friends, and that, as he was in advanced life (independent of the celebrity produced by his works) a man of unobservable and unassuming conduct; he was as a boy docile, well behaved, and attentive, without being remarkable either for precocity of talent, or that carelessness and insubordination which some biographers have taken pains to bring home to the subjects of their memoirs. In early infancy Hume was deprived of his father, and left to the guidance of his mother and an elder brother and sister; with the brother who succeeded by birthright to the family property, he ever lived on terms of fraternal intimacy and affection, and towards his two female relatives he displayed, through all the stages of his life, an unvarying kindness and unremitted attention, which have gone far, along with his other social virtues, in causing him to be respected as a man, by those who were his most bitter opponents as a philosopher.
The property of the respectable family of Ninewells was not large, and the limited share which fell to the younger brother precluded the idea of his supporting himself without labour. Having finished the course of study which such an institution was capable of providing, he attended for some time the university of Edinburgh, then rising in reputation; of his progress in study he gives us the following account: " I passed through the ordinary course of education with success, and was seized very early with a passion for literature, which has been the ruling passion of my life, and the great source of my enjoyments; my studious disposition, my sobriety, and my industry, gave my family a notion that the law was a proper profession for me: but I found an insurmountable aversion to every thing but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning; and while they fancied I was poring upon Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors I was secretly devouring." [It is almost unnecessary to mention, that when we use the words of Hume about himself, we quote from that curious little memoir called "My Own Life," written by Hume on his death-bed, and published in 1777, by Mr Strahan, (to whom the manuscript was consigned) previously to its publication in the ensuing edition of the History of England. In a work which ought to contain a quantity of original matter proportioned to the importance of the subjects treated, some apology or explanation may be due, for quoting from a production which has been brought so frequently before the public; but in the life of a person so well known, and into whose conduct there has been so much investigation, while we try to bring to either as much original matter as it is possible to obtain, we must frequently be contented with statements modeled according to our own views, and in our own language, of facts which have already been frequently recorded. Independent of this necessity, the memoir of the author written by himself, is so characteristic of his mind and feelings, both in the method of the narrative, and in the circumstances detailed, that any life of Hume which might neglect reference to it, must lose a very striking chain of connexion betwixt the mind of the author and the character of his works. Let us here remark that while (in the words of Hume himself) "it is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity," this little memoir seems to have defied criticism to discover anything injudicious or assuming, either in the details or reflections. It is true, he has been slightly accused of speaking with too much complacency of his own good qualities: but be it remarked, those qualities of disposition to study sobriety, and industry, are such as a man of genius is seldom disposed to arrogate to himself, at least without some hints of the existence of others more brilliant and distinguishing. We cannot help being of opinion, that the author’s philosophical command over his feelings has prompted him to avoid the extremes which the natural egotism and vanity of most men would have caused them to fall into on similar occasions, of either alluding to very high qualities which the suffrages of others had allowed that they possessed, or gaining credit for humility, by not recognizing the existence of qualities which they know their partial friends would be ready to admit.] Of this aversion not only to the practice, but to the abstract study of the law, in a mind constituted like that of Hume, guided by reason, acute in the perception of differences and connexions, naturally prone to industry, and given up to the indulgence neither of passion nor sentiment, it is difficult to account. We are ignorant of the method by which he pursued his legal studies, and this early acquired disgust would at least hint, that like his friend lord Kames, he commenced his career with the repulsive drudgery of a writer’s office, in which his natural taste for retirement and reflection was invaded by a vulgar routine of commercial business and petty squabbling, and his acuteness and good taste offended by the tiresome formalities with which it was necessary he should occupy much valuable time, previously to exercising his ingenuity in the higher walks of the profession. But to those who are acquainted with the philosophical, and more especially with the constitutional writings of Mr Hume, the contemptuous rejection of the works of the civilians, and the exorbitant preference for the Roman poets, will appear at least a singular confession. To him any poet offered a mere subject of criticism, to be tried by the standard of taste, and not to gratify his sentiment; while in the works of the civilians he would have found (and certainly did find) the acute philosophical disquisitions of minds which were kindred to his own, both in profundity and elegance, and in the clear and accurate Vinnius, whom he has censured with such unbrotherly contempt, he must have found much which as a philosopher he respected, whatever distaste arbitrary circumstances might have given him towards the subject which that great man treated.
In 1734, the persuasions of his friends induced Mr Hume to attempt the bettering of his income by entering into business, and he established himself in the office of a respectable merchant in Bristol; but the man who had rejected the study of the law, was not likely to be fascinated by the bustle of commerce, and probably in opposition to the best hopes and wishes of his friends, in a few months he relinquished his situation, and spent some years in literary retirement in France, living first at Rheims, and afterwards at La Fleche in Anjeau. "I there," he says, "laid that plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued. I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature;" and with the consistency of a calm and firm mind, he kept his resolution. For some time previous to this period, Hume must have been gradually collecting that vast mass of observation and reflection which he employed himself during his retirement in digesting into the celebrated Treatise on Human Nature. In 1737, he had finished the first two volumes of this work, and he then returned to London to superintend their publication. From this date commenced the earliest traces of that literary and social correspondence which furnishes many of the most characteristic commentaries on the mental habits of the philosopher. With Henry Home, afterwards lord Kames, a near neighbour of the family of Ninewells, and probably a connexion of the philosopher (for he was the first member of the family who adopted the name of Hume, in preference to the family name Home,) he contracted an early friendship, and a similarity of pursuits continued the intercourse. To that gentleman we find the subject of our memoir writing in the following terms, in December, 1737: "I have been here near three months, always within a week of agreeing with my printers: and you may imagine I did not forget the work itself during that time, when I began to feel some passages weaker for the style and diction than I could have wished. The nearness and greatness of the event roused up my attention, and made me more difficult to please than when I was alone in perfect tranquillity in France." The remaining portion of this communication, though given in the usual placid and playful manner of the author, tells a painful tale of the difficulties he had to encounter, and of hope deferred. "But here," he says, "I must tell you one of my foibles. I have a great inclination to go down to Scotland this spring to see my friends, and have your advice concerning my philosophical discoveries: but cannot overcome a certain shame-facedness I have to appear among you at my years without having got a settlement, or so much as attempted any. How happens it, that we philosophers cannot as heartily despise the world as it despises us? I think in my conscience the contempt were as well founded on our side as on the other." With this letter Mr Hume transmitted to his friend a manuscript of his Essay on Miracles, a work which he at that period declined publishing along with his other productions, looking on it as more likely to give offence, from the greater reference of its reasonings to revealed religion.
Towards the termination of the year 1738, Hume published his "Treatise of Human Nature; being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects." The fundamental principles on which the whole philosophy of this work is reared, discover themselves on reading the first page, in the division of all perceptions--in other words, of all the materials of knowledge which come within the comprehension of the human mind,--into impressions and ideas. Differing from almost all men who, using other terms, had discussed the same subject, he considered these two methods of acquiring knowledge, to differ, not in quality, but merely in degree; because by an observation of the qualities of the mind, on the principle of granting nothing which could not be demonstrated, he could find no real ground of distinction, excepting that the one set of perceptions was always of a more vivid description than the other. The existence of impressions he looked on as prior in the mind to the existence of ideas, the latter being merely dependent on, or reflected from the former, which were the first inlets of all knowledge. Among perceptions he considered the various methods by which the senses make the mind acquainted with the external world, and along with these, by a classification which might have admitted a better arrangement, he ranked the passions, which he had afterwards to divide into those which were the direct consequents of the operations of the senses, as pain and pleasure, and those which the repetition of impressions, or some other means, had converted into concomitants, or qualifications of the mind, as hatred, joy, pride, &c. By ideas, Mr Hume understood those arrangements of the perceptions formed in the mind by reasoning: or imagination; and although he has maintained the distinction between these and the impressions of the senses to be merely in degree, all that has been either blamed or praised in his philosophy is founded on the use he makes of this distinction. He has been accused, and not without justice, of confusion in his general arrangement, and disconnexion in the subjects he has discussed as allied to each other; but a careful peruser of his works will find the division of subject we have just attempted to explain, to pervade the whole of his extraordinary investigations, and never to be departed from, where language allows him to adhere to it. The ideas, or more faint perceptions, are made by the author to be completely dependent on the impression, showing that there can be no given idea at any time in the mind, to which there has not been a corresponding impression conveyed through the organs of sense. These ideas once existing in the mind, are subjected to the operation of the memory, and form the substance of our thoughts, and a portion of the motives of our actions. Thus, at any given moment, there are in the mind two distinct sources of knowledge, (or of what is generally called knowledge,)--the impressions which the mind is receiving from surrounding objects through the senses, and the thoughts, which pass through the mind, modified and arranged from such impressions, previously experienced and stored up. Locke, in his arguments against the existence of innate ideas, and Dr Berkeley, when he tried to show that the mind could contain no abstract ideas, (or ideas not connected with anything which the mind had experienced,) had formed the outline of a similar division of knowledge; but neither of them founded on such a distinction, a system of philosophy, nor were they, it may be well conceived, aware of the extent to which the principles they suggested might be logically carried. The division we have endeavoured to define, is the foundation of the sceptical philosophy. The knowledge immediately derived from impressions is that which truly admits the term "knowledge" to be strictly applied to it; that which is founded on experience, derived from previous impressions, is something which always admits of doubt. While the former are always certain, the mind being unable to conceive their uncertainty, the latter may not only be conceived to be false, but are so much the mere subjects of probability, that there are distinctions in the force which the mind attributes to them—sometimes admitting them to be doubtful, and making no more distinction, except in the greater amount of probabilities betwixt that which it pronounces doubtful, and that which it pronounces certain. As an instance—when a man looks upon another man, and hears him speak, he receives through the senses of hearing and sight, certain impressions, the existence of which he cannot doubt; on that man, however, being no longer the object of his senses, the impressions are arranged in his mind in a reflex form, constituting what Mr Hume has called ideas; and although he may at first be convinced in a manner sufficiently strong for all practical purposes, that he has actually seen and heard such a man, the knowledge he has is only a mass of probabilities, which not only admit him to conceive it a possibility that he may not have met such a man, but actually decay by degrees, so as probably after a considerable period to lapse into uncertainty, while no better line of distinction can be drawn betwixt the certainty and the uncertainty, than that the one is produced by a greater mass of probabilities than the other. The author would have been inconsistent, had he admitted the reception of knowledge of an external world, even through the medium of the senses: he maintained all that the mind had really cognizance of, to be the perceptions themselves; there was no method of ascertaining with certainty what caused them. The human mind, then, is thus discovered to be nothing but a series of perceptions, of which some sets have such a resemblance to each other, that we always naturally arrange them together in our thoughts. Our consciousness of the identity of any given individual, is merely a series of perceptions so similar, that the mind glides along them without observation. A man’s consciousness of his own identity, is a similar series of impressions. "The mind," says the author, "is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance—pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place where these scenes are represented, or of the materials of which it is composed." [Works, (1826), i. 322.] From such a conclusion, the passage to scepticism on the immateriality of the soul was a natural and easy step: but on such a subject we must be cautious as to the manner in which we make remarks on the observations made by Hume—we neither appear as among his vindicators, nor for the purpose of disputing his conclusions—our purpose is, as faithful biographers, to give, as far as our limits and our knowledge of the subject may admit, a sketch of his leading doctrines; and if we have any thing to vindicate, it will be the author’s real meaning, which certain zealous defenders of Christianity have shown an anxiety to turn as batteries against it. In his reasonings on the immateriality of the soul he is truly sceptical; that is, while he does not deny the immateriality of the soul, he endeavours to show that the mind can form no certain conception of the immaterial soul. Refining on the argument of a reasoning poet, who probably was not aware of the full meaning of his own words when he said—
--" Of God above, or man below,
What can we reason, but from what we know,"
the author of the treatise on Human Nature maintained that the mere succession of impressions, of which the mind was composed, admitted of no such impression as that of the immateriality of the soul, and consequently did not admit of the mind comprehending in what that immateriality consisted. Let it be remembered, that this conclusion is come to in the same manner as that against the consciousness of the mind to the existence of matter; and that in neither case does the author maintain certain opinions which men believe to be less certain than they are generally conceived to be, but gives to them a name different from that which language generally bestows on them—that of masses of probabilities, instead of certainties,—the latter being a term he reserves solely for the impressions of the senses. "Should it here be asked me," says the author, " whether I sincerely assent to this argument, which I seem to take such pains to inculcate, and whether I be really one of those sceptics, who hold that all is uncertain, and that our judgment is not in any thing, possessed of any measures of truth and falsehood; I should reply, that this question is entirely superfluous, and that neither I, nor any other person, was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. Nature, by an absolute and uncontrollable necessity, has determined us to judge as well as to breathe and feel; nor can we any more forbear viewing certain objects in a stronger and fuller light, upon account of their customary connexion with a present impression, than we can hinder ourselves from thinking, as long as we are awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes towards them in broad sunshine. Whoever has taken the pains to refute the cavils of this total scepticism, has really disputed without an antagonist, and endeavoured by arguments to establish a faculty which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind, and rendered unavoidable." [Works, vol. i. p. 240.] With this extremely clear statement, which shows us, that while Hume had a method of accounting for the sources of our knowledge differing from the theories of other philosophers, in the abstract certainty which he admitted to pertain to any knowledge beyond the existence of an impression, his belief in the ordinary admitted sources of human knowledge was not less practically strong than that of other people,--let us connect the concluding words on the chapter on the immortality of the soul: "There is no foundation for any conclusion a priori, either concerning the operations or duration of any object, of which ‘tis possible for the human mind to form a conception. Any object may be imagined to become entirely inactive, or to be annihilated in a moment: and ‘tis an evident principle, that whatever we can imagine is possible. Now this is no more true of matter than of spirit—of an extended compounded substance, than of a simple and unextended. In both cases the metaphysical arguments for the immortality of the soul are equally inconclusive; and in both cases the moral arguments, and those derived from the analogy of nature, are equally strong and convincing. If my philosophy, therefore, makes no addition to the arguments for religion, I have at least the satisfaction to think it takes nothing from them, but that every thing remains precisely as before." [Works i. p. 319.] Without pretending to calculate the ultimate direction of the philosophy of Hume, as it regards revealed religion, let us repeat the remark, that many persons busied themselves in increasing its terrors as an engine against the Christian faith, that they might have the merit of displaying a chivalrous resistance. The presumptions thus formed and fostered, caused a vigorous investigation into the grounds of all belief, and many good and able men were startled to find that it was necessary to admit many of the positions assumed by their subtle antagonist, and that they must employ the vigorous logic they had brought to the field, in stoutly fortifying a position he did not attack. They found "the metaphysical arguments inconclusive," and "the moral arguments, and those derived from the analogy of nature, equally strong and convincing:" and that useful and beautiful system of natural theology, which has been enriched by the investigations of Derham, Tucker, [Not Josiah, but Abraham Tucker, who, under the assumed name of "Search," wrote a book on the light of nature, in 10 vols., 8vo. An unobtrusive and profound work, not very inviting, and little read, which leter philosophers have pillaged without compunction.] and Paley, gave place to obscure investigations into first causes, and idle theories on the grounds of belief, which generally landed the philosophers in a circle of confusion, and amazed the reader with incomprehensibilities. One of the most clear and original of the chapters of the Treatise on Human Nature, has provided us with a curious practical instance of the pliability of the sceptical philosophy of Hume. In treating the subject of cause and effect, Mr Hume, with fidelity to his previous division of perceptions, found nothing in the effect produced on the mind by any two phenomena, of which the one received the name of cause, the other that of effect, but two impressions, and no connexion betwixt them, but the sequence of the latter to the former; attributing our natural belief that the one is a cause, and the other its effect, to the habit of the mind in running from the one impression to that which is its immediate sequent, or precedent; denying that we can have any conception of cause and effect beyond those instances of which the mind has had experience, and which habit has taught it; and, finally, denying that mankind can penetrate farther into the mystery, than the simple knowledge that the one phenomenon is experienced to follow the other. Men of undoubtedly pure religious faith have maintained the justness of this system as a metaphysical one, and it has found its way into physical science, as a check to vague theories, and the assumption of conjectural causes: in a memorable instance, it was however attacked as metaphysically subversive of a proper belief in the Deity as a first cause. The persons who maintained this argument, were answered, that an opposite supposition was morally subversive of a necessity for the constant existence and presence of the Deity; because, if a cause had the innate power within it of producing its common effect, the whole fabric of the universe had an innate power of existence and progression in its various changes, which dispensed with the existence of a supreme regulator."
The second volume of the Treatise on Human Nature, discusses the passions on the principles laid down at the commencement of the previous volume. The subjects here treated, while they are not of so strikingly original a description as to prompt us to enlarge on their contents, may be a more acceptable morsel to most readers, and certainly may be perused with more of what is termed satisfaction, than the obscure and somewhat disheartening investigations of the pure metaphysician. Of the usual subtilty and acuteness of the author they are of course not destitute; but the theatre of investigation does not admit of much abstraction, and these qualities exercise themselves on subjects more tangible and comprehensible, than those of the author’s prior labours.
The production of the Treatise on Human Nature, stands almost alone in the history of the human mind; let it be remembered that the author had just reached that period, of existence when the animal spirits exercise their strongest sway, and those whom nature has gifted with talents and observation, are exulting in a brilliant world before them, of which they are enjoying the prospective felicity, without tasting much of the bitterness; and that this extensive treatise, so varied in the subjects embraced, so patiently collected by a lengthened labour of investigation and reflection, and entering on views so adverse to all that reason had previously taught men to believe, and so repulsive to the common feelings of the world, was the first literary attempt which the author deigned to place before the public. Perhaps a very close examination of the early habits and conduct of the author, could the materials of such be obtained, would scarcely furnish us with a clue to so singular a riddle; but in a general sense, we may not diverge far from the truth in supposing, that the circumstances of his earlier intercourse with the world, had not prompted the author to entertain a very charitable view of mankind, and that the bitterness thus engendered coming under the cognizance of his reflective mind, instead of turning him into a stoic and practical enemy of his species, produced that singular system which, holding out nothing but doubt as the end of all mortal investigations, struck a silent blow at the dignity of human nature, and at much of its happiness. In a very singular passage, he thus speaks of his comfortless philosophy, and of the feelings it produces in the mind of its Cain-like fabricator. "I am first affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude in which I am placed in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who, not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expelled all human commerce, and left utterly abandoned and disconsolate. Fain would I run into the crowd for shelter and warmth, but cannot prevail with myself to mix with such deformity. I call upon others to join me, in order to make a company apart, but no one will hearken to me. Every one keeps at a distance, and dreads that storm which beats upon me from every side. I have exposed myself to the enmity of all metaphysicians, logicians, mathematicians, and even theologians; and can I wonder at the insults I must suffer? I have declared my disapprobation of their systems; and can I be surprised if they should express a hatred of mine and of my person? When I look abroad, I foresee on every side dispute, contradiction, anger, calumny, and detraction. When I turn my eye inward, I find nothing but doubt and ignorance. All the world conspires to oppose and contradict me: though such is my weakness, that I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves, when unsupported by the approbation of others. Every step I take is with hesitation, and every new reflection makes me dread an error and absurdity in my reasoning." In the same spirit he writes to his friend, Mr Henry Home, immediately after the publication of the treatise: "Those," he says, " who are accustomed to reflect on such abstract subjects, are commonly full of prejudices; and those who are unprejudiced, are unacquainted with metaphysical reasonings. My principles are also so remote from all the vulgar sentiments on the subject, that were they to take place, they would produce almost a total alteration in philosophy; and you know revolutions of this kind are not easily brought about." [Tytler’s Life of Kames.]
Hume, when the reflection of more advanced life, and his habits of unceasing thought had made a more clear arrangement in his mind, of the principles of his philosophy, found many things to blame and alter in his treatise, not so much in the fundamental arguments, as in their want of arrangement, and the obscure garb of words in which he had clothed them. On the feelings he entertained on this subject, we find him afterwards writing to Dr John Stewart, and we shall here quote a rather mutilated fragment of this epistle, which has hitherto been unprinted, and is interesting as containing an illustration of his arguments on belief:—"Allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a proposition, as that any thing might arise without a cause. I only maintained that our certainty of the falsehood of that proposition proceeded neither from intuition nor demonstration, but from another source. That Cesar existed, that there is such an island as Sicily; for these propositions, I affirm, we have no demonstration nor intuitive proof: Would you infer that I deny their truth, or even their certainty? and some of them as satisfactory to the mind, though, perhaps, not so regular as the demonstrative kind. Where a man of sense mistakes my meaning, I own I am angry, but it is only with myself, for having expressed my meaning so ill as to have given occasion to the mistake. That you may see I would no way scruple of owning my mistakes in argument, I shall acknowledge (what is infinitely more material) a very great mistake in conduct; viz, my publishing at all the Treatise of Human Nature, a book which pretended to innovate in all the sublimest parts of philosophy, and which I composed before I was five and twenty. Above all, the positive air which pervades that book, and which may be imputed to the ardour of youth, so much displeases me, that I have not patience to review it. I am willing to be unheeded by the public, though human life is so short that I despair of ever seeing the decision. I wish I had always confined myself to the more easy paths of erudition; but you will excuse me from submitting to proverbial decision, let it even be in Greek."
The effect produced on the literary world by the appearance of the Treatise on Human Nature, was not flattering to a young author. "Never literary attempt," says Mr Hume, "was more unfortunate than my Treatise on Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots. But being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I very soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted with great ardour my studies in the country." The equanimity, and contempt for public opinion which Hume has here arrogated to himself, seems to have been considered as somewhat doubtful, on the ground of the following curious statement in Dr Kenrick’s London Review :—"His disappointment at the public reception of his Essay on Human Nature, had indeed a violent effect on his passions in a particular instance; it not having dropped so dead-born from the press but that it was severely handled by the reviewers of those times, in a publication entitled, The Works of the Learned; a circumstance which so highly provoked our young philosopher, that he flew in a violent rage to demand satisfaction of Jacob Robinson, the publisher, whom he kept, during the paroxysm of his anger, at his sword’s point, trembling behind the counter, lest a period should be put to the life of a sober critic by a raving philosopher." Mr John Hill Burton, in his life of Hume, observes—"There is nothing in the story to make it in itself incredible; for Hume was far from being that docile mass of imperturbability which so large a portion of the world have taken him for. But the anecdote requires authentication, and has it not. Moreover, there are circumstances strongly against its truth. Hume was in Scotland at the time when the criticism on his work was published; he did not visit London for some years afterwards; and to believe the story, we must look upon it not as a momentary ebullition of passion, but as a manifestation of long-treasured resentment; a circumstance inconsistent with his character, inconsistent with human nature in general, and not in keeping with the modified tone of dissatisfaction with the criticism, evinced in his correspondence." We have perused with much interest the article in "The Works of the Learned" above alluded to, and it was certainly not likely to engender calm feelings in the mind of the author reviewed. It is of some length, attempting no philosophical confutation, but from the ingenuity with which the most objectionable passages of the Treatise are brought forward to stand in naked grotesqueness without connexion, it must have come from some one who had carefully perused the book, and from no ordinary writer. The vulgar raillery with which it is filled might point out Warburton, but then the critic does not call the author a liar, a knave, or a fool, and the following almost prophetic passage with which the critic concludes (differing considerably in tone from the other parts), could not possibly have emanated from the head and heart of the great defender of the church: "It bears, indeed, incontestable marks of a great capacity, of a soaring genius, but young, and not yet thoroughly practised. The subject is vast and noble, as any that can exercise the understanding; but it requires a very mature judgment to handle it as becomes its dignity and importance; the utmost prudence, tenderness, and delicacy, are requisite to this desirable issue. Time and use may ripen these qualities in our author; and we shall probably have reason to consider this, compared with his later productions, in the same light as we view the juvenile works of Milton or the first manner of a Raphael."
The third part of Mr Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1740: it treated the subject of morals, and was divided into two parts, the first discussing "Virtue and Vice in general," the second treating of "Justice and Injustice." The scope of this essay is to show that there is no abstract and certain distinction betwixt moral good and evil, and while it admits a sense of virtue to have a practical existence in the mind of every human being, (however it may have established itself,) it draws a distinction betwixt those virtues of which every man’s sense of right is capable of taking cognizance; and justice, which it maintains to be an artificial virtue, erected certainly on the general wish of mankind to act rightly, but a virtue which men do not naturally follow, until a system is invented by human means, and based on reasonable principles of general utility to the species, which shows men what is just, and what is unjust, and can best be followed by the man who has best studied its general artificial form, in conjunction with its application to utility, and who brings the most acute perception and judgment to assist him in the task. Before publishing this part of the work, Hume submitted the manuscript to Francis Hutcheson, professor of moral philosophy in the university of Glasgow, whose opinions he was more disposed to receive with deference than those of any other man. Nevertheless, it was only in matters of detail that he would consent to be guided by that eminent person. The fundamental principles of the system he firmly defended. The correspondence which passed betwixt them shows how far Hume saw into the depths of the utilitarian system, and proves that it was more completely formed in his mind than it appeared in his book. "To every virtuous action (says he) there must be a motive or impelling passion distinct from the virtue, and virtue can never be the sole motive to any action." The greater plainness of the subject, and its particular reference to the hourly duties of life, made this essay more interesting to moral philosophers, and laid it more widely open to criticism, than the Treatise on the Understanding, and even that on the Passions. The extensive reference to principles of utility, produced discussions to which it were an idle and endless work here to refer; but without any disrespect to those celebrated men who have directly combated the principles of this work, and supported totally different theories of the formation of morals, those who have twisted the principles of the author into excuses for vice and immorality, and the destruction of all inducements to the practice of virtue, deserve only the fame of being themselves the fabricators of the crooked morality of which they have endeavoured to cast the odium upon another. When Mr Hume says, "The necessity of justice to the support of society is the sole foundation of that virtue: and since no moral excellence is more highly esteemed, we may conclude, that this circumstance of usefulness has, in general, the strongest energy, and most entire command over, our sentiments. It must, therefore, be the source of a considerable part of the merit ascribed to humanity, benevolence, friendship, public spirit, and other social virtues of that stamp; as it is the sole source of the moral approbation paid to fidelity, justice, veracity, integrity, and those other estimable and useful qualities and principles:"—it was not difficult for those benevolent guardians of the public mind, who sat in watch, to intercept such declarations, to hold such an opinion up to public indignation, and to maintain that it admitted every man to examine his actions by his own sense of their utility, and to commit vice by the application of a theory of expediency appropriated to the act. It is not necessary to be either a vindicator or assailant of Mr Hume’s theory, to perceive that what he has traced back to the original foundation of expediency, is not by him made different in its practice and effects, from those which good men of all persuasions in religion and philosophy admit. While he told men that he had traced the whole system of the morality they practised, to certain principles different from those generally admitted, he did not tell men to alter their natural reverence for virtue or abhorrence towards vice; the division betwixt good and evil had been formed, and while giving his opinion how it had been formed, he did not dictate a new method of regulating human actions, and except in the hands of those who applied his theories of the origin of virtue and vice, to the totally different purpose of an application to their practice in individual cases, he did no more to break down the barriers of distinction betwixt them, than he who first suggested that the organs of sight merely presented to the mind the reflections of visible objects, may be supposed to have done to render the mind less certain of the existence of external objects. "There is no spectacle," says the author, "so fair and beautiful as a noble and generous action; nor any which gives us more abhorrence than one which is cruel and treacherous. No enjoyment equals the satisfaction we receive from the company of those we love and esteem; as the greatest of all punishments is to be obliged to pass our lives with those we hate or contemn. A very play or romance may afford us instances of this pleasure which virtue conveys to us, and the pain which arises from vice;" [Works, ii. 237.] and it would be difficult to find in this elaborate essay, any remark to contradict the impression of the author’s views, which every candid mind must receive from such a declaration.
The neglect with which his first production was received by the public, while it did not abate the steady industry of its author, turned his attention for a time to subjects which might be more acceptable to general readers, and in the calm retirement of his brother’s house at Ninewells, where he pursued his studies with solitary zeal, he prepared two volumes of unconnected dissertations, entitled "Essays Moral and Philosophical," which he published in 1742. These essays he had intended to have published in weekly papers, after the method pursued by the authors of the Spectator; "but," he observes, in an advertisement prefixed to the first edition, "having dropped that undertaking, partly from laziness, partly from want of leisure, and being willing to make trial of my talents for writing before I ventured upon any more serious compositions, I was induced to commit these trifles to the judgment of the public." A few of the subjects of these essays are the following: "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion," "That Politics may be reduced to a Science," "Of the Independency of Parliament," "Of the Parties in Great Britain," "Of Superstition and Enthusiasm," "Of Liberty and Despotism," "Of Eloquence," "Of Simplicity and Refinement," "A character of Sir Robert Walpole," &c. Of these miscellaneous productions we cannot venture the most passing analysis, in a memoir which must necessarily be brief; of their general character it may be sufficient to say, that his style of writing, which in his Treatise was far from approaching the purity and elegance of composition which he afterwards displayed, had made a rapid advance to excellence, and that the reading world quickly discovered from the justness and accuracy of his views, the elegance of his sentiments, and the clear precision with which he stated his arguments, that the subtile calculator of the origin of all human knowledge could direct an acute eye to the proceedings of the world around him, and that he was capable of making less abstract calculations on the motives which affected mankind. A few of these essays, which he seems to have denounced as of too light a nature to accompany his other works, were not republished during his life; among the subjects of these are "Impudence and Modesty," "Love and Marriage," "Avarice," &c. Although these have been negatively stigmatized by their author, a general reader will find much gratification in their perusal: the subjects are handled with the careless touch of a satirist, and in drawing so lightly and almost playfully pictures of what is contemptible and ridiculous, one can scarcely avoid the conviction that such is the aspect in which the author wishes to appear; but on the other hand there is such a complete absence of all grotesqueness, of exaggeration, or attempt at ridicule, that it is apparent he is drawing a picture of what he knows to be unchangeably rooted in human nature, and that knowing raillery to be useless, he is content as a philosopher merely to depict the deformity which cannot be altered. Among the essays he did not republish, is the "Character of Sir Robert Walpole," a singular specimen of the author’s ability to abstract himself from the political feelings of the time, calmly describing the character of a living statesman, whose conduct was perhaps more feverishly debated by his friends and enemies than that of almost any minister in any nation, as if he were a person of a distant age with which the author had no sympathy, or of a land with which he was only acquainted through the pages of the traveller. It was after the publication of this work that Hume first enjoyed the gratification of something like public applause. "The work," he says, "was favourably received, and soon made me entirely forget my former disappointment." He still rigidly adhered to his plans of economy and retirement, and continued to reside at Ninewells, applying himself to the study of Greek, which he had previously neglected. In 1745, he was invited to become tutor to the marquis of Annandale, a young nobleman whose state of mind at that period rendered a superintendent necessary; and though the situation must have been one not conducive to study, or pleasing to such a mind as that of Hume, he found that his circumstances would not justify a refusal of the invitation, and he continued for the period of a year in the family of the marquis.
During his residence in this family, the death of Mr Cleghorn, professor of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, caused a vacancy, which Mr Hume very naturally considered he might be capable of filling. The patrons of the university, however, and their advisers, took a different view of the matter, and judged that they would be at least more safe, in considering a person of his reputed principles of philosophy, as by no means a proper instructor of youth: nor were virulence and party feeling unmixed with cool judgment in fixing their choice. "I am informed," says Hume, in one of his playful letters addressed to his friend Mr Sharp of Hoddam, "that such a popular clamour his been raised against me in Edinburgh, on account of scepticism, heterodoxy, and other hard names which confound the ignorant, that my friends find some difficulty in working out the point of my professorship, which once appeared so easy. Did I need a testimonial for my orthodoxy, I should certainly appeal to you; for you know that I always imitated Job’s friends, and defended the cause of providence when you attacked it, on account of the headaches you felt after a debauch, but as a more particular explication of that particular seems superfluous, I shall only apply to you for a renewal of your good offices, with your friend lord Tinwald, whose interest with Yetts and Allan may be of service to me. There is no time to lose; so that I must beg you to be speedy in writing to him, or speaking to him on that head." The successful candidate was Mr James Balfour, advocate, a gentleman who afterwards became slightly known to the literary world as the author of "A Delineation of the Nature and Obligations of Morality, with reflections on Mr Hume’s Inquiry concerning the principles of Morals," a work which has died out of remembrance, but the candid spirit of which prompted Hume to write a complimentary letter to the (then) anonymous author. The disappointment of not being able to obtain a situation so desirable as affording a respectable and permanent salary, and so suited to his studies, seems to have preyed more heavily than any other event in his life, on the spirits of Mr Hume; and with the desire of being independent of the world, he seems for a short time to have hesitated whether he should continue his studies, or at once relinquish the pursuit of philosophical fame, by joining the army.
During the ensuing year, his desire to be placed in a situation of respectability was to a certain extent gratified, by his being appointed secretary to lieutenant-general St Clair, who had been chosen to command an expedition avowedly against Canada, but which terminated in a useless incursion on the coast of France. In the year 1747, general St Clair was appointed to superintend an embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin, and declining to accept a secretary from government, Hume, for whom he seems to have entertained a partiality, accompanied him in his former capacity. He here enjoyed the society of Sir Henry Erskine and captain (afterwards general) Grant, and mixing a little with the world, and joining in the fashionable society of the places which he visited, he seems to have enjoyed a partial relaxation from his philosophical labours. Although he mentions that these two years were almost the only interruptions which his studies had received during the course of his life, he does not seem to have entirely neglected his pursuits as an author; in a letter to his friend Henry Home, he hints at the probability of his devoting his time to historical subjects, and continues, "I have here two things going on, a new edition of my Essays, all of which you have seen except one of the Protestant succession, where I treat that subject as coolly and indifferently as I would the dispute betwixt Cesar and Pompey. The conclusion shows me a whig, but a very sceptical one." [Tytler’s Life of Kames.]
Lord Charlemont, who at this period met with Mr Hume at Turin, has given the following account of his habits and appearance, penned apparently with a greater aim at effect than at truth, yet somewhat characteristic of the philosopher: "Nature I believe never formed any man more unlike his real character than David Hume. The powers of physiognomy were baffled by his countenance; neither could the most skilful in that science pretend to discover the smallest trace of the faculties of his mind, in the unmeaning features of his visage. His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless; and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher. His speech in English was rendered ridiculous by the broadest Scottish accent, and his French, was, if possible, still more laughable; so that wisdom, most certainly, never disguised herself before in so uncouth a garb. Though now near fifty years old, [His lordship must have made a mis-calculation. Hume was then only in his 38th year.] he was healthy and strong; but his health and strength, far from being advantageous to his figure, instead of manly comeliness, had only the appearance of rusticity. His wearing a uniform added greatly to his natural awkwardness, for he wore it like a grocer of the train-bands. Sinclair was a lieutenant-general, and was sent to the courts of Vienna and Turin as a military envoy, to see that their quota of troops was furnished by the Austrians and Piedmontese. It was therefore thought necessary that his secretary should appear to be an officer; and Hume was accordingly disguised in scarlet." [Hardy’s Life of Charlemont, p. 8.]
The letter to Mr Home we have quoted above, gives an idea of the literary employments of the author during the intervals of his official engagements at Turin, and on his return to Britain he exhibited the fruit of his labour in a second edition of his "Essays, Moral and Political," which was published in 1748, with four additional essays, and in a reconstruction of the first part of his Treatise of Human Nature, which he published immediately after, under the title "Philosophical Essays concerning the Human Understanding," and formed the first part of the well-known corrected digest of the Treatise of Human Nature, into the "Inquiry concerning Human Nature." In the advertisement the author informs the public that "most of the principles and reasonings in this volume were published in a work in three volumes, called A Treatise of Human Nature, a work which the author had projected before he left college, and which he wrote and published not long after. The philosophy of this work is essentially the same as that of which he had previously sketched a more rude and complicated draught. The object, (or more properly speaking, the conclusion arrived at, for the person who sets out without admissions, and inquires whether any thing can be ascertained in philosophy, can scarcely be said to have an object in view,) is the same system of doubt which he previously expounded; a scepticism, not like that of Boyle and others, which merely went to show the uncertainty of the conclusions attending particular species of argument, but a sweeping argument to show that by the structure of the understanding, the result of all investigations, on all subjects, must ever be doubt." The Inquiry must be to every reader a work far more pleasing, and we may even say, instructive, than the Treatise. While many of the more startling arguments, assuming the appearance of paradoxes, sometimes indistinctly connected with the subject, are omitted, others are laid down in a clearer form; the whole is subjected to a more compact arrangement, and the early style of the writer, which to many natural beauties, united a considerable feebleness and occasional harshness, makes in this work a very near approach to the elegance and classic accuracy, which much perseverance, and a refined taste enabled the author to acquire in the more advanced period of his life. Passing over, as our limits must compel us, any attempt at an analytical comparison of the two works, and a narrative of the changes in the author’s opinions, we must not omit the circumstance, that the Essay on Miracles, which it will be remembered the author withheld from his Treatise, was attached to the Inquiry, probably after a careful revision and correction. Locke had hinted in a few desultory observations the grounds of a disbelief in the miracles attributed to the early Christian church, and Dr Conyers Middleton, in his Free Inquiry into the miraculous powers supposed to have subsisted in the Christian church from the earliest ages, published very nearly at the same period with the Essay of Hume, struck a more decided blow at all supernatural agency beyond what was justified by the sacred Scriptures, and approached by his arguments a dangerous neighbourhood to an interference with what he did not avowedly attack. Hume considered the subject as a general point in the human understanding to which he admitted no exceptions. The argument of this remarkable essay is too well known to require an explanation; but the impartiality too often infringed when the works of this philosopher are the subject of consideration, requires that it should be kept in mind, that he treats the proof of miracles, as he does that of the existence of matter, in a manner purely sceptical, with this practical distinction,—that supposing a person is convinced of, or chooses to say he believes in the abstract existence of matter, independent of the mere impressions conveyed by the senses, there is still room to doubt that miracles have been worked. It would have been entirely at variance with the principles of scepticism to have maintained that miracles were not, and could not have been performed, according to the laws of nature; but the argument of Mr Hume certainly leans to the practical conclusion, that our uncertainty as to what we are said to have experienced, expands into a greater uncertainty of the existence of miracles, which are contrary to the course of our experience; because belief in evidence is founded entirely on our belief in experience, and on the circumstance, that what we hear from the testimony of others coincides with the current of that experience; and whenever testimony is contradictory to the current of our experience, the latter is the more probable, and should we be inclined to believe in it, we must at least doubt the former. Thus the author concludes "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish: and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force which remains after deducting the inferior." The application of his argument to the doctrines of Christianity he conceives to be, that "it may serve to confound those dangerous friends, or disguised enemies to the Christian religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason; our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is by no means fitted to endure." [Works, iv. 135, 153.] Hume is repeatedly at pains to protest against his being supposed to be arguing in the essay against the Christian faith. These protests, however, as his biographer, Mr Burton, is constrained to admit, were uttered briefly and coldly, and in such a manner as made people feel, that if Hume believed in the doctrines of the Bible, he certainly had not his heart in them. A want of proper deference for religious feeling (adds this writer) is a defect that runs through all his works. There is no ribaldry, but at the same time there are no expressions of decent reverence. It is to be observed, also, that the argument of Hume against miracles is still a favourite weapon of the enemies of revealed religion. At the same time, it must be admitted that under proper regulation, the argument is of use in defining the boundaries of inductive reasoning, and in this way has proved undoubtedly serviceable to the progress of science.
The work by Dr Campbell in confutation of this essay, at first produced in the form of a sermon, and afterwards expanded into a treatise, which was published in 1762, is well known and appreciated. This admirable and conclusive production, while yet in manuscript, was shown to Hume by Dr Blair. Hume was much pleased with the candour of the transaction; he remarked a few passages hardly in accordance with the calm feelings of the other portions of the work, which at his suggestion the author amended; and he personally wrote to Dr Campbell, with his usual calm politeness, thanking him for treatment so unexpected from a clergyman of the church of Scotland; and, with the statement that he had made an early resolution not to answer attacks on his opinions, acknowledged that he never felt so violent an inclination to defend himself. The respect which Campbell admitted himself to entertain for the sceptic is thus expressed:
"The Essay on Miracles deserves to be considered as one of the most dangerous attacks that have been made on our religion. The danger results not solely from the merit of the piece: it results much more from that of the author. The piece itself, like every other work of Mr Hume, is ingenious; but its merit is more of the oratorical kind than of the philosophical. The merit of the author, I acknowledge, is great. The many useful volumes he has published of history, as well as on criticism, politics, and trade, have justly procured him, with all persons of taste and discernment, the highest reputation as a writer. * * In such analysis and exposition, which I own, I have attempted without ceremony or reserve, an air of ridicule is unavoidable; but this ridicule, I am well aware, if founded on misrepresentation, will at last rebound upon myself." [Edit 1797, Advert. p. viii.]
Dr Campbell was a man of strong good sense, and knew well the description of argument which the world would best appreciate, approve, and comprehend, in answer to the perplexing subtleties of his opponent. He struck at the root of the system of perceptions merging into experience, and experience regulating the value of testimony, which had been erected by his adversary,—and appealing, not to the passions and feelings in favour of religion, but to the common convictions which we deem to be founded on reason, and cannot separate from our minds, maintained that "testimony has a natural and original influence on belief, antecedent to experience," from which position he proceeded to show, that the miracles of the gospel had received attestation sufficient to satisfy the reason. With his usual soundness and good sense, though scarcely with the profundity which the subject required, Dr Paley joined the band of confutors, while he left Hume to triumph in the retention of the effects attributed to experience, maintaining that the principle so established was counteracted by our natural expectation that the Deity should manifest his existence, by doing such acts contrary to the established order of the universe, as would plainly show that order to be of his own fabrication, and at his own command.
Before leaving the subject of the Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, we may mention that Mr Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, has accused Hume of plagiarizing the exposition of the Principles of Association in that work, from the unexpected source of the Commentary of St Thomas Aquinas, on the Parva Naturalia of Aristotle, and the charge, with however much futility it may be supported, demands, when coming from so celebrated a man, the consideration of the biographer. Mr Coleridge’s words are, "In consulting the excellent Commentary of St Thomas Aquinas, on the Parva Naturalia of Aristotle, I was struck at once with its close resemblance to Hume’s Essay on Association. The main thoughts were the same in both, the order of the thoughts was the same, and even the illustrations differed only by Hume’s occasional substitution of modern examples. I mentioned the circumstance to several of my literary acquaintances, who admitted the closeness of the resemblance, and that it seemed too great to be explained by mere coincidence; but they thought it improbable that Hume should have held the pages of the angelic doctor worth turning over. But some time after, Mr Payne, of the King’s Mews, showed Sir James Mackintosh some odd volumes of St Thomas Aquinas, partly, perhaps, from having heard that Sir James (then Mr) Mackintosh, had, in his lectures, passed a high encomium on this canonized philosopher, but chiefly from the facts, that the volumes had belonged to Mr Hume, and had here and there marginal marks and notes of reference in his own hand-writing. Among these volumes was that which contains the Parva Naturalia, in the old Latin version, swathed and swaddled in the commentary afore mentioned." When a person has spent much time in the perusal of works so unlikely to be productive, as those of Aquinas, the discovery of any little coincidence, or of any idea that may attract attention, is a fortunate incident, of which the discoverer cannot avoid informing the world, that it may see what he has been doing, and the coincidence in question is such as might have excused an allusion to the subject, as a curiosity. But it was certainly a piece of (no doubt heedless) disingenuousness on the part of Mr Coleridge, to make so broad and conclusive a statement, without accompanying it with a comparison. "We have read," says a periodical paper alluding to this subject, "the whole commentary of St Thomas Aquinas, and we challenge Mr Coleridge to produce from it a single illustration, or expression of any kind, to be found in Hume’s essay. The whole scope and end of Hume’s essay is not only different from that of St Thomas Aquinas, but there is not in the commentary of the ‘angelic doctor’ one idea which in any way resembles, or can be made to resemble, the beautiful illustration of the prince of sceptics." [Blackwood’s Magazine, v. iii. 656.] The theory of Hume on the subject as corrected in his Inquiry, is thus expressed: "To me, there appear to be only three principles of connexion among ideas, namely, resemblance, contiguity, in time or place, and cause or effect. That these principles serve to connect ideas, will not, I believe, be much doubted. A picture naturally leads our thoughts to the original. The mention of one apartment in a building naturally introduces an inquiry or discourse concerning the others; and if we think of a wound, we can scarcely forbear reflecting on the pain which follows it." [Works, iv. p. 25.] From a comparison of this, with what Mr Coleridge must have presumed to be the corresponding passage in Aquinas, it will be perceived that a natural wish to make the most of his reading had prompted him to propound the discovery. Had no other person besides Aquinas endeavoured to point out the regulating principles of association, and had Hume with such a passage before him pretended to have been the first to have discovered them, there might have been grounds for the accusation; but the methods of connexion discovered by philosophers in different ages, have been numerous, and almost always correct, as secondary principles. It was the object of Hume to gather these into a thread, and going back to principles as limited and ultimate as he could reach, to state as nearly as possible, not all the methods by which ideas were associated, but to set bounds to the abstract principles under which these methods might be classed. Aquinas, on the other hand, by no means sets bounds to the principles of association; he gives three methods of association, and in the matter of number resembles Hume; but had he given twenty methods, he might have more nearly embraced what Hume has embraced within his three principles. The method of association by resemblance is the only one stated by both: with regard to the second principle by Aquinas, contrariety, from the illustration with which he has accompanied it, he appears to mean local or physical opposition, such as the opposition of two combatants in a battle, and not the interpretation now generally bestowed on the term by philosophers. But supposing him to have understood it in the latter sense, Hume has taken pains to show that contrariety cannot easily be admitted as a fourth ultimate principle: thus in a note he says, "For instance, contrast or contrariety is also a connexion among ideas, but it may perhaps be considered as a mixture of causation and resemblance. Where two objects are contrary, the one destroys the other; that is, is the cause of its annihilation, and the idea of the annihilation of an object, implies the idea of its former existence." Aquinas, it will be remarked, entirely omits "cause and effect," and his "contiguity" is of a totally different nature from that of Hume, since it embraces an illustration which Hume would have referred to the principle of "cause and effect."
"I had always," says Hume, in reference to the work we have just been noticing, "entertained a notion that my want of success in publishing the Treatise of Human Nature, had proceeded more from the manner than the matter, and that I had been guilty of a very usual indiscretion, in going to the press too early. I, therefore, cast the first part of the work anew, in the Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, which was published while I was at Turin. But this piece was at first little more successful than the Treatise of Human Nature. On my return from Italy, I had the mortification to find all England in a ferment, on account of Dr Middleton’s Free Inquiry, while my performance was entirely overlooked and neglected."
About this period, Hume suffered the loss of a mother, who, according to his own account, when speaking of his earlier days, was "a woman of singular merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself entirely to the rearing of her children;" and the philosopher seems to have regarded her with a strong and devoted affection. He was a man whose disposition led him to unite himself to the world by few of the ordinary ties, but the few which imperceptibly held him, were not broken without pain; on these occasions the philosopher yielded to the man, and the cold sceptic discovered the feelings with which nature had gifted him, which at other moments lay chained by the bonds of his powerful reason. A very different account of the effect of this event, from what we have just now stated, is given in the passage we are about to quote (as copied in the Quarterly Review,) from the travels of the American Silliman. Without arguing as to the probability or improbability of its containing a true statement, let us remark that it is destitute of proof, a quality it amply requires, being given by the traveller forty years after the death of the philosopher, from the report of an individual, while the circumstance is not one which would have probably escaped the religious zeal of some of Mr Hume’s commentators.
"It seems that Hume received a religious education from his mother, and early in life was the subject of strong and hopeful religious impressions; but as he approached manhood they were effaced, and confirmed infidelity succeeded. Maternal partiality, however, alarmed at first, came at length to look with less and less pain upon this declension, and filial love and reverence seem to have been absorbed in the pride of philosophical scepticism; for Hume now applied himself with unwearied and unhappily with successful efforts, to sap the foundation of his mother’s faith. Having succeeded in this dreadful work, he went abroad into foreign countries; and as he was returning, an express met him in London, with a letter from his mother, informing him that she was in a deep decline, and could not long survive: she said she found herself without any support in her distress: that he had taken away that source of comfort upon which, in all cases of affliction, she used to rely, and that she now found her mind sinking into despair. She did not doubt but her son would afford her some substitute for her religion, and she conjured him to hasten to her, or at least to send her a letter, containing such consolations as philosophy can afford to a dying mortal. Hume was overwhelmed with anguish on receiving this letter, and hastened to Scotland, travelling day and night; but before he arrived, his mother expired. No permanent impression seems, however, to have been made on his mind by this most trying event; and whatever remorse he might have felt at the moment, he soon relapsed into his wonted obduracy of heart."
On the appearance of this anecdote, Baron Hume, the philosopher’s nephew, communicated to the editor of the Quarterly Review the following anecdote, of a more pleasing nature, connected with the same circumstance; and while it is apparent that it stands on better ground, we may mention that it is acknowledged by the reviewer as an authenticated contradiction to the statement of Silliman. "David and he (the hon. Mr Boyle, brother of the earl of Glasgow) were both in London, at the period when David’s mother died. Mr Boyle, hearing of it, soon after went into his apartment, for they lodged in the same house, where he found him in the deepest affliction, and in a flood of tears. After the usual topics of condolence, Mr Boyle said to him, ‘My friend, you owe this uncommon grief to your having thrown off the principles of religion; for if you had not, you would have been consoled with the firm belief, that the good lady, who was not only the best of mothers, but the most pious of Christians, was completely happy in the realms of the just.’ To which David replied, ‘Though I throw out my speculations to entertain the learned and metaphysical world, yet, in other things, I do not think so differently from the rest of mankind as you imagine.’"
Hume returned, in 1749, to the retirement of his brother’s house at Ninewells, and during a residence there for two years, continued his remodeling of his Treatise of Human Nature, and prepared for the press his celebrated Political Discourses. The former production appeared in 1751, under the title of an "Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals," published by Millar, the celebrated bookseller. Hume considered this the most perfect of his works, and it is impossible to resist admiration of the clearness of the arguments, and the beautiful precision of the theories; the world, however, did not extend to it the balmy influence of popularity, and it appeared to the author, that all his literary efforts were doomed to the unhappy fate of being little regarded at first, and of gradually decaying into oblivion. "In my opinion," he says, "(who ought not to judge on that subject,) [it] is, of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best. It came unnoticed and unobserved into the world."
In 1752, and during the author’s residence in Edinburgh, appeared his "Political Discourses." The subjects of these admirable essays were of interest to every one, the method of treating them was comprehensible to persons of common discernment; above all, they treated subjects on which the prejudices of few absolutely refused conviction by argument, and the author had the opportunity of being appreciated and admired, even when telling truths. The book in these circumstances, was, in the author’s words, "the only work of mine that was successful on the first publication. It was well received abroad and at home." The chief subjects were, "Commerce, money, interest, the balance of trade, the populousness of ancient nations, the idea of a perfect commonwealth." Sir Josiah Child, Sir William Petty, Hobbes, and Locke, had previously given the glimmerings of more liberal principles on trade and manufacture than those which they saw practised, and hinted at the common prejudices on the use of money and the value of labour; but Hume was the first to sketch an outline of some branches of the benevolent system of political economy framed by his illustrious friend, Adam Smith. He laid down labour as the only criterion of all value, made a near approach to an ascertainment of the true value of the precious metals, a point not yet fully fixed among economists; discovered the baneful effects of commercial limitations as obliging the nation to trade in a less profitable manner than it would choose to do if unconstrained, and predicted the dangerous consequences of the funding system. The essay on the populousness of ancient nations, was a sceptical analysis of the authorities on that subject, doubting their accuracy, on the principle of political economy that the number of the inhabitants of a nation must have a ratio to its fruitfulness and their industry. The essay was elaborately answered by Dr Wallace, in a Dissertation of the Numbers of Mankind, but that gentleman only produced a host of those "authorities," the efficacy of which Mr Hume has doubted on principle. This essay is an extremely useful practical application of the doctrines in the Essay on Miracles. Mr Hume’s ‘idea of a perfect commonwealth,’ has been objected to as an impracticable system. The author probably had the wisdom to make this discovery himself, and might have as soon expected it to be applicable to practice, as a geometrician might dream of his angles, straight lines, and points, being literally accomplished in the measurement of an estate, or the building of a house. The whole represents men without passions or prejudices working like machines; and Hume no doubt admitted, that while passion, prejudice, and habit, forbade the safe attempt of such projects, such abstract structures ought to be held up to the view of the legislator, as the forms into which, so far as he can do it with safety, he ought to stretch the systems under his administration. Plato, More, Harrington, Hobbes, and (according to some accounts,) Berkeley [In the anonymous adventures of Giovanni de Lucra.] had employed their ingenuity in a similar manner, and Hume seems to have considered it worthy of his attention.
In February, 1752, David Hume succeeded the celebrated Ruddiman, as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates. The salary was at that time very trifling, somewhere we believe about £40, but the duties were probably little more than nominal, and the situation was considered an acquisition to a man of literary habits. It was, with this ample field of authority at his command, that he seems to have finally determined to write a portion of the History of England. In 1757, he relinquished this appointment on his removing to London, when preparing for publication the History of the House of Tudor.
In 1752, appeared the first (published) volume of the History of England, embracing the period from the accession of the house of Stuart, to the death of Charles the First; and passing over intermediate events, we may mention that the next volume, containing a continuation of the series of events to the period of the Revolution, appeared in 1756, and the third, containing the History of the house of Tudor, was published in 1759. "I was, I own," says the author with reference to the first volume, "sanguine in my expectations of the success of this work. I thought that I was the only historian that had at once neglected present power, interest, and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and as the subject was suited to every capacity, I expected proportional applause. But miserable was my disappointment; I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation; English, Scottish, and Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, freethinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united in their rage against the man, who had presumed to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I. and the earl of Strafford; and after the first ebullitions of their fury were over, what was still more mortifying, the book seemed to sink into oblivion." Of the second he says, "This performance happened to give less displeasure to the whigs, and was better received. It not only rose itself, but helped to buoy up its unfortunate brother." Of the History of England it is extremely difficult to give a fair and unbiased opinion, because, while the author is, in general, one of the most impartial writers on this subject, it is scarcely a paradox to say, that the few partialities in which he has indulged, have done more to warp the mind than the violent prejudices of others. Previous to his history, those who wrote on political subjects ranged themselves in parties, and each man proclaimed with open mouth the side for which he was about to argue, and men heard him as a special pleader. Hume looked over events with the eye of a philosopher; he seemed to be careless of the extent of the good or bad of either party. On neither side did he abuse, on neither did he laud or even justify. The side which he adopted seldom enjoyed approbation or even vindication, and only in apology did he distinguish it from that to which he was inimical. From this peculiarity, the opinions to which he leaned acquired strength from the suffrage of one so apparently impartial and unconcerned. Notwithstanding the prejudices generally attributed however to Hume as an historian, we cannot set him down as an enemy to liberty. No man had grander views of the power of the human mind, and of the higher majesty of intellect, when compared with the external attributes of rank; and the writings of a republican could not exceed in depicting this feeling, the picture he has drawn of the parliament of Charles the First, and of the striking circumstances of the king’s condemnation. The instances in which he has shown himself to be inconsistent, may, perhaps, be more attributed to his habits, than to his opinions. His indolent benevolence prompted a sympathy with the oppressed, and he felt a reluctance to justify those who assumed the aspect of active assailants, from whatever cause; while in matters of religion, viewing all persuasions in much the same aspect, unprejudiced himself he felt a contempt for those who indulged in prejudice, and was more inclined to censure than to vindicate those who acted from religious impulse. With all his partialities, however, let those who study the character of the author while they read his history recollect, that he never made literature bow to rank, that he never flattered a great man to obtain a favour, and that, though long poor, he was always independent. Of the seeming contradiction between hid life and opinions, we quote the following applicable remarks from the Edinburgh Review:
"Few things seem more unaccountable, and indeed absurd, than that Hume should have taken part with high church and high monarchy men. The persecutions which he suffered in his youth from the Presbyterians, may, perhaps, have influenced his ecclesiastical partialities. But that he should have sided with the Tudors and the Stuarts against the people, seems quite inconsistent with all the great traits of his character. His unrivalled sagacity must have looked with contempt on the preposterous arguments by which the jus divinum was maintained. His natural benevolence must have suggested the cruelty of subjecting the enjoyments of thousands to the caprice of one unfeeling individual: and his own practical independence in private life, might have taught him the value of those feelings which he has so mischievously derided. Mr Fox seems to have been struck with some surprise at this strange trait in the character of our philosopher. In a letter to Mr Laing he says, ‘He was an excellent man, and of great powers of mind; but his partiality to kings and princes is intolerable. Nay, it is, in my opinion, quite ridiculous: and is more like the foolish admiration which women and children sometimes have for kings, than the opinion, right or wrong, of a philosopher.’"
It would be a vain task to enumerate the controversial attacks on Hume’s History of England. Dr Hurd in his Dialogues on the English Constitution stoutly combated his opinions. Miller brought the force of his strongly thinking mind to a consideration of the subject at great length, but he assumed too much the aspect of a special pleader. Dr Birch and Dr Towers entered on minute examinations of particular portions of the narrative, and the late major Cartwright, with more fancy than reason, almost caricatured the opinions of those who considered that Hume had designedly painted the government of the Tudors in arbitrary colours, to relieve that of the Stuarts. Mr Laing appeared as the champion of the Scottish patriots, and Dr M’Crie as the vindicator of the presbyterians; and within these few past years, two elaborate works have fully examined the statements and representations of Hume,—the British Empire of Mr Brodie, and the extremely impartial Constitutional History of Hallam.
In the interval betwixt the publication of the first and second volumes of the History, Hume produced the "Natural History of Religion." This production is one of those which Warburton delighted to honour. In a pamphlet which Hume attributed to Hurd, he thus politely notices it: "The few excepted out of the whole race of mankind are, we see, our philosopher and his gang, with their pedlars’ ware of matter and motion, who penetrate by their disquisitions into the secret structure of vegetable and animal bodies, to extract, like the naturalists in Gulliver, sunbeams out of cucumbers; just as wise a project as this of raising religion out of the intrigues of matter and motion. We see what the man would be at, through all his disguises, and no doubt, he would be much mortified if we did not; though the discovery we make, is only this, that, of all the slanders against revelation, this before us is the tritest, the dirtiest, and the most worn in the drudgery of free-thinking, not but it may pass with his friends, and they have my free leave to make their best of it. What I quote it for; is only to show the rancour of heart which possesses this unhappy man, and which could induce him to employ an insinuation against the Christian and the Jewish religions; not only of no weight in itself, but of none, I will venture to say, even in his own opinion." [Warburton’s works, vii. 851. 868.]Hume says, he "found by Warburton’s railing" that his "books were beginning to be esteemed in good company;" and of the particular attention which the prelate bestowed on the sceptic, such specimens as the following are to be found in the correspondence of the former: "I am strongly tempted too, to have a stroke at Hume in parting. He is the author of a little book, called Philosophical Essays: in one of which he argues against the hope of a God, and in another (very needlessly you will say,) against the possibility of miracles. He has crowned the liberty of the press, and yet he has a considerable post under government. I have a great mind to do justice on his arguments against miracles, which I think might be done in few words. But does he deserve notice? Is he known among you? Pray answer me these questions; for if his own weight keeps him down, I should be sorry to contribute to his advancement to any place but the pillory." [Letters from a late Rev. Prelate, to one of his Friends, 1808, p. 11.]
Of the very different manner in which he esteemed a calm, and a scurrilous critic, we have happily been able to obtain an instance, in a copy of a curious letter of Hume, which, although the envelope is unfortunately lost, and the whole is somewhat mutilated, we can perceive from the circumstances, to have been addressed to Dr John Stewart, author of an Essay on the Laws of Motion. It affords a singular instance of the calm and forgiving spirit of the philosopher: "I am so great a lover of peace, that I am resolved to drop this matter altogether, and not to insert a syllable in the preface, which can have a reference to your essay. The truth is, I could take no revenge but such a one as would have been a great deal too cruel, and much exceeding the offence; for though most authors think, that a contemptuous manner of treating their writings is but slightly revenged by hurting the personal character and the honour of their antagonists, I am very far from being of that opinion. Besides, as I am as certain as I can be of any thing, (and I am not such a sceptic as you may perhaps imagine,) that your inserting such remarkable alterations in the printed copy proceeded entirely from precipitancy and passion, not from any formed intention of deceiving the society, I would not take advantage of such an incident, to throw a slur on a man of merit, whom I esteem though I might have reason to complain of him. When I am abused by such a fellow as Warburton, whom I neither know nor care for, I can laugh at him. But if Dr Stewart approaches any way towards the same style of writing, I own it vexes me; because I conclude that some unguarded circumstances of my conduct, though contrary to my intention had given occasion to it. As to your situation with regard to lord Kames, I am not so good a judge. I only know, that you had so much the better of the argument that you ought upon that account to have been more reserved in your expressions. All raillery ought to be avoided in philosophical argument, both because (it is) unphilosophical, and because it cannot but be offensive, let it be ever so gentle. What then must we think with regard to so many insinuations of irreligion, to which lord Kames’s paper gave not the least occasion? This spirit of the inquisitor is, in you, the effect of passion, and what a cool moment would easily correct. But when it predominates in the character, what ravages has it committed on reason, virtue, truth, sobriety, and every thing that is valuable among mankind!"—We may at this period of his life consider Hume as having reached the age when the mind has entirely ceased to bend to circumstances, and cannot be made to alter its habits. Speaking of him in this advanced period of his life, an author signing himself G. N. and detailing some anecdotes of Hume, with whom he says he was acquainted, states (in the Scots Magazine), that "his great views of being singular, and a vanity to show himself superior to most people, led him to advance many axioms that were dissonant to the opinions of others, and led him into sceptical doctrines, only to show how minute and puzzling they were to other folk; in so far, that I have often seen him (in various companies, according as he saw some enthusiastic person there), combat either their religious or political principles; nay, after he had struck them dumb, take up the argument on their side, with equal good humour, wit, and jocoseness, all to show his pre-eminency." The same person mentions his social feelings, and the natural disposition of his temper to flow with the current of whatever society he was in; and that while he never gambled, he had a natural liking to whist playing, and was so accomplished a player as to be the subject of a shameless proposal on the part of a needy man of rank, for bettering their mutual fortunes, which it need not be said was repelled.
But the late lamented Henry M’Kenzie, who has attempted to embody the character of the sceptic in the beautiful fiction of La Roche, has drawn, from his intimate knowledge of character, and his great acquaintance with the philosopher, a more pleasing picture. His words are, "The unfortunate nature of his opinions with regard to the theoretical principles of moral and religious truth, never influenced his regard for men who held very opposite sentiments on those subjects, which he never, like some vain shallow sceptics, introduced into social discourse; on the contrary, when at any time the conversation tended that way, he was desirous rather of avoiding any serious discussion on matters which he wished to confine to the graver and less dangerous consideration of cool philosophy. He had, it might be said, in the language which the Grecian historian applies to an illustrious Roman, two minds; one which indulged in the metaphysical scepticism which his genius could invent, but which it could not always disentangle; another, simple, natural, and playful, which made his conversation delightful to his friends, and even frequently conciliated men whose principles of belief his philosophical doubts, if they had not power to shake, had grieved and offended. During the latter period of his life I was frequently in his company amidst persons of genuine piety, and I never heard him venture a remark at which such men, or ladies--still more susceptible than men—could take offence. His good nature and benevolence prevented such an injury to his hearers; it was unfortunate that he often forgot what injury some of his writings might do to his readers." [M’Kenzie’s Life of Home, p. 20.]
Hume was now a man of a very full habit, and somewhat given to indolence in all occupations but that of literature. An account of himself, in a letter to his relation Mrs Dysart may amuse from its calm pleasantry, and good humour: "My compliments to his solicitorship. Unfortunately I have not a horse at present to carry my fat carcase, to pay its respects to his superior obesity. But if he finds travelling requisite either for his health or the captain’s, we shall be glad to entertain him here as long as we can do it at another’s expense, in hopes that we shall soon be able to do it at our own. Pray, tell the solicitor that I have been reading lately, in an old author called Strabo, that in some cities of ancient Gaul, there was a fixed legal standard established for corpulency, and that the senate kept a measure, beyond which, if any belly presumed to increase, the proprietor of that belly was obliged to pay a fine to the public, proportionable to its rotundity. Ill would it fare with his worship and I (me), if such a law should pass our parliament, for I am afraid we are already got beyond the statute. I wonder, indeed, no harpy of the treasury has ever thought of this method of raising money. Taxes on luxury are always most approved of, and no one will say that the carrying about a portly belly is of any use or necessity. ‘Tis a mere superfluous ornament, and is a proof too, that its proprietor enjoys greater plenty than he puts to a good use; and, therefore, ‘tis fit to reduce him to a level with his fellow subjects, by taxes and impositions. As the lean people are the most active, unquiet, and ambitious, they everywhere govern the world, and may certainly oppress their antagonists whenever they please. Heaven forbid that Whig and Tory should ever be abolished, for then the nation might be split into fat and lean, and our faction I am afraid would be in a piteous taking. The only comfort is, if they oppress us very much we should at last change sides with them. Besides, who knows if a tax were imposed on fatness, but some jealous divine might pretend that the church was in danger. I cannot but bless the memory of Julius Cesar, for the great esteem he expressed for fat men, and his aversion to lean ones. All the world allows that the emperor was the greatest genius that ever was, and the greatest judge of mankind."
In the year 1756, the philosophical calm of Hume appeared in danger of being disturbed by the fulminations of the church. The outcry against his doubting philosophy became loud, scepticism began to be looked on as synonymous with infidelity, and some of the fiercer spirits endeavoured to urge on the church to invade the sacred precincts of freedom of opinion. The discussion of the subject commenced before the committee of overtures on the 27th of May, and a long debate ensued, in which some were pleased to maintain, that Hume, not being a Christian, was not a fit person to be judged by the venerable court. For a more full narrative of those proceedings, we refer to the life of Henry Home of Kames, who was subjected to the same attempt at persecution. In an analysis of the works of the two authors, published during the session of the assembly, and circulated among the members, the respectable author, with a laudable anxiety to find an enemy to the religion he professed, laid down the following, as propositions which he would be enabled to prove were the avowed opinions of Mr Hume:—"1st, All distinction between virtue and vice is merely imaginary—2nd, Justice has no foundation farther than it contributes to public advantage—3d, Adultery is very lawful, but sometimes not expedient.—4th, Religion and its ministers are prejudicial to mankind, and will always be found either to run into the heights of superstition or enthusiasm—5th, Christianity has no evidence of its being a divine revelation—6th, Of all the modes of Christianity, popery is the best, and the reformation from thence was only the work of madmen and enthusiasts." The overture was rejected by the committee, and the indefatigable vindicators of religion brought the matter under a different shape before the presbytery of Edinburgh, but that body very properly decided on several grounds, among which, not the least applicable was, "to prevent their entering further into so abstruse and metaphysical a subject," that it "would be more for the purposes of edification to dismiss the process."
In 1759, appeared Dr Robertson’s History of Scotland, and the similarity of the subjects in which he and Hume were engaged, produced an interchange of information, and a lasting friendship, honourable to both these great men. Hume was singularly destitute of literary jealousy; and of the unaffected welcome which he gave to a work treading on his own peculiar path, we could give many instances, did our limits permit. He never withheld a helping hand to any author who might be considered his rival, and, excepting in one instance, never peevishly mentioned a living literary author in his works. The instance we allude to, is a remark on Mr Tytler’s vindication of queen Mary, and referring the reader to a copy of it below, ["But there is a person that has written an Inquiry, historical and critical, into the evidence against Mary, queen of Scots; and has attempted to refute the foregoing narrative. He quotes a single passage of the narrative, in which Mary is said simply to refuse answering; and then a single passage from Goodall, in which she boasts simply that she will answer; and he very civilly, and almost directly, calls the author a liar, on account of this pretended contradiction. That whole Inquiry, from beginning to end, is composed of such scandalous articles; and from this instance, the reader may judge of the candour, fair dealing, veracity, and good manners of the inquirer. There are, indeed, three events in our history, which may be regarded as touchstones of party-men. An English whig, who asserts the reality of the popish plot; an Irish Catholic, who denies the massacre in 1641; and a Scottish Jacobite, who maintains the innocence of queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason, and must be left to their prejudices."] it is right to remark, that it seems more dictated by contempt of the arguments, than spleen towards the person of the author.
Any account of the literary society in which Hume spent his hours of leisure and conviviality, would involve us in a complete literary history of Scotland during that period, unsuitable to a biographical dictionary. With all the eminent men of that illustrious period of Scottish literature, he was intimately acquainted; as a philosopher, and as a man of dignified and respected intellect, he stood at the head of the list of great names; but in the less calm employments in which literary men of all periods occupy themselves, he was somewhat shunned, as a person too lukewarm, indolent, and good-humoured, to support literary warfare. An amusing specimen of his character in this respect, is mentioned by M’Kenzie in his life of Home. When two numbers of a periodical work, entitled. "The Edinburgh Review," were published in 1755, the bosom friends of Hume, who were the conductors, concealed it from him, because, "I have heard," says M’ Kenzie, "that they were afraid both of his extreme good nature, and his extreme artlessness; that, from the one, their criticisms would have been weakened, or suppressed, and, from the other, their secret discovered;" and it was not till Hume had repeated his astonishment that persons in Scotland beyond the sphere of the literary circle of Edinburgh, could have produced so able a work, that he was made acquainted with the secret in whimsical revenge of the want of confidence displayed by his friends, Hume gravely maintained himself to be the author of a humorous work of Adam Ferguson, "The History of Sister Peg," and penned a letter to the publisher, which any person who might peruse it without knowing the circumstances, could not fail to consider a sincere acknowledgment. Hume was a member of the Philosophical Society, which afterwards merged into the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and acted as joint secretary along with Dr Munro junior. He was also a member of the illustrious Poker Club, and not an uncongenial one, so long as the members held their unobtrusive discussion in a tavern, over a small quantity of claret; but when this method of managing matters was abolished, and the institution merged into the more consequential denomination of "The Select Society," amidst the exertions of many eloquent and distinguished men, he was only remarkable, along with his friend Adam Smith, for having never opened his mouth.
In 1761, Mr Hume published the two remaining volumes of the History of England, treating of the period previous to the accession of the house of Tudor: he tells us that it was received with "tolerable, and but tolerable success." Whitaker, Hallam, Turner, and others, have examined their respective portions of this period of history with care, and pointed out the inaccuracies of Hume; but the subject did not possess so much political interest as the later periods, and general readers have not been much disposed to discuss the question of his general accuracy. Men such as the first name we have mentioned have attacked him with peevishness on local and obscure matters of antiquarian research, which a historian can hardly be blamed for neglecting: others, however, who seem well-informed, have found serious objections to his accuracy in an article on the Saxon Chronicle, which appeared in the Retrospective Review, by an apparently well-informed writer, he is charged in these terms: "It would be perfectly startling to popular credulity, should all the instances be quoted in which the text of Hume, in the remoter periods more especially, is at the most positive variance with the authorities he pretends to rest upon. In a series of historical inquiries which the writer of this article had some years since particular occasion to superintend, aberrations of this kind were so frequently detected, that it became necessary to lay it down as a rule never to admit a quotation from that popular historian, when the authorities he pretends to refer to were not accessible for the purpose of previous comparison and confirmation."
Hume, now pretty far advanced in life, had formed the resolution of ending his days in literary retirement in his own country, when in 1763, he was solicited by the earl of Hertford to attend him on his embassy to Paris, and after having declined, on a second invitation he accepted the situation. In the full blaze of a wide-spread reputation, the philosopher was now surrounded by a new world of literary rivals, imitators, and admirers, and he received from a circle of society ever searching for what was new, brilliant, and striking, numberless marks of distinction highly flattering to his literary pride, though not unmixed with affectation. In some very amusing letters to his friends written during this period, he shows, that if he was weak enough to feel vain of these distinctions, he had sincerity enough to say so.
The fashionable people of Paris, and especially the ladies, practised on the patient and good-humoured philosopher every torture which their extreme desire to render him. and themselves distinguished could dictate. "From what has been already said of him," says lord Charlemont, "it is apparent that his conversation to strangers, and particularly to Frenchmen, could be little delightful, and still more particularly one would suppose, to French women and yet no lady’s toilette was complete without Hume’s attendance. At the opera, his broad unmeaning face was usually seen entre deux jolis minois. The ladies in France gave the ton, and the ton was deism." Madame D’Epinay, who terms him " Grand et gros historiographe d’Angleterre," mentions that it was the will of one of his entertainers that he should act the part of a sultan, endeavouring to secure by his eloquence the affection of two beautiful female slaves. The philosopher was accordingly whiskered, turbaned, and blackened, and placed on a sofa betwixt two of the most celebrated beauties of Paris. According to the instructions he had received, he bent his knees, and struck his breast, (or as Madame has it, "le ventre,") but his tongue could not be brought to assist his actions further than by uttering "Eb bien! mes demoiselles.—Eh bien! vous voila donc—Eh bien! vous voila—vous voila ici?" exclamations which he repeated until he had exhausted the patience of those he was expected to entertain. [Memoirs et Correspondence de Madame D’Epinay, iii. 284.]
In 1765, lord Hertford being appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, Mr Hume, according to his expectation, was appointed secretary to the embassy, and he officiated as chargé d’affaires, until the arrival of the duke of Richmond. Hume, who had a singular antipathy to England, and who had previously enjoyed himself only in the midst of his social literary circle at Edinburgh, insensibly acquired a relish for the good-humoured politeness and the gayety of the French, and on his return home in 1766, he left behind him a number of regretted friends, among whom were two celebrated females, the marchioness De Barbantane and the countess De Boufflers, who conducted a friendly, and even extremely intimate correspondence with the philosopher to the day of his death. [General Correspondence of David Hume, 4to, 1828, passim.]
In the order of time we come now to the discussion of an incident connected with his residence on the continent, which forms a very remarkable epoch in the life of Hume,—we mean his controversy with Rousseau. Before making any statements, however, it is right to warn our readers that an account of this memorable transaction, sufficient to give him an acquaintance with all its peculiarities, would exceed our limits, which permit of but a slight glance at the incidents, and that indeed it is quite impossible to form a conception of the grotesqueness of some of the incidents, and the peculiarities of character so vividly displayed, without a perusal of the original documents, which are easily accessible, and will well repay the trouble of perusal.
When in 1762, the parliament of Paris issued an arret against Rousseau, on account of his opinions, Hume was applied to by a friend in Paris to discover for him a retreat in England; Hume willingly undertook a task so congenial, but it did not suit the celebrated exile at that time to take advantage of his offer. Rousseau, taking every opportunity to complain of the misfortunes he suffered, the transaction with Hume was again set on foot at the instigation of the marchioness De Verdlin; Hume wrote to Rousseau, offering his services, and the latter returned him an answer overflowing with extravagant gratitude. Rousseau had, it appeared, discovered an ingenious method of making himself interesting: he pretended extreme poverty, and had offers of assistance repeatedly made him, which he publicly and disdainfully refused, while he had in reality as Hume afterwards discovered, resources sufficient to provide for his support. In pure simplicity, Hume formed several designs for imposing on Rousseau’s ignorance of the world, and establishing him comfortably in life, without allowing him to know that he was assisted by others; and the plan finally concluded and acted on was, that he should be comfortably boarded in the mansion of Mr Davenport, at Wooton, in the County of Derby, a gentleman who kindly undertook to lull the suspicions of the irritable philosopher by accepting of a remuneration amounting to £30 a year. Rousseau arrived in London, and appearing in public in his Armenian dress, excited much notice, both from the public in general, and from literary men. Hume, by his interest with the government obtained for him a pension of £100 a year, which it suited those in authority to wish should be kept secret. Rousseau expressed much satisfaction at this condition, but he afterwards declined the grant, hinting at the secrecy as an impediment to his acceptance of it; his zealous friend procured the removal of this impediment, and the pension was again offered, but its publicity afforded a far more gratifying opportunity of refusal. Immediately after he had retired to Wooton, with his housekeeper and his dog, nothing occurred apparently to infringe his amicable intercourse with Hume; but that individual was little aware of the storm in preparation. The foreign philosopher began to discover the interest of his first appearance in Britain subsiding. He was not in a place where he could be followed by crowds of wondering admirers, the press was lukewarm and regardless, and sometimes ventured to bestow on him a sneer, and above all no one sought to persecute him. The feelings which these unpleasing circumstances occasioned, appear to have been roused to sudden action by a sarcastic letter in the name of the king of Prussia, of which Rousseau presumed D’Alembert to have been the author, but which was claimed by Horace Walpole, and which made the circle of the European journals; and by an anonymous critique of a somewhat slighting nature, which had issued from a British magazine, but which appears not to have been remarked or much known at the period. Of these two productions it pleased Rousseau to presume David Hume the instigator, and he immediately framed in his mind the idea of a black project for his ruin, countenanced and devised by his benefactor under the mask of friendship. Rousseau then wrote a fierce letter to Hume, charging him in somewhat vague terms with a number of horrible designs, and in the general manner of those who bring accusations of unutterable things, referring him to his own guilty breast for a more full explanation. Hume naturally requested a farther explanation of the meaning of this ominous epistle, and he received in answer a narrative which occupies forty printed pages. It were vain to enumerate the subjects of complaint in this celebrated document. There was an accusation of terrible affectation on the part of Hume, in getting a portrait of the unfortunate exile engraved; he had insulted him by procuring dinners to be sent to his lodgings in London, (a circumstance which Hume accounted for on the ground of there having been no convenient chop house in the neighbourhood.) He had also flattered him (an attention which Hume maintains was not unacceptable at the period,) with a deep laid malignity. Hume had also formed a plan of opening all his letters, and examining his correspondence, (an accusation which Hume denied.) Hume was intimate with the son of an individual who entertained towards Rousseau a mortal hatred. A narrative of the treatment which Rousseau had met with at Neufchatel, and which he wished to have published in England, was delayed at the press; but we shall give in Rousseau’s own words (as translated) the most deadly article of the charge, premising, that the circumstances were occasioned by Hume’s having attempted to impose on him a coach hired and payed for, as a retour vehicle:—"As we were sitting one evening, after supper, silently by the fireside, I caught his eye intently fixed on mine, as indeed happened very often; and that in a manner of which it is very difficult to give an idea. At that time he gave me a steadfast, piercing look, mixed with a sneer, which greatly disturbed me. To get rid of the embarrassment I lay under, I endeavoured to look full at him in my turn; but in fixing my eyes against his, I felt the most inexpressible terror, and was obliged soon to turn them away. The speech and physiognomy of the good David is that of an honest man; but where, great God! did this good man borrow those eyes he fixes so sternly and unaccountably on those of his friends? The impression of this look remained with me, and gave me much uneasiness. My trouble increased even to a degree of fainting; and if I had not been relieved by an effusion of tears I had been suffocated. Presently after this I was seized with the most violent remorse; I even despised myself; till at length, in a transport, which I still remember with delight, I sprang on his neck, embraced him eagerly, while almost choked with sobbing, and bathed in tears, I cried out in broken accents, No, no, David Hume cannot be treacherous, If he be not the best of men, he must be the basest of mankind. David Hume politely returned my embraces, and, gently tapping me on the back, repeated several times, in a good-natured and easy tone, Why, what, my dear sir! nay, my dear sir! Oh, my dear sir! He said nothing more. I felt my heart yearn within me. We went to bed; and I set out the next day for the country."
The charge terminates with accusing Hume of wilful blindness, in not being aware, from the neglect with which Rousseau treated him, that the blackness of his heart had been discovered. Soon after the controversy was terminated, a ludicrous account of its amusing circumstances was given to the public; the extreme wit, and humorous pungency of which will excuse our insertion of it, while we may also mention, that with its air of raillery, it gives an extremely correct abstract of the charge of Rousseau. It is worthy of remark, that the terms made use of show the author to have been colloquially acquainted with the technicalities of Scottish law, although it is not likely that a professional person would have introduced terms applicable only to civil transactions, into the model of a criminal indictment. We have found this production in the Scots Magazine. Mr Ritchie says it appeared in the St James’s Chronicle: in which it may have been first published.
HEADS OF AN INDICTMENT LAID BY J. J. ROUSSEAU, PHILOSOPHER. AGAINST D. HUME, Esq.
1. That the said David Hume, to the great scandal of philosophy, and not having the fitness of things before his eyes, did concert a plan with Messrs Froachin, Voltaire, and D’Alembert, to ruin the said J. J. Rousseau for ever by bringing him over to England, and there settling him to his heart’s content.
2. That the said David Hume did, with a malicious and traitorous intent, procure, or cause to be procured, by himself or somebody else, one pension of the yearly value of £100, or thereabouts, to be paid to the said J. J. Rousseau, on account of his being a philosopher, either privately or publicly, as to him the said J. J. Rousseau should seem meet.
3. That the said David Hume did, one night after he left Paris, put the said J. J. Rousseau in bodily fear, by talking in his sleep; although the said J. J. Rousseau doth not know whether the said David Hume was really asleep, or whether he shammed Abraham, or what he meant.
4. That, at another time, as the said David Hume and the said J. J. Rousseau were sitting opposite each other by the fire-side in London, he the said David Hume did look at him, the said J. J. Rousseau, in a manner of which it is difficult to give any idea; that he the said J. J. Rousseau, to get rid of the embarrassment he was under, endeavoured to look full at him, the said David Hume, in return, to try if he could not stare him out of countenance; but in fixing his eyes against his, the said David Hume’s, he felt the most inexpressible terror, and was obliged to turn them away, insomuch that the said J. J. Rousseau doth in his heart think and believe, as much as he believes anything, that he the said David Hume is a certain composition of a white-witch and a rattle-snake.
5. That the said David Hume on the same evening, after politely returning the embraces of him, the said J. J. Rousseau, and gently tapping him on the back, did repeat several times, in a good-natured, easy tone, the words, "Why, what, my dear sir! Nay, my dear sir! Oh my dear sir!"—From whence the said J. J. Rousseau doth conclude, as he thinks upon solid and sufficient grounds, that he the said David Hume is a traitor; albeit he, the said J. J. Rousseau doth acknowledge, that the physiognomy of the good David is that of an honest man, all but those terrible eyes of his, which he must have borrowed; but he the said J. J. Rousseau vows to God he cannot conceive from whom or what.
6. That the said David Hume hath more inquisitiveness about him than becometh a philosopher, and did never let slip an opportunity of being alone with the governante of him the said J. J. Rousseau.
7. That the said David Hume did most atrociously and flagitiously put him the said J. J. Rousseau, philosopher, into a passion; as knowing that then he would be guilty of a number of absurdities.
8. That the said David Hume must have published Mr Walpole’s letter in the newspapers, because, at that time, there was neither man, woman, nor child in the island of Great Britain, but the said David Hume, the said J. J Rousseau, and the printers of the several newspapers aforesaid.
9. That somebody in a certain magazine, and somebody else in a certain newspaper, said something against him the said John James Rousseau, which he, the said J. J. Rousseau, is persuaded, for the reason above mentioned, could be nobody but the said David Hume.
10. That the said J. J. Rousseau knows, that he, the said David Hume, did open and peruse the letters of him the said J. J Rousseau, because he one day saw the said David Hume go out of the room after his own servant, who had at that time a letter of the said J. J. Rousseau’s in his hands; which must have been in order to take it from the servant, open it, and read the contents.
11. That the said David Hume did, at the instigation of the devil, in a most wicked and unnatural manner, send, or cause to be sent, to the lodgings of him, the said J. J. Rousseau, one dish of beef steaks, thereby meaning to insinuate, that he the said J. J. Rousseau was a beggar, and came over to England to ask alms: whereas, be it known to all men by these presents, that he, the said John James Rousseau, brought with him the means of sustenance, and did not come with an empty purse; as he doubts not but he can live upon his labours, with the assistance of his friends; and in short can do better without the said David Hume than with him.
12. That besides all these facts put together, the said J. J. Rousseau did not like a certain appearance of things on the whole.
Rousseau, with his accustomed activity on such occasions, loudly repeated his complaints to the world, and filled the ears of his friends with the villany of his seeming benefactor. The method which Hume felt himself compelled to adopt for his own justification was one which proved a severe punishment to his opponent; he published the correspondence, with a few explanatory observations, and was ever afterwards silent on the subject. Some have thought that he ought to have remained silent from the commencement, and that such was his wish we have ample proof from his correspondence at that period, but to have continued so in the face of the declarations of his enemy, he must have been more than human; and the danger which his fame incurred from the acts of a man who had the means of making what he said respected, will at least justify him.
Hume had returned to Edinburgh with the renewed intention of there spending his days in retirement, and in the affluence which his frugality, perseverance, genius, and good conduct had acquired for him; but in 1765, at the solicitation of general Conway, he acted for that gentleman as an undersecretary of state. It is probable that he did not make a better under-secretary than most men of equally diligent habits might have done, and nothing occurs worthy of notice during his tenure of that office, which he resigned in January, 1768, when general Conway resigned his secretaryship.
We have nothing to record from this period till we come to the closing scene of the philosopher’s life. In the spring of 1775, he was struck with a disorder of the bowels, which he soon became aware brought with it the sure prognostication of a speedy end. "I now," he says "reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits, insomuch, that were I to name the period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this latter period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gayety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities, and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation breaking out at last with additional lustre, I know that I could have but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present."
The entreaties of his friends prevailed on Hume to make a last effort to regain his health, by drinking the Bath waters, and he left Edinburgh for that purpose in the month of April, after having prepared his will, and written the memoir of himself, so often referred to. As he passed through Morpeth, he met his affectionate friends John Home the poet and Adam Smith, who had come from London for the purpose of attending him on his journey, and who would have passed him had they not seen his servant standing at the inn door. The meeting of these friends must have been melancholy, for they were strongly attached to each other, and the intimacy betwixt the philosopher and the enthusiastic poet Home, seemed to have been strengthened by the striking contrast of their temperaments. The intercourse of the friends on their journey was supported by Hume with cheerfulness, and even with gayety; and he never morosely alluded to his prospects of dissolution. On one occasion, when Home was officiously preparing his pistols, (for he was usually inspired with a military enthusiasm,) Hume said to him, "you shall have your humour, John, and fight with as many highwaymen as you please, for I have too little of life left to be an object worth saving." Of this journey a journal was found among the papers of Home, in. the handwriting of the poet, which has been fortunately given to the world by Mr M’Kenzie. Regretting that we cannot quote the whole of this interesting document, we give a characteristic extract.
"Newcastle, Wednesday, 24th Aprile.
"Mr Hume not quite so well in the morning; says, that he had set out merely to please his friends; that he would go on to please them; that Ferguson and Andrew Stuart, (about whom we had been talking) were answerable for shortening his life one week a piece; for, says he, you will allow Xenophon to be good authority; and he lays it down, that suppose a man is dying, nobody has a right to kill him. He set out in this vein, and continued all the stage in this cheerful and talking humour. It was a fine day, and we went on to Durham—from that to Darlington, where we passed the night.
"In the evening Mr Hume thinks himself more easy and light than he has been any time for three months. In the course of our conversation we touched upon the national affairs. He still maintains, that the national debt must be the ruin of Britain, and laments that the two most civilized nations, the British and French, should be on the decline; and the barbarians, the Goths and Vandals of Germany and Russia, should be rising in power and renown. The French king, he says, has ruined the state by recalling the parliaments. Mr Hume thinks that there is only one man in France fit to be minister, (the archbishop of Toulouse,) of the family of Brienne. He told me some curious anecdotes with regard to this prelate, that he composed and corrected without writing: that Mr Hume had heard him repeat an elegant oration of an hour and a quarte in length, which he had never written. Mr Hume talking with the princess Beauvais about French policy, said that he knew but one man in France capable of restoring its greatness; the lady said she knew one too, and wished to hear if it was the same; they accordingly named each their man, and it was this prelate."
The journey had the effect of partly alleviating Mr Hume’s disorder, but it returned with renewed virulence. While his strength permitted such an attempt, he called a meeting of his literary friends to partake with him of a farewell dinner. The invitation sent to Dr Blair is extant, and is in these terms: "Mr John Hume, alias Home, alias the late lord conservator, alias the late minister of the gospel at Athelstaneford, has calculated matters so as to arrive infallibly with his friend in St Davids Street, on Wednesday evening. He has asked several of Dr Blair’s friends to dine with him there on Thursday, being the 4th of July, and begs the favour of the doctor to make one of the number." Subjoined to the card there is this note, in Dr Blair’s hand writing, "Wem. This the last note received from David Hume. He died on the 25th of August, 1776." This mournful festival, in honour as it were of the departure of the most esteemed and illustrious member of their brilliant circle, was attended by lord Elibank, Adam Smith, Dr Blair, Dr Black, professor Ferguson, and John Home. On Sunday the 25th August, 1776, Mr Hume expired. Of the manner of his death, after the beautiful picture which has been drawn of the event by his friend Adam Smith, we need not enlarge. The calmness of his last moments, unexpected by many, was in every one’s mouth at the period, and it is still well known. He was buried on a point of rock overhanging the old town of Edinburgh, now surrounded by buildings, but then bare and wild—the spot he had himself chosen for the purpose. A conflict betwixt a vague horror at his imputed opinions, and respect for the individual who had passed among them a life so irreproachable, created a sensation among the populace of Edinburgh, and a crowd of people attended the body to its grave, which for some time was an object of curiosity. According to his request, Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion were published after his death, a beautifully classic piece of composition, bringing us back to the days of Cicero. It treats of many of the speculations propounded in his other works.