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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
David Hume (1711–1776)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Michael Andrew Mikkelsen
DAVID HUME not only founded the literary school of English historical writing, and originated some of the more important doctrines of modern political economy, but also exercised a paramount influence on the philosophic thought of the eighteenth century.  1
  He was the younger son of Joseph Hume, laird of Ninewells in Berwickshire; and was born at Edinburgh April 26th (O. S.), 1711. He appears to have entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve, and to have left at fourteen or fifteen without taking a degree. He began the study of law, but abandoned it in order to devote himself to the “pursuits of philosophy and learning.” His first work, the ‘Treatise of Human Nature,’ was published partly in 1739 and partly in 1740; the books entitled ‘Of the Understanding’ and ‘Of the Passions’ appearing in the former, and that entitled ‘Of Morals’ in the latter year.  2
  The ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ is the final and most complete exposition of the fundamental principles of the old school of empirical philosophy,—the school to which belonged Bacon, Locke, and Berkeley. According to Hume, the contents of the mind are embraced in the term “perceptions.” Perceptions consist of sensuous impressions and ideas. Ideas are merely images of sensuous impressions. Knowledge is the cognition of the relation between two perceptions. There is no necessary connection between cause and effect. The idea of cause depends on the habit of the mind which expects the event that usually follows another. Mind is but a series or succession of isolated impressions and ideas. As knowledge is dependent on experience derived through the senses, and as the senses frequently deceive, one can have no absolute knowledge of things, but only of one’s impression of them. Hence, to give the conclusion later arrived at in the famous ‘Essay on Miracles,’ a miracle even if genuine is incapable of proof.  3
  The ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ is clear, forcible, and untechnical. Its most striking characteristics are its spontaneity and individuality. Hume owed little to academic training, and wrote his earlier works at a distance from centers of learning, without access to large libraries. The literary beauties of the ‘Treatise,’ however, are marred by its structural defects. It is a series of brilliant fragments rather than a well-rounded whole, and is concerned more with criticism of metaphysical opinions from the point of view of Hume’s theory of knowledge than with the construction of a complete system of philosophy.  4
  In 1741 appeared the first volume of the ‘Essays, Moral and Political,’ the second volume coming out in the following year. These essays, with some additions and omissions, were republished in 1748 under the expanded title, ‘Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary,’ which has been retained in the many subsequent editions. Hume’s essays are models of their kind, full of sparkle, interest, and animation. As an essayist he has not been surpassed in purity of diction, and no English writer except Addison equals him in the sense of harmony. His essays are characterized by intellectual impartiality, and by a philosophical breadth of view coupled with critical acuteness in matters of detail. His ‘Political Discourses,’ which were written in the same vein as the Essays, appeared in 1752.  5
  The ‘Essays’ and the ‘Political Discourses’ achieved great popularity both in England and on the Continent. Since the publication of Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of Laws’ no other work on politics had attracted so much attention as the ‘Political Discourses.’ In France particularly it was read by all classes, and was an important intellectual factor in the political agitation which preceded the French Revolution. In England Hume’s views on money, trade, and government were generally accepted; and if the French Revolution had not occasioned a conservative reaction, free trade and electoral reform would probably have been adopted by Parliament in the eighteenth instead of in the nineteenth century.  6
  The ‘Political Discourses’ has been called “the cradle of political economy.” It advanced original views on the subject of commerce, on money, on interest, and on the balance of trade; views which were afterwards adopted by Hume’s close friend, Adam Smith. Hume refutes the mercantilist error which confounded money with wealth. “Men and commodities,” he says, “are the real strength of any community…. In the national stock of labor consists all real power and riches.” He exposes the error of the theory that the rate of interest depends on the quantity of money in a country, and shows that the reduction of it must be the result of “the increase of industry and frugality, of arts and commerce.” He condemns the “numberless bars, obstructions, and imposts which all nations of Europe, and none more than England, have put upon trade,” and points out the international character of commerce. “Not only as a man, but as a British subject,” he says, “I pray for the flourishing commerce of Germany, Spain, Italy, and even of France itself.”  7
  Till the age of forty, Hume’s life was spent chiefly in the seclusion of Ninewells, the family estate; interrupted by a sojourn of three years in France from 1734 to 1737, by a few months’ absence as companion to the Marquis of Annandale in 1745 and 1746, and by a short period of service as secretary to General St. Clair, whom he accompanied on the expedition against Port L’Orient in 1746 and on a military embassy to Vienna and Turin. In 1751 he removed to Edinburgh, where in the following year he was appointed keeper of the library of the Faculty of Advocates, a post which he occupied until 1757. The library of the Faculty was the largest in Scotland, and afforded him an opportunity, long desired, of turning his attention to historical studies. In 1754 he published a volume on the reigns of James I. and Charles I.; followed in 1756 by a volume on the period from the execution of Charles to the Revolution of 1688, in 1759 by two volumes on the house of Tudor, and in 1761 by two more on the period from Julius Cæsar to Henry VII. Thus in the short space of ten years he wrote and published his famous ‘History of Great Britain,’ covering the entire period from the Roman conquest to the Revolution of 1688.  8
  Until the advent of Hume as a historian, history cannot be said to have been cultivated in Great Britain as a branch of polite literature. His predecessors were laborious compilers of dates and facts, having no appreciation of the æsthetic possibilities of historical composition. Hume brought to his task consummate literary skill, and a mind stored with the results of philosophical study and of economic and political investigations. He was the first Englishman to see that history is not merely a record of war and court intrigue, but that it is concerned also with the literature, the manners, and the conditions of life of the people. His profound psychological analysis of character, his insight into the complex social forces of history, and the grace and charm of his style, won the admiration of his contemporaries; and the ‘History of Great Britain’ has furnished a method to all subsequent English historical writers. In spite of a general air of impartiality, however, Hume’s history is as much a Tory as Macaulay’s is a Whig “pamphlet.” Thus, for instance, he draws a very favorable picture of Charles I. and depreciates Cromwell. The explanation is to be sought in the facts that he had no sympathy with the religious enthusiasm of the Roundhead sectaries, and that he conceived all intellectual culture and refinement to have been the property of the court and the cavaliers. Recent investigations have shown also that he used his authorities in an extremely careless manner, and that he neglected documentary evidence at his command. Since the rise of the modern critical school of history his work has in fact been largely superseded. Nevertheless, it stood for generations without a rival, and is even now almost unrivaled as a piece of literary composition.  9
  In 1763 he accepted the post of secretary to Lord Hertford, then ambassador to France. In France Hume’s reputation stood even higher than in Britain, and he immediately became a social lion in the Parisian world of fashion. Great nobles fêted him, and gatherings at noted salons were incomplete without his presence. He left France in 1766, and after a short term as Under-Secretary of State (1767–69) returned to Edinburgh, where he died August 25th, 1776.  10
  Among his works of importance not hitherto mentioned are ‘Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding’; ‘An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals’; and ‘Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.’  11
  Hume’s personal character was thus described by himself in his Autobiography, written four months before his death:—“I am … a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.” The accuracy of this description is confirmed by the testimony of his contemporaries and the tone of his private correspondence. It was not until he had reached middle age that he was able to gratify his taste for intellectual society by removing from the country to the town, “the true scene for a man of letters.” In his correspondence of 1751, the year in which he settled in Edinburgh, appeared a characteristic bit of domestic economy. “I might perhaps pretend as well as others to complain of fortune,” he wrote to Michael Ramsay; “but I do not, and would condemn myself as unreasonable if I did. While interest remains as at present, I have £50 a year, £100 worth of books,… and near £100 in my pocket, along with order, frugality, a strong spirit of independency, good health, a contented humor, and an unabated love of study. In these circumstances I must esteem myself one of the happy and fortunate.” His reason for taking a house in Edinburgh was that he might enjoy the companionship of his sister, who like himself was unmarried. “And as my sister can join £30 a year to my stock, and brings an equal love of order and frugality, we doubt not to make our revenues answer.” It is pleasant to read in his Autobiography that later his income rose to £1,000, and that “the copy-money given me by the booksellers much exceeded anything formerly known in England.” Slender as were his resources during his first years in the Scottish capital, he turned his salary as keeper of the Advocates’ Library—£40 a year—over to the blind poet Blacklock. He afterwards befriended Rousseau, when the latter sought refuge in England from persecution. On this occasion, however, his kind offices plunged him into a disagreeable literary quarrel with the morbid and perhaps mentally irresponsible beneficiary.  12
  Absence of jealousy was a noticeable trait in Hume’s character. He gave assistance and encouragement to several of the younger generation of Scottish writers; and his magnanimity is further illustrated by the helpful letter to his chief adversary, Thomas Reid, which he wrote on returning the manuscript of the ‘Enquiry into the Human Mind,’ submitted by the younger philosopher for the elder’s criticism. Hume was the first Scotsman to devote himself exclusively, and with conspicuous success, to literature. During the closing years of his life he had the satisfaction of seeing himself surrounded at Edinburgh by a brilliant company of men of letters,—Adam Smith, Ferguson, Blair, Gilbert Elliot, Lord Kames, Mackenzie, and others,—who, whether accepting his philosophical opinions or not, derived inspiration from his genial companionship.  13

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