Hume, by Huxley

Chapter 1.

Early Life: Literary and Political Writings.

David Hume was born, in Edinburgh on the 26th of April (O.S.), 1711. His parents were then residing in the parish of the Tron church, apparently on a visit to the Scottish capital, as the small estate which his father Joseph Hume, or Home, inherited, lay in Berwickshire, on the banks of the Whitadder or Whitewater, a few miles from the border, and within sight of English ground. The paternal mansion was little more than a very modest farmhouse,1 and the property derived its name of Ninewells from a considerable spring, which breaks out on the slope in front of the house, and falls into the Whitadder.

Both mother and father came of good Scottish families — the paternal line running back to Lord Home of Douglas, who went over to France with the Douglas during the French wars of Henry V. and VI. and was killed at the battle of Verneuil. Joseph Hume died when David was an infant, leaving himself and two elder children, a brother and a sister, to the care of their mother, who is described by David Hume in My Own Life as “a woman of singular merit, who though young and handsome devoted herself entirely to the rearing and education of her children.” Mr. Burton says: “Her portrait, which I have seen, represents a thin but pleasing countenance, expressive of great intellectual acuteness;” and as Hume told Dr. Black that she had “precisely the same constitution with himself” and died of the disorder which proved fatal to him, it is probable that the qualities inherited from his mother had much to do with the future philosopher’s eminence. It is curious, however, that her estimate of her son in her only recorded, and perhaps slightly apocryphal utterance, is of a somewhat unexpected character. “Our Davie’s a fine goodnatured crater, but uncommon wake-minded.” The first part of the judgment was indeed verified by “Davie’s” whole life; but one might seek in vain for signs of what is commonly understood as “weakness of mind” in a man who not only showed himself to be an intellectual athlete, but who had an eminent share of practical wisdom and tenacity of purpose. One would like to know, however, when it was that Mrs. Hume committed herself to this not too flattering judgment of her younger son. For as Hume reached the mature age of four and thirty, before he obtained any employment of sufficient importance to convert the meagre pittance of a middling laird’s younger brother into a decent maintenance, it is not improbable that a shrewd Scots wife may have thought his devotion to philosophy and poverty to be due to mere infirmity of purpose. But she lived till 1749, long enough to see more than the dawn of her son’s literary fame and official importance, and probably changed her mind about “Davie’s” force of character.

David Hume appears to have owed little to schools or universities. There is some evidence that he entered the Greek class in the University of Edinburgh in 1723 — when he was a boy of twelve years of age — but it is not known how long his studies were continued, and he did not graduate. In 1727, at any rate, he was living at Ninewells, and already possessed by that love of learning and thirst for literary fame, which, as My Own Life tells us, was the ruling passion of his life and the chief source of his enjoyments. A letter of this date, addressed to his friend Michael Ramsay, is certainly a most singular production for a boy of sixteen. After sundry quotations from Virgil the letter proceeds:—

“The perfectly wise man that outbraves fortune, is much greater than the husbandman who slips by her; and, indeed, this pastoral and saturnian happiness I have in a great measure come at just now. I live like a king, pretty much by myself, neither full of action nor perturbation —molles somnos. This state, however, I can foresee is not to be relied on. My peace of mind is not sufficiently confirmed by philosophy to withstand the blows of fortune. This greatness and elevation of soul is to be found only in study and contemplation. This alone can teach us to look down on human accidents. You must allow [me] to talk thus like a philosopher: ’tis a subject I think much on, and could talk all day long of.”

If David talked in this strain to his mother her tongue probably gave utterance to “Bless the bairn!” and, in her private soul, the epithet “wake-minded” may then have recorded itself. But, though few lonely, thoughtful, studious boys of sixteen give vent to their thoughts in such stately periods, it is probable that the brooding over an ideal is commoner at this age, than fathers and mothers, busy with the cares of practical life, are apt to imagine.

About a year later, Hume’s family tried to launch him into the profession of the law; but, as he tells us, “while they fancied I was poring upon Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors which I was secretly devouring,” and the attempt seems to have come to an abrupt termination. Nevertheless, as a very competent authority2 wisely remarks:—

“There appear to have been in Hume all the elements of which a good lawyer is made: clearness of judgment, power of rapidly acquiring knowledge, untiring industry, and dialectic skill: and if his mind had not been preoccupied, he might have fallen into the gulf in which many of the world’s greatest geniuses lie buried — professional eminence; and might have left behind him a reputation limited to the traditional recollections of the Parliament house, or associated with important decisions. He was through life an able, clear-headed, man of business, and I have seen several legal documents, written in his own hand and evidently drawn by himself. They stand the test of general professional observation; and their writer, by preparing documents of facts of such a character on his own responsibility, showed that he had considerable confidence in his ability to adhere to the forms adequate for the occasion. He talked of it as ‘an ancient prejudice industriously propagated by the dunces in all countries, that a man of genius is unfit for business,’ and he showed, in his general conduct through life, that he did not choose to come voluntarily under this proscription.”

Six years longer Hume remained at Ninewells before he made another attempt to embark in a practical career — this time commerce — and with a like result. For a few months’ trial proved that kind of life, also, to be hopelessly against the grain.

It was while in London, on his way to Bristol, where he proposed to commence his mercantile life, that Hume addressed to some eminent London physician (probably, as Mr. Burton suggests, Dr. George Cheyne) a remarkable letter. Whether it was ever sent seems doubtful; but it shows that philosophers as well as poets have their Werterian crises, and it presents an interesting parallel to John Stuart Mill’s record of the corresponding period of his youth. The letter is too long to be given in full, but a few quotations may suffice to indicate its importance to those who desire to comprehend the man.

“You must know then that from my earliest infancy I found always a strong inclination to books and letters. As our college education in Scotland, extending little further than the languages, ends commonly when we are about fourteen or fifteen years of age, I was after that left to my own choice in my reading, and found it incline me almost equally to books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors. Every one who is acquainted either with the philosophers or critics, knows that there is nothing yet established in either of these two sciences, and that they contain little more than endless disputes, even in the most fundamental articles. Upon examination of these, I found a certain boldness of temper growing on me, which was not inclined to submit to any authority in these subjects, but led me to seek out some new medium, by which truth might be established. After much study and reflection on this, at last, when I was about eighteen years of age, there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought, which transported me beyond measure, and made me, with an ardour natural to young men, throw up every other pleasure or business to apply entirely to it. The law, which was the business I designed to follow, appeared nauseous to me, and I could think of no other way of pushing my fortune in the world, but that of a scholar and philosopher. I was infinitely happy in this course of life for some months; till at last, about the beginning of September, 1729, all my ardour seemed in a moment to be extinguished, and I could no longer raise my mind to that pitch, which formerly gave me such excessive pleasure.”

This “decline of soul” Hume attributes, in part, to his being smitten with the beautiful representations of virtue in the works of Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, and being thereby led to discipline his temper and his will along with his reason and understanding.

“I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life.”

And he adds very characteristically:—

“These no doubt are exceeding useful when joined with an active life, because the occasion being presented along with the reflection, works it into the soul, and makes it take a deep impression: but, in solitude, they serve to little other purpose than to waste the spirits, the force of the mind meeting no resistance, but wasting itself in the air, like our arm when it misses its aim.”

Along with all this mental perturbation, symptoms of scurvy, a disease now almost unknown among landsmen, but which, in the days of winter salt meat, before root crops flourished in the Lothians, greatly plagued our forefathers, made their appearance. And, indeed, it may be suspected that physical conditions were, at first, at the bottom of the whole business; for, in 1731, a ravenous appetite set in and, in six weeks from being tall, lean, and raw-boned, Hume says he became sturdy and robust, with a ruddy complexion and a cheerful countenance — eating, sleeping, and feeling well, except that the capacity for intense mental application seemed to be gone. He, therefore, determined to seek out a more active life; and, though he could not and would not “quit his pretensions to learning, but with his last breath,” he resolved “to lay them aside for some time, in order the more effectually to resume them.”

The careers open to a poor Scottish gentleman in those days were very few; and, as Hume’s option lay between a travelling tutorship and a stool in a merchant’s office, he chose the latter.

“And having got recommendation to a considerable trader in Bristol, I am just now hastening thither, with a resolution to forget myself, and everything that is past, to engage myself, as far as is possible, in that course of life, and to toss about the world from one pole to the other, till I leave this distemper behind me.”3

But it was all of no use — Nature would have her way — and in the middle of 1736, David Hume, aged twenty-three, without a profession or any assured means of earning a guinea; and having doubtless, by his apparent vacillation, but real tenacity of purpose, once more earned the title of “wake-minded” at home; betook himself to a foreign country.

“I went over to France, with a view of prosecuting my studies in a country retreat: and there I 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.”4

Hume passed through Paris on his way to Rheims, where he resided for some time; though the greater part of his three years’ stay was spent at La Flêche, in frequent intercourse with the Jesuits of the famous college in which Descartes was educated. Here he composed his first work, the Treatise of Human Nature; though it would appear from the following passage in the letter to Cheyne, that he had been accumulating materials to that end for some years before he left Scotland.

“I found that the moral philosophy transmitted to us by antiquity laboured under the same inconvenience that has been found in their natural philosophy, of being entirely hypothetical, and depending more upon invention than experience: every one consulted his fancy in erecting schemes of virtue and happiness, without regarding human nature, upon which every moral conclusion must depend.”

This is the key-note of the Treatise; of which Hume himself says apologetically, in one of his letters, that it was planned before he was twenty-one and composed before he had reached the age of twenty-five.5

Under these circumstances, it is probably the most remarkable philosophical work, both intrinsically and in its effects upon the course of thought, that has ever been written. Berkeley, indeed, published the Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision, the Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, and the Three Dialogues, between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-eight; and thus comes very near to Hume, both in precocity and in influence; but his investigations are more limited in their scope than those of his Scottish contemporary.

The first and second volumes of the Treatise, containing Book I., “Of the Understanding,” and Book II., “Of the Passions,” were published in January, 1739.6 The publisher gave fifty pounds for the copyright; which is probably more than an unknown writer of twenty-seven years of age would get for a similar work, at the present time. But, in other respects, its success fell far short of Hume’s expectations. In a letter dated the 1st of June, 1739, he writes —

“I am not much in the humour of such compositions at present, having received news from London of the success of my Philosophy, which is but indifferent, if I may judge by the sale of the book, and if I may believe my bookseller.”

This, however, indicates a very different reception from that which Hume, looking through the inverted telescope of old age, ascribes to the Treatise in My Own Life.

“Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell deadborn from the press without reaching such a distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.”

As a matter of fact, it was fully, and, on the whole, respectfully and appreciatively, reviewed in the History of the Works of the Learned for November, 1739.7 Whoever the reviewer may have been, he was a man of discernment, for he says that the work bears “incontestable marks of a great capacity, of a soaring genius, but young, and not yet thoroughly practised;” and he adds, that we shall probably have reason to consider “this, compared with the later productions, in the same light as we view the juvenile works of a Milton, or the first manner of a Raphael or other celebrated painter.” In a letter to Hutcheson, Hume merely speaks of this article as “somewhat abusive;” so that his vanity, being young and callow, seems to have been correspondingly wide-mouthed and hard to satiate.

It must be confessed that, on this occasion, no less than on that of his other publications, Hume exhibits no small share of the craving after mere notoriety and vulgar success, as distinct from the pardonable, if not honourable, ambition for solid and enduring fame, which would have harmonised better with his philosophy. Indeed, it appears to be by no means improbable that this peculiarity of Hume’s moral constitution was the cause of his gradually forsaking philosophical studies, after the publication of the third part (On Morals) of the Treatise, in 1740, and turning to those political and historical topics which were likely to yield, and did in fact yield, a much better return of that sort of success which his soul loved. The Philosophical Essays Concerning the Human Understanding, which afterwards became the Inquiry, is not much more than an abridgment and recast, for popular use, of parts of the Treatise, with the addition of the essays on Miracles and on Necessity. In style, it exhibits a great improvement on the Treatise; but the substance, if not deteriorated, is certainly not improved. Hume does not really bring his mature powers to bear upon his early speculations, in the later work. The crude fruits have not been ripened, but they have been ruthlessly pruned away, along with the branches which bore them. The result is a pretty shrub enough; but not the tree of knowledge, with its roots firmly fixed in fact, its branches perennially budding forth into new truths, which Hume might have reared. Perhaps, after all, worthy Mrs. Hume was, in the highest sense, right. Davie was “wake-minded,” not to see that the world of philosophy was his to overrun and subdue, if he would but persevere in the work he had begun. But no — he must needs turn aside for “success”: and verily he had his reward; but not the crown he might have won.

In 1740, Hume seems to have made an acquaintance which rapidly ripened into a life long friendship. Adam Smith was, at that time, a boy student of seventeen at the University of Glasgow; and Hume sends a copy of the Treatise to “Mr. Smith,” apparently on the recommendation of the well-known Hutcheson, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the university. It is a remarkable evidence of Adam Smith’s early intellectual development, that a youth of his age should be thought worthy of such a present.

In 1741 Hume published anonymously, at Edinburgh, the first volume of Essays Moral and Political, which was followed in 1742 by the second volume.

These pieces are written in an admirable style and, though arranged without apparent method, a system of political philosophy may be gathered from their contents. Thus the third essay, That Politics may be reduced to a Science, defends that thesis, and dwells on the importance of forms of government.

“So great is the force of laws and of particular forms of government, and so little dependence have they on the humours and tempers of men, that consequences almost as general and certain may sometimes be deduced from them as any which the mathematical sciences afford us.”—(III. 15.) (See p. 45.)

Hume proceeds to exemplify the evils which inevitably flow from universal suffrage, from aristocratic privilege, and from elective monarchy, by historical examples, and concludes:—

“That an hereditary prince, a nobility without vassals, and a people voting by their representatives, form the best monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.”—(III. 18.)

If we reflect that the following passage of the same essay was written nearly a century and a half ago, it would seem that whatever other changes may have taken place, political warfare remains in statu quo:—

“Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their judgment, he is not capable. Unnecessary wars, scandalous treaties, profusion of public treasure, oppressive taxes, every kind of maladministration is ascribed to him. To aggravate the charge, his pernicious conduct, it is said, will extend its baneful influence even to posterity, by undermining the best constitution in the world, and disordering that wise system of laws, institutions, and customs, by which our ancestors, during so many centuries, have been so happily governed. He is not only a wicked minister in himself, but has removed every security provided against wicked ministers for the future.

“On the other hand, the partisans of the minister make his panegyric rise as high as the accusation against him, and celebrate his wise, steady, and moderate conduct in every part of his administration. The honour and interest of the nation supported abroad, public credit maintained at home, persecution restrained, faction subdued: the merit of all these blessings is ascribed solely to the minister. At the same time, he crowns all his other merits by a religious care of the best government in the world, which he has preserved in all its parts, and has transmitted entire, to be the happiness and security of the latest posterity.”—(III. 26.)

Hume sagely remarks that the panegyric and the accusation cannot both be true; and, that what truth there may be in either, rather tends to show that our much-vaunted constitution does not fulfil its chief object, which is to provide a remedy against maladministration. And if it does not —

“we are rather beholden to any minister who undermines it and affords us the opportunity of erecting a better in its place.”— III. 28.

The fifth Essay discusses the Origin of Government:—

“Man, born in a family, is compelled to maintain society from necessity, from natural inclination, and from habit. The same creature, in his farther progress, is engaged to establish political society, in order to administer justice, without which there can be no peace among them, nor safety, nor mutual intercourse. We are therefore to look upon all the vast apparatus of our government, as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice, or, in other words, the support of the twelve judges. Kings and parliaments, fleets and armies, officers of the court and revenue, ambassadors, ministers and privy councillors, are all subordinate in the end to this part of administration. Even the clergy, as their duty leads them to inculcate morality, may justly be thought, so far as regards this world, to have no other useful object of their institution.”—(III. 37.)

The police theory of government has never been stated more tersely: and, if there were only one state in the world; and if we could be certain by intuition, or by the aid of revelation, that it is wrong for society, as a corporate body, to do anything for the improvement of its members and, thereby, indirectly support the twelve judges, no objection could be raised to it.

Unfortunately the existence of rival or inimical nations furnishes “kings and parliaments, fleets and armies,” with a good deal of occupation beyond the support of the twelve judges; and, though the proposition that the State has no business to meddle with anything but the administration of justice, seems sometimes to be regarded as an axiom, it can hardly be said to be intuitively certain, inasmuch as a great many people absolutely repudiate it; while, as yet, the attempt to give it the authority of a revelation has not been made.

As Hume says with profound truth in the fourth essay, On the First Principles of Government:—

“As force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and the most popular.”—(III. 31.)

But if the whole fabric of social organisation rests on opinion, it may surely be fairly argued that, in the interests of self-preservation, if for no better reason, society has a right to see that the means of forming just opinions are placed within the reach of every one of its members; and, therefore, that due provision for education, at any rate, is a right and, indeed, a duty, of the state.

The three opinions upon which all government, or the authority of the few over the many, is founded, says Hume, are public interest, right to power, and right to property. No government can permanently exist, unless the majority of the citizens, who are the ultimate depositary of Force, are convinced that it serves the general interest, that it has lawful authority, and that it respects individual rights:—

“A government may endure for several ages, though the balance of power and the balance of property do not coincide. . . . But where the original constitution allows any share of power, though small, to an order of men who possess a large share of property, it is easy for them gradually to stretch their authority, and bring the balance of power to coincide with that of property. This has been the case with the House of Commons in England.”—(III. 34.)

Hume then points out that, in his time, the authority of the Commons was by no means equivalent to the property and power it represented, and proceeds:—

“Were the members obliged to receive instructions from their constituents, like the Dutch deputies, this would entirely alter the case; and if such immense power and riches as those of all the Commons of Great Britain, were brought into the scale, it is not easy to conceive that the crown could either influence that multitude of people, or withstand that balance of property. It is true, the crown has great influence over the collective body in the elections of members; but were this influence, which at present is only exerted once in seven years, to be employed in bringing over the people to every vote, it would soon be wasted, and no skill, popularity, or revenue could support it. I must, therefore, be of opinion that an alteration in this particular would introduce a total alteration in our government, would soon reduce it to a pure republic; and, perhaps, to a republic of no inconvenient form.”—(III. 35.)

Viewed by the light of subsequent events, this is surely a very remarkable example of political sagacity. The members of the House of Commons are not yet delegates; but, with the widening of the suffrage and the rapidly increasing tendency to drill and organise the electorate, and to exact definite pledges from candidates, they are rapidly becoming, if not delegates, at least attorneys for committees of electors. The same causes are constantly tending to exclude men, who combine a keen sense of self-respect with large intellectual capacity, from a position in which the one is as constantly offended, as the other is neutralised. Notwithstanding the attempt of George the Third to resuscitate the royal authority, Hume’s foresight has been so completely justified that no one now dreams of the crown exerting the slightest influence upon elections.

In the seventh essay, Hume raises a very interesting discussion as to the probable ultimate result of the forces which were at work in the British Constitution in the first part of the eighteenth century:—

“There has been a sudden and sensible change in the opinions of men, within these last fifty years, by the progress of learning and of liberty. Most people in this island have divested themselves of all superstitious reverence to names and authority; the clergy have much lost their credit; their pretensions and doctrines have been much ridiculed; and even religion can scarcely support itself in the world. The mere name of king commands little respect; and to talk of a king as God’s vicegerent on earth, or to give him any of those magnificent titles which formerly dazzled mankind, would but excite laughter in every one.”—(III. 54.)

In fact, at the present day, the danger to monarchy in Britain would appear to lie, not in increasing love for equality, for which, except as regards the law, Englishmen have never cared, but rather entertain an aversion; nor in any abstract democratic theories, upon which the mass of Englishmen pour the contempt with which they view theories in general; but in the constantly increasing tendency of monarchy to become slightly absurd, from the ever-widening discrepancy between modern political ideas and the theory of kingship. As Hume observes, even in his time, people had left off making believe that a king was a different species of man from, other men; and, since his day, more and more such make-believes have become impossible; until the maintenance of kingship in coming generations seems likely to depend, entirely, upon whether it is the general opinion, that a hereditary president of our virtual republic will serve the general interest better than an elective one or not. The tendency of public feeling in this direction is patent, but it does not follow that a republic is to be the final stage of our government. In fact, Hume thinks not:—

“It is well known, that every government must come to a period, and that death is unavoidable to the political, as well as to the animal body. But, as one kind of death may be preferable to another, it may be inquired, whether it be more desirable for the British constitution to terminate in a popular government, or in an absolute monarchy? Here, I would frankly declare, that though liberty be preferable to slavery, in almost every case; yet I should rather wish to see an absolute monarch than a republic in this island. For let us consider what kind of republic we have reason to expect. The question is not concerning any fine imaginary republic of which a man forms a plan in his closet. There is no doubt but a popular government may be imagined more perfect than an absolute monarchy, or even than our present constitution. But what reason have we to expect that any such government will ever be established in Great Britain, upon the dissolution of our monarchy? If any single person acquire power enough to take our constitution to pieces, and put it up anew, he is really an absolute monarch; and we have already had an instance of this kind, sufficient to convince us, that such a person will never resign his power, or establish any free government. Matters, therefore, must be trusted to their natural progress and operation; and the House of Commons, according to its present constitution, must be the only legislature in such a popular government. The inconveniences attending such a situation of affairs present themselves by thousands. If the House of Commons, in such a case, ever dissolve itself, which is not to be expected, we may look for a civil war every election. If it continue itself, we shall suffer all the tyranny of a faction subdivided into new factions. And, as such a violent government cannot long subsist, we shall at last, after many convulsions and civil wars, find repose in absolute monarchy, which it would have been happier for us to have established peaceably from the beginning. Absolute monarchy, therefore, is the easiest death, the true Euthanasia of the British constitution.

“Thus if we have more reason to be jealous of monarchy, because the danger is more imminent from that quarter; we have also reason to be more jealous of popular government, because that danger is more terrible. This may teach us a lesson of moderation in all our political controversies.”—(III. 55.)

One may admire the sagacity of these speculations, and the force and clearness with which they are expressed, without altogether agreeing with them. That an analogy between the social and bodily organism exists, and is, in many respects, clear and full of instructive suggestion, is undeniable. Yet a state answers, not to an individual, but to a generic type; and there is no reason, in the nature of things, why any generic type should die out. The type of the pearly Nautilus, highly organised as it is, has persisted with but little change from the Silurian epoch till now; and, so long as terrestrial conditions remain approximately similar to what they are at present, there is no more reason why it should cease to exist in the next, than in the past, hundred million years or so. The true ground for doubting the possibility of the establishment of absolute monarchy in Britain is, that opinion seems to have passed through, and left far behind, the stage at which such a change would be possible; and the true reason for doubting the permanency of a republic, if it is ever established, lies in the fact, that a republic requires for its maintenance a far higher standard of morality and of intelligence in the members of the state than any other form of government. Samuel gave the Israelites a king because they were not righteous enough to do without one, with a pretty plain warning of what they were to expect from the gift. And, up to this time, the progress of such republics as have been established in the world has not been such, as to lead to any confident expectation that their foundation is laid on a sufficiently secure subsoil of public spirit, morality, and intelligence. On the contrary, they exhibit examples of personal corruption and of political profligacy as fine as any hotbed of despotism has ever produced; while they fail in the primary duty of the administration of justice, as none but an effete despotism has ever failed.

Hume has been accused of departing, in his old age, from the liberal principles of his youth; and, no doubt, he was careful, in the later editions of the Essays, to expunge everything that savoured of democratic tendencies. But the passage just quoted shows that this was no recantation, but simply a confirmation, by his experience of one of the most debased periods of English history, of those evil tendencies attendant on popular government, of which, from the first, he was fully aware.

In the ninth essay, On the Parties of Great Britain, there occurs a passage which, while it affords evidence of the marvellous change which has taken place in the social condition of Scotland since 1741, contains an assertion respecting the state of the Jacobite party at that time, which at first seems surprising:—

“As violent things have not commonly so long a duration as moderate, we actually find that the Jacobite party is almost entirely vanished from among us, and that the distinction of Court and Country, which is but creeping in at London, is the only one that is ever mentioned in this kingdom. Beside the violence and openness of the Jacobite party, another reason has perhaps contributed to produce so sudden and so visible an alteration in this part of Britain. There are only two ranks of men among us; gentlemen who have some fortune and education, and the meanest slaving poor; without any considerable number of that middling rank of men, which abound more in England, both in cities and in the country, than in any other part of the world. The slaving poor are incapable of any principles; gentlemen may be converted to true principles, by time and experience. The middling rank of men have curiosity and knowledge enough to form principles, but not enough to form true ones, or correct any prejudices that they may have imbibed. And it is among the middling rank of people that Tory principles do at present prevail most in England.”—(III. 80, note.)

Considering that the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 broke out only four years after this essay was published, the assertion that the Jacobite party had “almost entirely vanished in 1741” sounds strange enough: and the passage which contains it is omitted in the third edition of the Essays, published in 1748. Nevertheless, Hume was probably right, as the outbreak of ‘45 was little better than a Highland raid, and the Pretender obtained no important following in the Lowlands.

No less curious, in comparison with what would be said nowadays, is Hume’s remark in the Essay on the Rise of the Arts and Sciences that —

“The English are become sensible of the scandalous licentiousness of their stage from the example of the French decency and morals.”—(III. 135.)

And it is perhaps as surprising to be told, by a man of Hume’s literary power, that the first polite prose in the English language was written by Swift. Locke and Temple (with whom Sprat is astoundingly conjoined) “knew too little of the rules of art to be esteemed elegant writers,” and the prose of Bacon, Harrington, and Milton is “altogether stiff and pedantic.” Hobbes, who whether he should be called a “polite” writer or not, is a master of vigorous English; Clarendon, Addison, and Steele (the last two, surely, were “polite” writers in all conscience) are not mentioned.

On the subject of National Character, about which more nonsense, and often very mischievous nonsense, has been and is talked than upon any other topic, Hume’s observations are full of sense and shrewdness. He distinguishes between the moral and the physical causes of national character, enumerating under the former —

“The nature of the government, the revolutions of public affairs, the plenty or penury in which people live, the situation of the nation with regard to its neighbours, and such like circumstances.”—(III. 225.)

and under the latter:—

“Those qualities of the air and climate, which are supposed to work insensibly on the temper, by altering the tone and habit of the body, and giving a particular complexion, which, though reflexion and reason may sometimes overcome it, will yet prevail among the generality of mankind, and have an influence on their manners.”—(III. 225.)

While admitting and exemplifying the great influence of moral causes, Hume remarks —

“As to physical causes, I am inclined to doubt altogether of their operation in this particular; nor do I think that men owe anything of their temper or genius to the air, food, or climate.”—(III. 227.)

Hume certainly would not have accepted the “rice theory” in explanation of the social state of the Hindoos; and, it may be safely assumed, that he would not have had recourse to the circumambience of the “melancholy main” to account for the troublous history of Ireland. He supports his views by a variety of strong arguments, among which, at the present conjuncture, it is worth noting that the following occurs —

“Where any accident, as a difference in language or religion, keeps two nations, inhabiting the same country, from mixing with one another, they will preserve during several centuries a distinct and even opposite set of manners. The integrity, gravity, and bravery of the Turks, form an exact contrast to the deceit, levity, and cowardice of the modern Greeks.”—(III. 233.)

The question of the influence of race, which plays so great a part in modern political speculations, was hardly broached in Hume’s time, but he had an inkling of its importance:—

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. . . . Such a uniform and constant difference [between the negroes and the whites] could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. . . . In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.”—(III. 236.)

The Essays met with the success they deserved. Hume wrote to Henry Home in June, 1742:—

“The Essays are all sold in London, as I am informed by two letters from English gentlemen of my acquaintance. There is a demand for them; and, as one of them tells me, Innys, the great bookseller in Paul’s Churchyard, wonders there is not a new edition, for he cannot find copies for his customers. I am also told that Dr. Butler has everywhere recommended them; so that I hope that they will have some success.”

Hume had sent Butler a copy of the Treatise and had called upon him, in London, but he was out of town; and being shortly afterwards made Bishop of Bristol, Hume seems to have thought that further advances on his part might not be well received.

Greatly comforted by this measure of success, Hume remained at Ninewells, rubbing up his Greek, until 1745; when, at the mature age of thirty-four, he made his entry into practical life, by becoming bear-leader to the Marquis of Annandale, a young nobleman of feeble body and feebler mind. As might have been predicted, this venture was not more fortunate than his previous ones; and, after a year’s endurance, diversified latterly with pecuniary squabbles, in which Hume’s tenacity about a somewhat small claim is remarkable, the engagement came to an end.

1 A picture of the house, taken from Drummond’s History of Noble British Families, is to be seen in Chambers’s Book of Days (April 26th); and if, as Drummond says, “It is a favourable specimen of the best Scotch lairds’ houses,” all that can be said is worst Scotch lairds must have been poorly lodged indeed.

2 Mr. John Hill Burton, in his valuable Life of Hume, on which, I need hardly say, I have drawn freely for the materials of the present biographical sketch.

3 One cannot but be reminded of young Descartes’ renunciation of study for soldiering.

4 My Own Life.

5 Letter to Gilbert Elliot of Minto, 1751. “So vast an undertaking, planned before I was one-and-twenty, and composed before twenty-five, must necessarily be very defective. I have repented my haste a hundred and a hundred times.”

6 So says Mr. Burton, and that he is right is proved by a letter of Hume’s, dated February 13, 1739, in which he writes, “’Tis now a fortnight since my book was published.” But it is a curious illustration of the value of testimony, that Hume, in My Own Life, states: “In the end of 1738 I published my Treatise, and immediately went down to my mother and my brother.”

7 Burton, Life, vol. i. p. 109.

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42