David Hume, by David Martin, 1770

David Hume
(1711 - 1776)

HUME was born at Edinburgh on April 26, 1711 the younger son in a good but not wealthy family. His father, "who passed for a man of parts," died when Hume was still a child, and he was brought up by his mother at the family estate of Ninewells, near Berwick. About 1723 he entered the University of Edinburgh, and, according to his Autobiography, "passed through the ordinary course of education with success." His letters show that when he returned to Ninewells about three years later he had acquired a fair knowledge of Latin, slight acquaintance with Greek, and a literary taste inclining to "books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors." His studious disposition led his family to believe that law was the proper profession for him, but he "found an insurmountable aversion to everything 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 which I was secretly devouring."

A too "ardent application" to his studies threatened his health, and in 1734, determined to try a complete change of scene and occupation, Hume entered a business house in Bristol. In a few months he found "the scene totally unsuitable," and he set out for France, 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." He visited Paris, resided for a time at Rheims, and then settled at La Fleche, where Descartes had gone to school. During his three years in France he wrote the 'Treatise of Human Nature', and in 1737 returned to London to attend to its publication. It appeared in three volumes during 1739-1740. Contrary to his expectations, his first effort "fell deadborn from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots."

Upon the failure of his book Hume retired to Ninewells and devoted himself to study, mainly in politics and economics. In 1741 he published the first volume of his 'Essays, Moral and Political', which enjoyed such success that a second edition was brought out the following year. At that time he also issued a second volume of essays. He continued to look about for a position that would secure him independence, and in 1744 tried hard to obtain the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. Failing in this attempt, he accepted the post of tutor to the Marquis of Annandale, who had been declared a lunatic by the court. Upon his dismissal a year later, Hume accepted the office of secretary to General St. Clair, a distant relative, who was engaged in an "expedition which was at first meant against Canada, but ended in an incursion on the coast of France." After the failure of this venture he accompanied the general on a "military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Surin" on which he "wore the uniform of an Officer and was introduced at these courts as aide-de-camp to the general." He remarks that these two years (1746-48), "almost the only interruption which my studies have received during the course of my life," enabled him to return to Scotland "master of near a thousand pounds."

During his absence from England in 1748 his 'Philosophical Essays' was published. Afterwards entitled 'An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding', it was a recasting of the first part of the Treatise by which he hoped to gain a larger audience. But the first reception of the work was little more favourable than that accorded to the 'Treatise'.

In 1751 he recast the third book of the 'Treatise' and published it as 'An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals'. That same year he was again unsuccessful in his attempt to obtain a professor's chair at Edinburgh, this time as the successor to his friend, Adam Smith, in the chair of logic. The following year, despite accusations of heresy, he received the post of librarian at the Advocates' Library, which though small in salary provided excellent facilities for literary work.

During his years as librarian Hume attained his greatest success as a man of letters. He continued his essays and in 1757 brought out the 'Four Dissertations', one of which was devoted to the 'Natural History of Religion'. 'The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' were also completed, but on the advice of friends publication was postponed until after his death. Most of his efforts, however, were devoted to the writing of history, to which he may have turned his attention because of the success of his political and economic essays. Adam Smith had recommended that he begin with Henry VII, but he chose to start with the period of James I, "an epoch when, I thought, the misrepresentations of faction began chiefly to take place." Although Hume was disappointed by the reception of the first volume, which appeared in 1753, his 'History of England' was well received, and within a few years it brought the author a larger revenue than had ever before been obtained in his country from literature. The work was completed by 1761, although Hume continued to revise it throughout most of the remainder of his life, excising from it all the "villainous seditious Whig strokes" and "plaguy prejudices of Whiggism" that he could detect.

Although "not only independent but opulent . . . and determined never more to set foot out of" his native country, Hume in 1763 accepted an invitation to go to Paris as acting secretary of the embassy. For three years he enjoyed Parisian society. Meeting with men and women of all ranks and stations, he noted "the more I resiled from their excessive civilities, the more I was loaded with them." He returned home, convinced "there is a real satisfaction in living at Paris." Rousseau accompanied him, persuaded by Hume to seek shelter in England. The association was of short duration; it ended in a violent and sensational quarrel for which Rousseau seems to have been largely to blame. Hume, after serving as undersecretary at the Foreign Office for a year (1767-68), retired to Edinburgh, where he built himself a new house, and settled down "with the prospect of enjoying long my ease, and of seeing the increase of my reputation."

In the spring of 1775 Hume was stricken with a troublesome though not painful illness. Preparing himself for "a speedy dissolution," he wrote a short autobiography, in which he drew his own character. "I am," he wrote, "or rather was (for that is the style, I must now use in speaking of myself; which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments) I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, and of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity; and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments."

A visit to Bath in 1776 seemed at first to relieve his sickness, but on the return journey more alarming symptoms developed, his strength rapidly sank, and, little more than a month later, he died in Edinburgh on August 25, 1776.