1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Hume

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:100-08.



This celebrated metaphysician, moralist, and historian, was a Scotsman by descent and birth. He was born at Edinburgh in 1711. There was some noble blood in his ancestral line on both sides, — a circumstance of which, in spite of his philosophy, he was always extremely vain. His juvenile years, says his biographer, Mr. Ritchie, were not marked by any thing very noticeable. His father died while he was yet an infant, leaving the care of his three children to their mother, a lady of considerable prudence, who, Mr. Ritchie says, acquitted herself in this charge with very laudable assiduity, although it appears, from her son's own confession, that his religious education had been so greatly neglected in childhood that he had only a very slight acquaintance with the New Testament.

Being a younger brother, and possessing only a very slender patrimony, he was urged to apply himself to the study of law, on his finishing his academical course; but although his studious disposition, his sobriety, and his industry, gave his family a notion that the law was a proper profession for him, he had already imbibed tastes and feelings of little congeniality with the profession thus designed for him. "I found," says he, "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 which I was secretly devouring." The patrimony of a younger Scottish brother, however, would not allow of entire devotion to a life of letters, without some sources of emolument greater considerably than literature at that period presented to the young aspirant. "My very slender fortune," he says, "being unsuitable to this plan of life, and my health being a little broken by my ardent application, I was tempted, or rather forced, to make a very feeble trial for entering into a more active scene of life. In 1734 I went to Bristol, with some recommendations to eminent merchants, but in a few months found that scene totally unsuitable to me. I went over to France with a view of prosecuting my studies in a country retreat; and I there 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. During my retreat in France, first at Rheims, but chiefly at La Fleche, in Anjou, I composed my Treatise of Human Nature. After passing three years very agreeably in that country, I came over to London in 1737. In the end of 1738, I published my Treatise, and immediately went down to my mother and my brother, who lived at his country-house, and was employing himself very judiciously and successfully in the improvement of his fortune."

He speaks apparently with much equanimity of the signal failure of his first performance, and he deserves commendation certainly for the good hope he maintained in a crisis so discouraging to every literary adventurer as that through which it was his lot to pass. But there is a curious note subjoined to Mr. Ritchie's account of this portion of our philosopher's life, which gives another representation altogether of the affair. In the London Review, edited by Dr. Kenrick, there is a note, says Mr. Ritchie, on this passage in our author's biographical narrative, "rather inimical to the amenity of disposition claimed by him. The reviewer says: 'so sanguine, that it does not appear our author had acquired, at this period of his life, that command over his passions of which he afterwards makes his boast. 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 dropt 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.'"

We cannot present the next ten years of Hume's life in fewer words than his own. After affirming that he very soon recovered from the blow thus inflicted on him, and renewed the prosecution of his studies with great ardour, he proceeds thus: "In 1742 I printed at Edinburgh the first part of my Essays: the work was favourably received, and soon made me entirely forget my former disappointment. I continued with my mother and brother in the country, and in that time recovered the knowledge of the Greek language, which I had too much neglected in my early youth. In 1745 I received a letter from the marquess of Annandale, inviting me to come and live with him in England; I found also, that the friends and family of that young nobleman were desirous of putting him under my care and direction, for the state of his mind and health required it. — I lived with him a twelvemonth. My appointments during that time made a considerable accession to my small fortune. I then received an invitation from General St. Clair to attend him as a secretary to his expedition, which was at first meant against Canada, but ended in an incursion on the coast of France. Next year, to wit, 1747, I received an invitation from the general to attend him in the same station in his military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin. I then wore the uniform of an officer, and was introduced at these courts as aid-de-camp to the general, along with Sir Harry Erskine and Captain Grant, now General Grant. These two years were almost the only interruptions which my studies have received during the course of my life: I passed them agreeably, and in good company; and my appointments, with my frugality, had made me reach a fortune, which I called independent, though most of my friends were inclined to smile when I said so: in short, I was now master of near a thousand pounds. I had always 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 very usual indiscretion, in going to the press too early. I therefore cast the first part of that 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. A new edition, which had been published at London, of my Essays, moral and political, met not with a much better reception. Such is the force of natural temper, that these disappointments made little or no impression on me. I went down in 1749, and lived two years with my brother at his Country-house, for my mother was now dead. I there composed the second part of my Essays, which I called Political Discourses, and also my Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which is another part of my Treatise that I cast anew. Meanwhile my bookseller, A. Millar, informed me that my former publications (all but the unfortunate Treatise) were beginning to be the subject of conversation; that the sale of them was gradually increasing, and that new editions were demanded. Answers by reverends and right reverends came out two or three in a year, and I found by Dr. Warburton's railing, that the books were beginning to be esteemed in good company. However, I had a fixed resolution, which I inflexibly maintained, never to reply to any body; and not being very irascible in my temper, I have easily kept myself clear of all literary squabbles. These symptoms of a rising reputation gave me encouragement, as I was ever more disposed to see the favourable than unfavourable side of things; a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of 10,000 a year."

Whatever may be the literary merit and acuteness of the publications noticed in the above extract, they contain sentiments highly repugnant to every serious and well-disposed mind, as calculated to overturn the first principles of reasoning and belief, and establish only a universal scepticism in the room of all philosophy. Their object is not to show the difficulties and uncertainties which impede knowledge, but to prove that real and certain knowledge is a thing which mortals need not seek after, for it is rendered unattainable to man by the very structure of his understanding. The foundation of this annihilating scepticism had been incautiously laid long before Hume's time, by a no less distinguished and excellent man than John Locke, who, in his celebrated essay, limited all our sources of knowledge to sensation and consciousness; and by representing ideas as actual existences lodged in the mind, resolved every thing into mere consciousness, or the mind's perceptions of itself, and of nothing beyond itself. Hume was but following out this doctrine to its legitimate though startling and absurd consequences, when he chose to deny the existence of an external world, and to reject the universally received ideas of causation and the uniformity of the laws of nature. It is not to be wondered at that men less irascible than Warburton should have railed at the propounder of such monstrous dogmas as those which Hume had set forth. The general assembly of the Church of Scotland for a time meditated a prosecution of the author of the Enquiries, but were fortunately diverted from a proceeding which would only have defeated its object, by bringing a wretched philosophy into more general notice, and investing its author probably with the attributes of a martyr, and the sympathies which always attach themselves more or less to a persecuted man.

"In 1751," Mr. Hume resumes, "I removed from the country to the town, the true scene for a man of letters. In 1752 were published at Edinburgh, where I then lived, my Political Discourses, the only work of mine that was successful on the first publication. It was well received abroad and at home. In the same year was published at London, my Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals; which, in my own opinion, (who ought not to judge on that subject,) is of all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best. It came unnoticed and unobserved into the world. In 1752 the Faculty of Advocates chose me their Librarian, an office from which I received little or no emolument, but which gave me the command of a large library. I then formed the plan of writing the History of England; but being frightened with the notion of continuing a narrative through a period of seventeen hundred years, I commenced with the accession of the house of Stuart, an epoch when I thought the misrepresentations of faction began chiefly to take place. I was, I own, 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, Scotch, 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. Mr. Millar told me, that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five copies of it. I scarcely, indeed, heard of one man in the three kingdoms, considerable for rank or letters, that could endure the book. I must only except the primate of England, Dr. Herring, and the primate of Ireland, Dr. Stone, which seem two odd exceptions. These dignified prelates separately sent me messages not to be discouraged."

We are by no means sure that this first essay of our historian's excited all the clamour, and encountered all the prejudice, here represented. His biographer declares, that, after a diligent search into the literary history of the period, he has been unable to discover any trace of that universal outcry which Hume represents himself as having been assailed with. We are particularly doubtful of his having rendered himself so obnoxious to the tory party as his language implies. The fact is, he presented himself to the public as the apologist of the Stuarts, in their most unconstitutional measures, and his thinly-concealed dislike to the principles of the settlement of 1688 could not but be grateful to the party in question. There is certainly a tone of vacillation in much that he has written relating to the period in question, he does sometimes confess to the weaknesses of the king, and even pronounces some of his measures worthy of censure; but he takes care to represent the measures of the patriots as unconstitutional and rebellious. If he feels sometimes necessitated to eulogize the virtues and courage of the leading patriots, he hastens to remind the reader of their virulence and fanaticism. These, and other similar marks of trimming and uncertainty, are very ably and eloquently descanted upon by the reviewer of Brodie's History of the British Empire, in the 40th volume of the Edinburgh Review; and are fully and elaborately exposed by Mr. Brodie in his able and constitutional work. We shall here quote a few of the reviewer's illustrations of Hume's "double and discordant tone." "Thus, after saying of the leaders of opposition in Charles's first parliament, that 'these generous patriots, animated with a warm regard to liberty, saw with regret an unbounded power exercised by the crown, and resolved to seize the opportunity which the king's necessities afforded them, of reducing the prerogative within reasonable compass;' and adding, 'that to grant or refuse supplies was the undoubted privilege of the commons;' he chooses to represent their refusal to grant more than two subsidies till they had been heard on the national grievances, as 'a cruel mockery of the sovereign, and a proceeding unprecedented in an English parliament;' and shortly after, stigmatizes the very persons of whom he had spoken in the terms we have now cited, as ambitious fanatics, who advocated 'furious measures,' and 'under colour of redressing grievances, which, during this short reign, could not have been very numerous, proposed to control every part of the government which displeased them.' Of Hampden, he says, in an elaborate character, in itself neither very generous nor very consistent: 'Then was displayed the mighty ambition of Hampden, taught disguise, not moderation, by former restraint; supported by courage, conducted by prudence, embellished by modesty; but whether founded in a love of power or zeal for liberty, is still, from his untimely end, left doubtful and uncertain.' Now, if ambition means any thing, and especially a mighty, disguised, and immoderate ambition, it must mean, we should think, a love of power; — but, while such an ambition is assumed as the undoubted basis and denominator of the character, it is admitted to be uncertain whether a love of power had any thing to do with it! But the eloquent writer does not startle even at greater inconsistencies than this, when the object is to lower the character of an anti-royalist. This illustrious person had at one time resolved, it seems, along with Pym and Cromwell, 'to abandon his native country and fly to the other extremity of the globe,' — and then, he who could be actuated only by mighty ambition — founded either in a love of power or a zeal for liberty — is eagerly degraded into a crazy fanatic, who had no other object but 'to enjoy lectures and discourses of any length or form that might please him.' In the same reckless spirit of flagrant inconsistency, or rather perhaps we should say, of alternate candour and partiality, he first represents the people of England at the commencement of the war in these glowing colours. 'Never was there a people less corrupted by vice, and more actuated by principle, than the English at this period. Never were there individuals who possessed more capacity, more courage, more disinterested zeal. To determine his conduct in the approaching contest, every man hearkened with avidity to the reasons proposed on both sides.' But, both before and after, while we meet with perpetual and unvarying praise of the gallantry and generous loyalty of those who adhered to the king, we find nothing but invectives and sarcasms upon the furious bigotry, the base hypocrisy, and low arts of popularity, by which their opponents are said to have been actuated. In like manner, he first says of Laud, that, though not exactly a Papist, 'the genius of his religion was the same with that of the Romish, and that not only the puritans believed the church of England to be relapsing fast into that superstition, but the court of Rome itself entertained hopes of regaining its authority in this island, and twice offered him privately a Cardinal's hat,' which he declined with great civility; and then, when he comes to the account of his trial, does not scruple to say, that 'the groundless charge of popery, though belied by his whole conduct, was continually urged against him.' In the same spirit, when he comes to the agitating scene of the king's trial and condemnation, he first represents it in these words as a proceeding of the most awful grandeur and sublimity. 'The pomp and dignity, the ceremony of this transaction, corresponded to the greatest conception that is suggested in the annals of human kind! Tho delegates of a great people sitting in judgment on their supreme magistrate, and trying him for his misgovernment and breach of trust!' This, it must be confessed, is, at least, lofty and liberal enough; and would satisfy, we should imagine, the ambition of a professed regicide. But by and by all this theatrical pomp is conjured away, and this magnificent temple of Justice converted into a den of paltry and contemptible assassins. Instead of his judges being really the delegates of a great nation, we find even the parliament by whom they were appointed dwindled into; a diminutive assembly, no longer deserving that honourable name,' and disavowed by the body of the nation; while they themselves are called 'hypocritical parricides, who, by sanctified pretenses, had long disguised their treasons,' and now consummated 'the height of all iniquity and fanatical extravagance.'"

It is a piece of whining cant, and nothing better, for Hume to represent all parties of his day as being fired to madness against him for "presuming to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I. and the earl of Strafford." No one ever found fault with the historian for shedding 'a decent tear' to the memory of the brilliant, though unprincipled, courtier and his infatuated master. But he must have known well that the cause of indignation found in his volume were the false pretences put forth on behalf of these men. It was Hume's object to canonize them, and he did not scruple either to mutilate or to pervert the truth when necessary for his purpose. Mr. Brodie has very ably and laboriously exposed the mean artifices to which this would-be ingenuous historian has had recourse, in order to give the wished-for tone and colouring to document which he durst not quote entire.

In 1756 Mr. Hume published a second volume of his History, containing the period from the death of Charles I. to the Revolution. Of this volume 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. But though I had been taught by experience, that the whig party were in possession of bestowing all places, both in the state and in literature, I was so little inclined to yield to their senseless clamour, that in above a hundred alterations, which farther study, reading, or recollection, engaged me to make in the reigns of the two first Stuarts, I have made all of them invariably to the tory side. It is ridiculous to consider the English constitution before that period as a regular plan of liberty." In this last sentence we have the great scope and purport of the historian revealed to us. It was his grand object to represent the English government as having been an absolute irresponsible monarchy up to the period of the Stuart dynasty; and consequently Charles as justified in withholding, and the people unreasonable in demanding, those privileges and liberties of the subject which formed the object of the civil war. Hume's theory has been exploded by several able hands; by none more successfully than Mr. Hallam and Mr. Brodie, to those volumes we have pleasure in referring the reader.

The concluding volume of the History of England was published in 1759. Two years afterwards Mr. Hume published the earlier part of the English history, in two volumes. His reputation was now established as a writer, and the profits of his historical volumes, to use his own words, "rendered him not only independent but opulent." In 1763 he accompanied the earl of Hertford's embassy to Paris. He received much attention from the literary circles of that metropolis, and appears to have been highly gratified with his reception. On the departure of Lord Hertford to assume the vice-royalty of Ireland, in 1766, Mr. Hume was left charge d'affairs in Paris until the arrival of the duke of Richmond. In 1767 he accepted of an under-secretaryship of state, but in 1769 retired into private life, and fixed his residence in Edinburgh. He spent the remainder of his days in lettered ease and tranquillity. He died on the 25th of August, 1766.

His friend, Dr. Adam Smith, has given an account of his latter moments in a letter to Mr. Strahan, which is usually appended to the autobiographical sketch of the author attached to his History of England. It is an interesting but a melancholy document, representing as it does a mind of great and unquestionable powers making idle sport of all the tremendous uncertainties which must, even to Hume's sceptical mind, have enveloped the article death.

Mr. Hume's merits as an historian are now pretty generally understood, and he is daily losing possession of the public ear. It is impossible to deny to his narrative the praise of great elegance, perspicuity, and seductiveness; but he has been proved to be deficient in the higher qualities of the historian, — in all that enables us to repose confidence in his graceful narrative. We now read every page of his once popular history with extreme suspicion, and a constant watchfulness against being led into error by his artful and insidious eloquence. "Mr. Hume's summaries," says the critic already quoted in this article, "Mr. Hume's summaries of the conflicting views of different parties at particular eras, have been deservedly admired for the singular clearness, brevity, and plausibility with which they are composed: but, in reality, they belong rather to conjectural than to authentic history; and any one who looks into contemporary documents will be surprised to find how very small a portion of what is there imputed to the actors of the time had actually occurred to them, and how little of what they truly maintained is there recorded in their behalf. The object of the author being chiefly to give his readers a clear idea of the scenes he described, he seems to have thought that the conduct of the actors would be best understood by ascribing to them the views and motives, which, upon reflection, appeared to himself most natural in their situation. In this way, he has often made all parties appear more reasonable than they truly were; and given probability and consistency to events, which, as they actually occurred, were not a little inconceivable. But in so doing he has undoubtedly violated the truth of history, and exposed himself to the influence of the most delusive partialities. Such a hypothetical integration of the opinions likely to prevail in any particular circumstances, seems at all times to have been a favourite exercise of his ingenuity. Very early in life, for example, he composed four Essays, to which he gave the names of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Platonist, and the Sceptic, — and prefixed to them the following very characteristic notice: 'The intention of these Essays is not so much to explain accurately the sentiments of the ancient sects of philosophy, as to deliver the sentiments of sects which naturally form themselves in the world, and entertain different ideas of human life and human happiness. I have given each of them the name of the philosophical sect to which it bears the greatest affinity.' These very words, we think, might be applied, with very little variation, to most of the summaries of which we have been speaking. They, too, are mere conjectural views of the different sentiments that may be supposed naturally to arise in the world at particular periods; and they are given under the name of the historical party to which they bear the greatest affinity."