1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Hume

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:182-83.



Relying on the valuable collections of Carte; animated by a strong love of literary fame, which he avowed to be his ruling passion; desirous also of combating the popular prejudices in favour of Elizabeth and against the Stuarts; and master of a style singularly fascinating, simple, and graceful, the celebrated DAVID HUME left his philosophical studies to embark in historical composition. This eminent person was a native of Scotland, born of a good family, being the second son of Joseph Home (the historian first spelt the name Hume), laird of Ninewells, near Dunse, in Berwickshire. David was born in Edinburgh on this 26th of April 1711. After attending the university of Edinburgh, his friends were anxious that he should commence the study of the law, but a love of literature rendered him averse to this profession. An attempt was then made to establish him in business, and he was placed in a mercantile house in Bristol. This employment was found equally uncongenial, and Hume removed to France, where he passed some years in literary retirement, living with the utmost frugality and care on the small allowance made him by his family. He returned in 1737 to publish his first philosophical work, the Treatise on Human Nature, which he acknowledges "fell dead-born from the press." A third part appeared in 1740; and in 1742 he produced two volumes, entitled Essays Moral and Philosophical. Some of these miscellaneous productions are remarkable for research and discrimination, and for elegance of style. In 1745 he undertook the charge of the Marquis of Annandale, a young nobleman of deranged intellects; and in this humiliating employment the philosopher continued about a twelvemonth. He next made an unsuccessful attempt to be appointed professor of moral philosophy in his native university, after which he fortunately obtained the situation of secretary to Lieutenant-General St Clair, who was first appointed to the command of an expedition against Canada, and afterwards ambassador to the courts of Vienna and Turin. In the latter, Hume enjoyed congenial and refined society. Having remodelled his Treatise on Human Nature, he republished it in 1751 under the title of an Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Next year he issued two volumes of Political Discourses, and, with a view to the promotion of his studies, assumed gratuitously the office of librarian to the Faculty of Advocates. He now struck into the path of historical writing. In 1754 appeared the first volume of his History of Great Britain, containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I. It was assailed by the Whigs with unusual bitterness, and Hume was so disappointed, partly from the attacks on him, and partly because of the slow sale of the work, that he intended retiring to France, changing his name, and never more returning to his native country. The breaking out of the war with France prevented this step, but we suspect the complacency of Hume and his love of Scotland would otherwise have frustrated his intention. A second volume of the history was published, with more success, in 1757; a third and fourth in 1759 and the two last in 1762. The work became highly popular; edition followed edition; and by universal consent Hume was placed at the head of English historians. In 1763 our author accompanied the Earl of Hertford on his embassy to Paris, where he was received with marked distinction. In 1766 he returned to Scotland, but was induced next year to accept the situation of under secretary of state, which he held for two years. With a revenue of £1000 a-year (which he considered opulence), the historian retired to his native city, where he continued to reside, in habits of intimacy with his literary, friends, till his death, on the 25th of August 1776. His easy good-humoured disposition, his literary fame, his extensive knowledge and respectable rank in society, rendered his company always agreeable and interesting, even to those who were most decidedly opposed to the tone of scepticism which pervades all his writings. His opinions were never obtruded on his friends: he threw out dogmas for the learned, not food for the multitude.

The history of Hume is not a work of high authority, but it is one of the most easy, elegant, and interesting narratives in the language. The striking parts of his subject are related with a picturesque and dramatic force; and his dissertations on the state of parties and the tendency of particular events, are remarkable for the philosophical tone in which they are conceived and written. He was too indolent to he exact; too indifferent to sympathise heartily with any political party; too sceptical on matters of religion to appreciate justly the full force of religious principles in directing the course of public events. An enemy to all turbulence and enthusiasm, he naturally leaned to the side of settled government, even when it was united to arbitrary power; and though he could "shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I. and the Earl of Strafford," the struggles of his poor countrymen for conscience' sake against the tyranny of the Stuarts, excited with him no other feelings than those of ridicule or contempt. He could even forget the merits and exaggerate the faults of the accomplished and chivalrous Raleigh, to shelter the sordid injustice of a weak and contemptible sovereign. No hatred of oppression burns through his pages. The careless epicurean repose of the philosopher was not disturbed by any visions of liberty, or any ardent aspirations for the improvement of mankind. Yet Hume was not a slavish worshipper of power. In his personal character he was liberal and independent: "he had early in life," says Sir James Mackintosh, "conceived an antipathy to the Calvinistic divines, and his temperament led him at all times to regard with disgust and derision that religions enthusiasm or bigotry with which the spirit of English freedom was, in his opinion, inseparably associated: his intellect was also perhaps too active and original to submit with sufficient patience to the preparatory toils and long suspended judgment of a historian, and led him to form premature conclusions and precipitate theories, which it then became the pride of his ingenuity to justify." A love of paradox undoubtedly led to his formation of the theory that the English government was purely despotic and absolute before the accession of the Stuarts. A love of effect, no less than his constitutional indolence, may have betrayed the historian into inconsistencies, and prompted some of his exaggeration and high colouring relative to the unfortunate Charles I., his trial and execution. Thus, in one page we are informed that "the height of all iniquity and fanatical extravagance yet remained — the public trial and execution of the sovereign." Three pages farther on, the historian remarks — "The pomp, the dignity, the ceremony of thus transaction, corresponded to the greatest conception that is suggested in the annals of human-kind; the delegates of a great people sitting in judgment upon their supreme magistrate, and trying him for his misgovernment and breach of trust." With similar inconsistency he in one part admits, and in another denies, that Charles was insincere in dealing with his opponents. To illustrate his theory of the sudden elevation of Cromwell into importance, the historian states that about the meeting of parliament in 1640, the name of Oliver is not to be found oftener than twice upon any committee, whereas the journals of the House of Commons show that before the time specified, Cromwell was in forty-five committees, and twelve special messages to the Lords. Careless as to facts of this kind (hundreds of which errors have been pointed out), we must look at the general character of Hume's history; at its clear and admirable narrative; the philosophic composure and dignity of its style; the sagacity with which the views of conflicting sects and parties are estimated and developed; the large admissions which the author makes to his opponents; and the high importance he everywhere assigns to the cultivation of letters, and the interests of learning and literature. Judged by this elevated standard, the work of Hume must ever be regarded as an honour to British literature. It differs as widely from the previous annals and compilations as a finished portrait by Reynolds differs from the rude draughts of a country artist. The latter may be the more faithful external likeness, but is wanting in all that gives grace and sentiment, sweetness or loftiness, to the general composition.