DAVID HUME, a celebrated philosopher arid historian, was descended from a good family in Scotland, and born at Edinburgh April 26, 1711. His father was a descendant of the family of the earl of Hume or Home, and his mother, whose name was Falconer, was descended from that of lord Halkerton, whose title came by succession to her brother. This double alliance with nobility was a source of great self-complacency to Hume, who was a philosopher only in his writings. In his infancy he does not appear to have been impressed with those sentiments of religion, which parents so generally, we may almost add universally, at the time of his birth thought it their duty to inculcate. He once owned that he had never read the New Testament with attention. However this may be, as he was a younger brother with a very slender patrimony, and of a studious, sober, industrious turn, he was destined by his family to the law: but, being seized with an early passion for letters, he found an insurmountable aversion to any thing else; and, as he relates, while they fancied him to be poring upon Voet and Vinnius, he was occupied with Cicero and Virgil. His fortune, however, being very small, and his health a little broken by ardent application to books, he was tempted, or rather forced, to make a feeble trial at business; and, in 1734, went to Bristol, with recommendations to some eminent merchants: but, in a few months, found that scene totally unfit for him. He seems, also, to have conceived some personal disgust against the men of business in that place: for, though he was by no means addicted to satire, yet we can scarcely interpret him otherwise than ironically, when, speaking in his History (anno 1660) of James Naylor's entrance into Bristol upon a horse, in imitation of Christ, he presumes it to be "from the difficulty in that place of finding an ass!"
Immediately on leaving Bristol, he went over to France, with a view of prosecuting his studies in privacy; and practised a very rigid frugality, for the sake of maintaining his independency unimpaired. During his retreat there, first at Rheims, but chiefly at La Fleche, in Anjou, he composed his "Treatise of Human Nature;" and, coming over to London in 1737, he published it the year after. This work, he informs us, he meditated even while at the university; a circumstance which, it has been observed, proves the self-sufficiency of Hume in a very striking manner. For a youth, in the full tide of blood and generous sympathy, to meditate the diffusion of a system of universal scepticism, in which it is endeavoured to prove, not only that all the speculations of the philosopher or the divine, but every virtuous feeling of the heart, every endearing tie by which man is bound to man, are no better than ridiculous prejudices and empty dreams, is the most singular deviation from the natural and laudable propensities of a mind unhacknied in the ways of the world, that has yet occurred in the anomalous history of man. The scepticism and irreligion of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, "grew with their growth, and strengthened with their strength," but Hume started as if from the nursery, a perfect and full-grown infidel.
Never, however, according to the avowal of the author himself, was any literary attempt more unsuccessful. "It fell," he says, "dead born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots." He adds, however, that "being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, he soon recovered the blow." But this equanimity, we shall afterwards find was mere affectation, nor was the work quite unnoticed. It was criticised with great ability in the only review of that period, "The Works of the Learned;" and from a perusal of the article, we have no hesitation in ascribing it to Warburton. Whether it be true, that Hume called on Jacob Robinson, the publisher, and demanded satisfaction, we will not affirm. One remark of the Reviewer seems somewhat singular, and it may be thought prophetic. "This work abounds throughout with egotisms. The author would scarcely use that form of speech more frequently, if he had written his own memoirs."
In 1742, he printed, with more success, the first part of his "Essays." In 1745, he lived with the marquis of Annandale, the state of that nobleman's mind and health requiring such an attendant: the emoluments of the situation must have been his motive for undertaking such a charge. He 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 upon the coast of France. Next year, 1747, he attended the general in the same station, in his military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin: he then wore the uniform of an officer, and was introduced to these courts as aid-de-camp to the general. These two years were almost the only interruptions which his studies received during the course of his life: his appointments, however, had made him in his own opinion "independent; for he was now master of near £1000."
Having always imagined, that his want of success, in publishing the "Treatise of Human Nature," proceeded more from the manner than the matter, he cast the first part of that work anew, in the "Inquiry concerning Human Understanding," which was published while he was at Turin; but with little more success. He perceived, however, some symptoms of a rising reputation: his books grew more and more the subject of conversation; and "I found," says he, "by Dr. Warburton's railing, that they were beginning to be esteemed in good company." In 1752, were published at Edinburgh, where he then lived, his "Political Discourses;" and the same year, at London, his "Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals." Of the former he says, "that it was the only work of his which was successful on the first publication, being well received abroad and at home:" and he pronounces the latter to be, "in his own opinion, of all his writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best; although it came unnoticed and unobserved into the world."
In 1754, he published the first volume, in 4to, of "A Portion of English History, from the Accession of James I. to the Revolution." He strongly promised himself success from this work, thinking himself the first English historian that was free from bias in his principles: but he says, "that he was herein miserably disappointed; and that, instead of pleasing all parties, he had made himself obnoxious to all." He was, as he relates, "so discouraged with this, that, had not the war at that time been breaking out between France and England, he had certainly retired to some provincial town of the former kingdom, changed his name, and never more have returned to his native country." The "cheerful and sanguine temper" of which he formerly boasted, had now forsaken him, and the philosopher had dwindled to a mere irritable author. He recovered himself, however, so far, as to publish, in 1756, his second volume of the same history; and this was better received. "It not only rose itself," he says, "but helped to buoy up its unfortunate brother." Between these publications came out, along with some other small pieces, his "Natural History of Religion;" which, though but indifferently received, was in the end the cause of some consolation to him; because, as he expresses himself, "Dr. Hurd wrote a pamphlet against it, with all the illiberal petulance, arrogance, and scurrility, which distinguish the Warburtonian school;" so well aware was he, that, to an author, attack of any kind is much more favourable than neglect. Dr. Hurd, however, was only the ostensible author; he has since declared expressly, that it proceeded from Warburton himself. In 1759, he published his "History of the House of Tudor;" and, in 1761, the more early part of the English History: each in 2 vols. 4to. The clamour against the former of these was almost equal to that against the history of the two first Stuarts; and the latter was attended with but tolerable success: but he was now, he tells us, grown callous against the impressions of public censure. He had, indeed, what he would think good reason to be so; for the copy-money given by the booksellers for his history, exceptionable as it was deemed, had made him not only independent, but opulent.
Being now about fifty, he retired to Scotland, determined never more to set his foot out of it; and carried with him "the satisfaction of never having preferred a request to one great man, or even making advances of friendship to any of them." But, while meditating to spend the rest of his life in a philosophical manner, he received, in 1763, an invitation from the earl of Hertford to attend him on his embassy to Paris; which at length he accepted, and was left there charge d'affaires in the summer of 1765. In Paris, where his peculiar philosophical opinions were then the mode, he met with the most flattering and unbounded attentions. He was panegyrized by the literati, courted by the ladies, and complimented by grandees, and even princes of the blood. In the beginning of 1766 he quitted Paris; and in the summer of that year went to Edinburgh, with the same view as before, of burying himself in a philosophical retreat; but, in 1767, he received from Mr. Conway a new invitation to be under-secretary of state, which, like the former, he did not think it expedient to decline. He returned to Edinburgh in 1769, "very opulent," he says, "for he possessed a revenue of £1000 a year, healthy, and, though somewhat stricken in years, with the prospect of enjoying long his ease." In the spring of 1775, he was struck with a disorder in his bowels; which, though it gave him no alarm at first, proved incurable, and at length mortal. It appears, however, that it was not painful, nor even troublesome or fatiguing for he declares, that "notwithstanding the great decline of his person, he had never suffered a moment's abatement of his spirits; that be possessed the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company insomuch," says he, "that, were I to name a period of my life which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this latter period." He died August 25, 1776; and his account of his own life, from which we have borrowed many of the above particulars, is dated only four months previous to his decease. As the author was then aware of the impossibility of a recovery, this may he considered as the testimony of a dying man respecting his own character and conduct. But it disappointed those who expected to find in it some acknowledgment of error, and some remorse on reflecting on the many whom he had led astray by his writings. Hume, however, was not the man from whom this was to be expected. He had no religious principles which he had violated, and which his conscience might now recall. He had none of the stamina of repentance. From a mere fondness for speculation, or a love of philosophical applause, the least harmful motives we can attribute to Hume, it was the business of his life, not only to extirpate from the human mind all that the good and wise among mankind have concurred in venerating, the authority and obligations of revealed religion; but he treats that authority and the believers in, and defenders of revealed religion, with a contempt bordering on abhorrence; or, as has been said of another modern infidel, "as if he had been revenging a personal injury." Hume early imbibed the principles of a gloomy philosophy, the direct tendency of which was to distract the mind with doubts on subjects the most serious and important, and, in fact, to undermine the best interests, and dissolve the strongest ties of society. Such is the character of Hume's philosophy, by one who knew him as intimately as Dr. Smith, who respected his talents and his manners, but would have disdained to insult wisdom and virtue by bestowing the perfection of them on the studies, the conversation, and the correspondence that were constantly employed in ridiculing religion. Another reason, perhaps, why Hume died in the same state of mind in which he had lived, gibing and jesting, as Dr. Smith informs us, with the prospect of eternity, may be this, that he was at the last surrounded by men who, being of nearly the same way of thinking, contemplated his end with a degree of satisfaction; or as the triumph of philosophy over what he and they deemed superstition. Even his clerical friends, the Blairs and Robertsons, who professed to know, to feel, and to teach what Christianity is, appear to have withheld the solemn duties of their office, and by their silence at least, acquiesced in his obduracy. His social qualities, his wit, his acuteness, and we may add, his fame, preserved to him the regard of his learned countrymen, who forgot the infidel in the historian.
It is, indeed, as an historian, or perhaps occasionally as a political writer, that Hume will probably be best known to posterity; and it is in these capacities that he can be read with the greatest pleasure and advantage by the friends of sound morals and religion. Yet even as an historian, he has many faults; he does not scruple to disguise facts from party motives, and he never loses an opportunity of throwing out his cool sceptical sneer at Christianity, under the names of fanaticism and superstition. "When Mr. Hume rears the standard of infidelity," says Gilpin, "he acts openly and honestly; but when he scatters his careless insinuations, as he traverses the paths of history, we characterize him as a dark, insidious enemy."