1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Hume

John Gibson Lockhart, in Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 1:81-87.



There never was any man more fitted, by the general structure of his genius, for seizing and possessing an extensive dominion over Scottish intellect, than David Hume. He was very nearly the beau ideal of the national understanding, and had he stood in any thing like the same relation to some other parts of the national character, without all question he might have produced works which would have been recognized by them as complete pictures of their mode of thinking and feeling, and which would, therefore, have obtained a measure of influence exactly coincident with the extent of their national existence. The defect of feeling in his composition, which has prevented his books from attaining the power which their genius might otherwise have commanded, was by no means hostile to the early diffusion of his celebrity; but it has acted with the force of a terrible lever, in pulling him down from that height of authority to which the spring of his originality at first elevated him. The empire which he at once framed to himself in the region of the speculative understanding of his countrymen, has not, indeed, been taken away; but the tyrannous interference, by which this empire at first contrived almost to swallow up every authority in its vicinity, has now received many checks, and, I should hope, bids fair to be ere long entirely discontinued. The only points on which David's character seems to have found any room for ardent feeling, were the ideas of ancient loyalty and attachment to the blood of his native princes. This was a strange anomaly in the composition of so frigid an observer of human affairs. We hear it usually said, that it could have arisen only from the influence of early education; but even so, the wonder remains undiminished, how he, who threw off all other youthful prejudices with so much facility, should have continued to embalm this alone in the very recesses of his heart. I am rather inclined to be of opinion, that David had really persuaded himself, by the exercise of his speculative understanding, that the greatest danger, to which his country was likely to be exposed, would be nothing else than a too great dereliction of those ideas, on which the national character and constitution had been formed, and determined, in his capacity of philosopher, to make use of his powers as a historian to controvert, and, if possible, counterbalance this perilous tendency of his times. In the mysteries of Revealed Religion, there was something so very offensive to the unsatiable inquisitiveness of his mind, that he could not so far overcome his aversion, as to allow of any free use of his judgment, in regard to the impropriety and impolicy of attacking ideas so interwoven with the essence of the national character both of Englishmen and Scotsmen. He therefore continued to write against Christianity, and, if his conscience visited him with any passing touches of contrition, as, indeed, I think his writings prove abundantly to have been the case, it is probable he contrived to re-instate himself in his own good graces, by reflecting on the zeal with which he had fought the good fight of loyalty. But the truth is, that his consolation, if such there might be, was a very deceitful thing; for David Hume had spared no pains in convulsing the whole soil, wherein feelings both religious and national had taken root; and others saw well enough, although he himself might not, the absurdity of his undertaking to preserve, in the midst of the ruin occasioned by his own exertions, any particular item of that produce, for the sum total of which he had manifested so little reverence. In spite, therefore, of all his masterly genius — in spite of his style, unrivalled in English, or, perhaps, in any modern literature — and in spite, above all, of the attachment felt by a vast number of his readers, for the very notions whose advocate he is — in spite of all that nature and art could do, the devil has been too strong for David; and the Prince of Sceptics has himself been found the most potent instrument for diminishing, almost for neutralizing, the true and grave influence of the Prince of Historians.

The doctrine of trying every thing by the standard of mere utility, which was set on foot anew with so much success by David Hume, Adam Smith, and the other philosophers of their sect, was undoubtedly the most dangerous present ever conferred by men of high and powerful intellects upon the herd of the species. It is no wonder, that a doctrine, so flattering to the mean compass of every coarse understanding, should have been received with the utmost readiness by the whole crowd of "Scioli." But it is to my mind a very great wonder, that a person of such fine acumen as David Hume, should not have foreseen what a sad misapplication of his theory must be the infallible result of the weak and limited nature of those, for whose reception it was so admirably fitted. Hume himself, indeed, furnished many examples (such we conceive them to be) of the danger which must attend the application of that theory, even in the hands of the ablest of men — enough to convince those capable of examining him and his disciples, that the doctrine may, indeed, be a true one, but that it would require intellects of a very different construction from our's, to make any satisfactory use of it. It might have been forgiven to David, had he overlooked his own incapacities only; but it is no easy matter to discover by what strange mist his clear and piercing eye has been blinded to those of a species, of whose nature he was, in other instances, so far from over-rating the excellencies. There can be little doubt, however, that what he wanted power to foresee and guard against, had he lived to taste the experience of a few succeeding years, he would have understood abundantly, and repented, too, in the retrospect. But, as Faustus says,

O what is intellect? — a strange, strange web—

How bright the embroidery — but how dark the woof!

Could we be permitted to correct our errors, we should no longer be men; nay, the poet, you know, has gone even farther than this, when he says [Greek characters].

As the Scotch nation could boast of no great philosophical names before the appearance of Hume, one cannot be surprised, that they should have felt a very lively pride in the display of his admirable powers. It is a thousand, and ten thousand pities, that the admiration we can scarcely blame them for according to him, might not have been gratified at less expence to themselves. I fear, indeed, there is but too much reason for suspecting, that the influence he has obtained both among them and others, will outlive many generations; although it is sufficiently amusing to observe in his writings, the quiet sort of confidence with which he himself looked forward to his literary immortality — not much doubting, it would appear, that the name of David Hume would continue to be reverenced by all persons of understanding many centuries after the Christian religion should have ceased to be talked of, excepting as one of the many hundred antediluvian and exploded species of superstition. Whatever may be his future fate, this much is quite certain, that the general principles of his philosophy still continue to exert a mighty influence over by far the greatest part of the literary men of his country; and that almost the only subject on which these his pious disciples dare to apply his principles in a different way from what he himself exemplified — is that of politics. Among them, as indeed I have hinted already, David's Toryism is always talked of, as one little foible which should not be too hardly thought of in the character of so great a man. The fund of jokes which he has given them the means of employing against himself, is sufficiently obvious; but such as they are, the jokes are uniformly put into requisition, whenever the subject of conversation gives the least colour of excuse for their introduction. They are delighted with the notion, that, in one thing at least, they are wiser than their master; and it would almost be a pity to put an end to so much pleasantry.