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David Hume
Chapter II Search for a Vocation


For a young man of David Hume's individuality, the search for a vocation was a perplexity. He was not made for the common work of life; interest in questions of abstract thought swayed his mind, practically unfitting him for ordinary occupations. He desired above all things the life of a student; but he tells us of the difficulties in his way (My Own Life). He was a younger son in a family not rich; his brother being destined to become sole proprietor of Ninewells. 'My very slender fortune 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 a more active scene of life.' A few sentences from his 'letter to a physician,' when seeking guidance as to health, will show the man we have before us. There were, however, strong adverse forces within his own nature.

'From my earliest infancy I found always a strong inclination to books and letters. As our college education in Scotland, extending little further than the languages, ends commonly when we are about fourteen or fifteen years of age, I was after that left to my own choice in my reading, and found it incline me equally to books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors. . . .

Upon examination of these, I found a certain boldness of temper growing in me, which was not inclined to submit to any authority in these subjects, but led me to seek out some new medium, by which truth might be established. After much study and reflection on this, at least, when I was about eighteen years of age, there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought which transported me beyond measure, and made me, with an ardour natural to young men, throw up every other pleasure or business to apply entirely to it' (letter to a physician, Burton's Life, I., p. 31). In this the inner life of David Hume is disclosed. Another thing, however, is needed to complete the view. He is with the full ardour of his being a man of society. He delights in the companionship of his fellows, works surely into the intimacy of close friendship, and is ever ready for rippling, glancing humour, giving and receiving electric impulse from casual acquaintance. These features are not commonly associated, but they were united in him. There are two natures in the man, two lives within this one life; the inner, that of the abstract thinker living within a charmed circle where he does not meet friends, save one or two, and where he cultivates an independence that owns no authority ; and the outer life of the man who is free of spirit, ready for all occurrences, and given to a playfulness of disposition, and even joviality, which to most onlookers must seem inconsistent with the high philosophic gift. Yet these two natures are indissolubly united—they are constantly appearing in parallel relations as if they were distinct. Together they constitute a nature rarely met with. It were easy, looking now at the one feature, now at the other, to bring home a charge of inconsistency. In a sense, he is inconsistently a thinker who scorns the ordinary levels of thought; a humorist who revels in the pleasures of the passing hour as if life were a play. These apparently contradictory features are as prominent as they have ever appeared in any human life—together they constitute the actual David Hume—philosopher and man of the world. In one way he is remote from all common interests; in another he is in the heart of them all. Mainly, he is borne onward by the force of the inner impulse which is that of a profound philosophic thinker; nevertheless, you do not know the man, if you do not discover the irrepressible humorist. The chief work of his life is beyond the observation of others—it can be known only through his books; hardly at all through his conversation; but in his relaxation he may be known to all, for he gravitates to centres where men and women enjoy pleasant society, where converse is free, and all diversities of feeling find ready response. There is nothing more natural for him than to enumerate these as ' the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society' (Intro, to the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion).

To such a man as David Hume the inner bias of life must involve him in serious difficulties when he attempts a practical view of his position—when he feels 'forced,' as he tells us in roundabout fashion natural in the circumstances, ' to make a very feeble trial for entering on a more active scene of life.' These are the words of a man who already feels himself unequal to the task. Not being a man of independent means, he must seek means of support—but where, and how? The need for asking and answering this brought him into the most serious difficulties, and involved him in distressing failures. How could such a man settle down to be a successful professional man or an enterprising man of business ?

Here is the beginning of his trouble, as recalled late in life:—' My studious disposition, my sobriety, and my industry, gave my family the notion that the law was a proper profession for me; but I felt an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning' {My Own Life). In his ' letter to a physician,' written when he was in the midst of his difficulties, at sixteen years of age, he says, ' The law, which was the business I designed to follow, appeared nauseous to me.' The technicalities of legal practice had no attraction for the speculative thinker.

From that, he turns to business. There is an incongruity in the fancy that he could be placed in harness, to serve a master whose orders should be law. The urgent need for securing income in some way is made manifest by the contemplation of this alternative. 'In 1734, I went to Bristol with some recommendations to eminent merchants, but in a few months found that scene totally unsuitable to me.' This short summary disposes of the whole venture. Truly ' a very feeble trial for entering on a more active scene of life,' from one who had ' recommendation to a considerable trader.'

As if to dispose of all his uncertainties, Hume breaks away from Scotland, as well as from Bristol, and goes off to France to prosecute his studies. No clear light is thrown on this resolve, or on the reasons for his choice of place. Doubtless, the fame of the Encyclopaedists had some attraction; but he does not go to seek their guidance, nor even to avail himself of the special advantages connected with the great educational institutions of Paris. What he intends when he speaks of 'studies,' is the unrestrained pursuit of his own speculations. He goes to follow out his studies ' in a country retreat.' He found such a retreat, first at Rheims, and afterwards at La Fleche, in Anjou—odd retreat to be chosen by Hume, in the Jesuits' College, and that, too, in which Descartes had been a scholar. He was twenty-three years of age; and he has made his resolve with unwavering determination. Here is the plan he has sketched. 'I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible except the improvement of my talents in literature' (My Own Life).

In frugality he was a genuine Scot, able to make little go a long way; contented when he fared on the plainest, for intellectual interests absorbed him. He looked back with special interest on that period of philosophic effort. He passed ' three years very agreeably in that country.' 'I there laid that plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued.' During this period, he says, 'I composed my Treatise of Human Nature,'—a wonderful achievement for so young a man.

In 1737 he returned to London. Being again on British soil, with his urgent work accomplished, he writes thus to Henry Home (Lord Kames),—' I have a great inclination to go down to Scotland this spring, to see my friends and have your advice concerning my philosophical discoveries j but cannot overcome a certain shamefacedness I have to appear among you, at my years, without having got a settlement, or so much as attempted any' (Burton's Life, I., p. 63). He had the Treatise with him in finished form. By the end of 1738 it was published. This work was destined to exert great influence in the history of philosophic thought. There was no immediate sign of this at first. He himself reports:—' It fell dead-born from the press.' Slight as was the impression made at its first appearance, it was destined to awaken the keenest interest of the thinkers of the day. It was an exposition of Empiricism, leading to Scepticism as its logical outcome, and was, in effect, a challenge to Philosophy to produce a doctrine of Certainty. Sceptical thought had for him a fascination. The words of Cleanthes to Philo apply most aptly to their author,— ' Of all men living, the task which you have undertaken, of raising doubts and objections, suits you best, and seems in a manner natural and unavoidable to you' (Dialg., p. 81).

This first literary effort, published when he was only twenty-eight, marked him out as a distinguished thinker, an adept in abstract thought, consistent to a degree, content with uncertainty where certainty seemed unattainable —conspicuously the ' speculative sceptic,' with ' a certain boldness of temper growing in him not inclined to submit to any authority.' Believing firmly in the certainties, but with a critical and sceptical bias, he seemed to meet the demands of philosophy for setting forth the vast range of uncertainties with which our intelligence is surrounded. It was in this wide region he hoped to make 'discoveries' which the world would acknowledge. In his profound reflection, he was first stimulated, and next hampered, by the inadequate philosophy of the times. That his discussions included, so largely as they did, sceptical issues, was the fact which gave to them their power to stimulate later thought.


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