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David Hume
Chapter III Hume and his Surroundings


Hume had taken his place in the literature of his country and of the world. He himself, however, was depressed with sense of failure, for he says, 'Never was literary attempt more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature.' He felt disappointed that it did not even 'excite a murmur among the zealots.' His power had been concentrated to the utmost, but renown did not come to him, as he had anticipated. What he could do in philosophic thought was accomplished, and he was convinced that the writing was not of slight significance; but the reading public did not know what had been done—his contribution was not of the character to attract readers. He was dispirited, in consequence, but he was not turned aside from his 'plan of life.' He says, '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.' Here the thinker is once more lost to view, concentrating on fresh effort, of which the world was to learn by-and-by. ' Being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper,' he adds, ' I very soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted, with great ardour, my studies in the country.'

Henceforth, this retired student has his place among the literary men of Scotland. He is a man of massive figure, stout in build, with rounded, ruddy countenance, not of marked expression—this lack being often remarked upon when he becomes a conspicuous figure in the society of Paris. The lack described was, in part, the effect of the concentrated abstraction which engrossed his life through long periods of work. In other moods, overflowing humour shines through the placid countenance. Reminiscences and portraits support these diverse representations. A portrait of him in early life, in possession of the University of Edinburgh, shews him in a less matured stage than portraits more familiar. In the National Gallery of Scotland there is a good picture of him, in scarlet tunic, such as he donned when Secretary of the Military Legation at Vienna and Turin—a red coat which, report says, did not give him the approved military air. Over against this picture in the Scottish Gallery is hung a portrait of Rousseau, enabling visitors to compare the faces of these literary celebrities, once fast friends, afterwards bitter foes. Of the two portraits in Hill Burton's Life, that in the first volume is from the medallion by Tassie—a thoughtful, rather heavy, face, with wig obscuring the individuality of the subject. That in the second volume is from a bust, and is somewhat startling at first. It must be at fault in its proportions; but it presents a strong face, exhibiting much more of the recognised ability of the philosopher than other portraits do. It suggests the intellectual power and the commanding force which were noted characteristics of the man.

In nature, in habits, and in all mental associations, Hume was intensely Scotch. Indeed, the strength of national bias, intensified by existing jealousies between the united countries, tempted even a man of philosophic spirit to cherish antagonism to the English people and to English ways, the unrestrained expression of which surprises us at this distance of time (Hill, Letters, p. 56-64). He found delight in the rural life of Berwickshire, and took kindly to the vernacular heard all around, but was specially attracted to the literary circles of the Scottish capital. He was happy in the practice of economy—doing his work bravely as many had done before him, ' A man of punctual habits, and of unwearied industry.' He was proud of Scotland as 'a country where the avenues to learning are easy.' To his friend, Michael Ramsay, the philosopher thus describes his position at forty years of age:—' While interest remains as at present, I have £50 a year, a hundred pounds' worth of books, great store of linens and fine clothes, and near £100 in my pocket; along with order, frugality, a strong spirit of independency, good health, a contented humour, and an unabating love of study. In these circumstances I must esteem myself one of the happy and fortunate; and so far from being willing to draw my ticket over again in the lottery of life, there are very few prizes with which I would make an exchange' (Hill Burton, I., 342).

In conversation, his native Doric was marked, so that 'the broadest Scotch accent' is attributed to him. So attached was he to his native land that we find him expressing his determination ' never more to set his foot out of it.' When writing for the press, it continued matter of serious trouble to him that his Scotticisms often were allowed to pass unchecked. In this matter he owns his dependence on Strahan, his publisher. Thus he says, 'If you have leisure to peruse the sheets, and to mark on the margin any corrections that occur to you, it will be an addition to the many obligations of the same kind I owe to you' (Letters to Strahan, p. 2T3). For the same reason, he seeks to have the help of Mallet (lb., p. 7), and in writing to Wilkes, he says—'Notwithstanding all the pains I have taken in the study of the English language, I am still jealous of my pen' {lb., p. 8).

In some of his familiar letters written to intimate friends, Hume's humour is singularly unrestrained. Dr Birkbeck Hill, in editing the letters to Strahan, for the publication of which the nation is certainly indebted to the generous liberality of Lord Rosebery, quite misunderstands the significance of a letter. Misled in this way, Hill misinterprets the author so seriously as to charge Hume ' with a levity which is only found in a man who is indifferent to strict truthfulness' {Preface, p. 8). This surprising judgment is passed, oddly enough, because Hume resents having been deceived. Strahan replied with indignation to Hume's complaint; and Hume was not the man to be surprised, when one remembers his own indignation at Rousseau's charges against him. How Hume afterwards felt because of this temporary estrangement from Strahan, is stated in a manner which indicates anything but levity. (Letter 7r, p. 270), 'I do not remember any incident of my life, that has given me more real concern, than your misapprehension.' Nothing could be further from accuracy of representation than to speak of Hume as ' indifferent to truthfulness.' This is only one of several hasty judgments passed by Dr G. B.

Hill, from misapprehension of the passionate and the humorous in Hume's nature. Dr Hill has fulfilled his part as an editor with a wealth of scholarship which calls forth admiration; but once or twice he has singularly failed to catch the author's meaning.

The characteristics of the times in which Hume lived should have full weight on our judgments of him, but they need not have more than a brief sketch. The union of Scotland with England was an event of recent occurrence. Considerable jealousy still existed between the two countries, the Scotch thinking themselves neglected or unfairly treated; the English feeling irritated by any civil appointments given to Scotchmen. There was, however, growing up in Scotland, a desire to acquire an accurate English style in written composition, and also to become familiar with the best English authors. A large measure of literary ability was appearing in Scotland; a jovial spirit characterised even literary gatherings. Hume felt attracted to Edinburgh, where he had free intercourse with the noted literati, besides maintaining correspondence and occasional intercourse with the leading men of Glasgow. The more prominent of his literary friends were Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations; John Home, author of Douglas; D: William Robertson, author of History of Scotland; Henry Home, 'Lord Kames,' author of Elements of Criticism, in which Hume's scepticism is controverted; and Adam Ferguson, Professor of Moral Philosophy, and author of an Essay on the History of Civil Society. Several of the prominent clergymen of the city, more naturally those of the moderate school, who were less offended by the freedom of his writing on theological and religious questions, were on terms of intimacy with Hume. Most marked amongst these were Rev. Dr Hugh Blair, minister of the High Church, and afterwards Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the University; and Rev. Dr Carlyle, of Inveresk, known as the 'Jupiter' of his set. Beyond the Edinburgh circle, the more conspicuous of his correspondents were Hutcheson, Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow University, and his successor, Dr Thomas Reid, known as the father of the Scotch School of Philosophy.

Amongst Evangelical men, Hume came to be suspected, and in a degree even feared and unreservedly denounced as an evil influence in the country. His avowed scepticism he seemed to delight in expounding with ceaseless iteration. Though it was primarily philosophic in its origin and range, it was resented with intensity of feeling, as tending to foster Moderatism, and to undermine religious earnestness, which had highly distinguished Scotchmen from the Reformation period. In the view of this party, Hume stood out as the ' arch-infidel'; in his view, they were the 'zealots,' whose attack he discounted in publishing his Treatise, the absence of which at the outset added to his vexation.

One of the heaviest disappointments of Hume's life was his failure to carry the appointment to a Chair of Philosophy in a Scottish University. His first effort was for the Edinburgh Chair of Moral Philosophyj his second for the Logic Chair in Glasgow. Both efforts were fruitless, so hopeless, indeed, as to discourage further attempts. In rearing, with unwavering resolution and conspicuous ability, his sceptical philosophy, he had built a wall which barred his progress to University distinction. This is the sole explanation of the result. It was no lack of ability on his part, or of attainment, or of teaching power, which led to his rejection. The force of public opinion adverse to scepticism was the barrier. The interests of philosophy itself, and also the interests of religion, are sacrificed when it is proclaimed that scepticism is the outcome of a truly penetrating speculative thought. The conviction of this swayed the University authorities. In both cases he was a candidate for a Chair he knew himself to be fitted for. The electors well knew it, though in less degree, but they could not trust him. This is the penalty for the philosopher when his bias is for sceptical thought, and when besides he delights in it, and in the disturbance which is occasioned by its free and even fierce expression. When, after his death, his Dialogues on Religion was published, it became apparent that in his inmost soul he appreciated the grounds for antagonism to a sceptical philosophy. There he makes Cleanthes, the spokesman who most nearly expresses his own thoughts, say to Philo, his representative sceptic :—' Your spirit of controversy, joined to your abhorrence of vulgar superstition, carries you strange lengths, when engaged in an argument; and there is nothing so sacred and venerable, even in your own eyes, which you spare on that occasion.' To this adverse criticism Philo replies :—' I must confess that I am less cautious on the subject of Natural Religion than on any other; both because I know that I can never, on that head, corrupt the principles of common sense, and because no one, I am confident, in whose eyes I appear a man of common sense, will ever mistake my intentions. You in particular, Cleanthes, with whom I live in unreserved intimacy, you are sensible, that, notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of Nature.' [Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, published 1879, p. 130.]

The judgment of the Curators of Patronage adverse to Hume has been well interpreted by his biographer, Hill Burton, 'The revolutionist, who is endeavouring to pull to pieces what has been taught for ages within the same walls, and to erect a new system in its stead, can scarcely ever be a satisfactory instructor of any considerable number of young men.'  [Life of David Hume, I., p. 352] The characteristics which he had clearly recognised in himself were adverse to his election as an Academic teacher. 1A certain boldness of temper ' which made him adverse 'to any authority in philosophy'; a tendency to make light of reason, as if it were insufficient to lead us through the mazes of perplexity; and an undisguised delight in sceptical conclusions, resolving, ' if we must for ever be a prey to errors and delusions, that they shall, at least, be natural and entertaining' (Treatise, vol i., p. 3). He did himself injustice by those seemingly unguarded utterances, meant only to lighten abstruse discussion. The man was greatly better than he seemed, when tested by passages of this cast; but he was avowedly swayed by a sceptical bias, and this the electors regarded as a disqualification for office.

Hume was first and chiefly a speculative thinker; intensely interested in the difficulties besetting all research, he consecrated the best efforts of his life to penetrate into the conditions of certainty in knowledge. He prosecuted his task without misgiving, and was willing to bear all the consequences, however trying to reputation and ambition. Amongst these the loss of an Academic chair was by far the bitterest experience. He had shown in many ways his conviction that philosophic research can be successfully conducted only in silent retreat, with attention concentrated undisturbed on all complexities of thought. He even refused to discuss philosophic themes in general company, and hardly relaxed this rule in the select gatherings of thinkers fully competent for the discussion required. As a thinker, he really lived apart, feeling that his speculations could be known only through the printed page, read deliberately and silently as it had been written. When, however, he closed his studies for the time, he abandoned all concern with them; he returned into society with the alacrity of one who seeks relaxation, and with the overflowing humour of one ready for amusement under any conditions. In the same spirit his familiar correspondence was conducted, allowing himself often freedom for the utmost playfulness — not infrequently for unrestrained exaggeration, liable to misunderstanding by those who were not familiar with the licence he allowed himself in the familiarity of friendship.


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