David Hume, philosopher, historian, and man of letters, was a native of Scotland. Although engaged for short periods of time in a number of different pursuits, he was primarily a scholar, and his interest in the problems of philosophy became the dominant passion of his entire adult life. He was a man of moderate temperament, modest disposition, keen intellect, and sincere devotion to the cause of truth. He lived a relatively quiet type of life and was a highly respected member of the community in which he lived. He never married, although he enjoyed his associations with women, and his relations with friends and neighbors of both sexes were honorable and amiable. He spent the most of his life in either Scotland or England, with only relatively short periods of residence on the European continent. He served for a time as a member of the embassy in Paris, where he was well received by the French people, who came to speak of him as le bon David.
For one who had been reared in a Scotch Presbyterian environment, his departure from customary religious practices and beliefs was shocking to many of his associates and friends. Their criticism of his behavior was annoying and at times caused him no little inconvenience, but he always remained true to his own convictions, and he never compromised his stand on any important issue in order to gain personal or financial advantage for himself. He was an independent thinker and had the courage to say in writing as well as orally what he thought was wrong about the society in which he lived. His candor and forthrightness on matters pertaining to both politics and religion furnished the occasion for many vigorous controversies. These were always carried on in a spirit of goodwill and without any personal animosity.
Hume's critics might find all sorts of objection to his ideas, but they were never able to point to any defects in his moral character. The story of his life may be considered from one point of view as merely an expanded account of his writings, for these constituted his major interest, and it is for them that he has been remembered and will continue to be honored throughout the history of philosophy.
David Hume was born on April 26, 1711, at Edinburgh in Scotland. His parents were people of good standing in the community. His father belonged to a branch of the family of the Earl of Home (sometimes spelled Hume), and his mother was the daughter of Sir David Falconer, who had been president of the College of Justice. While David was still an infant, his father died, leaving him with one older brother and a sister in the care of his mother, a woman of strong and sturdy character. The family had at one time been considered quite well-to-do, but because of certain financial reverses it was necessary for them to practice the most rigid economy. They were able, however, to live respectably, and his mother, who was devoted to the welfare of her children, used every opportunity for the advancement of their education.
David's education began in the schools at Edinburgh. He followed the usual course of study, in which he achieved an average amount of success. At a comparatively early age, he developed a passion for literature and took to reading several of the great classics. Because of his studious disposition, sobriety, and industry, the members of his family thought he was especially fitted for the study of law. This he attempted but gave it up when it became apparent that he had a strong aversion to everything except philosophy and general learning. Abandoning the study of law, he turned all of his energies toward the pursuit of his new interest. His studies along this line were soon interrupted by a period of ill health which lasted for more than a year and which was diagnosed by his physician as a condition that was brought on by "the disease of the learned." Thinking that a different line of activity might be good for his health and hoping to strengthen the slender income of the family, he made a feeble try at business but with poor success.
Following his brief adventure into the field of business, Hume returned to his academic pursuits, and for this purpose he left his home in Scotland and spent three years in France, during which time he formulated the plans for, and began the composition of, what was destined to become one of his major philosophical publications, the Treatise of Human Nature. It was a work of considerable size and eventually was published in three parts, which dealt, respectively, with the subjects of the understanding, the passions, and morals.
Hume returned to London in 1737 and began negotiations for the publication of his manuscript. He encountered a series of difficulties in his efforts to find a publisher who would agree to print the book and arrange for its sale on terms that were agreeable to the author. A contract was finally arranged, and the first edition of the book appeared in 1738. The reception given the book during the first year after its publication was a bitter disappointment to Hume. He had hoped that the book would attract the attention not only of a small group of scholars but of educated people in general and that the arguments presented in it would win for the book and its author a favorable reception. Actually it attracted very little attention, and even those whose positions had been attacked by Hume's arguments were not disturbed to the point that they attempted to make any reply to what he had said. Hume's disappointment is reflected in his statement that the book "fell dead-born from the press."
He did not allow this disappointment to discourage the continuation of his literary activities. Believing that the failure of the Treatise to win a more favorable reception was due at least in part to the academic nature of its subject matter, along with the particular style of writing that had been used, Hume now turned his attention to topics of a more popular interest. He wrote a series of essays on subjects that were more directly related to the fields of morals and politics. The series included such topics as Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences, the Dignity of Human Nature, Of Eloquence, Superstitution and Enthusiasm, Liberty of the Press, First Principles of Government, and several other topics along similar lines. The first volume of these essays was published in Edinburgh in 1742. Unlike the Treatise, these essays did attract a considerable amount of attention and were well received by the public. This reception encouraged Hume to broaden his interests still further and to write with a larger reading public in mind.
The quality of the essays helped a great deal to establish for Hume the reputation of being an accomplished scholar, and when it was learned that the chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at Edinburgh University was soon to be vacated, several of his friends undertook to have him appointed to that position. The idea was very much to Hume's liking, and he would have been glad to accept it. However, the appointment was blocked because of the opposition raised by certain influential men in the community who regarded some of the things which Hume had written on the subjects of morals, religion, and politics as heretical and unorthodox. This experience left a deep impression on Hume and was one of the factors which contributed toward a rising sense of distrust on his part for the established institutions of religion.
In 1745, Hume received a letter from the Marquis of Annandale inviting him to live in his own home in London. Hume learned too that relatives and friends of the marquis were anxious to have him serve as a tutor and companion for the marquis, whose state of health, both physical and mental, seemed to require something of that kind. The remuneration which they offered Hume for his services was a strong inducement for him to accept. Up to this time, his very meager allowance had forced him to live in a most frugal manner, and now the prospect of a substantial increase was indeed a pleasant one.
Hume was too cautious an individual to accept an invitation of this kind until all of the details connected with it had been carefully arranged. This having been done, he went to London and spent one year at the home of the marquis. He was not altogether unhappy with the situation, but he was not as successful as he had hoped with his job of tutoring. At the end of the year, when his services were terminated, he felt that the chief value gained from this experience had been the amount of money that was now added to his small fortune.
Soon afterward, Hume received an invitation from General St. Clair to become a secretary to the military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin. This took him again to the continent, and while serving in this capacity, he wore the uniform of an officer. Again it was the financial return which he received for his services that constituted the chief benefit which he obtained from the appointment. He spent some time in each of the countries of Germany, Austria, and Italy, but the activities that were associated with military affairs were never his major interest. He wanted to continue with his literary pursuits and did so whenever the opportunity was available.
While still in the services of the embassy, Hume decided to rewrite certain portions of the Treatise of Human Nature, using a style of writing which he hoped would win for the materials a more favorable reception than the one given on the first publication of the book. The rewriting was done at different intervals for separate sections of the book. The first section was rewritten under the title Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It was published at Turin in Sardinia, but Hume tells us that its reception was only a little more successful than the earlier book had been.
After finishing his work with the embassy, Hume returned to London and during the next two years spent the time quietly living at his brother's country estate, which was located not far from the city. This peaceful life in the country gave him the opportunity to devote his full time to literary efforts. It was during this period that he wrote and had published the second part of his series of essays. These were called Political Discourses. Soon afterward, he finished the rewriting of the third section of the Treatise of Human Nature. This was now published under the title Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). The Political Discourses were published in Edinburgh in 1752. They were the first of Hume's writings to receive wide attention and favorable recognition immediately following their first publication. With reference to the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume states in his autobiography that it came "unnoticed and unobserved in the world" even though he regarded it as incomparably the best of all the writings he had produced during his entire life.
As the essays on moral and political subjects became better known, Hume's reputation as a philosopher of more than ordinary ability became well established. The sale of his books began to increase, and it was not long until he was able to receive an income of considerable size from this source. He was appointed librarian by the Faculty of Advocates, and though he received very little monetary compensation for this work, it gave him access to a large number of books having to do with those subjects in which he was most interested.
It was while working as a librarian that Hume formed his plans for writing the History of England, a project which required several years for completion and one which came to be recognized as one of his greatest achievements. In order to limit the scope of this history to manageable size, he began with the accession of the House of Stuart and concluded the first volume with an account of the death of Charles I. Because he believed that he was writing an impartial account of the events that had taken place, he expected that his book would receive high praise from his contemporaries. In this he was sorely disappointed. The fact that he had expressed some sympathy for Charles I led to bitter attacks from English, Scotch, Irish, Whigs, and Tories. The book sank into oblivion; during a period of twelve months, no more than forty-five copies were sold.
Although discouraged by the outcome of this first volume of his history, Hume did not abandon the project, nor did he cease to write on other topics of interest. During the next few years, he published in London a volume entitled Natural History of Religion. This book represented a rather wide departure from the popular conceptions of religion since it was based on a naturalistic rather than a supernaturalistic interpretation of religious phenomena. As an empiricist in philosophy, Hume believed that any reliable knowledge which we may have in any field of inquiry must be based on the facts of experience. From this point of view, he did not hesitate to expose what he regarded as the more obvious fallacies involved in popular notions about religion.
The book, we are told, made an obscure entrance into the public mind and might not have attracted very much attention if no one had gone to the trouble of making a public denunciation of it. Fortunately for Hume, an attack was made by a certain Dr. Hurd, who wrote and circulated a pamphlet in which Hume's position on religious matters was made the subject of vicious and arrogant criticism. This aroused interest in Hume's book, which led to an increased number of sales.
After some time Hume wrote another book called Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in which his views were presented as a series of conversations between a skeptic, a philosopher, and an orthodox believer. On the advice of some of his friends who were disturbed by the opposition which Hume's earlier publications had aroused, this book was withheld from publication until after his death.
The second volume of the History of England appeared in 1756, just two years after the first one had been printed. It covered the period from the death of Charles I to the time of the revolution. The third volume, which appeared in 1759, was an account of events which belonged to the Tudor period. In spite of the fact that Hume's political views were not always acceptable to his contemporaries, his reputation as an author had become well established and his books sold well.
In 1763, Hume received an invitation from the Earl of Hertford to attend him on his embassy to Paris. The invitation was accepted, and later on Hume was appointed secretary to the embassy. While in Paris, he was received with great enthusiasm by the French people, who bestowed many honors on him. He returned to Edinburgh in 1769 with the expectation of spending the rest of his life in ease and in enjoyment of his rising reputation. He became ill in 1775, and when it became apparent that he did not have long to live, he was persuaded to write an autobiography. He died the following year.