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DAVID HUME: His Autoboigraphy & a Bibliography

David Hume on Popular Religions
David Hume on Popular Religions

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My Own Life
by David
     It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without
vanity; therefore I shall be short. It may be thought an instance
of vanity that I pretend at all to write my life; but this
narrative shall contain little more than the history of my
writings; as, indeed, almost all my life has been spent in
literary pursuits and occupations. The first success of most of
my writing was not such as to be an object of vanity.
    I was born the
                           twenty-sixth of April, 1711, old style, at
                           I was of a good family, both by father and mother: my
father's family is a branch of the Earl of Home's, or Hume's; and
my ancestors had been proprietors of the estate which my brother
possesses, for several generations. My mother was daughter of Sir
David Falconer, President of the College of Justice; the title of
Lord Halkerton came by succession to her brother.
    My family, however,
                           was not rich; and being myself a younger
                           my patrimony, according to the mode of my country, was
of course very slender. My father, who passed for a man of parts,
died when I was an infant, leaving me, with an elder brother and
a sister, under the care of our mother, a woman of singular
merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself entirely
to the rearing and educating of her children. I passed through
the ordinary course of education with success, and was seized
very early with a passion for literature, which has been the
ruling passion of my life, and the great source of my enjoyments.
My studious disposition, my sobriety, and my industry, gave my
family a notion that the law was a proper profession for me; but
I found an insurmountable aversion to every thing but the
pursuits of philosophy and general learning; and while they
fancied I was poring upon Voet and Vinius, Cicero and Virgil were
the authors which I was secretly devouring.
    My very slender
                           fortune, however, being unsuitable to this
                           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 into a more active scene of life. In
1734, I went to Bristol, with some recommendations to several
eminent merchants; but in a few months found that scene totally
unsuitable to me. I went over to France, with a view of
prosecuting my studies in a country retreat; and I there laid
that plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued.
I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of
fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard
every object as contemptible, except the improvements of my
talents in literature.
    During my retreat in France, first
                           at Rheims, but chiefly at
La Flèche,
                           in Anjou, I composed my Treatise of Human Nature.
After passing three years very agreeably in that country, I came
over to London in 1737. 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, and was employing himself very
judiciously and successfully in the improvement of his fortune.
    Never literary
                           attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise
of Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the press, without
reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the
zealots. But being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, I
very soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted with great ardor my
studies in the country. In 1742, I printed at Edinburgh, the
first part of my Essays. The work was favorably received, and
soon made me entirely forget my former disappointment. I
continued with my mother and brother in the country, and in that
time recovered the knowledge of the Greek language, which I had
too much neglected in my early youth.
    In 1745, I received
                           a letter from the Marquis of Annandale,
                           me to come and live with him in England; I found also
that the friends and family of that young nobleman were desirous
of putting him under my care and direction, for the state of his
mind and health required it. I lived with him a twelve month. My
appointments during that time made a considerable accession to my
small fortune. I 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 on the
coast of France. Next year, to wit, 1747, I received an
invitation from the general to attend him in the same station in
is military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin. I then
wore the uniform of an officer, and was introduced at these
courts as aid-de-camp to the general, along with Sir Harry
Erskine and Captain Grant, now General Grant. These two years
were almost the only interruptions which my studies have received
during the course of my life: I passed them agreeably, and in
good company; and my appointments, with my frugality, had made me
reach a fortune which I called independent, though most of my
friends were inclined to smile when I said so: in short, I was
now master of near a thousand pounds.
    I had always entertained a notion that my want of success in
publishing the Treatise of Human Nature had proceeded more from
the manner than the matter, and that I had been guilty of a very
usual indiscretion in going to the press too early. I, therefore,
cast the first part of that work anew in the Inquiry concerning
Human Understanding, which was published while I was at Turin.
But this piece was at first little more successful than the
Treatise of Human Nature. On my return from Italy, I had the
mortification to find all England in a ferment on account of Dr.
Middleton's Free Inquiry, while my performance was entirely
overlooked and neglected. A new edition, which had been published
at London, of my Essays, Moral and Political, met not with a much
better reception.
    Such is the force of natural temper,
                           that these
disappointments made little
                           or no impression on me. I went down,
                           1749, and lived two years with my brother at his country
house, for my mother was now dead. I there composed the second
part of my Essays which I called Political Discourses, and also
my Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which is another
part of my Treatise that I cast anew. Meanwhile, my bookseller,
A. Millar, informed me, that my former publications (all but the
unfortunate Treatise) were beginning to be the subject of
conversation; that the sale of them was gradually increasing, and
that new editions were demanded. Answers by reverends and right
reverends came out two or three in a year; and I found, by Dr.
Warburton's railing, that the books were beginning to be esteemed
in good company. However, I had fixed a resolution, which I
inflexibly maintained, never to reply to any body; and not being
very irascible in my temper, I have easily kept myself clear of
all literary squabbles. These symptoms of a rising reputation
gave me encouragement, as I was ever more disposed to see the
favorable than unfavorable side of things; a turn of mind which
it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten
thousand a year.
    In 1751, I removed from the country
                           to the town, the true
scene for a man
                           of letters. In 1752 were published at Edinburgh,
where I then lived, my Political Discourses, the only work of
mine that was successful on the first publication. It was well
received at home and abroad. In the same year was published, at
London, my Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals; which, in
my own opinion (who ought not to judge on that subject) is, of
all my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary,
incomparably the best. It came unnoticed and unobserved into the
    In 1752, the Faculty of Advocates chose me their librarian,
an office from which I received little or no emolument, but which
gave me the command of a large library. I then formed the plan of
writing the History of England; but being frightened with the
notion of continuing a narrative through a period of seventeen
hundred years, I commenced with the accession of the house of
Stuart, an epoch when, I thought, the misrepresentations of
faction began chiefly to take place. I was, I own, sanguine in my
expectations of the success of this work. I thought that I was
the only historian that had at once neglected present power,
interest and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and as
the subject was suited to every capacity, I expected proportional
applause. But miserable was my disappointment; I was assailed by
one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation;
English, Scotch, and irish, whig and tory, churchman and sectary,
freethinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united in
their rage against the man who had presumed to shed a generous
tear for the fate of Charles I and the Earl of Strafford; and
after the first ebullitions of their fury were over, what was
still more mortifying, the book seemed to sink into oblivion. Mr.
Millar told me that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five
copies of it. I scarcely, indeed, heard of one man in the three
kingdoms, considerable for rank or letters, that could endure the
book. I must only except the primate of England, Dr. Herring, and
the primate of Ireland, Dr. Stone, which seem two odd exceptions.
These dignified prelates separately sent me messages not to be
    I was, however, I confess, discouraged;
                           and had not the war
been at that time
                           breaking out between France and England, I had
certainly retired to some provincial town of the former kingdom,
have changed my name, and never more have returned to my native
country. But as this scheme was not now practicable, and the
subsequent volume was considerably advanced, I resolved to pick
up courage and to persevere.
    In this interval, I published,
                           at London, my Natural History
of Religion,
                           along with some other small pieces. Its public entry
was rather obscure, except only that Dr. Hurd wrote a pamphlet
against it, with all the illiberal petulance, arrogance, and
scurrility, which distinguish the Warburtonian school. This
pamphlet gave me some consolation for the otherwise indifferent
reception of my performance.
                           1756, two years after the fall of the first volume, was
published the second volume of my History, containing the period
from the death of Charles I till the revolution. This performance
happened to give less displeasure to the whigs, and was better
received. It not only rose itself, but helped to buoy up its
unfortunate brother.
    But though I had been taught by
                           experience that the whig
party were
                           in possession of bestowing all places, both in the
state and in literature, I was so little inclined to yield to
their senseless clamor, that in above a hundred alterations,
which further study, reading, or reflection engaged me to make in
the reigns of the two first Stuarts, I have made all of them
invariably to the tory side. It is ridiculous to consider the
English constitution before that period as a regular plan of
    In 1759, I published my History of the House of Tudor. The
clamor against this performance was almost equal to that against
the history of the two first Stuarts. The reign of Elizabeth was
particularly obnoxious. But I was now callous against the
impressions of public folly, and continued very peaceably and
contentedly, in my retreat at Edinburgh, to finish, in two
volumes, the more early part of the English History which I gave
to the public in 1761, with tolerable, and but tolerable,
    But, notwithstanding this variety of winds and seasons,
which my writings had been exposed,
                           they had still been making
such advances,
                           that the copy-money given me by the booksellers
much exceeded anything formerly known in England; I was become
not only independent, but opulent. I retired to my native country
of Scotland, determined never more to set my foot out of it; and
retailing the satisfaction of never having preferred a request to
one great man, or even making advances of friendship to any of
them. As I was now turned of fifty, I thought of passing all the
rest of my life in this philosophical manner: when I received, in
1763, an invitation from the Earl of Hertford, with whom I was
not in the least acquainted, to attend him on his embassy to
Paris, with a near prospect of being appointed secretary to the
embassy; and, in the meanwhile, of performing the functions of
that office. This offer, however inviting, I at first declined;
both because I was reluctant to begin connections with the great,
and because I was afraid that the civilities and gay company of
Paris would prove disagreeable to a person of my age and humor'.
but on his lordship's repeating the invitation, I accepted of it.
I have every reason, both of pleasure and interest, to think
myself happy in my connections with that nobleman, as well as
afterwards with his brother, General Conway.
    Those who have
                           not seen the strange effects of modes, will
never imagine the reception I met with at Paris, from men and
women of all ranks and stations. The more I resiled from their
excessive civilities, the more I was loaded with them. There is,
however, a real satisfaction in living at Paris, from the great
number of sensible, knowing, and polite company with which that
city abounds above all places in the universe.
    I thought once
                           of settling there for life. I was appointed
secretary to the embassy; and, in summer, 1765, Lord Hertford
left me, being appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. I was chargé
d'affaires till the arrival of the duke of Richmond, towards the
end of the year. In the beginning of 1766, I left Paris, and next
summer went to Edinburgh, with the same view as formerly, of
burying myself in a philosophical retreat. I returned to that
place, not richer, but with much more money, and a much larger
income, by means of Lord Hertford's friendship, than I left it;
and I was desirous of trying what superfluity could produce, as I
had formerly made an experiment of a competency. But in 1767, I
received from Mr. Conway an invitation to be undersecretary; and
this invitation, both the character of the person, and my
connections with Lord Hertford, prevented me from declining. I
returned to Edinburgh in 1769, very opulent (for I possessed a
revenue of one thousand pounds a year), healthy, and though
somewhat stricken in years, with the prospect of enjoying long my
ease, and of seeing the increase of my reputation.
    In spring, 1775,
                           I was struck with a disorder in my bowels,
                           at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend
it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy
dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder;
and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline
of my person, never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits;
insomuch, 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 later period. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and
the same gayety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of
sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities;
and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation's
breaking out at last with additional luster, I know that I could
have but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more
detached from life than I am at present.
    To conclude
                           historically with my own character: I am, or
rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of
myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments); I
was, I say, a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, of
an open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but
little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my
passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never
soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My
company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well
as to the studious and literary; and as I took a particular
pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be
displeased with the reception I met with from them. In a word,
though most men, anywise eminent, have found reason to complain
of calumny, I never was touched, or even attacked, by her baleful
tooth; and though I wantonly exposed myself to the rage of both
civil and religious factions, they seemed to be disarmed in my
behalf of their wonted fury. My friends never had occasion to
vindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct; not
but that the zealots, we may well suppose, would have been glad
to invent and propagate any story to my disadvantage, but they
could never find any which they thought would wear the face of
probability. I cannot say there is no vanity in making this
funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one;
and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared and
  APRIL 18, 1776.


I came across a portion of letter by Boswell in a book on by the British jurnalist Ludovic Kenndy, All in the Mind:  A Farewell to God.  Hume not wishing to meet the fate of Voltaire chose to have the chronicler, John Boswell, attend.  The Catholic priest who attended the death of Voltaire wrote that Voltaire recanted his opposition to Catholicism and received last rites.  But the church doubted him did not believe their own priest for shortly after his issuing this statement of Voltaire’s last moments, it was requested by the people of Paris that their beloved Voltaire be buried in church grounds.  The church refused.



This philosophical approach to death was not what the pious thought proper or expected, the reflections at this time of those dying being concentrated on what awaited them in the great beyond, and trusting that their lives had been an adequate preparation for it. Dr. Johnson, when he heard of Hume’s calm at the approach of death, refused to believe it. A few years earlier, when discussing with him the question of death, Boswell mentioned that Hume had told him that he was no more uneasy to think that he should not be after this life than that he had not been before it; to which the orthodox Johnson replied, ‘Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad. If he does not think so, he lies.’ Such was the wisdom of the times.

Friends came to say goodbye, including Boswell. For all his philanderings he was as much a conventional believer as Johnson, and he left a wonderful and much-quoted account of his last visit to the Great Infidel.


On Sunday forenoon the 7th of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr. David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just a-dying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly and quite of an earthly appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure he used to present. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words.


I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever. That immortality, if it were at all, must be general; that a great proportion of the human race has hardly any intellectual qualities; that a great proportion dies in infancy before being possessed of reason; yet all these must be immortal; that a porter who gets drunk with gin by ten o’clock must be immortal; that the trash of every age must be preserved, and that new universes must be created to contain such numbers. This appeared to me an unphilosophical objection, and I said, Mr. Hume, you know spirit does not take up space’ . . .


I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least.  ‘Well,’ said I, ‘Mr. Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.’ No, no,’ said he. ‘But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.’ In this style of humour and levity did I conduct the conversation.


Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated.


When Boswell reported to Johnson that Hume was quite easy at the thought of annihilation, the doctor, who was terrified of death, confirmed what he had said earlier. ‘He lied. He had a vanity in being thought easy. It is more probable he lied than that so very improbable a thing should be as a man not afraid of death...

On the day of Hume’s burial, Boswell went along to inspect the open grave, and hid behind a wall to watch the mourners pass, fearful that the grave might be desecrated by religious zealots. That it was not desecrated was due, at least in part, to the presence of two guards whom the family had hired to watch it.

Even then there was no ending to the controversy over Hume’s beliefs. His friend Adam Smith wrote a tribute to him in a letter to William Strahan, which was subsequently published. After praising



To David Hume on Miracles


Hume's Published Writings

There are many published editions of Hume's writings. The best of these are the volumes are The Philosophical Works of David Hume (1874-1875), ed. T.H. Green and T.H. Grose; Hume's Treatise (Oxford, 1978) and Enquiries (Oxford, 1975) ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch; Hume's History of England (Liberty Classics, 1983); Hume's Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (Liberty Classics, 1987), ed. E.F. Miller. Oxford University Press is currently producing a critical edition of Hume's philosophical writings, edited by T. Beauchamp, M. Box, D.F. Norton, and M.A. Stewart. Thoemmes Press is publishing a ten-volume collection 18th and 19th century critical discussions of  Hume titled Early Responses to Hume's Writings (Thoemmes Press, 1999-2003), ed. J. Fieser. Currently, the best biography of Hume is E.C. Mossner's The Life of David Hume (Oxford, 1980). For online e-texts of Hume's writings and some commentaries, see the Hume Archives. Below is a chronological list of Hume's publications.

(1) A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (1739-40).
Notes: in three volumes, published anonymously: Vol. I. Of the Understanding; Vol. II. Of the Passions. Vol. III. Of Morals. The work did not sell well, and no subsequent edition of the Treatise appeared until the early 19th century. This is Hume's principle philosophical work, the central notions of which were rewritten more popularly in Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

(2) An Abstract of a Book lately Published;  entituled, A Treatise of Human Nature, &c. Wherein the chief Argument  of that Book is farther Illustrated and Explained (1740).
Notes: 16 page pamphlet, published anonymously as an effort to bring attention to the Treatise. No subsequent edition of this appeared until 1938.

(3) Essays, Moral and Political (1741-1742).
Notes: published anonymously in two volumes, in 1741 and 1742 respectively. In subsequent editions some essays were dropped and others added; the collection was eventually combined with his Political Discourses (1752) and retitled Essays, Moral, Political and Literary in Hume's collection of philosophical works, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753).

(4) A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh: Containing Some Observations on a Specimen of the Principles concerning Religion and Morality, said to be maintain'd in a Book lately publish'd, intituled, A Treatise of Human Nature, &c (1745)
Notes: 34 page pamphlet published anonymously surrounding Hume's candidacy for candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The pamphlet responds to criticisms regarding the Treatise.

(5) Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. By the Author of the Essays Moral and Political (1748)
Notes: published anonymously; later retitled Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. This is a popularized version of key themes that appear mainly in the Treatise, Book 1.

(6) A True Account of the Behaviour and conduct of Archibald Stewart, Esq;  late Lord Provost of Edinburgh. In a letter to a Friend (1748).
Notes: 51 page pamphlet published anonymously as a defense of Archibald Stewart, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, surrounding a political controversy.

(7) An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. By David Hume, Esq. (1751)
Notes: This is a popularized version of key themes that appear mainly in the Treatise, Book 3.

(8) The Petition of the Grave and Venerable Bellmen (or Sextons) of the Church of Scotland (1751)
Notes: anonymous pamphlet surrounding the Church of Scotland's efforts to increase their stipends.

(9) Political discourses. By David Hume Esq. (1752)
Notes: collection of essays on economic and political subjects, which was eventually combined with his Essays Moral and Political (1741-1742) and retitled Essays, Moral, Political and Literary in Hume's collection of philosophical works, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1753).

(10) Scotticisms (1752).
Notes: 6 page pamphlet published anonymously, listing Scottish idioms.

(11) The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to  the  Revolution in 1688 (1754-1762)
Notes: published in four installments: (a) The history of Great Britain. Vol. I.  Containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I. By David Hume, Esq. (1754); (b) The history of Great Britain. Vol. II.  Containing the Commonwealth, and the reigns of Charles II. and James  II. By David Hume, Esq. (1757); (c) The history of England, under the House of Tudor Comprehending the reigns of K. Henry VII. K. Henry VIII. K. Edward VI. Q. Mary, and Q. Elizabeth. ... By David Hume,  Esq (1759); (d) The history of England, from the invasion of Julius Cæsar to the  accession of Henry VII. ... By David Hume, Esq. (1762).

(12) Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. By David Hume, Esq; In four  volumes  (1753)
Notes: Hume's collected philosophical works, which includes (a) Essays, Moral and Political, (b) Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding, (c) Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and (d) Political Discourses. Essays from Four Dissertations (1757) were later added.

(13) Four Dissertations. I. The Natural History of Religion. II. Of the  Passions. III. Of Tragedy. IV. Of the Standard of Taste. By David Hume,  esq. (1757)
Notes: this volume was originally to include "Of Suicide" and "Of the Immortality of the Soul," which were removed at the last minute and appeared in 1783 in an unauthorized posthumous edition. The four essays in Four Dissertations were later added to various sections of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects.

(14) Letter to Critical Review, April 1759, Vol. 7. pp. 323-334
Notes: defense of William Wilkie's epic poem Epigoniad.

(15) Expos succinct de la contestation qui s'est leve entre M. Hume et M.  Rousseau, avec les pices justificatives (1766)
Notes: 127 page pamphlet containing letters between Hume and Rousseau, published anonymously, translated from English by J.B.A. Suard. The pamphlet was translated back to English in A Concise and Genuine account of the Dispute  between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau: with the Letters that Passed Between them during their Controversy (1766).

(16) Advertisement to Baron Manstein's Memoirs of Russia, Historical, Political and Military, from MDCXXVII, to MDCXLIV (1770)
Notes: the opening advertisement in this work is signed by Hume.

(17) The Life of David Hume, Esq. Written by Himself (1777)
Notes: The only authorized edition of this work is that contained in the 1777 edition of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. This separately published edition includes "Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan, Esq".

(18) Dialogues Concerning Natural religion. By David Hume, Esq. (1779)
Notes: posthumous edition from manuscript, contains Hume's most detailed attack on natural religion.

(19) Essays on Suicide, and the Immortality of the Soul,  ascribed to the late David Hume, Esq. Never before Published. With  Remarks, intended as an Antidote to the Poison contained in these  Performances, by the Editor. To which is added, Two Letters on Suicide,  from Rosseau's [sic] Eloisa (1783)
Notes: unauthorized publication of the two essays that were originally associated with Four Dissertations.

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Collections of Hume's Letters

There is as yet no exhaustive or critical edition of Hume's letters. The known correspondence have been appeared in various publications since Hume's death. The most noteworthy are listed below in chronological order.

(1) Thomas Edward Ritchie, An Account of the life and Writings of David Hume, Esq. (1807)
Notes: First lengthy biography of Hume with quotations from letters by Hume. The originals of some of these letters have since been lost.

(2) Private Correspondences of David Hume with Several Distinguished Persons, between the years 1761 and 1776. Now first Published from the Originals (1820).
Notes: Anonymously edited collection, contains the first publication of Hume's letters to the Comtesse de Boufflers, the original manuscripts of which have not since surfaced.

(3) Thomas Murray, Letters of David Hume and Extracts from Letters Referring to Him (1841)
Notes: letters from Hume's service under the Marquis of Annandale.

(4) John Hill Burton, Life and Correspondences of David Hume. From the Papers Bequeathed by his Nephew to the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and other Original Sources. (1846)
Notes: two-volume biography, based on Hume's personal collection of hundreds of letters and manuscripts in possession of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (now in possession of the National Library of Scottland).

(5) John Hill Burton, Letters of Eminent Persons Addressed to David Hume. From the Papers bequeathed by his Nephew to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. (1849)
Notes: collection of letters to Hume from Hume's personal collection of letters and manuscripts.

(6) G. Birbeck Hill, Letters of David Hume to William Strahan (1888)
Notes: collection of previously unpublished letters to and from Hume and his printer William Strahan.

(7) J.Y.T. Greig, Letters of David Hume (1932)
Notes: two volumes, currently the best collection of Hume's letters (along with the following item).

(8) R. Klibansky and E.C. Mossner, New Letters of David Hume (1954)
Notes: volume of new letters, aimed as a supplement to Greig's volume.

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James Fieser
Email: jfieser@utm.edu


David Hume (1711-1776)
Life and Writings

"Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our Philosophy, Hume is our Religion." This statement by 19th century British idealist philosopher James Hutchison Stirling reflects a unique position that David Hume holds in intellectual thought. Hume profoundly impacted all of the disciplines noted by Stirling, not only during Hume's own life, but for generations after and on to our own day. Part of his fame and importance owes to his boldly skeptical approach to a range of philosophical subjects. He questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is no permanent "self" that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause/effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He argued that it is unreasonable to believe testimonies of alleged miraculous events, and, accordingly, hints that we should reject religions that are founded on miracle testimonies. Against the common belief of the time that God's existence could be proven through a design or causal argument, Hume offered compelling criticisms of standard theistic proofs. Also, against the common view that God plays an important role in the creation and reinforcement of moral values, Hume offered one of the first purely secular moral theories, which grounded morality in the pleasing and useful consequences that result from our actions.

Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to that part of this article)



David Hume was born in 1711 to a moderately wealthy family from Berwickshire Scotland, near Edinburgh. His background was politically Whiggish and religiously Calvinistic. As a child he faithfully attended the local Church of Scotland pastored by his uncle. Hume was educated by his widowed mother until he left for the University of Edinburgh at the age of eleven. His letters describe how as a young student he took religion seriously and obediently followed a list of moral guidelines taken from The Whole Duty of Man, a popular Calvinistic devotional.

Leaving the University of Edinburgh at around age fifteen to pursue his education privately, he was encouraged to consider a career in law, but his interests turned to philosophy. During these years of private study he began raising serious questions about religion, as he recounts in the following letter:

Tis not long ago that I burn'd an old Manuscript Book, wrote before I was twenty; which contain'd, Page after Page, the gradual Progress of my Thoughts on that head [i.e. religious belief]. It begun with an anxious Search after Arguments, to confirm the common Opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return'd, were again dissipated, return'd again.

Although his manuscript book was destroyed, several pages of Hume's study notes survive from his early twenties. These show a preoccupation with the subjects of proof of God's existence and atheism, particularly as he read on these topics in classical Greek and Latin texts and in Pierre Bayle's skeptical Historical and Critical Dictionary. During these years of private study, some of which was in France, Hume composed his three-volume Treatise of Human Nature, which was published anonymously in two installments before he was thirty (1739, 1740). The Treatise explores several philosophical topics such as space, time, causality, external objects, the passions, free will, and morality, offering original and often skeptical appraisals of these notions. Although religious belief is not the subject of any specific section of the Treatise, it is a recurring theme. Book I of the Treatise was unfavorably reviewed in the History of the Works of the Learned with a succession of sarcastic comments. Although scholars today recognize it as a philosophical masterpiece, Hume was disappointed with the minimal interest his book spawned.

In 1741 and 1742 Hume published his two-volume Essays, Moral and Political. The essays were written in a popular style and met with better success than the Treatise. In 1744-1745 Hume was a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The position was to be vacated by John Pringle, and the leading candidates were Hume and William Cleghorn. The Edinburgh Town Council was responsible for electing a replacement. Critics opposed Hume by condemning his anti-religious writings. Chief among the critics was clergyman William Wishart (d. 1752), the Principal of the University of Edinburgh. Lists of allegedly dangerous propositions from Hume's Treatise circulated, presumably penned by Wishart. In the face of such strong opposition, the Edinburgh Town Council consulted the Edinburgh ministers. Hoping to win over the clergy, Hume composed a point by point reply to the circulating lists of dangerous propositions. It was published as A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh. The clergy were not dissuaded, and 12 of the 15 ministers voted against Hume. Hume quickly withdrew his candidacy. In 1745 Hume accepted an invitation from General St Clair to attend him as secretary. He wore the uniform of an officer, and accompanied the general on an expedition against Canada (which ended in an incursion on the coast of France) and to an embassy post in the courts of Vienna and Turin.

In 1748 he added to the above collection an essay titled "Of National Characters." In a lengthy footnote to this piece, Hume attacks the character of the clergy, accusing this profession of being motivated by ambition, conceit, and revenge. This footnote became a favorite target of attack by the clergy. Given the success of his Essays, Hume was convinced that the poor reception of his Treatise was caused by its style rather than by its content. In 1748 he published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, a more popular rendition of Book I of his Treatise. The Enquiry also includes two sections not found in the Treatise and which contain fairly direct attacks on religious belief: "Of Miracles" and a dialogue titled "Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State."

In 1751 Hume published his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which recasts in a very different form parts of Book III of his Treatise. Although this work does not attack religion directly, it does so indirectly by establishing a system of morality on utility and human sentiments alone, and without appeal to divine moral commands. Critics such as James Balfour criticized Hume's theory for being Godless. However, by the end of the century Hume was recognized as the founder of the moral theory of utility. Utilitarian political theorist Jeremy Bentham acknowledges Hume's direct influence upon him. The same year Hume also published his Political Discourses, which drew immediate praise and influenced economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Godwin, and Thomas Malthus.

In 1751-1752 Hume sought a philosophy chair at the University of Glasgow, and was again unsuccessful. In 1752 Hume's employment as librarian of the Advocate's Library in Edinburgh provided him with the resources to pursue his interest in history. There he wrote much of his highly successful six-volume History of England (published from 1754 to 1762). The first volume was unfavorably received, partially for its defense of Charles I, and partially for two sections which attack Christianity. In one passage Hume notes that the first Protestant reformers were fanatical or "inflamed with the highest enthusiasm" in their opposition to Roman Catholic domination. In the second passage he labels Roman Catholicism a superstition which "like all other species of superstition... rouses the vain fears of unhappy mortals." The most vocal attack against Hume's History came from Daniel MacQueen in his 300 page Letters on Mr. Hume's History. MacQueen combs through Hume's first volume of the History, exposing all the allegedly "loose and irreligious sneers" Hume makes against Christianity. Ultimately, this negative response led Hume to delete the two controversial passages from succeeding editions of the History.

At about this time Hume also wrote his two most substantial works on religion: The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. The Natural History appeared in 1757, but, on the advice of friends who wished to steer Hume away from religious controversy, the Dialogues remained unpublished until 1779, three years after his death. The Natural History aroused controversy even before it was made public. In 1756 a volume of Hume's essays titled Five Dissertations was printed and ready for distribution. The essays included (1) "The Natural History of Religion," (2) "Of the Passions," (3) "Of Tragedy," (4) "Of Suicide," and (5) "Of the Immortality of the Soul." The latter two essays made direct attacks on common religious doctrines by defending a person's moral right to commit suicide and by criticizing the idea of life after death. Early copies were passed around, and someone of influence threatened to prosecute Hume's publisher if the book was distributed as is. The printed copies of Five Dissertations were then physically altered, with a new essay "Of the Standard of Taste" inserted in place of the two removed essays. Hume also took this opportunity to alter two particularly offending paragraphs in the Natural History. The essays were then bound with the new title Four Dissertations and distributed in January, 1757.

In the years following Four Dissertations, Hume completed his last major literary work, The History of England. In 1763, at age 50, Hume was invited to accompany the Earl of Hertford to the embassy to Paris, with a near prospect of being his secretary. He eventually accepted, and remarks at the reception he received in Paris "from men and women of all ranks and stations." He returned to Edinburgh in 1766, and continued developing relations with the greatest minds of the time. Among these was Jean Jacques Rousseau who in 1766 was ordered out of Switzerland by the government in Berne. Hume offered Rousseau refuge in England and secured him a government pension. In England, Rousseau became suspicious of plots, and publicly charged Hume with conspiring to ruin his character, under the appearance of helping him. Hume published a pamphlet defending his actions and was exonerated. Another secretary appointment took him away from 1767-1768. Returning again to Edinburgh, his remaining years were spent revising and refining his published works, and socializing with friends in Edinburgh's intellectual circles. In 1776, at age 65, he died from an internal disorder which had plagued him for many months.

After his death, Hume's name took on new significance as several of his previously unpublished works appeared. The first was a brief autobiography, My Own Life, which many have praised as the best short autobiography in English. Even this unpretentious work aroused religious controversy. As Hume's friends, Adam Smith and S.J. Pratt, published affectionate eulogies describing how he died with no concern for an afterlife, religious critics responded by condemning this unjustifiable admiration of Hume's infidelity. Two years later, in 1779, Hume's Dialogues appeared. Again, the response was mixed. Admirers of Hume considered it a masterfully written work, while religious critics branded it as dangerous to religion. Finally, in 1782, Hume's two suppressed essays on suicide and immortality were published. Their reception was almost unanimously negative.

Links for the above materials:

http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/hume/humelife, from the McMaster University link on David Humes published works, http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/hume/index.html, which is found in their Archieves on the History of Economic Thought, http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/.