DAVID HUME (April 26th, 1711 – August 25th, 1776)
Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist
- Leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment.
- Published philosophical and historical essays, including The History of England (1778), Essays, Moral and Political (1741-42), and Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding (1748).
- Librarian in Advocate’s Library and Secretary to Lord Hertford and General St Clair.
David Hume was born in Edinburgh on April 26th, 1711. He grew up on his father’s estate, Ninewells near Berwickshire with an older brother and sister. Though his father died when he was just two, his mother was committed to educating her children, and she wanted David to pursue a career in law. But he preferred reading Cicero and studying ancient and modern philosophy, mathematics, literature, and history. His mother saw in young David a broad understanding of the world, and in 1723, when Hume was only 11, she sent him to Edinburgh University with his older brother.
Hume never married but found special kinship with Nancy Orde, daughter of Chief Baron Orde of the Scottish Exchequer.
At Edinburgh University, Hume began to study law, following his mother’s wishes as well as a longstanding family tradition. However, he soon lost interest, leaving the University at 15 to pursue philosophy by his own means. Hume moved to France, studying the works of philosophers Nicolas Malebranche, Jean-Baptiste Dubos, and Pierre Bayle. In 1734, he began to write A Treatise of Human Nature, which many experts consider to be his most notable work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy
In 1737, Hume returned to Scotland, and in an attempt to make A Treatise of Human Nature publishable, he deleted significant sections about religion and morals to appease the influential bishop and theologian Joseph Butler. Though this move came to nothing, in 1742, Butler recommended for publication Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political. In the meantime, his works were published anonymously and weren’t very popular at the time.
However, Essays, Moral and Political were more successful because they were written in coherence with the popular style of the time. By 1744, Hume applied for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, but he was rejected. He never held an academic position, though he later also applied for the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at Glasgow.
Instead, Hume became the tutor of the Marquis of Annandale. However, it turned out that the estate manager was dishonest and the Marquis insane, so Hume quickly left to work as the secretary of his cousin, General St Clair, during a military expedition. In 1748, he rewrote Treatise in a more widely acceptable style and republished it as Philosophical Essays Concerning the Human Understanding (later renamed as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). Three years later, Philosophical Essays Concerning Principles of Morals followed. During this time, he also published Political Discourses (1751).
In 1752, Hume finally gained a stable position as librarian of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, in 1754, he ordered books that were considered inappropriate and quarreled with the library. Before he left in 1757, he was able to spend time studying and working on A History of England, which was eventually published in six volumes (1754, 1756, 1759, 1762). This work became a bestseller, bringing Hume recognition and financial stability. Also during his stint at the Library, he wrote Four Dissertations (1757), which included The Natural History of Religion, A Dissertation on the Passions, Of Tragedy, and Of the Standard of Taste. Hume’s two other works at this time, Of Suicide and Of the Immortality of the Soul (1782), were criticized be the religious establishment and banned from publication but were eventually published posthumously.
In 1763, Hume became the private secretary to Lord Hertford, Ambassador to France, and moved to Paris where he resided for three years. There, he also became the first Secretary of the Embassy and then its chargé d’affaires.
When he returned to England in 1766, he came with Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their friendship was fleeting, however, because Rousseau’s paranoia convinced him that Hume was conspiring against him. Hume, now in London, became the Under-Secretary of State in 1767 but left after a year.
In 1768, Hume went home to Edinburgh, where he met Nancy Orde, daughter of Chief Baron Orde. They became close, with Nancy picking out Hume’s wallpaper and chalking “St. David’s Street” on the side of his house, now the name of that road. There were rumors of their engagement, but no event occurred. After his death, Hume left to Nancy 10 guineas to buy a ring in memory of their friendship.
In Edinburgh during his last decade, Hume finalized his Dissertations. Upon discovering he suffered from intestinal cancer, he arranged for his nephew to publish Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) posthumously. Hume died on August 25, 1776, and his biography My Own Life was published one year later.