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David HOME, the first of his family to write himself Hume, was a cadet of a distinguished Scottish house, and was born at Edinburgh in April 1711. After passing through the classes in the College of his native city, he nominally began the study of the law; but, as he tells us himself, he was devouring Cicero and Virgil, while his friends fancied he was poring over Voet and Vinnius. Literature ousted law, and commerce had no better fortune. A few months among the sugar-houses of Bristol, far from weaning young Hume from his literary tastes, only deepened his love of study, and his desire to be a man of letters.
From Bristol he crossed to France, where he wrote his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature, published in London in 1738. It was an utter failure, not having achieved even the distinction of being abused. His second work, Moral and Philosophical Essays, composed partly in Scotland, met with tolerable success.
All this time he had been living on the slender means he got from home. But in 1745 an occupation, well paid to make up for its unpleasantness, fell in his way. He became the companion of the young Marquis of Annandale, whose mind was somewhat affected. Having held this charge for about a year, Hume accepted the position of secretary to General St. Clair, in whose suite he visited Vienna and Turin, seeing foreign life under most favourable auspices, and mixing in the first Continental circles.
HUME'S “HISTORY OF ENGLAND.”
After his return to Britain he lived for two years in his brother's house, engaged chiefly in the composition of his Political Discourses and his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. In 1752 he undertook the charge of the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh; not so much for the sake of the nominal salary then attached to the office, as for the great command of books which such a position gave him.
There be seems first to have formed the idea of writing that History of England which made him famous. The work grew to completeness in a most irregular fashion. Afraid at first to face so long a story as the entire range of English history, he
began with the accession of the Stuart race. The first 1754 volume, closing with the Regicide, appeared in 1754.
Only forty-five copies were sold in a twelvemonth! His
sympathy for the slain king and Thorough-grinding Strafford excited a cry of disapproval and rebuke from almost every sect and every party. So deeply did he feel this mortifying reception of his book, that, but for a French war breaking out, he would have hidden himself, with changed name, in some country town of France, and there have tried to forget his native land, and the defeat of his literary ambition. But the ill wind of that French war,
gave us Canada, also blew to our libraries the remaining volumes of Hume's England. The second, treating of the years between the Regicide and the Revolution, came out in 1757. The tide had turned. Everybody began to read and praise the book. The year 1759 saw the publication of the third volume, containing the history of the Tudors; and two other volumes, in 1762, added the narrative of earlier events, and brought the work to a triumphant close. beauty, and picturesque power of style, there was then nothing like it in the range of English historical literature : and for these qualities it yet holds an honoured place on our book-shelves. Yet the day of Hume as an authority on English history has long gone by. The light of modern research has detected countless flaws and distortions in the great book, which was carefully, even painfully, revised as to its style, but which was formed in great part of a
SCEPTICISM OF HUME.
mass of statements often gathered from very doubtful sources, and heaped together, almost unsifted and untried. The diligence of that eminent modern historian, who often read a quarto volume to obtain material for a single sentence, and travelled a hundred miles to verify a solitary fact, was utterly unknown to David Hume. He wrote exquisitely; but he sometimes spent the beauty of his style upon mere chaff and saw-dust. Much the same thing it was, as if a jeweller should frame a costly casket and grace it with every adornment of art, that its rich beauty might at last enshrine a few worthless pebbles or beads of coloured glass.
The completion of his History made Hume a famous man. The Earl of Hertford invited him to join the embassy at Paris, there to act as interim secretary. His fame had gone before him, and he became a sort of lion in the French capital. When he re-crossed the Straits of Dover, it was to find promotion awaiting him at home. For about two years he acted as Under-Secretary of State, and in 1769 he returned to spend the evening of his life in the beautiful city of his birth, "passing rich ” with £1000 a year, the result of a prudent life, and the profits of his pen. For seven years longer he enjoyed the best society Edinburgh could afford, and then, in August 1776, he died. A journey to Bath, in the spring of that fatal year, was of no avail to stop the progress of his disease.
In philosophy and in religion Hume was a sceptic. He doubted almost everything, and attacked the Christian faith, especially by striving to cut away the foundations on which our belief in miracles rests. This being so, we cannot look in his great historical work for that recognition of religion as the main-spring of civilization, which our Bible and our common sense alike lead us to require from a true historian. Unable to resist a paradox, or a strange theory, he lost his way too often in the chase of flitting, unsubstantial meteors. In his system of morality he traces the goodness and badness of human actions or motives altogether to considerations of utility. These things take much from his lustre as an ornament of English literature.
SPECIMEN OF HUME'S PROSE.
DEATH OF QUEEN ELIZABETH.
She rejected all consolation ; she even refused food and sustenance; and, chrowing herself on the floor, she remained sullen and immovable, feeding her thoughts on her afflictions, and declaring life and existence an insufferable burden to her. Few words she uttered ; and they were all expressive of sonie inward grief, which she cared not to reveal : but sighs and groans were the chief vent which she gave to her despondency, and which, though they discovered her sorrows, were never able to ease or assuage them. Ten days and nights she lay upon the carpet, leaning on cushions which her maids brought her: and her physicians could not persuade her to allow herself to be put to bed, much less to make trial of any remedies which they prescribed to her. Her anxious mind at last bad so long preyed on her frail body, that her en was visibly approaching ; and the Council being assembled, sent the keeper, admiral, and secretary, to know her will with regard to her successor. She answered with a faint voice, that as she had held a regal sceptre, she desired no other than a royal successor. Cecil requesting her to explain herself more particularly, she subjoined that she would have a king to succeed her; and who should that be but her nearest kins. man, the king of Scots ? Being then advised by the archbishop of Canterbury to fix her thoughts upon God, she replied that she did so, nor did her mind in the least wander from him. Her voice soon after left her; her senses failed ; she fell into a lethargic slumber, which continued some hours, and she expired gently, without further struggle or convulsion (March 24, 1603), in the seventieth year of her age and forty-fifth of her reign.