Biography: David Hume
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,
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 critic
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