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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 1. Hume’s literary ambition

OF the two friends whose names give a title to this chapter, it has been truthfully said that “there was no third person writing the English language during the same period, who has had so much influence upon the opinions of mankind as either of these two men.” There were many other writers on the same or cognate subjects, who made important contributions to the literature of thought; but Hume and Adam Smith tower above them all both in intellectual greatness and in the permanent influence of their work.

In the sketch of his Own Life, which he wrote a few months before his death, Hume says that he 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.” Another document of much earlier date (1734), which Hume himself revealed to no one, but which has been discovered and printed by his biographer, gives us a clear insight into the nature of this literary ambition and of the obstacles to its satisfaction.

  • As our college education in Scotland, extending little further than the languages, ends commonly when we are about fourteen or fifteen years of age, I was after that left to my own choice in my reading, and found it incline me almost equally to books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors. Every one who is acquainted either with the philosophers or critics, knows that there is nothing yet established in either of these two sciences, and that they contain little more than endless disputes, even in the most fundamental articles. Upon examination of these, I found a certain boldness of temper growing in me, which was not inclined to submit to any authority in these subjects, but led me to seek out some new medium by which truth might be established. After much study and reflection on this, at last, when I was about eighteen years of age, there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought, which transported me beyond measure, and made me, with an ardour natural to young men, throw up every other pleasure or business to apply entirely to it.… Having now time and leisure to cool my inflamed imagination, I began to consider seriously how I should proceed in my philosophical inquiries. I found that … every one consulted his fancy in erecting schemes of virtue and of happiness, without regarding human nature, upon which every moral conclusion must depend. This, therefore, I resolved to make my principal study, and the source from which I would derive every truth in criticism as well as morality.
  • These passages show, not only that Hume’s ambition was entirely literary, but, also, that his literary ambition was centred in philosophy and that he was convinced he held in his grasp a key to its problems. Literary ambition never ceased to be Hume’s ruling passion, and it brought him fame and even affluence. But his early enthusiasm for the discovery of truth seems to have been damped by the reception of his first and greatest work, or by the intellectual contradiction to which his arguments led, or by both causes combined. In philosophy, he never made any real advance upon his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature; his later efforts were devoted to presenting its arguments in a more perfect and more popular literary form, or to toning down their destructive results, and to the application of his ideas to questions of economics, politics and religion, as well as to winning a new reputation for himself in historical composition.