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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

§ 2. His life and literary career

His career contained few incidents that need to be recorded beyond the publication of his books. He was born at Edinburgh on 26 April, 1711, the younger son of a country gentleman of good family, but small property. His “passion for literature” led to his early desertion of the study of law; when he was twenty-three, he tried commerce as a cure for the state of morbid depression in which severe study had landed him, and also, no doubt, as a means of livelihood. But, after a few months in a merchant’s office at Bristol, he resolved to make frugality supply his deficiency of fortune, and settled in France, chiefly at La Flèche, where, more than a century before, Descartes had been educated at the Jesuit college. But he never mentions this connection with Descartes; he was occupied with other thoughts; and, after three years, in 1737, he came home to arrange for the publication of A Treatise of Human Nature, the first two volumes of which appeared in January, 1739. If the book did not literally, as Hume put it, fall “dead-born from the press,” it excited little attention; the only literary notice it received entirely failed to appreciate its significance. He was bitterly disappointed, but continued the preparation for the press of his third volume, “Of Morals.” This appeared in 1740; and, in 1741, he published a volume of Essays Moral and Political, which reached a second edition and was supplemented by a second volume in 1742. The success of these essays gratified Hume’s literary ambition and, perhaps, had a good deal to do with the direction of his activity towards the application and popularisation of his reflections rather than to further criticism of their basis. About this time, Hume resided, for the most part, at the paternal estate (now belonging to his brother) of Ninewells in Berwickshire; but he was making efforts to secure an independent income: he failed twice to obtain a university professorship; he spent a troublesome year as tutor to a lunatic nobleman; he accompanied general St. Clair as his secretary on his expedition to France in 1746, and on a mission to Vienna and Turin in 1748. In the latter year was published a third volume of Essays Moral and Political, and, also, Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding, afterwards (1758) entitled An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, in which the reasonings of book I of A Treatise of Human Nature were presented in a revised but incomplete form. A second edition of this work appeared in 1751, and, in the same year, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (founded upon book III of the Treatise) which, in the opinion of the author, was of all his “writings, historical, philosophical, or literary, incomparably the best.” A few months later (February, 1752), he published a volume of Political Discourses which, he said, was “the only work of mine that was successful on the first publication.” According to Burton, it “introduced Hume to the literature of the continent.” It was translated into French in 1753 and, again, in 1754. In 1752, he was appointed keeper of the advocates’ library—a post which made a small addition to his modest income and enabled him to carry out his historical work. In 1753–4 appeared Essays and Treatises on several subjects; these included his various writings other than the Treatise and the History, and, after many changes, attained their final form in the edition of 1777. The new material added to them in later editions consisted chiefly of Four Dissertations published in 1757. The subjects of these dissertations were the natural history of religion, the passions (founded on book II of the Treatise), tragedy and taste. Essays on suicide and on immortality had been originally designed for this volume, but were hurriedly withdrawn on the eve of publication.

For more than two years, 1763 to 1765, Hume acted as secretary to the English embassy at Paris, where he was received with extraordinary enthusiasm by the court and by literary society. “Here,” he wrote, “I feed on ambrosia, drink nothing but nectar, breathe incense only, and walk of flowers.” He returned to London in January, 1766, accompanied by Rousseau, whom he had befriended and who, a few months later, repaid his kindness by provoking one of the most famous of quarrels between men of letters. Before the close of the year, he was again in Scotland, but, in the following year, was recalled to London as under-secretary of state, and it was not till 1769 that he finally settled in Edinburgh. There, he rejoined a society less brilliant and original than that he had left in Paris, but possessed of a distinction of its own. Prominent among his friends were Robertson, Hugh Blair and others of the clergy—men of high character and literary reputation, and representative of a religious attitude, known in Scotland as “moderatism,” which did not disturb the serenity of Hume. He died on 25 August, 1776.