The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 4. David Hume: Influences on his Historical work
It was during those years that David Hume first became known as a philosopher and essayist; his earliest book, A Trealise of Human Nature (1739–40), written when he was not more than twenty-eight, met with a chilling reception which gave little promise of his future renown. His metaphysical opinions led him to put a special value on the study of history. As his scepticism limited mental capability to sensible experience, so he regarded past events as affording experience. Holding mankind to be much the same under all conditions, he considered that history, by exhibiting the behaviour of men in the past, enables us to discover the principles of human action and their results, and to order our conduct accordingly: its records are “so many collections of experiments by which the moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science,” and man obtains a guide for his own conduct. Hume would therefore be drawn to study history, and, believing that a knowledge of it would be of public utility by affording men experience, he would be inclined to record the experiments from which they could derive it. A three years’ residence in France from 1734 to 1737, most of it spent “very agreeably” at La Flèche, on the Loir, then famous for its great Jesuits’ college, probably strengthened this inclination and influenced his style. Historical study was being eagerly pursued in France. Among the religious orders, the Benedictines were preparing Le Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France, issuing their Gallia Christiana, and beginning their histories of the French provinces, while the Dominicans had produced the Scriptores of their order, and the Jesuits were engaged on Acta Sanctorum. On the lay side, the Académie des Inscriptions was carrying on the publication of the royal ordinances, and gathering a store of historical erudition. Count de Boulainvilliers had already treated French history in a philosophic spirit, and Voltaire, in his exquisite little Histoire de Charles XII, had shown that historical writing might be endowed with literary excellence. A strange contrast Hume must have seen in this activity and accomplishment to the condition of historical work in Great Britain. Elegance in the structure of sentences and an almost excessive purity of language, which marked contemporary French literature, were specially inculcated by the Jesuits, the masters of French education. Hume’s History shows enough French influence to justify us in considering his long visit to La Flèche as an important factor in its character.