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VI. DAVID HUME
ART. X.-Life and Correspondence of David Hume. From the Papers bequeathed by his Nephew to the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and other Original Sources. BY JOHN HILL BURTON, Esq., Advocate. 2 Vols. 8vo. Edinburgh, 1846.
We have been rather remiss in not sooner taking notice of these volumes; and even now we are afraid our consideration of them must be more cursory than we could wish. Indeed, the topics which the life of such a man as Hume introduces, would almost embrace a history of the literature and philosophy of the last century. We have not space enough to enter in detail at present into what might prove a very interesting and not a useless field of inquiry, in regard to the influences which formed and the results which followed the tendency and efforts of Hume's great and masterly intellect. We must content ourselves with performing, in the meantime, our more appropriate office of critics on the work before us-throwing in by the way such general reflections as the task may suggest.
Mr. Burton has performed the literary part of his duty very creditably and well-with enough of enthusiasm for his subject to interest, and not too much to mislead his readers. The metaphysical controversies which are associated with so much of Hume's writings, seem to be familiar to him; and he expresses himself on the subject of them with clearness, accuracy, and conciseness. The best praise we can give him is, that out of a life singularly uneventful in incident, considering the space his hero fills in literary history, and the interest of which consists entirely in developing the workings and peculiarities of a remarkable and powerful mind, he has contrived to make the perusal of two well-grown volumes a light and agreeable employment.
Faults, unquestionably, we have to find; but not with the ability of the biographer. Nor indeed with his tone and cast of sentiment; in these he has been evidently anxious to be appropriate and decorous—and he has succeeded. But we desiderate a certain boldness which certainly Hume himself would not have spared. We see and make all allowance for the delicacy and difficulty of the position. To write Hume's life in these days, and neither offend by laxity or condemn with zeal, was, we admit, an undertaking of no small embarrassment. Mr. Burton has steered his course between the opposing dangers by trimming his sails a little too near the wind, and endeavouring to preserve for his author a juste milieu tone which he himself would have scorned. This is, we think, the great defect of the book; but it was one almost unavoidable, considering the manifest admiration with which the biographer regards his subject, and we are glad, in this view,
that there is not a word in these volumes which can offend the most scrupulous, though we think the result sometimes attained by some sacrifice of strict historic or philosophic accuracy. We shall have occasion, in the course of our remarks, to allude more particularly to instances in which this occurs.
The chief interest of the work consists, of course, in the picture which it gives of the progress, growth, and development of Hume's mind and for this Mr. Burton has had very great, and hitherto unenjoyed advantages. Hume's correspondence and papers were collected by the late Baron Hume, his nephew, from the documents discovered in his own repositories, and from originals which he was enabled to procure out of the hands of his correspondents, or members of their families. Mr. Burton tells us that they were collected with the view of writing a Life of the Philosopher. We do not greatly regret that this intention remained unfulfilled; for Baron Hume, though a profound and accomplished lawyer, and a man of great ability, had not the enlarged views which such a task required. This mass of documents, however, remained by him unused; and at his death were bequeathed to the Council of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. From them Mr. Burton has had unreserved access to this interesting mine of information, consisting of many original letters of Hume to his friends-Mure of Caldwell, Sir Gilbert Elliot, Colonel Edmondstoune, Adam Smith, and others; and he has made a selection from these materials with equal judgment and good taste. He has also had access to other sources of information, from parties who had papers relating to Hume in their possession.
It is probable, that writing from such authentic documents, Mr. Burton has been enabled to present us with a very complete picture of the Philosopher; and it is impossible to deny that the picture is interesting and remarkable. Hume certainly appears to have been not only an able, but to a great extent, a candid and amiable man. If he reached no great pitch of generosity, and had a fair and pretty uniform regard to his own interest, he was not selfish nor jealous. He rejoiced in the good fortune of his friends, and exerted himself to promote it when he could. If his pride of independence was not very sensitive, he was not servile, or fawning, or parasitical. His affections and temper were sunny and cheerful, and his mind, if not well, was at least equally, balanced, and perhaps as well calculated to defy fortune, in her smiles and in her frowns, as that of most men.
What we miss is some generous glow of warmth-some stirring of the nobler and more ethereal part of man's intellectual nature. As chemists use in their experiments, so all the movements of Hume's mind seem to have worked through, a re
frigerating medium. There was a point beyond which his moral and intellectual temperature was never allowed to rise. The glow of patriotism-the sympathy for suffering-the pride of raising the oppressed, or striking down the tyrant-the consciousness of the great or grand in creation, or even the sense-which the commonplace sceptic generally retains-the keen sense of the ridiculous, seem to have been frozen within him. There was a want in his mental constitution; and no man, whatever the nature or intensity of his religious views, can, we think, lay down these volumes without being painfully impressed with the truth of the observation. His scepticism, moral as well as religious, was not the effect of his philosophy;-his philosophy took its bent from the sceptical conformation of his mind. He did not believe because he did not perceive; his moral perceptions were unimpressible; and he doubted of those virtues which all men think sacred, because there burned within him so little of that fire, which, even to the untutored savage, becomes" a law unto himself." Of romance, or chivalry, or enthusiasm in literature, politics, or even love, he had not a spark.
No doubt, to borrow the analogy of the chemist, this cold, unimpassioned temperament was favourable to the evolution of truth; and Hume, by his clear, inductive logic, has undoubtedly evolved much more truth than he dreamed of at the time. His real defect was the bluntness of his moral perceptions, which led him to rest in results which truly were obtained in a half-completed process.
It is now more than one hundred years since David Hume began to write. Never, perhaps, did any country experience a more thorough revolution than Scotland has done during the century that has since elapsed, socially, politically, and morally. We come to review the writings of that most powerful thinker from an atmosphere which he never breathed-an atmosphere, as we think, both more wholesome and more serene. Had Hume lived in our day, we venture to think that his most acute and penetrating mind would not have strayed so widely in search of firm resting ground, and returned, like the dove from a world of waters, finding none. He was cast on an ill-omened age for an intellect and temperament like his; and, in the melancholy impression which the retrospect of his brilliant, yet, to a great extent, profitless career, has called up within us, we are involuntarily tempted to glance at the state of Scotland during the period in which he flourished, and the tone of society and of morals by which his impressions were moulded and swayed.
The Union with England was from the first productive of great and signal advantages. It gave rest and space from a long-continued and ruinous ferment of politics and cabal. It removed to
a distance the scenes of court-intrigue and party-plotting which had so long distracted our country; and certainly tended to revive not only agricultural enterprise but the love of literature, both of which had been trodden under foot in the turmoil of civil commotion. Between the days of Buchanan, when Scottish scholarship was proverbial over Europe, and the middle of the last century, we can hardly boast of a name even respectable in letters. No doubt, it was the quiet lull after the storms of the Commonwealth, the Restoration, and the Revolution, which fostered the seeds that were so soon to ripen into glorious harvest, to produce Hume, Smith, and Robertson-three names as potential as any that bear sway in the republic of philosophy.
How that soil, so cultured, and sending forth such first-fruits, has since continued to bear golden grain, we need not stop to recall. The real blessings of the Union, however, were the ultimate results of it. For the time the picture has a reverse, and one not agreeable to contemplate.
We cannot say that the study of our recent Scottish history —that is, of the two last centuries-rouses much national pride within us. No doubt, in the middle and lower classes of the Scotch there has always been something of the heroic; and they have always found worthy leaders among some of the landowners and the aristocracy. Still, from the wars of Montrose to the days of the volunteers, there has always been a dash of subserviency among the upper classes of our land-the union of the Crowns commenced it. The nobles of our proud but poor court of Holyrood quailed before the contemptuous riches of the English aristocracy. The fear of English scorn struck deeper to their hearts than English steel had ever done, and the rough and daring soldier, who had no higher ambition than to ride foremost in the foray at the head of his family retainers, was tamed down, amid strangers who derided his poverty, and sneered at his mothertongue, into an uncouth but supple and pliant follower of courts.
What the union of the Crowns commenced, the union of the Kingdoms completed; and we know few passages in the history of any country so little creditable to their manliness and independence, as that of the upper classes in Scotland for the cen tury which followed that event. It is quite true, we gained dur ing that period a great deal in which we had formerly been wofully deficient. Some of the arts of peace made way among us, where they had been long neglected-cattle-lifting was exchanged for agriculture, and some degree of English comfort and propriety took the place of our instinctive and national uncleanness. Far be it from us to disparage the boon-but we paid a large price. The removal, first of our Court, and then of our Parliament, made English manners the test of fashion, and
English satire the dread and bugbear of our gentry. Successful, by the national strength of intellect, perseverance, and caution, which have enabled Scotchmen everywhere to rise above the difficulties, and surmount the barriers which a foreign country impose on a stranger, they grew ashamed of the land of their birth in proportion as they acquired honour in that of their adoption. Thus the manlier spirit of ruder times was exchanged for the subservient arts which were productive of place and patronage. Disliked by the neighbours into whose councils and courts they intruded, their pliancy and homage to the great became proverbial, and gave a tone to the character of Scotchmen from which, even at this day, they have hardly recovered. On the other hand, they were prized in their own country just in proportion as they had interest at the fountain of honour and profit, power to promote, or patronage to bestow. Thus, however politics varied, or popular feeling tended in England, Scotland, with all its Jacobite tendency, was ever on the side of the Crown; and it is a singular relic of the spirit of the times, that the man whose name in England was identified with popular resistance to power, still remains in Scotland as a legend of reproach, and that John Wilkes is as regularly burned in effigy among us, when the 5th of November comes round, as his gunpowder prototype in the sister country.
These causes operated, partly by assimilation and partly by contrariety, two important effects on the character of the Scottish gentry. English fashions led them to despise the old sturdy Presbyterianism of their ancestors, and English Whiggery provoked them to secret Jacobitism, and favour for the doctrines of arbitrary power. Latitudinarians in religion, and Tories in politics, were the Scottish lairds of that generation.
The first of these results was one very injurious to the nation. The great body of the people never gave in to the lukewarm principles of the diluted Church of Scotland; and for many a long day, while philosophy so-called ruled the Church, the people were fed beyond its pale. This was perhaps the most grievous effect that followed the incorporation of the kingdoms. Its tendency was to sever those who had an ambition to be in the mode, and who were accessible to the influence of the ridicule of their southern neighbours, from the unflinching and truehearted mass of the people. The latter retained, while the first were all anxious to get free of, the Puritan strictness of the century before. Those whose ancestors had signed the Covenant in defiance of lawless power, and maintained by their sword, and sealed with their lives the charter to which they had set their hand, were only anxious to prove how little they were enslaved by the narrow prejudices of their forefathers, and how well jus