David Hume, a Scottish historian, born in Edinburgh, April 26, 1711, died there, Aug. 25, 1776. His father, proprietor of the estate of Ninewells in Berwickshire, died during David's infancy, leaving three children. Hume was intended for the bar. He passed through the university of Edinburgh, but was drawn away from his legal studies by that love for literature which became the ruling passion of his life. At 16 he was a skeptic in matters of religion. His inheritance as a younger son being small, in 1734 he entered a counting room at Bristol, whence after a few months he passed over into France, and lived for three years with great economy while composing his " Treatise of Human Nature." In 1738 he printed his work in London, which, as he says, " fell dead born from the press." Returning to live at Nine-wells, he printed anonymously at Edinburgh, in 1742, the first volume of his "Essays." He next sought a professorship in the Edinburgh university, but his skeptical principles prevented his success. In 1745 he went to live as companion to the insane marquis of Annan-dale. In 1746 Gen. St. Clair invited him to become his private secretary, in an expedition designed for the invasion of Canada, but which was finally directed against the coast of France. Hume was also made judge advocate in the army, and was highly popular with his military associates.
When St. Clair went as minister to Turin, he took Hume with him as his secretary. On his way to Italy he passed through Germany, sailed down the Danube, and at Vienna was presented to the empress Maria Theresa. While at Turin, his "Inquiry concerning the Human Understanding," a new casting of the unfortunate "Treatise," was printed at London. On his return from Italy in 1749, he lived with his brother and sister at Nine wells, his mother being now dead, and there wrote the "Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals" and his "Political Discourses" (1752). In 1752, after strong opposition, he was chosen librarian of the advocates' library of Edinburgh, and now began his "History of England." The first volume of the " History of the House of Stuart," containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I., came out toward the end of 1754, and was unfavorably received. In 1756 he published a second volume, embracing the reigns of Charles II. and James II., which was better received. Hume had now formed a wide acquaintance among the professional and literary men of Scotland, his amiable manners and pure morals having conquered the prejudices excited by his skeptical opinions. The general assembly of 1755, however, condemned his writings, and even threatened him with excommunication.
In 1757 appeared his " Natural History of Religion," which Dr. Hurd attacked in a violent pamphlet. Hume meanwhile became the patron of the rising literature of Scotland. He aided the blind poet Blacklock, and encouraged Wilkie, author of the " Epigoniad." Toward the end of 1758 he went to London to publish the " History of the House of Tudor." It appeared in 1759, and was severely criticised. In 1761 he published two volumes containing the earlier portion of the English annals. He proposed to write two more volumes to embrace the reigns of William III. and Anne, but this design was not fulfilled. By the sale of his copyrights he had now gathered a moderate fortune, and lived in Edinburgh in philosophic ease. But in 1763 the marquis of Hertford invited him to accompany him to Paris, where the marquis was appointed minister. Hume at first declined the invitation, but finally attended the marquis, and was received at Paris with signal distinction. The whole royal family, the French philosophers, the nobility, and particularly the ladies of high rank and fashion, overwhelmed him with their attentions; and Hume wrote to his friends in Scotland that Louis XIV. had never suffered so much flattery in three weeks as he had done. "When Lord Hertford left Paris Hume became charge d'affaires. In the beginning of 1766 he returned to England, bringing with him Rousseau, who sought there a refuge from persecution; he provided him with retired lodgings in Derbyshire, and obtained for him a pension from the king.
But Rousseau soon afterward wrote a letter to Hume, accusing him of desiring to destroy his fame. Their quarrel made a great sensation, and Hume in self-defence published the letters that had passed between them. In 1766 Hume went to Edinburgh, but was invited by Gen. Conway the next year to become under secretary of state. He remained in London until Conway was superseded, and in 1769 returned to Edinburgh. His income being now £1,000 a year, he engaged in building a house, and in the pleasures of society. In March, 1775, his health began to decline. The next spring he wrote a congratulatory letter to Gibbon, who had sent him the first volume of the "Decline and Fall." In April, 1776, he finished his "Own Life," a concise narrative of his literary career. After a journey to Bath he returned to Edinburgh to die. Five days before his death he wrote to the countess de Boufflers: " I see death gradually approach without any anxiety or regret." He was buried in Calton hill graveyard, Edinburgh, where a monument to him was erected. As a historian Hume holds a high rank among English writers. His narrative is interesting, his style clear, and with happy ease he blends profound thought, distinct portraiture, and skilful appeals to the feelings. He lacks, however, accuracy and impartiality.
His philosophical writings do not form a complete system. He discussed detached questions of metaphysics, and aimed at the refutation of what he considered erroneous opinions rather than at the attainment of positive results. He regarded utility as the basis of morals, maintaining that the moral quality of actions was to be decided by their consequences. He asserts that the mind is conscious only of impressions and ideas, the latter following the former, and that there is no clearer proof of the existence of the mind than there is of matter. He traces the course of thought to the law of association, which he founds upon resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect. But the doctrine of cause and effect is only a habit of the mind, resulting from experience. Thus all is uncertainty, and the mind reduced to skepticism. His history was continued by Smollett down to the death of George II., and after that by various authors. A new edition of his "Philosophical Works," edited by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose, has been commenced in London (4 vols., 1874 et seq.). - See "Life and Correspondence of David Hume," edited by John Hill Burton (2 vols., Edinburgh, 1847).