My Own Life

David Hume

It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself withoutvanity; therefore I shall be short. It may be thought an instanceof vanity that I pretend at all to write my life; but thisnarrative shall contain little more than the history of mywritings; as, indeed, almost all my life has been spent inliterary pursuits and occupations. The first success of most ofmy writing was not such as to be an object of vanity.

I was born the twenty-sixth of April, 1711, old style, atEdinburgh. I was of a good family, both by father and mother: myfather's family is a branch of the Earl of Home's, or Hume's; andmy ancestors had been proprietors of the estate which my brotherpossesses, for several generations. My mother was daughter of SirDavid Falconer, President of the College of Justice; the title ofLord Halkerton came by succession to her brother.

My family, however, was not rich; and being myself a youngerbrother, my patrimony, according to the mode of my country, wasof course very slender. My father, who passed for a man of parts,died when I was an infant, leaving me, with an elder brother anda sister, under the care of our mother, a woman of singularmerit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself entirelyto the rearing and educating of her children. I passed throughthe ordinary course of education with success, and was seizedvery early with a passion for literature, which has been theruling passion of my life, and the great source of my enjoyments.My studious disposition, my sobriety, and my industry, gave myfamily a notion that the law was a proper profession for me; butI found an insurmountable aversion to every thing but thepursuits of philosophy and general learning; and while theyfancied I was poring upon Voet and Vinius, Cicero and Virgil werethe authors which I was secretly devouring.

My very slender fortune, however, being unsuitable to thisplan of life, and my health being a little broken by my ardentapplication, I was tempted, or rather forced, to make a veryfeeble trial for entering into a more active scene of life. In1734, I went to Bristol, with some recommendations to severaleminent merchants; but in a few months found that scene totallyunsuitable to me. I went over to France, with a view ofprosecuting my studies in a country retreat; and I there laidthat plan of life which I have steadily and successfully pursued.I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency offortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regardevery object as contemptible, except the improvements of mytalents in literature.

During my retreat in France, first at Rheims, but chiefly atLa Flèche, in Anjou, I composed my Treatise of Human Nature.After passing three years very agreeably in that country, I cameover to London in 1737. In the end of 1738, I published myTreatise, and immediately went down to my mother and my brother,who lived at his country house, and was employing himself veryjudiciously and successfully in the improvement of his fortune.

Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatiseof Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the press, withoutreaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among thezealots. But being naturally of a cheerful and sanguine temper, Ivery soon recovered the blow, and prosecuted with great ardor mystudies in the country. In 1742, I printed at Edinburgh, thefirst part of my Essays. The work was favorably received, andsoon made me entirely forget my former disappointment. Icontinued with my mother and brother in the country, and in thattime recovered the knowledge of the Greek language, which I hadtoo much neglected in my early youth.

In 1745, I received a letter from the Marquis of Annandale,inviting me to come and live with him in England; I found alsothat the friends and family of that young nobleman were desirousof putting him under my care and direction, for the state of hismind and health required it. I lived with him a twelve month. Myappointments during that time made a considerable accession to mysmall fortune. I then received an invitation from General St.Clair to attend him as a secretary to his expedition, which wasat first meant against Canada, but ended in an incursion on thecoast of France. Next year, to wit, 1747, I received aninvitation from the general to attend him in the same station inis military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin. I thenwore the uniform of an officer, and was introduced at thesecourts as aid-de-camp to the general, along with Sir HarryErskine and Captain Grant, now General Grant. These two yearswere almost the only interruptions which my studies have receivedduring the course of my life: I passed them agreeably, and ingood company; and my appointments, with my frugality, had made mereach a fortune which I called independent, though most of myfriends were inclined to smile when I said so: in short, I wasnow master of near a thousand pounds.

I had always entertained a notion that my want of success inpublishing the Treatise of Human Nature had proceeded more fromthe manner than the matter, and that I had been guilty of a veryusual indiscretion in going to the press too early. I, therefore,cast the first part of that work anew in the Inquiry concerningHuman Understanding, which was published while I was at Turin.But this piece was at first little more successful than theTreatise of Human Nature. On my return from Italy, I had themortification to find all England in a ferment on account of Dr.Middleton's Free Inquiry, while my performance was entirelyoverlooked and neglected. A new edition, which had been publishedat London, of my Essays, Moral and Political, met not with a muchbetter reception.

Such is the force of natural temper, that thesedisappointments made little or no impression on me. I went down,in 1749, and lived two years with my brother at his countryhouse, for my mother was now dead. I there composed the secondpart of my Essays which I called Political Discourses, and alsomy Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which is anotherpart of my Treatise that I cast anew. Meanwhile, my bookseller,A. Millar, informed me, that my former publications (all but theunfortunate Treatise) were beginning to be the subject ofconversation; that the sale of them was gradually increasing, andthat new editions were demanded. Answers by reverends and rightreverends came out two or three in a year; and I found, by Dr.Warburton's railing, that the books were beginning to be esteemedin good company. However, I had fixed a resolution, which Iinflexibly maintained, never to reply to any body; and not beingvery irascible in my temper, I have easily kept myself clear ofall literary squabbles. These symptoms of a rising reputationgave me encouragement, as I was ever more disposed to see thefavorable than unfavorable side of things; a turn of mind whichit is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of tenthousand a year.

In 1751, I removed from the country to the town, the truescene for a man of letters. In 1752 were published at Edinburgh,where I then lived, my Political Discourses, the only work ofmine that was successful on the first publication. It was wellreceived at home and abroad. In the same year was published, atLondon, my Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals; which, inmy own opinion (who ought not to judge on that subject) is, ofall my writings, historical, philosophical, or literary,incomparably the best. It came unnoticed and unobserved into theworld.

In 1752, the Faculty of Advocates chose me their librarian,an office from which I received little or no emolument, but whichgave me the command of a large library. I then formed the plan ofwriting the History of England; but being frightened with thenotion of continuing a narrative through a period of seventeenhundred years, I commenced with the accession of the house ofStuart, an epoch when, I thought, the misrepresentations offaction began chiefly to take place. I was, I own, sanguine in myexpectations of the success of this work. I thought that I wasthe only historian that had at once neglected present power,interest and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and asthe subject was suited to every capacity, I expected proportionalapplause. But miserable was my disappointment; I was assailed byone cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation;English, Scotch, and irish, whig and tory, churchman and sectary,freethinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united intheir rage against the man who had presumed to shed a generoustear for the fate of Charles I and the Earl of Strafford; andafter the first ebullitions of their fury were over, what wasstill more mortifying, the book seemed to sink into oblivion. Mr.Millar told me that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-fivecopies of it. I scarcely, indeed, heard of one man in the threekingdoms, considerable for rank or letters, that could endure thebook. I must only except the primate of England, Dr. Herring, andthe primate of Ireland, Dr. Stone, which seem two odd exceptions.These dignified prelates separately sent me messages not to bediscouraged.

I was, however, I confess, discouraged; and had not the warbeen at that time breaking out between France and England, I hadcertainly retired to some provincial town of the former kingdom,have changed my name, and never more have returned to my nativecountry. But as this scheme was not now practicable, and thesubsequent volume was considerably advanced, I resolved to pickup courage and to persevere.

In this interval, I published, at London, my Natural Historyof Religion, along with some other small pieces. Its public entrywas rather obscure, except only that Dr. Hurd wrote a pamphletagainst it, with all the illiberal petulance, arrogance, andscurrility, which distinguish the Warburtonian school. Thispamphlet gave me some consolation for the otherwise indifferentreception of my performance.

In 1756, two years after the fall of the first volume, waspublished the second volume of my History, containing the periodfrom the death of Charles I till the revolution. This performancehappened to give less displeasure to the whigs, and was betterreceived. It not only rose itself, but helped to buoy up itsunfortunate brother.

But though I had been taught by experience that the whigparty were in possession of bestowing all places, both in thestate and in literature, I was so little inclined to yield totheir senseless clamor, that in above a hundred alterations,which further study, reading, or reflection engaged me to make inthe reigns of the two first Stuarts, I have made all of theminvariably to the tory side. It is ridiculous to consider theEnglish constitution before that period as a regular plan ofliberty.

In 1759, I published my History of the House of Tudor. Theclamor against this performance was almost equal to that againstthe history of the two first Stuarts. The reign of Elizabeth wasparticularly obnoxious. But I was now callous against theimpressions of public folly, and continued very peaceably andcontentedly, in my retreat at Edinburgh, to finish, in twovolumes, the more early part of the English History which I gaveto the public in 1761, with tolerable, and but tolerable,success.

But, notwithstanding this variety of winds and seasons, towhich my writings had been exposed, they had still been makingsuch advances, that the copy-money given me by the booksellersmuch exceeded anything formerly known in England; I was becomenot only independent, but opulent. I retired to my native countryof Scotland, determined never more to set my foot out of it; andretailing the satisfaction of never having preferred a request toone great man, or even making advances of friendship to any ofthem. As I was now turned of fifty, I thought of passing all therest of my life in this philosophical manner: when I received, in1763, an invitation from the Earl of Hertford, with whom I wasnot in the least acquainted, to attend him on his embassy toParis, with a near prospect of being appointed secretary to theembassy; and, in the meanwhile, of performing the functions ofthat office. This offer, however inviting, I at first declined;both because I was reluctant to begin connections with the great,and because I was afraid that the civilities and gay company ofParis would prove disagreeable to a person of my age and humor'.but on his lordship's repeating the invitation, I accepted of it.I have every reason, both of pleasure and interest, to thinkmyself happy in my connections with that nobleman, as well asafterwards with his brother, General Conway.

Those who have not seen the strange effects of modes, willnever imagine the reception I met with at Paris, from men andwomen of all ranks and stations. The more I resiled from theirexcessive civilities, the more I was loaded with them. There is,however, a real satisfaction in living at Paris, from the greatnumber of sensible, knowing, and polite company with which thatcity abounds above all places in the universe.

I thought once of settling there for life. I was appointedsecretary to the embassy; and, in summer, 1765, Lord Hertfordleft me, being appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. I was charg?d'affaires till the arrival of the duke of Richmond, towards theend of the year. In the beginning of 1766, I left Paris, and nextsummer went to Edinburgh, with the same view as formerly, ofburying myself in a philosophical retreat. I returned to thatplace, not richer, but with much more money, and a much largerincome, by means of Lord Hertford's friendship, than I left it;and I was desirous of trying what superfluity could produce, as Ihad formerly made an experiment of a competency. But in 1767, Ireceived from Mr. Conway an invitation to be undersecretary; andthis invitation, both the character of the person, and myconnections with Lord Hertford, prevented me from declining. Ireturned to Edinburgh in 1769, very opulent (for I possessed arevenue of one thousand pounds a year), healthy, and thoughsomewhat stricken in years, with the prospect of enjoying long myease, and of seeing the increase of my reputation.

In spring, 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels,which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehendit, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedydissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder;and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great declineof my person, never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits;insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life which I shouldmost choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point tothis later period. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, andthe same gayety in company. I consider, besides, that a man ofsixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities;and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation'sbreaking out at last with additional luster, I know that I couldhave but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be moredetached from life than I am at present.

To conclude historically with my own character: I am, orrather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking ofmyself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments); Iwas, I say, a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, ofan open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, butlittle susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all mypassions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, neversoured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. Mycompany was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as wellas to the studious and literary; and as I took a particularpleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to bedispleased with the reception I met with from them. In a word,though most men, anywise eminent, have found reason to complainof calumny, I never was touched, or even attacked, by her balefultooth; and though I wantonly exposed myself to the rage of bothcivil and religious factions, they seemed to be disarmed in mybehalf of their wonted fury. My friends never had occasion tovindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct; notbut that the zealots, we may well suppose, would have been gladto invent and propagate any story to my disadvantage, but theycould never find any which they thought would wear the face ofprobability. I cannot say there is no vanity in making thisfuneral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one;and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared andascertained.

APRIL 18, 1776.