David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume is sometimes considered to be the greatest philosopher ever to have written in the English language. He was born on April 26, 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland to a prosperous and devoutly Calvinist family. He was a precocious child and entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve (two years earlier than the norm). At University Hume developed the two passions that would guide the rest of his endeavors: his desire for literary success and his aversion to organized religion. While his family thought he was studying law, Hume was actually devouring classical texts (focusing his energies especially on Cicero) and studying newfangled philosophical ideas (particularly those of John Locke, George Berkeley, and Sir Isaac Newton). Inspired by what he read, Hume began to preoccupy himself with his own philosophical musings. These soon became so intense that they resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1729. Fearing for his sanity, Hume left the University to join a business venture in Bristol. Within a few months, however, Hume had become disillusioned with business and found himself unable to stay away from intellectual pursuits. He moved to France to continue his studies, and while living on a small allowance from his family he wrote the Treatise on Human Nature.

In 1737 Hume returned to London to arrange for the publication of his first book. While today we appreciate this text as Hume's greatest work, it was not received well by the 18th century public. In Hume's own words, the book "fell stillborn from the press." Nobody seemed to grasp the subtle and revolutionary arguments that he put forward, and the book was largely ignored. Unfortunately, the only aspect of the book that did receive a fair share of attention was its perceived anti-religious stance. Although Hume had removed the one overtly anti- religious section of the book (which would later be published as "On Miracles") the work won him an instant and dangerous reputation for atheism.

Disheartened but not despairing, Hume returned to Scotland and began to put his ideas into a form that he believed would receive more attention. The results of his effort were the Essays Moral and Political, which he published in 1741 and 1749. These books were significantly more successful than Treatise on Human Nature and Hume was encouraged by the success to continue molding his ideas into more easily digestible forms. After being rejected from a teaching post at the University of Edinburgh on the basis of his reputation as an atheist, and then serving a brief stint as a tutor and as a member of two English government missions, Hume reworked the first two books of Treatise on Human Nature into a smoother, more palatable book which he published in 1748 under the title of Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In 1751 he published the Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals, which was a reworking of the third book of Treatise on Human Nature. Though both more popular than the Treatise on Human Nature, neither of these books was a huge success. In 1752 Hume was rejected from yet another University position (this time in Glasgow) on the basis of his anti-religious reputation.

Starting in 1754 Hume began to attain the fame he had always craved. This was the year that he published the first installment in his six volume History of England, which secured his position as a literary luminary of Britain. Given his much-craved success, these years of Hume's life would have been tranquil if it had not been for his notorious reputation as an atheist. The publication of his book Five Dissertations was prevented after pressure was applied by the Orthodox agitator William Warburton, and in 1756 the General Assembly Church of Scotland made a formal attempt to excommunicate the man they referred to as "the Great Infidel." Luckily for Hume, he had many friends among the Moderate Party of the Church and they blocked the attempt.

In 1763 Hume was asked to be the personal assistant to the English ambassador to France. He moved to Paris where he became an intellectual hero and a favorite of French Enlightenment figures such as Diderot, D'Alembert, and Baron d'Holbach. (Hume's jovial and easygoing personality was appreciated by many of contemporaries.) Hume served in several more embassy positions before retiring from government life in 1767. He then returned to Scotland where he was revered as one of intellectual and cultural leaders of the country. In 1775 Hume contracted bowel cancer and although he adamantly refused to believe in an afterlife, he remained cheerful and active in the face of his impending death. He spent the last year of his life preparing Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion for publication. Actually, he had all but completed the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in 1751 but had been afraid to publish them for understandable reasons. Near his death, Hume told his friend Adam Smith that the only purpose he had left was to see Christianity routed from the world. He died in 1776 and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were published three years later, in 1779.

Popular pages: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion