Hume as historian

When it was asked of a friend of David Hume why the great author had neglected to address some obscure but important source in his History of England, the old man replied, “Why, mon, David read a vast deal before he set about a piece of his book; but his usual seat was the sofa, and he often wrote with his legs up; and it would have been unco’ fashious to have moved across the room when any little doubt occurred.”

He was not being unfair. Hume himself, having taken a break due to boredom halfway through the writing of his History, would blithely tell his publisher that he was “engaged in no work at present; but if I tire of idleness, or more properly speaking, of reading for my amusement, I may probably continue my History.”  The largest obstacle to the completion of his great work, his “only discouragement,” was that he could not hope to finish the books “in [his] closet”, and would have to exert himself: he “must apply to the great for papers and intelligence, a thing I mortally abhor.” His apparently incurable laziness was reflected in his appearance, which, from his “broad and flat” face (“without any other expression than that of imbecility”) to his “vacant and spiritless” eyes, was “far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman, than of a refined philosopher.”

Nor was it a passing phase; even in industry, the man was idle. Writing again to his publisher, having begun to “tire of [his current] course of life” (by which he meant “such a life of dissipation as not to be able to think of any serious occupation”), he described some of the diligent researches he had been recently undertaking, which he hoped to use in a future (“very distant”) edition: he had “run over” the memoirs of King James and “picked up some curious passages.” Of course, he soon thought better of the idea, and relapsed into sloth and indolence. “Some push me to continue my History. Millar [Hume’s publisher] offers me any price. All the Marlborough papers are offered me; and I believe nobody would venture to refuse me. But cui bono? Why should I forego idleness, and sauntering, and society, and expose myself again to the clamours of a stupid factious public? I am not yet tired of doing nothing; and am become too wise either to mind censure or applause.”

This attitude inevitably found a sort of expression in his work; introducing the first volume of his History, he wrote that

“The convulsions of a civilized state usually compose the most instructive and most interesting part of its history; but the sudden, violent, and unprepared revolutions incident to barbarians, are so much guided by caprice, and terminate so often in cruelty, that they disgust us by the uniformity of their appearance; and it is rather fortunate for letters that they are buried in silence and oblivion.”

Emphasis mine. Or again, about 30 pages later, discussing the King of East-Anglia:

The history of this kingdom contains nothing memorable except the conversion of Earpwold, the fourth king, and great-grandson of Una, the founder of the monarchy. […] After [Edwin, king of Northumberland’s] death, which was violent, like that of most of the Saxon princes that did not early retire into monasteries, Sigebert, his successor and half-brother, who had been educated in France, restored Christianity, and introduced learning among the East Angles. Some pretend that he founded the university of Cambridge, or rather some schools in that place. It is almost impossible, and quite needless, to be more particular in relating the transactions of the East Angles. What instruction or entertainment can it give the reader, to hear a long bead-roll of barbarous names, Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwald, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert, who successively murdered, expelled, or inherited from each other, and obscurely filled the throne of that kingdom?”

Again, emphasis mine. This is not to say that Hume was not diligent in his research, or was indifferent to the problems of ancient society; his various appendices discussing the arcane problems of his subject, or the obvious erudition present in his essay Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations, ought to put any suspicions of unseriousness to rest. He was serious, but he was insouciant; and once he had made such investigations as he thought necessary, he felt no compunction about dismissing whatever needed to be dismissed.  Even things omitted, though, could not by their omission be considered “unentertaining and uninstructive,” for the study of “human manners, in all their variety of appearances,” is always “both profitable and agreeable”; all that “seems horrid and deformed” in another age can only help us “learn to cherish with the greater anxiety that science and civility, which has so close a connexion with virtue and humanity, […] the most effectual remedy against vice and disorders of every kind.”

This, for Hume, was one of the noblest purposes of history: learning to tell right from wrong, good from bad, the instructive from the useless. One is reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s advice on the reading of Dickens: to “skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest.”

“History, also, being a collection of facts which are multiplying without end, is obliged to adopt such arts of abridgment, to retain the more material events, and to drop all the minute circumstances, which are only interesting during the time, or to the persons engaged in the transactions. This truth is nowhere more evident than with regard to the reign upon which we are going to enter. What mortal could have the patience to write or read a long detail of such frivolous events as those with which it is filled, or attend to a tedious narrative which would follow, through a series of fifty-six years, the caprices and weaknesses of so mean a prince as Henry? […]  But we shall not attempt to comprehend every transaction transmitted to us: and till the end of the reign, when the events become more memorable, we shall not always observe an exact chronological order in our narration.”

And so he earned his admirers. Upon encountering in the History Hume’s “calm philosophy,” his “careless, inimitable beauties,” Gibbon was frequently so overcome with admiration that he felt forced “to close the volume with a mixed sensation of delight and despair.” In fact Gibbon (and most of his contemporaries) would not dare compare the author of the Decline and Fall to the ‘Tacitus of Scotland’, for fear of detracting from the latter. William Tooke would later write that “Public opinion has now sealed his work, as the first historical composition in the language,”  surpassing both Gibbon’s and Robertson’s “in that elegant perspicuity of language, and that profundity of thought and comprehensiveness of view, which open a wide field of meditation to the reader.”

Not all Hume’s readers, of course, were admirers. To Dr. Johnson he was “a Tory by chance, as being a Scotchman; but not upon a principle of duty, for he has no principle. If he is anything, he is a Hobbist.” Macaulay, memorably and not without irony, flayed him as “an accomplished advocate” (de te fabula narratur), who knew in the composition of his History to avoid “positively asserting much more than he can prove,” but simply to “give prominence to all the circumstances which support his case; he glides lightly over those which are unfavourable to it; his own witnesses are applauded and encouraged; the statements which seem to throw discredit on them are controverted; the contradictions into which they fall are explained away; a clear and connected abstract of their evidence is given.” While recognizing that “concessions even are sometimes made,” they were no credit to him, for “this insidious candour only increases the effect of the vast mass of sophistry.” To George Hardinge, Hume was nothing more than a “disingenuous and subtle agent for the entire House of Stuart.” Coleridge’s assessment was even worse: “Hume comprehended as much of Shakespeare as an apothecary’s phial would, placed under the falls of Niagra.”

Mr. Jefferson, perhaps Hume’s most notable contemporary critic, having read the History as a young man, lamented to a friend the “length of time, the research & reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled” in his mind. And yet to his dismay he saw that the book “continues to be put into the hands of all our young people, and to infect them with the poison of his own principles of government. […] It has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown, and has spread universal toryism over the land.” While offering some feeble praise of one John Baxter, who “hit on the only remedy the evil admits” – bowdlerizing it  and re-releasing it as Hume’s history of England abridged and rendered faithful to fact and principle – Jefferson was unable to procure a copy of this corrected text, and subsequently decided to ban the work from his university entirely.

For the most part, though, the response was mixed. Bishop Hurd, though deploring Hume’s “bias to the French taste and manners, which appears throughout his History,” detesting his politics, which “aris[e] out of his bigotry to the Stuart family,” and denouncing his “libertinism, which breaks out on so many occasions,” nevertheless proclaimed that Hume’s was “the most readable History we have of England.” Despite the shortcomings of its author, the Bishop felt, “his work will be read and admired. The worst is, the mediocrity of this History will prevent an able writer from undertaking a better.” Elizabeth Montagu balanced her praise as well; though it may be that Hume’s ideas were “destructive of every principle interesting to mankind,” she admitted, still, his work was “one of the most authentic, entertaining and instructive Historys I have ever read.”

And thus the mystery: that a man of such extravagant sloth, whose books were written from the comfort of his couch, recognized on all sides as a partial historian, contrarian, and Tory advocate, could, from his post as a humble librarian, produce a work still read and reprinted today.


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