A settlement for faith Lord Gifford's object — Of our single theme the negative half now — Objections to or refutations of the proofs — Negative not necessarily or predominatingly modern Kant Darwin — The ancient negative the Greeks Pythagoreans Ionics Eleatics Heraclitus Empedocles Democritus (Bacon) Anaxagoras Socrates Sophists Diagoras Aristotle Aristoxenus Dicaearchus Strato (Hume Cudworth) Aristophanes etc. — Rome — Modern Europe France Hume and the seventeen atheists — Epochs of atheism — David Hume his influence — To many a passion and a prejudice — Brougham Buckle — Style! — Taste! — Blair — Hume's taste Pope Shakespeare. John Home — Othello — The French to Hume — Mr. Pope! — Some bygone litterateurs — Personality and character of Hume — Jokes stories Kant Aristotle — The Scotch — The Epigoniad — America — Germany — Generosity affection friendship hospitality — Smollett — Burke — but Hume honest genuine and even religious and pious.
Gifford Lecture the Twelfth.
WE must now address ourselves to the business proper of the course. I think our shortest statement of the general object of Lord Gifford at any time during last session was this: “Faith belief—the production of a living principle that giving us God in the heart should in this world of ours guide us in peace.” I probably did enough then by way of general explanation and illustrative detail to enforce and give its own due proportions to this object and this theme constitutive as I take it of the entire burden of the bequest itself. But had I failed in this had my statement of that object—had my representation of the spirit of Lord Gifford in setting up the exposition of that object as the single and sole duty of a special chair—had statement and representation been insufficient and incomplete we should have had to acknowledge ample compensation and satisfactory relief in what we saw in our last lecture of expressions of Lord Gifford's own. Be the language of the Bequest what it may that little book with its seven lectures as we may say on law ethics and religion presents us with the full length Lord Gifford and dispenses us from any relative doubt.
Further then now as regards our treatment of the theme prescribed to us. I also explained last session that I took the theme itself precisely as it was prescribed. That theme I said is “Natural Theology and the proofs for the Being of a God. Those proofs I follow historically while the reflection at the same time that we have still before us what Lord Gifford calls the only science the science of infinite being may bring with it a certain (complementary) breadth and filling.” “This is one half of my enterprise. The other half the negative half shall concern the denial of the proofs. This session (I said then) I confine myself to the affirmative. Next session I shall conclude with what concerns the negative. In this way we shall have two correspondent and complementary halves: one irenical and the other polemical; one with the ancients and the other with the moderns. For I shall bring the affirmative half historically down only”—only in fact to within sight again of Raymund of Sabunde.
We have to understand therefore that we have now seen the affirmative of our whole theme—the rise namely and progress of the proofs or arguments for the being of God as they are thetically presentant in history; and what remains for us at present is the exposition and discussion of the negative. We have to see that is what objections or refutations have been brought forward in regard of the proofs; and we have to consider as well what weight attaches to these objections or what cogency follows these refutations. It appears also that we are now to find ourselves only in the modern world. This does not mean however that we are to regard the modern world as only negative in respect of the being of a God and never affirmative. That would be a singular result of monotheism universal now as opposed to polytheism all but universal then. The reverse is the truth. Up to within a score of years or so we may say that modern writers on religion while countless in numbers were with but few exceptions affirmative to a man. And this we feel we can hold to in spite of Kant and his Kritik of 1781; for Kant whatever his negative may be has his own affirmative at last. It is only since Mr. Darwin that as the phrase goes atheism has set in like a flood. It was not then because of relative numbers that we made the ancients affirmative and the moderns negative in regard to the belief in a God. The principle of determination did not lie there at all. What alone was considered in the laying out of our theme was the historical course and fortune of the proofs themselves.
And if the modern world is not for a moment to be considered exclusively or predominatingly negative; so neither is the ancient world to be any more considered exclusively or predominantly affirmative. There were atheists then quite as well as now. I suppose indeed to the bulk of the Grecian public every philosopher before Socrates was an atheist not even excepting the Pythagoreans. Thales and the other Ionics are as Hylozoists nothing but atheists; while to call the Eleatics and Heraclitus pantheists is tantamount for all that to an admission as their doctrines were that they were atheists. Empedocles was no better. Democritus could point to the superhuman powers he believed in as it were in the air; but still a nature built up by atoms was his God no matter that as Bacon maintains the atoms of the atomists were so very immaterial that an actual atom no one had ever seen—no one ever could see. Then Anaxagoras with the principal Sophists even Socrates himself had been publicly arraigned as atheists. Diagoras in the time of Aristotle became an atheist in consequence of a real or supposed wrong unretributed by the gods and was known and named and is still familiar to us in our books as Diagoras the atheist. Aristotle himself hardly escaped a similar imputation; which besides his own school in the end would only have justified; for almost every member of it at least in the second generation gave more and more breadth to what naturalistic doctrine had taken birth in it. Aristoxenus for example held that “the soul was but a certain tension or intension of the body itself like what is called music on the part of strung cords;” while Dicaearchus another Aristotelian declared the soul to be “only an idle name and nothing but the body which one single and simple acts and feels by organization of nature.” Later than these too there was above all Strato surnamed Physicus and physicus is really equivalent to materialist or atheist not but that two of our modern authorities in this reference differ Hume declaring “Strato's atheism the most dangerous of the ancient” and Cudworth maintaining atheism at all to be no necessity of the position; a view however to which he has been simply won over by persuading himself that what unconscious spontaneity Strato ascribes to matter is no more than his own “plastic nature” and only saves God as is the very intention of that plastic nature from any derogation of direct intromission with the inquination of sense. But Cudworth's view is no more the view of the ancients than it is that of Hume; for if we look to Cicero and Plutarch alone we shall be satisfied that Strato had no God or principle of design in his belief but referred all in nature to mere mechanical movement to accident and chance. Strato according to Diogenes Laertius became so thin in the end that he slipped away into death quite insensibly—truly a tenuitas mira as is the Latin of it!
It is evident from all this that a negative in regard to the existence of God is by no means to be conceived as confined to the modern world. Among the Greeks at all events in the ancient world it existed in an undeniable plenitude. Nor is the reason of this remote or hidden from us. Polytheism was dying out; the popular religion had ceased to be believed in. And Aristophanes who was even intolerant and a bigot in his tenacity for the old is as much a proof of the fact as the very Diagoras to whose atheism he alludes and whom as proclaimed by law he names. Nothing can exceed the derogatory familiarity of tone with which at all times he treats the very gods in whom he would believe and on whom he would depend. After Pericles indeed irreligion and atheism become in Greece rampant; nor there alone. Later it is a like manifestation we witness in Rome on the fall of the republic. And later still we have similar characteristics in Europe especially France before the outbreak of the revolution. David Hume who in his inmost soul thought nothing greater than a named writer—David Hume in Paris to his own admiration sitting radiant at table among the foremost bookmen in the whole world then could not help letting slip his innocent belief that there were no such things as atheists that he had never met any—how he must have been astounded at the reply—that he must have been very unfortunate so long for he was at that moment in the midst of seventeen of them!
Whether in Greece or in Rome then whether in the ancient or the modern world there are epochs of atheism and always from similar causes. In Greece as I have said the popular religion had among many ceased to be believed in; and with religious disbelief political and social corruption went hand in hand. Even Sparta which was the manly heart of Greece under such influences fell away into individual greed and personal selfishness. The spot of earth from which Leonidas and his three hundred marched to their deaths is hardly known now. As it was in Greece so was it in Rome in modern Europe France—religious disbelief political equivocation social laxity portend historical ruin With all that can be said however of irreligion in ancient as well as in modern times it is still specially to these latter that we turn for our negative; and for the reason that in them only is it first fairly formulated to our present ideas. The same reason leads us to begin with Hume.
David Hume stands out historically as one of the most interesting and influential figures of modern times. In the philosophical reference he constitutes for the various views a veritable rendezvous a veritable meeting-place if only variously for the start apart again. He is a knot -point as it were a ganglion in philosophy into which all converge from which all diverge into the wide historical radiation that even now is. Scotch philosophy and French philosophy and German philosophy all are in connection with him. Under the teaching especially of John Stuart Mill he is at this moment English philosophy. From him come Adam Smith and Ricardo and whatever their names involve. Hume is the guide of the politician; through the economists he is the spirit of our trade and commerce and I know not but in what are called advanced views he lies at this moment very near even the heart of the Church. At all events he is to the mass of the enlightened the Aufgeklärt their high priest still; his books are their Bible. It is really surprising to how many Hume is or has been a passion and a prejudice almost in their very hearts. You will find articles in the Reviews especially of some years back—in the Westminster perhaps—that talk with baited breath of Hume as though he were divine. I recollect of one in particular that engaged in running down George IV. compared that monarchical imposition with sundry celebrities near his own time and ended with a reference in that sense to Hume a reference that seemed simply lost in its mocking feeling of an utter contrast. The article indeed might have been written by Lord Brougham himself who from what we know alone of all mankind possibly could have conjoined the worship of Hume with the application of as much in reduction of Gentleman George. Mill and Mackintosh and Macaulay and William Gifford and Francis Jeffrey were all intense admirers of Hume; but I question if any one of them would not have felt lost in his wits for a moment at so grotesque and absurd a proposition as the bringing together of two such disparates! I know only one man since Brougham who could have united with him as well in the prostration of the worship as in the loftiness of the parallel. It is possible to find no pair or peer to Lord Brougham here but Thomas Henry Buckle. I do believe be too in his big way might have thought it apt—might have risen into the moral sublime even—indignantly to remark on the mockery and degradation in the comparison of George IV. with Hume!
But further of this prejudice or passion for David Hume it used to be a common experience to find enthusiastic examples of it not only among the specially learned but even among those of our men of business who knew what a book was. Sir Daniel Sandford in certain Dissertations of his at one time popularly publishing in parts spoke of “the spotless style of Hume;” and just for the word many scores of delighted Aufgeklärters would have been ready to die for him (Sand-ford). Style in fact was for long and very much owing to David the single thought that was present to every man the moment he took a book in hand. Addison's style was of course the ne plus ultra. But there was the delightful style of Goldsmith too and the excellent style of Robertson. There were the stilts of Johnson and the wood of Adam Smith. There was the easy lax complacent style of Fielding and the pointed style of Smollett. There was the finical style of Blair and the measured style of Gibbon—but oh the style of Hume “the spotless style of Hume!” And so style was the one consideration: style was the watchword. We read for the style and it was by the style we judged. We were not at all exigent about the matter if the form the style the words but—as we said indeed—flowed. That flow was enough for us provided as the master insisted it were but “smooth” enough “harmonious” enough “correct” enough “perspicuous” enough. It was to enjoy that flow mainly that business apart we took up a book at all. Of course we expected some matter in a book something of information say. Still if with that with something pleasing that ran along in the telling there was but style—style and the certainty of the writer's enlightenment—we sought for nothing more. We sought for nothing more—that is as pupils of Hume—than pleasing information antireligious enlightenment and literary style And I should just like to ask Mr. Huxley if with his will there should be anything else than that still.
It is in this way we see how much in the time of Hume and after him depended on taste. Almost it seemed as though did we but cultivate taste the world would be well. But what taste was it that was to be cultivated? There are certain formal essays of Hume there are certain little propos of Hume scattered everywhere that can leave us no difficulty in that regard. And were there any difficulty there is Dr. Hugh Blair with his Lectures on Rhetoric and the Belles Lettres to settle it. Dr. Hugh Blair is a kind of henchman to Hume; and he has formally set himself to the business of formally teaching the principles of Hume and even of formally representing them—I mean on Taste leaving his clerical principles completely under shelter. To that latter effect indeed Blair can produce a certificate under the hand of even Hume himself. “This city”1 meaning Edinburgh says Hume “can justly boast of other signal characters whom learning and piety taste and devotion philosophy and faith joined to the severest morals and most irreproachable conduct concur to embellish. One in particular with the same hand by which he turns over the sublime pages of Homer and Virgil Demosthenes and Cicero is not ashamed to open with reverence the sacred volumes; and with the same voice by which from the pulpit he strikes vice with consternation he deigns to dictate to his pupils the most useful lessons of rhetoric poetry and polite literature.” This as we see is prettily comprehensive; and Hume must have plumed himself on his success in having touched up in it a sufficiently good character for Dr. Blair—even of a Sunday. But still I doubt not “polite literature” forms the keynote in the combination to Hume. Polite literature taste: it is probable that David Hume superstition apart thought of nothing more constantly. I do not know however that we now-a-days would quite approve of what was to him polite literature of what to him was taste. In these respects Hume like most of his contemporaries in truth was completely French. Polish was the word; human nature in the raw was simply barbarous: beards were remnants from the woods—and even the hair on our heads was a growth. We could not be shaved close enough and wigs were indispensable; wigs were civilisation—wigs and ruffles! So the words from our lips from our pens would be smooth correct perspicuous. This was the very proper way in which Hume felt. He was in a literary regard not what we call a Philistine a man of the outside who knows prose only but what the Germans call a Philister a narrowly fastidious airily-refined formalist. To him Mr. Pope as a poet had carried polish to its uttermost limit and Shakespeare was a barbarian. Apropos of Mr. John Home and his tragedy of Agis (how many of us know that there was ever any such tragedy in existence; for practically it is very certainly out of existence now?)—of this Agis Hume writes from Ninewells on the 18th of February 1751: “'Tis very likely to meet with success and not to deserve it; for the author tells me he is a great admirer of Shakespeare and never read Racine!” Some three or four years later he writes again: “As you are a lover of letters I shall inform you of a piece of news which will be agreeable to you—We may hope to see good tragedies in the English language. A young man called Hume (Home was so pronounced then) a clergyman of this country discovers a very fine genius for that species of composition. Some years ago he wrote a tragedy called Agis which some of the best judges such as the Duke of Argyle Sir George Lyttleton Mr. Pitt very much approved of. I own though I could perceive fine strokes in that tragedy I never could in general bring myself to like it; the author I thought had corrupted his taste by the imitation of Shakespeare. But the same author has composed a new tragedy (Douglas); and here he appears a true disciple of Sophocles and Racine. I hope in time he will vindicate the English stage from the reproach of barbarism” (Burton i. 392). Then some three years later still he writes to Adam Smith: “I can now give you the satisfaction of hearing that the play (Douglas) though not near so well acted in Covent Garden as in this place is likely to be very successful. Its great intrinsic merit breaks through all obstacles. When it shall be printed I am persuaded it will be esteemed the best and by French critics the only tragedy of our language.” The letter winds up with—“I have just now received a copy of Douglas from London; it will instantly be put in the press” (Burton ii. 17). No doubt many contradictions and absurdities that have happened in this world may well be wondered at; but surely a greater contradiction and absurdity than this at the hands of Hume—precisely the one man in this world who was well assured that it was perfectly impossible for him (above all in any such matters) to commit or perpetuate any such thing as a contradiction and absurdity—surely just this for all that is the very greatest contradiction and absurdity that ever was wondered at or that ever can be wondered at. When we examine the volume or volumes called Essays of Hume we shall find that of the thirty-seven dramatic pieces commonly printed as Shakespeare's only three ever occur to be referred to there. They are Pericles Othello and Julius Caesar; and of these the second is actually mentioned twice. In the essay “Of Tragedy” Hume moralizes in this way: “Had you any intention to move a person extremely by the narration of any event the best method of increasing its effect would be artfully to delay informing him of it and first excite his curiosity and impatience before you let him into the secret. This is the artifice practised by Iago in the famous scene of Shakespeare; and every spectator is sensible that Othello's jealousy acquires additional force from his preceding impatience and that the subordinate passion is here readily transformed into the predominant.” In the essay named “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences” again near its close remarking on the encouragement given to young authors in their first attempts as leading in the end to their later mature and perfect ones Hume declares “The ignorance of the age alone could have given admission to the Prince of Tyre; but 'tis to that we owe ‘the Moor.’” Besides four lines quoted from Julius Caesar without direct name that is all that I find of any reference to Shakespeare in the whole of Hume's Essays. Of the doubts subsequently thrown on the amount of Shakespeare's authorship in the Prince of Tyre Hume of course could know nothing: what alone he had in mind when he wrote probably was the line from Dryden “Shakespeare's own muse his Pericles first bore.” Inferentially then we have on the part of Hume so far gratitude to Shakespeare and the praise of maturity to the Othello. Shakespeare too must be allowed to be indebted to Hume for a certain amount of approbation in regard to what is called his “famous scene.” Hume says “the famous scene of Shakespeare” as though of all the scenes of Shakespeare it was the “famous” one; and we have thus and generally on his part testimony to the great popularity of Shakespeare even in his day. Of course it is utterly impossible to say too much of the scene in question; but I know not that in all we say it is still the praise of “artfulness” that we must alone moan. Artfulness there is—on the part of Iago enormous artfulness; and impatience that what is hinted at be got to must be conceded as at least one element in that appalling convulsion of all terrific elements that is then the mind and alone the mind of the perfectly colossal Othello. What we have before us are not the mere miseries and suspicions in the awakening of a small human thing called jealousy. What we have before us are the throes of a volcano—the confusion anguish and bewilderment of a vast nature a gigantic soul that in itself was too mighty too grand and great ever to have a doubt—of one as it is said “not easily jealous but being wrought perplexed in the extreme!” It is the perplexity of this great nature that we are to see and not the puling pains of a predominant jealousy only philosophically increased by the artful excitation of a subordinate and preceding impatience. In fact what we are to wonder at is not art but the marvellous nature which alone we are to see breathing living moving throughout the scene.
As for the four lines from Julius Caesar they occur in section 7 of the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals: “Few men would envy” says Hume there “the character which Caesar gives of Cassius—
“He loves no plays
As thou dost Antony; he hears no music:
Seldom he smiles; and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.”
Now is it not monstrous that any man especially that any man pretending to education and taste above all that any man bearing himself as Hume always emphatically did to be the very Aristarchus the very Simon Pure of critical taste and judgment should have been so absolutely blind to what lay there in all its reality of power immediately before his very eyes? Hume had seen and we may say read Othello the very highest height in that kind it may be ever by mortal man reached yet; a composition in its very nature super-natural; and his whole soul is not seized and entranced and wonder-stricken by what he sees! No; very far from that he is rejoiced that after the author of Agis we may hope at last to see good tragedies in the English language; we may hope at last to see the English stage vindicated from the reproach of barbarism! we may hope at last to have acquired in the Douglas of John Home what he is persuaded will be esteemed the best and by the sole true critics the only tragedy in our language! Othello lies before David Hume and yet Douglas is to be the best and only tragedy in our language! How any man could write down even these four lines from the Julius Caesar and yet not know that he had in them a communication from the depths but should turn from them to refresh his ear (say) with the tinkling ten-syllabled couplets that give us the usual see-saw of purling streams and enamelled meads and warbling choristers is a mystery to me! Hume knew something even of the Elizabethan drama generally; he speaks of the Volpone of Ben Jonson and of how Every Man in his Humour was but a preliminary essay towards it.—“Had Every Man in his Humour been rejected” he says “we had never seen Volpone”—and yet in his essay of “Civil Liberty” he writes thus: “The French are the only people except the Greeks who have been at once philosophers poets orators historians painters architects sculptors and musicians: with regard to the stage they have excelled even the Greeks who have far excelled the English!” What strange infatuation! Shakespeare is so alone in mere dramatic quality the breadth and depth of his matchless humanity apart that there is not in all ancient times there is not in all modern times one solitary individual that we can set beside him.—I heard a German once in Paris tell a professor there who was vaunting his Corneilles and Racines that their entire French literature put into the scale were all too light perceptibly to lift a Shakespeare from the spot; and yet according to Hume the French drama far surpasses the Greek and the Greek far surpasses the English! What a height of superiority Hume must have feigned for the Racines and Corneilles over Shakespeare! All this however is of a piece with the general literary judgment of the period in which Hume lived at the same time that Hume must be seen to constitute in himself the very extract and summary and personification of that judgment. “A hundred cabinetmakers in London can work a table or a chair equally well” says Hume in his essay “Of Eloquence” “but no one poet can write verses with such spirit and elegance as Mr. Pope.” Mr. Pope! Mr. Pope is very often on the lips of David Hume and seldom absent very possibly from his mind. “England” it seems according to him “must pass through a long gradation of its Spensers Johnsons2 Wallers Drydens before it arise at an Addison or a Pope!” At Spensers and Jonsons in this rise one wonders a little; and one is pleased to see no Shakespeares or Miltons in it; but why no Chaucers? He at least had the ten-syllabled clinks! Well very possibly if Shakespeare was barbarous to Hume Chaucer was worse—very possibly he was to Hume both barbarous and unintelligible. Then the rise from Spensers Jonsons Drydens to Addison! Why Addison's verse—and it is only verse—is now absolutely unknown. One thing one wonders at in Hume is the respect with which when named he seems always to have for Milton. Some time ago at least I do not think any true follower of Hume any genuine aufgeklärt epigon of his was apt to imitate his master in this. Late genuine Aufgeklärters of the Hume stamp for the most part coupled Milton with Shakespeare—in their aversion. Aufgeklärt as they were enlightened and with a perfect hatred in their hearts at that lie the Bible they did not relish the subjects and the beliefs of Milton; and they disliked blank verse! These were the men who owned no music in verse who could not read any verse unless it murmured on in regular ten-syllabled clinking couplets without a break. Any break even in these was a horror to them; and doubly so therefore any measure else; for any measure else was but too often broken into pauses and was without that charming close-recurrent heroic clink—was to the ear in fact no better than without clink at all. So it was in the main that these men knew only two poets Pope and Goldsmith; for even Dryden in his “incorrectness” they said did not satisfy them. What alone satisfied them was “a good author” whom they could take up (as recommended by Blair) at any interval of leisure to beguile them by the murmur of the manner into oblivion of the matter whether in verse or prose. I am picturing a class of men that are not so common now. They were all what is called well-informed men and had a taste for the reading of books. With individual differences they were in literary taste very much as I say; and they were in religious enlightenment or anti-religious enlightenment still more as I say. After these characteristics the most notable remaining one was their freedom from prejudice! They had not a prejudice these men; they were above every one of the prejudices that we common men their weaker brothers truckled to as in regard to—religion in the first place—but then also in regard to place of birth or country or kindred or the wise saws of our grandmothers about “green Yules” etc. And yet these all opened these calm free dispassionate minds were the least calm the least free the least dispassionate—the most narrow and the most narrowly intolerant minds that could well be found in the whole gradation of humanity. Now of these men Hume was the originating prototype. Of course he was much larger than they. Whatever he was he was in that prime original sole and single himself. He was a most taking mass of good nature too and was capable of generosity—generosity with forethought generosity with prudence.
Kant was surprised that Hume—to him “the fine and gentle Hume”—should have been “a great four-square man.” Caulfield Lord Charlemont speaks of “the unmeaning features of his visage: his face broad and fat his mouth wide and without any other expression than that of imbecility his eyes vacant and spiritless.” In person too he was so remarkably huge and corpulent that he says himself his “companions” when he and they were backing from the imperial presence at the Vienna Court “were desperately afraid of his falling on them and crushing them”—a perfect Gulliver among the Lilliputians! Then we are to fancy that prodigious corporeity of a man bashful as a boy rustic-looking uncouth as shapeless and awkward in his military uniform as a train-band grocer speaking his English ridiculously “in the broadest Scotch accent and his French if possible still more laughably” and that too in “a creeping voice” that piped a weak falsetto! It will only complete the picture if we fancy such a figure as this of Hume at the opera in Paris—his “broad unmeaning visage” “usually rising” as it is said entre deux jolis minois (between two piquant female faces)—or better still if we fancy him in the Tableau of the Salon of a night as the sultan between the two sultanas sorely put to it as to what to say to them but desperately ejaculating “There you are ladies! there you are!” and yet more desperately thumping his stomach or his knees for a quarter of an hour continuously till one of his sultanas jumps up impatiently muttering “I did just expect as much—the man is only fit to eat a veal!” It was in this way that his philosophic dignity suffered at Paris; but it is characteristic of the man that he rather liked it; he himself “seemed to be quite pleased” it is said “with this way of living.” He was particularly simple and soft in fact; his own mother used to say of him “Oor Davie's a fine guid-natured crater but uncommon wake-minded.” It is really extraordinary that in the midst of this mass of simplicity goodnature and if I may say so blubber there should have been found the subtlest analytic intellect that was then probably in existence—almost as though it were itself the paradox that it alone loved. That perfect refinement of written speech too; we might as well expect Daniel Lambert to have the lightest foot in the dance! How it is such refinement indeed that he would wish to have before him always! It is a perfect joy for him to say to himself Virgil and Racine and Mr. Pope! One is almost tempted to think that David Hume would have been contented to pass his life with no more than a schedule before his eyes of all the great classical names in literature. He is quite happy to see them one after the other named in his pages. “Of all the great poets” he says “Virgil and Racine in my opinion lie nearest the centre.” “'Tis sufficient to run over Cowley once but Parnell after the fiftieth reading is as fresh as at first.” “Seneca abounds with agreeable faults says Quintilian abundat dulcibus vitiis.” “Terence is a modest and bashful beauty.” “Each line each word in Catullus3 has its merit; and I am never tired with the perusal of him.” Ah! how such studies “give a certain elegance of sentiment to which the rest of mankind are strangers!” How they “produce an agreeable melancholy” and how “the emotions which they excite are soft and tender!” Ah! “such a superiority do the pursuits of literature possess above every other occupation that even he who attains but a mediocrity in them merits the pre-eminence above those that excel the most in the common and vulgar professions!” Then he laments how far the English are still behind in such politeness and elegance! He even fears that they are “relapsing fast into the deepest stupidity and ignorance” (Burton ii. 268); “their comic poets to move them must have recourse to obscenity; their tragic poets to blood and slaughter.” “Elegance and propriety of style have been neglected;” “the first polite prose they have was wrote by a man who is still alive (Dr. Swift).” And what a very limited improvement that was to Hume we can see from a letter of his to Robertson (Burton ii. 413). Remonstrating with Robertson in regard to certain usages in style on his part he says “I know your affection for wherewith proceeds from your partiality to Dean Swift whom I can often laugh with whose style I can even approve but surely can never admire.—Were not the literature of the English still in a somewhat barbarous state that author's place would not be so high among their classics.” Then again in the same letter “But you tell me that Swift does otherwise. To be sure there is no reply to that; and we must swallow your hath too upon the same authority. I will see you d—d sooner.” It looks odd—it is the custom of even swearing gentlemen to respect clergymen—but Hume for his part seems to reserve himself in that way just for his clerical friends! In a letter of about the same date to Blair when praising Robertson for his second historical work the Charles V. he says playfully enough and good-naturedly enough for it concerns the rival whom the public begin to place above himself: “I hope for a certain reason which I keep to myself that he does not intend in his third work to go beyond his second though I am damnably afraid he will!” It is really very odd. I have read all the letters in Burton's two volumes and I positively do not believe Hume ever to swear in the whole of them except once to each of these two clergymen! Of course on both occasions it is what is dearest to him literature that is concerned and as we forgive the Englishman who in his delight d—d the Swiss Engadine I suppose for some such reason we may also excuse Hume. “A celebrated French author M. Fontenelle” says Hume and it is evidently a sweet morsel in his mouth but why it should be so it is difficult to see; for Fontenelle is no more than a name now even to his countrymen who have forgotten all he ever in such quantities wrote. Hume however actually quotes Fontenelle three times oftener than any other French writer; while Molièro he only once just names! Of the Italians he refers to Tasso and Ariosto but never to Dante. I suppose however that for him a philosopher by profession his very greatest blunder is that about Aristotle. “The fame of Cicero flourishes at present” he remarks “but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed.” But Hume's studies as we saw formerly were not at all deep in his own business—metaphysic. His ambition went out of that it would seem into literature as literature polite literature. With what unction he allows himself to cry “At twenty Ovid may be the favourite author; Horace at forty; and perhaps Tacitus at fifty!” But at any age when he says “Virgil and Racine” “Mr. Pope and Lucretius” he puffs his breath and actually rises two inches higher!
With all that undoubtedly and just with all that and despite his stupidity of face and mere corpulence of body Hume was in heart and soul a man of even rare sensibility. It is hardly possible to imagine greater pain greater mortification than his was at the failure of his first literary ventures. He never recovered perfectly from the prostration of his early unsuccess. It was in vain for his publisher Millar somewhat later to write him of the sale of his books of the remarks upon them of new editions etc.; it was impossible to console him for that first insult. Even at Paris in 1764 at the very moment when he seemed to be worshipped as the very greatest of living literary celebrities he writes (as though from a mind still humiliated and sore under the recollection of unmerited rebuff and disgust) “I have been accustomed to meet with nothing but insults and indignities from my native country but if it continue so ingrata patria ne ossa quidem habebis: ungrateful native country mine thou shalt not even have my bones!” Some little time before that too he had said to the same correspondent “As to the approbation or esteem of those blockheads who call themselves the public I do most heartily despise it.” And yet Hume in that great carcase of his like Falstaff perhaps was not without humour. “Is not this delicious revenge?” he writes once to a friend; “it brings to my mind the story of the Italian who reading that passage of Scripture ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord’ burst forth ‘Ay to be sure; it is too sweet for any mortal.’” He was once asked “What has put you into this good humour Hume?” and answered “Why man I have just had the best thing said to me I ever heard.” Hume had been complaining it seems that having written so many volumes unreprehended it was hard and unreasonable that he should be abused and torn to pieces for the matter of a page or two. “You put me in mind” said one of the company “of an acquaintance of mine a notary public who having been condemned to be hanged for forgery lamented the hardship of his case; that after having written so many thousand inoffensive sheets he should be hanged for one line!” Hume enjoyed jokes even against himself though not always it would seem. On one occasion remarking on the moral problem of a certain respectable Edinburgh banker eloping with a considerable sum of money he was replied to by John Home “That he could easily account for it from the nature of his studies and the kind of books he read.” “What were they?” said Hume. “Boston's Fourfold State” rejoined Home “and Hume's Essays.” It is said David for a little did not quite see the joke.
Kant as we know tells some wonderful stories that seem no better than jokes as that certain mineral waters already hot come much slower a-boil than ordinary water etc. etc.; and we are tempted to fancy that here too as usual Kant has been under the influence of Hume who records it as a fact that “Hot mineral waters come not a-boiling sooner than cold water” as also that “Hot iron put into cold water soon cools but becomes hot again.” Kant however could not have seen these notes which are from a memorandum book of Hume's first published by Burton I suppose in 1846. If the θαυμάσια ἀκοὸσματα are really Aristotle's one might think that both moderns were vying with their ancient master who has whole scores of such wonders as that “In the Tigris there is found a stone such that whoever has it will never be harmed by wild beasts;” or that “In the Ascanian lake the water itself cleans clothes;” or that “there is a stone like a bean in the Nile which if dogs see they do not bark.” But it is not certain that the studies of either Kant or Hume had gone so deep in Aristotle! It is to the advantage of Aristotle too that in his case the stories are in all probability spurious; while for Kant and Hume they are beyond a doubt. Physical science is apt to be “enlightened” now-a-days and to revere Hume as a priest of “enlightenment;” but it would seem Hume himself does not like physical science; he has this memorandum here: “A proof that natural philosophy has no truth in it is that it has only succeeded in things remote as the heavenly bodies; or minute as light!”
It is supposed that Kant was rather proud of his Scottish origin; but it will be difficult to match the satisfaction of Hume at times in the literary and consequently to him general superiority of his countrymen. He opines that we the Scotch are “really the people most distinguished for literature in Europe!” (Hear that Mr. Buckle!) He asks with indignation on one occasion later Do not the English “treat with hatred our just pretensions to surpass and govern them”? And it is in consequence of the same conceptions that nothing can exceed his exultation or his assurance that in the Epigoniad of Wilkie the Scotch have produced one of the world's great epics. It was in the heroic ten-syllabled tink-a-tink and it read like Pope's Homer. So it was that it took David. He just raved about it and he actually got seven hundred and fifty copies sold of it; but with all that he raved about it and all he did for it it died. I suppose nobody alive now has ever seen it; but no doubt it was as foolish a sham as ever impotence produced or honesty believed in. It never served any purpose in existence but to show in the case of Hume on what mere rot-stone a literary taste might be founded. The extravagant language of Hume here if humiliating for him is specially instructive for us. The Epigoniad is for David “the second epic poem in our language:” “it is certainly a most singular production full of sublimity and genius adorned by a noble harmonious forcible and even correct versification:” its author “relying on his sublime imagination and his nervous and harmonious expression has ventured to present to his reader the naked beauties of nature!” And so one sees that it was not in David's eyes that the Epigoniad was a mere teased-up tricked-out counterfeit to be taken to pieces in a day: it was impossible for him to get beyond what for him had “even correct versification”—a harmony quite possibly so far as he could judge like that of Mr. Pope! The letters of Hume in which these things appear are always nevertheless very interesting and not without hits at times of rare sagacity as when he asks Gibbon why he composes in French and tells him that “America promises a superior stability and duration to the English language;” or when from his own observations he expresses it as his opinion of Germany that “were it united it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world.” One learns too from these letters and generally from Burton's Life of him many earnest things of Hume. He was a warm and active friend without a vestige of a grudge in him. How generous he was to Robertson urging him to write negociating for him with publishers pushing his books and praising them to everybody! And as he was to Robertson so was he to every other possible rival—to Ferguson to Henry to Gibbon. To Adam Smith he had been so land and good and helpful that Smith like the affectionate simple creature he was veritably worshipped Hume. Hume's friends indeed were a host and not one of them but loved him. He had old mutton and old claret for them and was very hospitable to them. He was a most zealous and affectionate uncle and brother; and did his best simply for everybody related or unrelated. One might perhaps except a little in the case of Smollett whom as a be-puffed rival he had evidently viewed with impatience and spoken somewhat disparagingly of in the character of a historian. That was not quite just. Smollett wrote his History for bread; but he wrote it well; with admirable style in the main and he broke his constitution in its service. It was when so worn and exhausted that Smollett made an application to Hume who was at that time a Secretary of State. Hume's answer that he had spoken for him but could give him no hope of a consulship is cool business and no more. A year later Smollett on the eve of starting as he says for his “perpetual exile” writes again to Hume not for himself this time however but for a certain neglected though deserving Captain Robert Stpbo. Hume on this occasion writes warmly in return; but what contributes perhaps to move him now is the opinion expressed by Smollett that he (Hume) is “undoubtedly the best writer of the age.” David cannot resist that compliment; it goes to his heart; and ho “accepts” that “great partiality” of “good opinion” on the part of Smollett “as a pledge of his goodwill and friendship!” Edmund Burke is said to have affirmed of Hume that “in manners he was an easy unaffected man previous to going to Paris; but that he returned a literary coxcomb.” There does not appear to have been really any such change in Hume so far as we are to accept the testimony of his friends at home. It would have been very strange at the same time if all his varied circumstances of life had left behind them no traces on his character. Such flatteries as that of Gibbon who offers to burn a work if Hume says so though he would “make so unlimited a sacrifice to no man in Europe but to Mr. Hume” or that of Smollett which we have just seen must have been not rare in the end; and they were precisely the incense that would intoxicate a Hume if in such a subject intoxication were possible at all. But really after everything his experiences at the hands of the public and at those even of his friends his experiences at Paris his experiences as a Minister of State he could not have been any longer the mere floundering youngling in the dark; but must in thought speech and action have borne himself with the crest and confidence of a grown man that knew his own support in the trainings and trials within him. Hume was too genuine a man to be carried so to speak out of himself—to fall away into the insolence and conceit of the shallow. It might have been of him that Dr. Young said: “Himself too much he prizes to be proud.” I think we shall see reason too when we specially come to that not to be so very hard and harsh on Hume in the matter of religion. He hated superstition; but no thought lay nearer his heart all his life than the thought of God He meditated nothing more deeply more reverently more anxiously than the secret source of this great universe. Walking home with his friend Ferguson one clear and beautiful night “Oh Adam!” he cried looking up “can any one contemplate the wonders of that firmament and not believe that there is a God?” On the death of his mother too whom he loved always with the most constant affection and the sincerest veneration a friend found him “in the deepest affliction and in a flood of grief:” to this friend then taking occasion to suggest certain improving religious reflections David answered through his tears “Though I throw out my speculations to entertain the learned and metaphysical yet in other things I do not think so differently from the rest of the world as you imagine.”
We are now prepared to advance to our conclusion in these matters as I shall hope to accomplish in our next lecture.
From the book: