Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
David Hume (17111776)
[David Hume was born in 1711, and died in 1776. He wrote many essays upon the topics which philosophy, morals, and politics supply; and was, besides, the author of a History of England. His most striking and considerable performance is, perhaps, the Treatise of Human Nature.]
HUMES pre-eminence in the field of speculation has somewhat thrown into the shade his merits as a man of letters; and, in truth, he has been surpassed by none of his countrymen in the acuteness, the penetration, and the intrepidity with which he treated the problems of philosophy. While his opponents must concede that he possessed the courage of his opinions in no ordinary degree, and that he never shrank from following whither the argument seemed to lead, but, on the contrary, applied his canons with a consistency as admirable as it was singular, his supporters would find it hard to point to any subsequent writer who has presented the case for the philosophy of Experience with greateror even with equalthoroughness and cogency. The discoveries of modern science have supplied the empirical philosopher with no weapon which may not be found in Humes well-stocked armoury; while, as a political enquirer, he attained a position second only to that of his close friend, Adam Smith.
A studied and artfulsometimes a strainedsimplicity is the chief characteristic of his style. He never attempts the majestic periods of Johnson or Gibbon; while a certain air of stiffness and precision effectually prevents his being spirited on the one hand, or colloquial on the other. His prose flows on with a steady and even motion, which no obstacle ever retards, nor any passion ever agitates. In the whole of his writings there is scarce one of those outbursts of emotion which at times animate the pages even of the coolest metaphysicians. Scorn there is in abundance; but it is the amused and pitying contempt of a superior being who watches from afar the frailties and vices from which himself is consciously exempt. Enthusiasm, or righteous indignation, was a total stranger to Humes cast of mind. But his sneer and his sarcasm, though by far less elaborate and less diligently sustained, are hardly less effective and pointed than Gibbons. As a historian, he makes little pretence to absolute impartiality, but his opinions are insinuated with the utmost delicacy and address; and at least he never wilfully falsifies his facts. He appeals little to the modern taste in the capacity either of the pedant or the journalist; yet his judgment of character is at once cautious and discriminating, and he interjects many shrewd and dry remarks. Such, for example, is the observation that to inspire the Puritans with a better humour was, both for their own sake and that of the public, a laudable intention of the Court; but whether pillories, fines, and prisons were proper expedients for that purpose may admit of some question; or the description of the Solemn League and Covenant as composed of many invectives, fitted to inflame the minds of men against their fellow-creatures, whom Heaven has enjoined them to cherish and to love.
Humes vocabulary is copious and well chosen, but never picturesque. He compiled for his own guidance a list of Scotticisms; and it argues a nice literary sense and an attentive study of the best models that, having in him a strong dash of the provincial, he should have not only sought but contrived to avoid these not unnatural solecisms. Many men have written English prose with greater ease, fluency, and freedom, and many with greater dignity and effect; but few with more accuracy, purity, and elegance of diction than David Hume.