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The Genial Philosopher


ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

The Letters of David Hume. Edited by J. Y. T. Greig. New York: The Oxford University Press. 2 vols. $15.00.

So seldom have philosophers been the associates of amiability that the man in the street is not much to be blamed when he considers them the bleak representatives of melancholy. The popular feeling has never been more aptly expressed than by Dr. Johnson’s college friend who, on meeting the author of “Rasselas” after a gap of forty-nine years in their acquaintance, wondered at his friend’s celebrity and confessed with rare innocence: “I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” Boswell loved this story and drew from it one of his wisest comments, that “philosophy, like religion, is too generally supposed to be hard and severe, at least so grave as to exclude all gaiety.” He might have illustrated his point by allusion to another of his friends, for David Hume was one of the gayest and most amiable of philosophers. Unfortunately, readers of Hume’s great treatise, or his essays, or even his history, will find little of this cheerfulness. He reserved it for the more common occasions of life, and let it spring forth at Auld Reekie’s full dinner parties or in the salons of French blue-stockings. The diaries and memoirs of his contemporaries are often explicit in their tales of Davy Hume’s placid good humor, and one has only to remember the famous quarrel with Rousseau (without reference to which no eighteenth century memoir is complete) to realize that he was a man, too gullible and too innocent perhaps, but certainly devoted to the amenities of life. The great storehouse, however, of this cheerfulness, of this boon companionship, is his personal letters. There we may see the convivial spirit of Edinburgh’s Select Society and the man who by his very honesty won over the sophisticated French.

The charm of Hume’s letters was much appreciated in his own time. Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk, who, whatever the merits of his too little known autobiography, was a connoisseur of good things, recognized in them the right touch of his friend’s social manner. He was not himself one of Hume’s correspondents, but on seeing some of his letters he recorded that they “are written in a vein of pleasantry and playfulness which nothing can exceed, and which makes one think that a collection of his letters would be a valuable present to the world. . . .” Since his day the world has several times been granted the opportunity to meet Hume in his letters, but not until now has it had what we may call a proper scholarly edition. Mr. Greig’s industry and acumen are responsible for the appearance of some sixty letters hitherto imprinted, and for the complete text of more than seventy that have heretofore been published only in part. It is possible, of course, that in the future others will be found, but it is safe to say that this edition will remain the best for many years. Its excellence is by no means dependent upon its completeness alone; Mr. Greig, with admirable editorial skill, has provided copious, but not redundant or officious, notes, so that nearly all obscurities are explained, and the reader is left in a position to understand and to enjoy David Hume as never before.

Here is a work then that contains food for all tastes. The scholar and philosopher will find much that amplifies the master’s theories and doctrines, for in his earlier years he was not averse to the discussion of them in letters. The student of political economy may be surprised at the originality of the opinions he held even before his friend Adam Smith had begun “The Wealth of Nations”; at least, it is interesting to find him criticizing and arguing with such men as Montesquieu and Turgot on the subjects of government and trade and taxes. But Alexander Carlyle was right: it is the “pleasantry and playfulness” of the letters that will attract most men. The philosopher at ease is a rare and delightful character, and here we have him in his most engaging form. Whether it be to follow his not always graceful steps through the mazes of Parisian society, or to sit comfortably with him in his Epicurean retirement of St. David’s Street, Edinburgh, these letters are worth the reading. They are not witty, but they reflect a generosity and a wholesomeness of outlook that are thoroughly refreshing. It is remarkable how regularly cheerfulness comes breaking in.

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