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Book Review: David Hume, Historical Thinker, Historical Writer

By (January 12, 2014) No Comment

David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writerdavid hume, historical writer

edited by Mark C. Spencer

Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013


This collection of eleven essays on David Hume’s great six-volume work, The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, couldn’t be more welcome, because editor Mark Spencer is being a trifle optimistic when he asserts that “gone are the days” when readers could agree with R. G. Collingwood that Hume “deserted philosophical studies in favour of historical ones.” The History was written to steadily increasing public and critical praise over the years 1754 to 1762, and it sold robustly for over a century, an utterly remarkable record of success scarcely ever enjoyed by a multi-volume work of history. But in the 20th Century The History has been completely overshadowed by a much earlier work of Hume’s, A Treatise on Human Nature from 1739, to the point where, as is often mentioned in this new volume, it seems a bit strange for modern audiences to encounter the traditional card-catalogue description “David Hume, Historian.”

“David Hume, Historian” has taken distant and no doubt permanent secondary status now to “David Hume, Philosopher,” but David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer does its best to balance those scales a bit. Here half a dozen scholars make cases of various merits and fascinating facets of Hume’s History. The contents, predictably, are uneven – not all academics have mastered the fine art of writing for human beings (the dreaded term “hermeneutics” makes more than one appearance) – but there are some deeply interesting things here, all more or less marshaled under Jennifer Herdt’s round summary:

Hume’s history was meaningful in terms of a story line that made no reference to God or to an otherworldly destiny. He helped to establish methodological naturalism as the modus operandi of the human sciences.

That ‘no reference to God’ is of course the key to unlocking the significance of almost any Enlightenment opus, and its implications run through many of the essays here, especially Roger Emerson’s insightful piece on Hume’s use of medieval ecclesiastical histories. Adam Smith considered Hume “both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit,” but for the sons of the Enlightenment, virtue had its hidden problems, and Hume himself had a far more tangled consideration of both faith and religion than he’s commonly given credit. The intersections of faith and power couldn’t have a starker proving ground than the Church-dominated Middle Ages, the subject of the last two volumes of Hume’s history, which appeared at the end of 1761 (Hume began his History with the Stuart years and worked his way backward in time in subsequent volumes). “The medieval volumes were sequels of a kind, written to capitalize on the growing success of the Stuart and Tudor histories, and aimed less at a scholarly than a popular audience,” Jeffrey Suderman writes in his very good essay “Medieval Kingship and the Making of Modern Civility.” “One wonders if Hume’s heart was really in these final volumes.” But Suderman is right about the significance of it all: “In a real sense, then, the medieval volumes represent Hume’s most seasoned judgments on the nature of executive government.”

It’s about those two medieval volumes that F. L. van Holthoon writes (in “Hume and the End of History,” quite the best essay in this collection), “By the end of volume 2, Hume had reached not only the end of his History but the end of history. The English had stumbled on the recipe that could make a compound of authority and liberty work. Now they should stick to it.” Van Holthoon takes a properly defiant tone toward critics of Hume’s political biases and concludes by doffing his cap to “the Good David”:

Hume had a remarkable unity of purpose, and in this respect only Edward Gibbon was his equal. Gibbon combined irony and learnedness, Hume irony and intelligence. Of course he was biased; who isn’t? However, who but a man with a cool temper and a remarkable intellect could write about the Puritans: “Thus were the civil and ecclesiastical factions regularly formed; and the humour of the nation during that age [reign of James I], running strongly towards fanatical extravagancies, the spirt of civil liberty gradually revived from its lethargy, and by means of its religious associate [the Puritans], from which it reaped more advantage than honour, it secretly enlarged its dominion over the greater part of the kingdom.” Chapeau bas!

Gibbon’s name invokes a certain measure of renown, and many of these essays dissect Hume’s renown with great skill. Mark Towsey writes about the reception of Hume’s History in eighteenth-century Scotland, a recondite-sounding subject that he actually makes fascinating, in part by examining the various ways the History was used:

Although not normally considered as such, there are strong grounds for regarding Hume’s History as one of the most influential pedagogical texts of the Georgian period. It was consistently recommended by professional reviewers, literary critics, conduct writers, and didactic novelists as the best guide to English history yet written, while amateur readers embraced its canonical status by including it in their autodidactic commonplace books, abridgments, and abstracts.

This kind of ‘reception study’ is also the basis for David Allen’s fascinating piece, “Reading Hume’s History of England: Audience and Authority in Georgian England,” in which he does his best to sift the evidence on who bought the History, who read it, where they read it, how they read it, and what they thought of it. Hume’s great work was printed and reprinted everywhere, sold in multiple editions, and bought by the reading groups and libraries that were sprouting like toadstools in the decades following Hume’s death. Allen studies these groups as much for their social elements as for their buying habits:

By the early nineteenth century, every large town had at least one library established on this most agreeable of footings, as a place not only to borrow books but also to linger, to rub shoulders, and to converse. Moreover, as far as one can tell, Hume’s History was a ubiquitous presence, even frequently appearing among the first items acquired by newly formed associations.

“For Hume,” Douglas Long writes in “Hume’s Historiographical Imagination,”

… the writing of history is divested of its traditional aspect of ceremonial, public declamation. His historical narration assumes a conversational, almost intimate, tone. One is taken, imaginatively, into the confidence of the author.

This is entirely true, although, alas, it’s just about as close as this collection comes to telling readers the most important thing they need to know about Hume’s History: it’s a thumpingly good book, more readable than Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and funnier. Of course, those readers can be excused for not knowing such a thing already, since there hasn’t been a popular edition of Hume’s book in many decades. Perhaps a few more books like this one will prompt a long-overdue three-volume Penguin Classics annotated edition of The History of England. That would be splendid, and if it happens, each one of Spencer’s contributors ought to get a complimentary copy.