The Philosopher as Essayist

David Hume (1711-76) wrote in the advertisement for the first two books of A Treatise of Human Nature ­­(1739), that he, after having investigated the human understanding and passions, intended to “proceed to the examination of morals, politics, and criticism.” His ambition was partially fulfilled by the third book of the Treatise, “Of Morals,” published in 1740. But politics and criticism (meaning literature and taste) were further explored by the Scottish Enlightenment man of letters in his next venture, an enterprise that took a different form altogether. Inspired by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Spectator essays and provoked by the paper war in British party politics, Hume set about writing polite essays that would treat moral, literary, and especially political subjects with a philosophical bent. In 1741, the Essays, Moral and Political appeared, containing fifteen essays, followed by a second volume with twelve new pieces the next year.

The Treatise had not been as successful as Hume had hoped, although he probably exaggerated somewhat when he wrote in his autobiography “My Own Life” that it “fell dead-born from the press.” The turn to the essay format, which had the potential to reach a much broader readership than the more abstract philosophical content and style of the Treatise, was at least partially motivated by his desire for financial independence and literary fame, the latter of which he singled out as his ruling passion in “My Own Life.” Since the Essays was favorably received, he claimed that it soon made him forget the earlier disappointment of the Treatise. Ironically, the Treatise, which Hume left out of his collected works, is now his most famous book and is generally considered one of the greatest works in the history of philosophy. While his Essays would eventually become commercially and critically successful, it was a third publication venture, the History of England (6 vols., 1754-61), which made Hume truly rich and famous.

Hume kept adding new essays, revising old ones, and withdrawing some entirely for the remainder of his life. One of his most radical revisions occurred in the famous essay “Of the Liberty of the Press.” In response to tumultuous popular politics in London in the late 1760s and early 1770s, he replaced his broadly positive evaluation of press freedom with a much more negative one: “the unbounded liberty of the press, though it be difficult, perhaps impossible, to propose a suitable remedy for it, is one of the evils, attending those mixt forms of government.” In the posthumous edition of Hume’s works, published in 1777 with authorial input, an entirely new essay appeared, “Of the Origin of Government,” in which Hume argued that it was habit rather than contract which best explained the principle of obedience.

The most substantial addition to Hume’s Essays was the Political Discourses, published in 1752 and including a swathe of new pieces on political economy and free trade, inspiring his younger friend Adam Smith, among many others. According to Hume’s own testimony in “My Own Life,” the Political Discourses was his only publication that was successful on its first printing, though once again this slightly exaggerated the alleged failure of his previous books, including the earlier volumes of the Essays. The Essays and the Political Discourses were eventually published together as part of Hume’s four-volume Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, first appearing in 1753 and continuously republished with alterations from the 1750s through to the 1770s. For the 1772 edition of the work, Hume claimed to have carefully read it five times over, as correcting his texts was a source of amusement for him.

The immediate political context for the first volumes of Hume’s Essays in the early 1740s was the paper war between Robert Walpole’s Court Whig administration and Bolingbroke’s “Country party” opposition. Hume was in London between August 1737 and February 1739, and on his return to Ninewells, Scotland, he began drafting essays in the summer of 1739 at the latest, as we know from his correspondence with Lord Kames. Political debate in London of the 1730s was dominated by Bolingbroke’s oppositional journalism in the Craftsman, which attacked the alleged corrupt regime of Walpole, the prime minister between 1721 and 1742. Hume was at this stage relatively impressed by Bolingbroke’s powerful prose. However, he wanted to go beyond Bolingbroke’s partisanship and aimed to establish a science of politics expressed in Addisonian polite prose rather than a party-political program. He publicized this intention in the advertisement for the first edition of the first volume of Essays, Moral and Political (1741): “The Reader may condemn my Abilities, but must approve of my Moderation and Impartiality in my Method of handling Political Subjects.”

This ambition was most famously put into practice in “That Politics May be Reduced to a Science.” Here, Hume argued that institutions had a greater impact on politics than the quality of specific leaders in republican and mixed governments. (In absolute monarchies, personnel mattered more for evident reasons). At the end of this essay, he proceeded to direct his attention to the Court and Country parties. The parties were united in extolling the British constitution as the envy of the world. Those in opposition to Walpole carried matters to the extreme and accused the minister not only of “mal-administration” but also of “undermining the best constitution in the world.” On the other hand, others defended Walpole just as excessively, and praised him for “a religious [i.e. strict] care of the best constitution in the world.” Hume contended that the arguments of neither the accusers nor the defenders stood up to scrutiny: if the constitution was so excellent, “it would never have suffered a wicked and weak minister to govern triumphantly for a course of twenty years, when opposed by the greatest genius in the nation”—including Bolingbroke, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. If Walpole were as wicked as the opposition claimed, the constitution must be faulty if it allowed him to remain in office, since a “constitution is only so far good, as it provides a remedy against mal-administration.” Likewise, if the constitution were as perfect as the government supporters held, a change of ministry cannot be such a dreadful event.

Hume’s essays on political economy first published as the Political Discourses had an enormous impact in the eighteenth century, both in Britain and abroad. In short, they established his reputation as an authority on political economy in Europe, being translated into French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Swedish. In these essays, Hume put forward his critique of protectionism and the jealousy of trade. Instead of economic policies designed to hurt rivals, a country should welcome rich and prosperous neighbors to trade with as well as to emulate. Hume wrote: “not only as a man, but as a British subject, I pray for the flourishing commerce of Germany, Spain, Italy, and even France itself. I am at least certain, that Great Britain, and all those nations, would flourish more, did their sovereigns and ministers adopt such enlarged and benevolent sentiments towards each other.”

As an economic writer, Hume is perhaps most celebrated for theorizing the so-called specie-flow mechanism, without using the term. This theory holds that an excess in specie generates rising prices, leading to a preference for imported goods and the outflow of the extra money. For this reason, the quantity of money will always correspond to the real level of economic production and trade. Worrying about the shortage of money was tantamount to being concerned about the exhaustion of springs and rivers, according to Hume. Instead, countries should focus on fostering industry and commerce, the real sources of wealth. A recent book on Hume’s political economy has argued that while Thomas Mun had already identified the key insight in the seventeenth century, Hume is rightly associated with the achievement since he significantly broadened and extended the analysis. In 1975, Milton Friedman paid homage to Hume’s trailblazing efforts in monetary theory.

Besides protectionism, there was another specific aspect of commercial modernity which Hume dreaded: government debt. His economic thinking was thus neither flawlessly prophetic nor exclusively optimistic, since his conviction that Britain’s expanding national debt would bankrupt the country proved unfounded. We must remember, as Margaret Schabas and Carl Wennerlind have emphasized, that Hume lived before industrialization and could not have predicted the rates of future economic growth that would finance Britain’s rising debt through the Napoleonic wars.

One of the more curious pieces in the Political Discourses is the essay “Of a Perfect Commonwealth,” a description of an ideal form of government inspired by James Harrington’s Oceana (1656). This is doubtlessly Hume’s most utopian and republican piece of writing and experts wrestle with its meaning and how it relates to the rest of his works. Scholars have long recognized its influence on Americans such as James Madison, since Hume in the essay argued, against the conventional wisdom at the time, that republicanism could be made more sustainable in large states rather than in small ones. Most recently, Danielle Charette has shown that the essay had an impressive impact on the writings of Whigs and radicals who approved of the French Revolution in Hume’s native Scotland. In the 1790s, thinkers such as John Millar and Dugald Stewart interpreted Hume’s thought experiment as a practical plan, as they believed European governments could progress in the direction of the “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth.”

The general influence of Hume’s writings in eighteenth-century America has been masterfully traced by Mark Spencer (2005; see also 2017). Importantly, Madison absorbed Hume’s writings on parties and factions as he experienced factionalism in America in the 1780s. In the Tenth Federalist, Madison echoed Hume’s argument that factionalism can be made less harmful in larger states because of their scale. His description of the causes of faction is also highly reminiscent of Hume’s essay “Of Parties in General,” with both of their emphasis on differences of religious and political principles as well as attachment to leaders. Another notable reader of Hume’s Essays in eighteenth-century America was John Dickinson. In his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-68), when criticizing British taxes on America, he cited Hume’s argument that government is founded on opinion as set out in the essay “Of the First Principles of Government.”

Hume’s essays treated not only political subjects, but also literature, which had a broader meaning in the eighteenth century than it generally has today. Apart from what we would think of as literature it also included history, philosophy, aesthetic theory, and general learning. As James Harris has argued in his intellectual biography of Hume, the once-dominant interpretation that Hume was a philosopher who abandoned philosophy for history is untenable. Hume was a quintessential eighteenth-century man of letters who wrote and read about various subjects throughout his life. He withdrew several essays in the literary genre from later editions, however, which he considered to be frivolous, including “Of Essay Writing,” and “Of the Study of History,” in which he recommended history rather than novels to female readers.

Meanwhile, some of his essays on literature and taste are among his most noteworthy, in particular his later “Of the Standard of Taste” (1758). One of Hume’s key arguments in this essay is that it is possible for artistic expressions to retain their perceived quality over time because they are representations of lasting human feelings and depictions of human nature. The same could not be said for abstract philosophy, however, which has been continuously revised. For this reason, “Aristotle, and Plato, and Epicurus, and Descartes, may successively yield to each other: But Terence and Virgil maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men. The abstract philosophy of Cicero has lost its credit: The vehemence of his oratory is still the object of our admiration.”

In his essays on what we would call literary criticism, Hume reflected on the quality of different kinds of writing. Citing Addison, Hume argued in “Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing” that fine writing “consists of sentiments, which are natural, without being obvious.” Too many uncommon expressions and flashes of wit are distracting for the reader. Excess of refinement as well as simplicity was to be avoided, and in aiming for a medium between the two, it is against the former rather than the latter that one must be chiefly guarded. Excessive refinement is both “less beautiful” than excessive simplicity and “more dangerous” since it can mislead and seduce “ordinary readers.”

Hume’s chief example of this type of mock refinement was Bolingbroke, with whose political works Hume engaged at length, but with whose posthumous philosophical works he was extremely unimpressed, even though, or perhaps because, contemporaries often paired the two together. In his essay “Of Eloquence,” Hume conceded that Bolingbroke’s writings “contain a force and energy which [British] orators scarcely ever aim at,” but he added that “such an elevated stile has much better grace in a speaker than in a writer.” Many will be able to relate to his insight: when giving a speech, one needs more elevated and forceful rhetoric in order to captivate an audience and convey a message. But the same tactic is counterproductive in writing, and Hume’s point was that Bolingbroke, who had a background as a parliamentarian, failed to recognize this difference, and this resulted in his peculiarly bombastic writing style.

Scholarly interest in Hume’s essays was reinvigorated in the final decades of the twentieth century—initially by historians followed by political theorists and philosophers—as is indicated by the publication of the indispensable Liberty Fund edition of 1985, edited by Eugene F. Miller. Numerous modern editions have followed: a Cambridge University Press volume, edited by Knud Haakonssen in 1994, and most recently the Clarendon edition (2022), published by Oxford University Press and edited by Tom L. Beauchamp and Mark A. Box. Moreover, a Penguin edition, edited by David Womersley, is in the making, expected to be published by 2024. Selected essays have already been translated into Chinese, but a project to translate all of them is being undertaken, supported by leading Chinese political philosopher Meng Li of Peking University. In short, the future is looking bright for Hume’s wide-ranging, entertaining, deceptively simple yet in fact penetrating and profound essays.