“Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”
The Wandering Years
Although Hume wandered from job to job as tutor, secretary and minor diplomat between 1745 and 1752, he nevertheless continued with his studies and was involved in Edinburgh with many of the great thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. In 1746, he took up a post as Secretary to General St. Clair and it was at this time that he wrote his ‘Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding’.
This volume was a polished re-writing of the main ideas contained in Book One of the Treatise using language which would make his ideas more widely accessible and persuasive. ‘Philosophical Essays’ later became known as the ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. It included his essay ‘Of Miracles’ for which he received widespread condemnation.
Hume the Historian
In 1752, having again been rejected for a professional position because of his reputation for atheism, this time in Glasgow, Hume was appointed librarian of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh. Here amongst all these volumes, he was to pursue another passion – history – and put together a ‘History of England’.
This was published in six volumes and was very well received, because of the elegant style of writing, its objectivity and its coverage of the socio-economic aspects of English life over the centuries. The ‘History’ was translated into French and German and ran to 50 editions over the next century, during which it was considered the standard history of England and a model for the writing of history.
A Major Philosopher
During this time, Hume also continued with his first love – philosophy. In 1751, he published an ‘Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals’, reworking Book 3 of the ‘Treatise’, and then in 1752 ‘Political Discourses’. Within two years this was given two French translations, an indication of how well his writings were received in France. His 1757 ‘Four Dissertations’ included ‘A Dissertation on the Passions’, two essays on aesthetics, and ‘The Natural History of Religion’, which laid the foundations for much subsequent secular thinking. In 1761, this led the Vatican to place all his works on the index of banned books.
Illustration: David Hume Portrait by David Martin from a private collection
Parliament Square from Edinburgh Views