David Hume: The Greatest Historian

Julian Baggini

Hume can help us live well, but also that he was a brilliant historian, and it is for this he should be better known.
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In the English-speaking world and even beyond, David Hume is widely considered to be the greatest philosopher who has ever lived. The 18th century Scot applied his finely calibrated scepticism to religion, morality, causation and the nature of the self, shaking both received and elite opinion. A critic of the philosophical excesses, he never allowed rationality to lead him into the clouds but always kept his feet firmly on the ground. Experience, not abstract logic, was the ultimate guide to life.

Yet in his own time he was much more famous as a historian, the author of a six-volume history of Great Britain, published between 1754 and 1762. ‘Nothing can be added to the fame of this History, perhaps the best ever written in any language,’ wrote Voltaire in 1764. ‘Mr Hume, in his History, is neither parliamentarian, nor royalist, nor Anglican, nor Presbyterian – he is simply judicial.’ Hume’s contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau was equally effusive, calling him ‘the only historian that has ever written with impartiality. He has measured and calculated the errors of men while remaining above their weaknesses.’

Today, Hume’s histories lie largely unread, not even included in the list of his works on his Wikipedia page. His decision to write his histories in the 1750s marks for many the premature end of his philosophical career. But are we right to see such a sharp distinction between Hume the philosopher and Hume the historian? Could it rather be that our present-day disciplinary boundaries have obscured the ways in which the humanities are and always have been intimately connected?

Hume started his first history with the reign of James I in 1603, with volume two ending with James II in 1688. Although the first volume initially sold slowly, the second sold well and this led him to start working backwards, filling in the gaps, with two more on the History of England under the House of Tudor (1485–1603) followed by two more from the invasion of Julius Caesar in 54 BCE to the accession of Henry VII.

The series became an enormous success, more than his philosophical works, becoming the best-selling history to be published in Britain until Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the 1780s. Gibbon himself called Hume the ‘Tacitus of Scotland’, to the French he was the ‘English Tacitus’, the inaccurate national adjective something the proud Scot would have appreciated less. This is praise he would have enjoyed given his own admiration of the Roman historian. In his essay Of The Standard of Taste, Hume talks about how our preferences change with age saying ‘at twenty, Ovid may be the favourite author; Horace at forty; and perhaps Tacitus at fifty.’

Hume enjoyed the success and recognition the histories brought him. In his short autobiographical essay, My own Life he wrote, ‘I was, I own, sanguine in my expectations of the success of this work. I thought that I was the only historian, that had at once neglected present power, interest, and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and as the subject was suited to every capacity, I expected proportional applause.’

But not everyone appreciated his even-handedness. A cheerleader for none, he ended up being criticised by all. ‘I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation; English, Scotch, and Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, freethinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united in their rage against the man, who had presumed to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I.’

But by his own admission, Hume was not entirely objective in his history telling. Just as he was willing to ‘castrate’ his first attempt at a magnum opus, A Treatise of Human Nature to calm the ire of his religious critics, so he was willing to make pragmatic deletion to his histories. Most notably, in the first edition of the first volume on the Stuarts, Hume denounced early Protestantism as enthusiasm and Roman Catholicism as superstition. This led some to dismiss the whole work as atheistic. To avoid people not reading the book on this score he took these passages out of subsequent editions.

By 1757, says Hume’s biographer Ernest Mossner, he ‘was generally acknowledged to be the leading man of letters, not only of North Britain, but of South Britain as well.’ He was also celebrated in France and in 1762 Boswell called him ‘the greatest Writer in Britain’. But although his contemporaries judged him well for the work, posterity has been harsher. The standard view for some time has been that when Hume turned his attention to his histories he effectively gave up the vocation for philosophy that most suited his talent. As James Harris, Hume’s intellectual biographer puts it, the general view was that ‘as early as mid-1751… Hume’s philosophical oeuvre was all but complete.’ That was the year Hume published the new version of part three of the Treatise, recast as the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals.

Typical of this view is a preface to an edition of Hume’s essays published in 1889 in which T.H. Grose wrote ‘On reviewing the history of Hume’s literary and philosophical works, we are at once struck by the suddenness with which his labours in philosophy came to an end.’ In Grose’s opinion, Hume’s work on metaphysics ended when he completed the Treatise in 1736, when he was just 25, and by the time he was 39 in 1750 he had completed his contribution to the philosophy of religion. Philosophically speaking, ‘after this date he added nothing.’ Grose’s explanation of this betrays the common perception that Hume’s sceptical philosophy was wholly negative. Having torn everything down, Hume had to either build up again or walk away from the devastation. For the former, thought Grose, ‘Hume certainly lacked the disposition, and probably the ability’.

There are several things that are questionable in this narrative of philosophical abandonment. The first is that it is anachronistic to divide up the various subjects on which Hume wrote into the subject silos that we currently use. In his time, a ‘man of letters’, which Hume always wanted to be, would study what we call history, philosophy and politics as aspects of the same subject, not different ones. As Harris puts it, ‘He is best seen not as a philosopher who may or may not have abandoned philosophy in order to write essays and history, but as a man of letters, a philosophical man of letters, who wrote on human nature, on politics, on religion, and on the history of England from 55BC to 1688.’

This is not simply a matter of using a different taxonomy of disciplines. For Hume, doing history was part of doing philosophy. As he set to work on the histories, he told the Abbé le Blanc that ‘The philosophical spirit, which I have so much indulg’d in all my writings, finds here ample materials to work upon.’ As another biographer, Dennis C. Rasmussen explains it, Hume’s lifelong project, begun in the Treatise, was to apply the experimental method to human nature in order to make our understanding of it more scientific. Although you cannot experiment on human beings by putting them in radically different environments, you can observe how they behave in different conditions by the study of history. History is therefore a means to discover what is constant and unchanging in human nature and what is subject to alteration by our cultures and political situations. ‘The advantages found in history seem to be of three kinds,’ he wrote, ‘as it amuses the fancy, as it improves the understanding, and as it strengthens virtue.’

The disinterest in Hume’s histories today is largely justified by the fact that, unlike his philosophical works, they have simply been superseded. But there is a less benign factor at work. Contemporary philosophy has for a long time been defiantly ahistorical. Students are encouraged to examine the arguments, not to understand the historical context in which they were put together. Biography is seen as even less relevant: you should study the thought not the thinker and their life histories are irrelevant.

I think this is a mistake. Isolating certain key philosophical texts from Hume’s other works and his own life leads readers to miss what makes Hume such an enduringly interesting thinker. To understand Hume fully, we need to look not only at his work, but his life and therefore his times, since what Hume showed and what he said form part of the same whole, a life of the mind and body that stands as an inspiration to us all.

Philosophy deprives itself of valuable resources when it turns its back on history, and so also history is of limited use if we don’t apply its lessons to philosophy. The humanities are always stronger when they work together, not in hermetically sealed departments.

One of Hume’s most memorable lines is his observation that ‘to a Philosopher & Historian the Madness and Imbecility & Wickedness of Mankind ought to appear ordinary Events.’ Any philosopher should be good at spotting imbecility, but without a knowledge of history, it would seem completely baffling.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and writer, and author of The Great Guide: What David Hume Teaches Us about Being Human and Living Well.

Aspects of History Issue 7 is out now.