David Hume’s “Selected Essays” – book review

When I bought my copy of this book as an undergraduate student, I think I was secretly hoping for a selection of Hume’s “greatest hits”, possibly with extracts of some his other longer works. So this selection from Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (which were first published in 1741; this edition is based on a 1776 printing) wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. So I read one or two of the shorter essays, and then put the book back on the shelf and didn’t think much about it.

Then the Classics Challenge came along, and I added Hume’s Selected Essays to my list, as one of the books that I had on my shelf and should probably read at some point. Though, if one wants to have any proper knowledge of Hume, one would traditionally reach for his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – which of course, I haven’t read.

There are many gems in Hume’s Selected Essays: one of those is “Of the Middle Station in Life”, which claims that “the great are too much immersed in pleasure, and the poor too much occupied in providing for the necessities of life, to hearken to the calm voice of reason. The middle station, as it is most happy in many respects, so particularly in this, that a man placed in it can, with the greatest leisure, consider his own happiness.”

If you were looking for proof of the rise of the middle class in the 18th century, you need look no further. Hume is all for the delicate and gentleman-like art of moderation – his essays seek to bridge the distance between learning and entertainment. He says “I cannot but consider myself as… an ambassador from the dominion of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence betwixt these two states… I shall give intelligence to the learned of whatever passes in company, and shall endeavor to import into company whatever commodities I find in my native country.” (“Of Essay Writing”)

It is no coincidence that in his praise of the middle state, Hume uses the language of trade and politics – these are his main concerns in a great deal of the essays selected for his anthology. Examples include “Of the Parties of Great Britain”, “Of Commerce”, “Of Interest”, “Of Balance of Trade”, Of Public Credit” an “Of the Protestant Succession”. For a historian of 18th-century commerce, these would be absolutely fascinating, but I found them a bit of a struggle at times. However, it was really interesting to realize out that the political/economic/psychological non-fiction that is so popular these days (think Hans Rosling’s Factfulness or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) has intellectual antecedents in Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume was somewhat skeptical about the idea of paper credit. He also believed that it was highly improbable that cities would ever have more than 700,000 inhabitants. Predicting the future turns out to be rather difficult, even if your name is David Hume. At least, in his defense, he was an ardent supporter of free trade.

The essay I probably would have most enjoyed as an undergraduate, but never got round to reading then is“Of the Standard of Taste”, which negotiates the difficulty of judging artworks objectively from subjective points of view. Yet again, Hume turns out to be rather fond of the middle-ground.

A particularly impressive essay sequence is formed of four different essays purporting to be written from four different philosophical perspectives “The Epicurean”, “The Stoic”, “The Platonist”, and “The Sceptic” showing Hume’s remarkable ability to understand the logic of opposing points of view. The only term I can think of describing Hume’s favourite skeptical state of his mind is Keats’s much later “negative capability” (“the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems”).

The end of this anthology consists of some of Hume’s most famous essays “On Suicide” and “On the Immortality of the Soul”. These essays are the reasons why James Boswell was so concerned that Hume would be damned… Take this quote from “On Suicide”: “I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself: why then should I prolong a miserable existence. ” After an entire essay talking about how immortality is unlikely in “Immortality of the Soul”, Hume cages his argument with a short paragraph stating his gratitude for “divine revelation, since we find that no other medium could ascertain this great and important truth” (and basically pretends that the entire rest of the essay never happened). No wonder Johnson referred to Hume at one point as an infidel who “never read his New Testament with attention.”

Hume was a skeptical infidel who had a fondness for the middle-class (and its financial and political pre-occupations). No wonder Hume’s writings have remained relevant in the 21st century – they combine romantic rebellion with a very bourgeois practicality.

This collection of essays is a good starting point for anyone considering reading Hume. The introductory section of the Oxford World Classics editions, however, is a bit on the short side – so if you’re planning to look at Hume more seriously, you will probably need to browse in the bibliography or find an edition with a more comprehensive introduction.



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