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Hume's Last Lessons: The Civic Education of My Own Life


Hume's concern to promote public virtue is a central element of his philosophical project which deserves more attention than it has received. This article examines one of his most focused efforts at public moralism: his largely forgotten autobiography, My Own Life. By attending to its account of how Hume employed his vanity and ambition in his pursuit of fame and fortune—and discovered such virtues as temperance, industry, moderation, and independence in the process—it is argued that My Own Life was intended to serve as a “mirror-for-citizen.” for citizens of modern commercial republics, offering a model of civic virtue and worldly success for them to emulate. To show this Hume's didactic autobiography is compared to that of his friend Benjamin Franklin, which may have served as a model for Hume's.

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An earlier version of this essay was presented to the University of Chicago's Political Theory Workshop on 22 January 2001. I am indebted to the workshop's participants, and especially to Kristin Balisi, Lauren Brubaker, Ralph Lerner, and Eric Schliesser, for their suggestions. Thanks are also due to Rick Sher and The Review's anonymous readers for their very helpful comments.

1. On Hume's turn to more literary methods of presentation, see Phillipson Nicholas, “Hume as Moralist: A Social Historian's Perspective,” in Philosophers of the Enlightenment, ed. Brown S. C. (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1979), pp. 140–61.

2. Huxley T. H., for example, insists that Hume “exhibits no small share of the craving after mere notoriety and vulgar success,” in Hume (New York: Harper Brothers, 1879), p. 10; quoted in Smith Norman Kemp, The Philosophy of David Hume (London: Macmillan and Co., 1941), p. 519.

3. On Hume's concern to encourage the growth of that “middling ran.” in commercial society which he thinks necessary to counterbalance established political authority, see “Of Refinement in the Arts,” in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Miller Eugene F. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), p. 277; Capaldi Nicholas, “The Preservation of Liberty,” in Liberty in Hume's History of England, ed. Capaldi and Livingston Donald W. (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1990), pp. 203207; and Forbes Duncan, “Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment,” in Philosophers of the Enlightenment, p. 102.

4. “Of Parties in General,” in Essays, p. 55.

5. To ensure a wide circulation for My Own Life, Hume requested of Adam Smith, his literary executor, that it should be sent to “the Proprietors of my other Works to be prefixed to any future Edition of them.” He repeated his request in a codicil to his will, insisting that My Own Life “be prefixed to the first Edition of my Works, printed after my Deat.” (The Letters of David Hume, ed. Greig J. Y. T. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932], 2: 318, 453).

6. Mossner Ernest C., The Life of David Hume, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 591. Jerome Christensen likewise reads My Own Life as “Hume's effort to dictate to futurit.” and thereby secure posthumous fame, but without emphasizing Hume's religious ideas; see his Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 17, 4552. In The Moral Animus of David Hume (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1990), Donald T. Siebert, like Mossner, finds in Hume's autobiography his “parting shot at the narrow-minded religionists,” but also finds in it much more besides; noting (but not pursuing) its similarity to Franklin's work, and beautifully capturing its “sportive humo.” and its subtle understanding of pride (pp. 197212).

7. “Of Essay-Writing,” in Essays, p. 535. My understanding of Hume's attempts to bridge the gap between philosophy and common life owes much to Livingston, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume's Pathology of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and Danford John, David Hume and the Problem of Reason: Recovering the Human Sciences (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

8. Pocock J. G. A. observes that in his discussions of patronage Hume was led “to reject the republican ideal that government must rest on a foundation of virtue, and to concede that passion and interest must be recognized and even harnessed.” (“Hume and the American Revolution: The Dying Thoughts of a North Briton,” in Virtue, Commerce, and History [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985], p. 132). In some sense this is overstated; Hume never rejects virtue as the foundation of government—he merely emphasizes the virtues of self-interest over the virtues of disinterestedness.

9. “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” in Essays, p. 135.

10. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in Selby-Bigge's L. A. edition of the two Enquiries, 3d rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 216.

11. See Hume to Robertson William, Summer 1759, in Letters, 1: 315–16.

12. Franklin to Strahan William, 27 10 1771, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, eds. Willcox William B. et al. , (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 18: 236. A full account of Franklin's visit in Edinburgh can be found in Nolan J. Bennett, Benjamin Franklin in Scotland and Ireland, 1759 and 1771 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1938).

13. Hume and Franklin had shared work before the visit. In 1760 Franklin sent several pieces to Hume, including at least his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.” In the same letter in which he acknowledges having sent Hume these essays, he also mentions having read Hume's “excellent Essay on the Jealousy of Commerce,” and promises to send a “little Philosophical essa.” in return (Franklin to Hume, 27 09 1760, in Papers, 9:227–30). The regard was mutual. Writing in 1762, Hume honored Franklin by observing that “America has sent us many good things, gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, indigo, etc.; but you are the first philosopher, and indeed the first great man of letters, for whom we are beholden to he.” (Hume to Franklin, 10 05 1762, in Letters, 1: 357). Hume's regard would be further underscored in a letter of 1773, in which he observed that “the best Book, that has been writ by any Englishman these thirty Years (for Dr Franklyn is an American) is Tristram Shandy, bad as it i.” (Hume to Strahan, 30 01 1773, in Letters, 2:269). Written only thirteen months after Franklin's visit to Edinburgh, the ironic compliment tempts one to wonder whether Hume has the Autobiography in mind here.

14. See the “Epistle Dedicatory” to Bacon's Essays in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. Spedding James and Ellis Robert Leslie (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1865), 12:77. Franklin quotes this in his “To the Royal Academy of *****,” in Benjamin Franklin, Writings, ed. Lemay J. A. Leo (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 954.

15. My Own Life, in Essays, p. xxxi. All subsequent citations are to this edition and are given in roman numerals in the text.

16. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in Writings, p. 1307. All subsequent citations are to this edition and are given in the text in Arabic numerals.

17. See Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), pp. 1527; Maclntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 185; Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 4854.

18. See also “The Sceptic,” in Essays, p. 161, and Hume's discussion of “anatomists” and “painter.” in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, also in Selby-Bigge's edition of the two Enquiries, p. 10.

19. See Lemay J. A. Leo, “The Theme of Vanity in Franklin's Autobiography,” in Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1993), pp. 372–87.

20. A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge L. A., 2d rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 491.

21. Though he admits that even advocates of the selfish system can lead “irreproachable live.”: see Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 296.

22. “Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature,” in Essays, p. 86;cf.Smith's Adam comments on the “real love of true glory” as good but second-best in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. Raphael D. D. and Macfie A. L. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984), VII.ii.4.8, p. 309.

23. See Hume to Hutcheson Francis, 17 09 1739, in Letters, 1: 34. Students of Franklin will note that after reading the Whole Duty of Man Hume undertook to develop his own catalog of vices for the purposes of self-examination; see Mossner, Life of David Hume, p. 34, and cf. Autobiography, pp. 1383–8. The Whole Duty of Man was a popular book of Christian moralism.

24. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 236.

25. See also Hume to Elliot Gilbert, march or 04 1751, in Letters, 1:158.

26. Hume to Home Henry, 13 02 1739, in Letters, 1:26.

27. See the “Advertisement” printed at the front of Selby-Bigge's edition of the Enquiries, p. 2.

28. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 169. See also Bacon, Advancement of Learning, in Works, 6: 259ff.

29. Lecture Smith 24 in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, ed. Bryce J. C. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983), p. 146; cf. Aristotle Rhetoric, 1356b32–1357a4; 1395b20–1396a3.

30. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pp. 57.

31. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.iii.46, p. 259; cf. Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, trans. Bloom Allan (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p. 202.

32. Again a project suggested by Smith: “The superior wisdom of the good and knowing man directs others in the management of his [read: their] affairs, and spurrs them on to imitate and emulate his industry and activity.” (Lectures on Jurisprudence, eds. Meek R. L., Raphael D. D., and Stein P. G. [Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982], A vi.20, p. 338).

33. See also the praises of industry and frugality in Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, pp. 237–38.

34. On Franklin's initial appeal to his audience's vanity and ambition as means of inducing them to virtue, see Forde Steven, “Ben Franklin, Hero,” in The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor, and the American Founding, ed. McNamara Peter (Lanham, MD: Rowman and littlefield, 1999), p. 48;Howe Daniel Walker, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 2733; and Lerner Ralph, “Franklin, Spectator,” in The Thinking Revolutionary (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 46ff.

35. Siebert also points to Hume's equanimity, and notes its conjunction with benevolence (Moral Animus of David Hume, pp. 203204). Franklin's and Hume's shared emphasis on optimism and hope is another point of connection with the modern project of their mutual mentor; see Bacon, The New Organon, ed. Anderson Fulton H. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960), Book I, aphorisms 113–14, pp. 104105.

36. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 275.

37. “Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing,” in Essays, p. 192. As noted by Eugene Miller in his edition of the Essays, the Latin is a quotation from Horace, Epistles 1.18.103, translated by H. Rushton Fairclough in the Loeb edition as “the pathway of a life unnoticed.”

38. The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983), 6: 544.

39. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 266. But Hume of course insists that it is authors of works of practical morality (such as My Own Life), and not abstract reasoners, who enjoy the most durable and just fame; see the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, p. 7. This only compounds the irony noted by Christensen—that Hume's fame is that of a philosopher rather than an independent man of letters (practicing Enlightenment, p. 49n).

40. Smith to Strahan, 9 11 1776, reprinted in Essays, pp. xlvxlvi; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1124a18; cf. Theory of Moral Sentiments, VII. ii.4.10, pp. 310–11.

41. Smith to Strahan in Essays, p. xlix; cf. Plato Phaedo 117c–118a, as noted in Berns Laurence, “Aristotle and Adam Smith on Justice: Cooperation Between Ancients and Moderns?Review of Metaphysics 48 (1994): 90. Franklin's friends of course think him as a wise man as well; see Autobiography, p. 1375.

42. Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI. iii. 25, p. 248.

43. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 177.

44. Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 176.

45. On Duties, trans. Atkins M. A. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), I: 28, p. 12; cf. Theory of Moral Sentimets, VI. ii. 3.6, p. 237. It is worth noting that while Smith names Hume as the model wise and virtuous man, Hume names Cicero and Bacon; see Essays, p. 83.

46. “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” in Essays, p. 113; cf. “Of the Middle Station of Life,” in Essays, p. 549.

47. “Of glory,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Frame Donald M. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 469.

48. Siebert, Moral Animus of David Hume, p. 200.

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