Hume’s Essays

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Source: David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987).


David Hume’s greatness was recognized in his own time, as it is today, but the writings that made Hume famous are not, by and large, the same ones that support his reputation now. Leaving aside his Enquiries,1 which were widely read then as now, Hume is known today chiefly through his Treatise of Human Nature2 and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.3 The Treatise was scarcely read at all during Hume’s lifetime, however, and the Dialogues was not published until after his death. Conversely, most readers today pay little attention to Hume’s various books of essays and to his History of England,4 but these are the works that were read avidly by his contemporaries. If one is to get a balanced view of Hume’s thought, it is necessary to study both groups of writings. If we should neglect the essays or the History, then our view of Hume’s aims and achievements is likely to be as incomplete as that of his contemporaries who failed to read the Treatise or the Dialogues.

The preparation and revision of his essays occupied Hume throughout his adult life. In his late twenties, after completing three books of the Treatise, Hume began to publish essays on moral and political themes. His Essays, Moral and Political was brought out late in 1741 by Alexander Kincaid, Edinburgh’s leading publisher.5 A second volume of essays appeared under the same title early in 1742,6 and later that year, a “Second Edition, Corrected” of the first volume was issued. In 1748, three additional essays appeared in a small volume published in Edinburgh and London.7 That volume is noteworthy as the first of Hume’s works to bear his name and also as the beginning of his association with Andrew Millar as his chief London publisher. These three essays were incorporated into the “Third Edition, Corrected” of Essays, Moral and Political, which Millar and Kincaid published in the same year. In 1752, Hume issued a large number of new essays under the title Political Discourses, a work so successful that a second edition was published before the year was out, and a third in 1754.8

Early in the 1750s, Hume drew together his various essays, along with other of his writings, in a collection entitled Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Volume 1 (1753) of this collection contains the Essays, Moral and Political and Volume 4 (1753–54) contains the Political Discourses. The two Enquiries are reprinted in Volumes 2 and 3. Hume retained the title Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects for subsequent editions of his collected works, but he varied the format and contents somewhat. A new, one-volume edition appeared under this title in 1758, and other four-volume editions in 1760 and 1770. Two-volume editions appeared in 1764, 1767, 1768, 1772, and 1777. The 1758 edition, for the first time, grouped the essays under the heading “Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary” and divided them into Parts I and II. Several new essays, as well as other writings, were added to this collection along the way.9

As we see, the essays were by no means of casual interest to Hume. He worked on them continually from about 1740 until his death, in 1776. There are thirty-nine essays in the posthumous, 1777, edition of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (Volume 1 of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects). Nineteen of these date back to the two original volumes of Essays, Moral and Political (1741–42). By 1777, these essays from the original volumes would have gone through eleven editions. Twenty essays were added along the way, eight were deleted, and two would await posthumous publication. Hume’s practice throughout his life was to supervise carefully the publication of his writings and to correct them for new editions. Though gravely ill in 1776, Hume made arrangements for the posthumous publication of his manuscripts, including the suppressed essays “Of Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul,” and he prepared for his publisher, William Strahan, the corrections for new editions of both his History of England and his Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. When Adam Smith visited Hume on August 8, 1776, a little more than two weeks before the philosopher’s death on August 25, he found Hume still at work on corrections to the Essays and Treatises. Hume had earlier been reading Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, and he speculated in jocular fashion with Smith on excuses that he might give to Charon for not entering his boat. One possibility was to say to him: “Good Charon, I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the Public receives the alterations.”10

Hume’s essays were received warmly in Britain, on the Continent, where numerous translations into French, German, and Italian appeared, and in America. In his brief autobiography, My own Life,11 Hume speaks of his great satisfaction with the public’s reception of the essays. The favorable response to the first volume of Essays, Moral and Political made him forget entirely his earlier disappointment over the public’s indifference to his Treatise of Human Nature, and he was pleased that Political Discourses was received well from the outset both at home and abroad. When Hume accompanied the Earl of Hertford to Paris in 1763 for a stay of twenty-six months as Secretary of the British Embassy and finally as Chargé d’Affaires, he discovered that his fame there surpassed anything he might have expected. He was loaded with civilities “from men and women of all ranks and stations.” Fame was not the only benefit that Hume enjoyed from his publications. By the 1760s, “the copy-money given me by the booksellers, much exceeded any thing formerly known in England; I was become not only independent, but opulent.”

Hume’s essays continued to be read widely for more than a century after his death. Jessop lists sixteen editions or reprintings of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects that appeared between 1777 and 1894.12 (More than fifty editions or reprintings of the History are listed for the same period.) The Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary were included as Volume 3 of The Philosophical Works of David Hume (Edinburgh, 1825; reprinted in 1826 and 1854) and again as Volume 3 of a later edition by T. H. Green and T. H. Grose, also entitled The Philosophical Works of David Hume (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1874–75; vol. 3, reprinted in 1882, 1889, 1898, 1907, and 1912). Some separate editions of the Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary were published as well, including the one by “The World’s Classics” (London, 1903; reprinted in 1904).

These bibliographical details are important because they show how highly the essays were regarded by Hume himself and by many others up to the present century. Over the past seventy years, however, the essays have been overshadowed, just as the History has been, by other of Hume’s writings. Although some recent studies have drawn attention once again to the importance of Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary,13 the work itself has long been difficult to locate in a convenient edition. Some of the essays have been included in various collections,14 but, leaving aside the present edition, no complete edition of the Essays has appeared since the early part of the century, save for a reprinting of the 1903 World’s Classics edition15 and expensive reproductions of Green and Grose’s four-volume set of the Philosophical Works. In publishing this new edition of the Essays—along with its publication, in six volumes, of the History of England16 —Liberty Fund has made a neglected side of Hume’s thought accessible once again to the modern reader.

Many years after Hume’s death, his close friend John Home wrote a sketch of Hume’s character, in the course of which he observed: “His Essays are at once popular and philosophical, and contain a rare and happy union of profound Science and fine writing.”17 This observation indicates why Hume’s essays were held in such high esteem by his contemporaries and why they continue to deserve our attention today. The essays are elegant and entertaining in style, but thoroughly philosophical in temper and content. They elaborate those sciences—morals, politics, and criticism—for which the Treatise of Human Nature lays a foundation. It was not simply a desire for fame that led Hume to abandon the Treatise and seek a wider audience for his thought. He acted in the belief that commerce between men of letters and men of the world worked to the benefit of both. Hume thought that philosophy itself was a great loser when it remained shut up in colleges and cells and secluded from the world and good company. Hume’s essays do not mark an abandonment of philosophy, as some have maintained,18 but rather an attempt to improve it by having it address the concerns of common life.

Eugene F. Miller

1 October 1984

  • Eugene F. Miller is Professor of Political Science
  • at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

[1. ]An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding appeared for the first time under this title in the 1758 edition of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Earlier it had been published several times, beginning in 1748, under the title Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals was first published in 1751. I have drawn this and other information about the various editions of Hume’s writings from two sources: T. E. Jessop, A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966), and William B. Todd, “David Hume. A Preliminary Bibliography,” in Todd, ed., Hume and the Enlightenment (Edinburgh and Austin: Edinburgh University Press and the Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas, 1974), pp. 189–205.

[2. ]Books I and II of the Treatise were published in 1739; Book III, in 1740.

[3. ]Hume wrote the Dialogues about 1750 but decided to withhold publication during his lifetime. When Adam Smith proved unwilling to take responsibility for the posthumous publication of the Dialogues, Hume entrusted it to his own publisher, William Strahan, with the provision that the work would be committed to Hume’s nephew David if Strahan failed to publish it within two and one-half years of Hume’s death. When Strahan declined to act, the nephew made arrangements for the publication of the Dialogues in 1779.

[4. ]Hume’s History was published between 1754 and 1762 in six volumes, beginning with the Stuart reigns, then working back to the Tudor and pre-Tudor epochs. A “New Edition, Corrected,” with the six volumes arranged in chronological order, appeared in 1762 under the title The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to The Revolution in 1688.

[5. ]This edition contained the following essays: (1) “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion”; (2) “Of the Liberty of the Press”; (3) “Of Impudence and Modesty”; (4) “That Politicks may be reduc’d to a Science”; (5) “Of the First Principles of Government”; (6) “Of Love and Marriage”; (7) “Of the Study of History”; (8) “Of the Independency of Parliament”; (9) “Whether the British Government inclines more to Absolute Monarchy, or to a Republick”; (10) “Of Parties in General”; (11) “Of the Parties of Great Britain”; (12) “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm”; (13) “Of Avarice”; (14) “Of the Dignity of Human Nature”; and (15) “Of Liberty and Despotism.” Essays 3, 6, and 7 were not reprinted by Hume after 1760, and essay 13 was not reprinted after 1768. The title of essay 14 was changed to “Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature” in the 1770 edition of Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. The title of essay 15 was changed to “Of Civil Liberty” in the 1758 edition of Essays and Treatises.

[6. ]This edition contained the following essays: (1) “Of Essay-Writing”; (2) “Of Eloquence”; (3) “Of Moral Prejudices”; (4) “Of the Middle Station of Life”; (5) “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences”; (6) “The Epicurean”; (7) “The Stoic”; (8) “The Platonist”; (9) “The Sceptic”; (10) “Of Polygamy and Divorces”; (11) “Of Simplicity and Refinement”; and (12) “A Character of Sir Robert Walpole.” Essays 1, 3, and 4 were published by Hume in this edition only. Essay 12 was printed as a footnote to “That Politics may be reduced to a Science” in editions from 1748 to 1768 and dropped after 1768.

[7. ]This edition, entitled Three Essays, Moral and Political, contained: (1) “Of National Characters”; (2) “Of the Original Contract”; and (3) “Of Passive Obedience.”

[8. ]This edition contained the following essays: (1) “Of Commerce”; (2) “Of Luxury”; (3) “Of Money”; (4) “Of Interest”; (5) “Of the Balance of Trade”; (6) “Of the Balance of Power”; (7) “Of Taxes”; (8) “Of Public Credit”; (9) “Of some Remarkable Customs”; (10) “Of the Populousness of Antient Nations”; (11) “Of the Protestant Succession”; and (12) “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth.” The title of essay 2 was changed in 1760 to “Of Refinement in the Arts.”

[9. ]The 1758 edition of Essays and Treatises incorporated, from a 1757 work entitled Four Dissertations, the essays “Of Tragedy” and “Of the Standard of Taste” as well as two other works, The Natural History of Religion and A Dissertation on the Passions. Two new essays, “Of the Jealousy of Trade” and “Of the Coalition of Parties,” were added late to some copies of the 1758 edition of Essays and Treatises, then incorporated into the edition of 1760. Finally, Hume prepared still another essay, “Of the Origin of Government,” for the edition that would be published posthumously in 1777.

[10. ]See, in Smith’s letter to William Strahan in the present edition, p. xlvi.

[11. ]Reprinted in the present edition, pp. xxxi–xli.

[12. ]See A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy, pp. 7–8.

[13. ]See John B. Stewart, The Moral and Political Philosophy of David Hume (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963); F. A. Hayek, “The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume,” in V. C. Chappell, ed., Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 335–60; Duncan Forbes, Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); David Miller, Philosophy and Ideology in Hume’s Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); and Donald W. Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[14. ]See, for example, Essential Works of David Hume, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Bantam Books, 1965); Of the Standard of Taste, And Other Essays, ed. John W. Lenz (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965); Writings on Economics, ed. Eugene Rotwein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955); Political Essays, ed. Charles W. Hendel (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953); Theory of Politics, ed. Frederick M. Watkins (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1951); and Hume’s Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. Henry D. Aiken (New York: Hafner, 1948).

[15. ]London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

[16. ]Volumes 1 and 2, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983; Volumes 3 and 4, 1984; Volumes 5 and 6 in preparation. This edition has a Foreword by William B. Todd.

[17. ]John Home, A Sketch of the character of Mr. Hume and Diary of a Journey from Morpeth to Bath, 23 April–1 May 1776, ed. David Fate Norton (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1976), p. 8.

[18. ]T. H. Grose, in prefatory remarks to Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, admits to being struck by “the suddenness with which his labours in philosophy came to an end” with the publication of the Treatise (see “History of the Editions,” in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose [New Edition; London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889], 3.75). Grose maintains that Hume “certainly lacked the disposition, and probably the ability,” for constructive philosophy, once the critical or negative task of the Treatise was completed (ibid., p. 76). Though contrary to what Hume himself says about his mature writings as well as to what other interpreters have said about his abilities, this view was a rather common one at the turn of the century. It helped gain for Hume’s Treatise the attention that it deserves, but at the same time it discouraged the study of Hume’s other writings, particularly the Essays, as proper sources for his philosophy.