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After the preparatory rudiments of a school education, Hume was removed to the college of Edinburgh; but our gleanings respecting his earlier years are particularly scanty*. From the early appearance of his inclination to letters, his friends were induced to form an opinion, that the law would be an eligible profession for him. We are uncertain whether he served an apprenticeship with an attorney, or cor.fined himself to the prosecution of his studies at the law classes in the university; but, indefatigable as his industry was, even to the very close of his life, in all matters connected with literature, his dislike to the law as a vocation, or civil employment, daily increased. He himself tells us, that he felt an insuperable aversion from every thing, except the pursuits of philosophy and general learning; and while, says he, “my friends fancied I was poring upon Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors which (whom) I was fecretly devouring t."
The law is, perhaps, the only profession which affords to those who closely apply to it a kind of
* In the hope of being enabled to fill up any chalm in this narrative, I applied to a near relation of Mr. Hume, and was told, that if the work was to advance his fame, and a copy the manufcript furnished to the family, the information wanted would, perhaps, be supplied. With such conditions I refused compliance, chusing rather to remain satisfied with the little I had otherwise obtained, than to fetter my sentiments, and subject myself to so laborious a task, in return for what was probably of little importance.
+ See My Own Life, prefixed to the later editions of the History of England.
certainty of acquiring wealth. Yet it may be easily conceived, why a young mind, uninfluenced by pecuniary confiderations, should ardently seek to escape from the tiresome drudgery of perusing special cases and precedents, to pursuits of a less disagreeable nature. It will not, however, be fo readily granted, that the Justinian code, the fource of all that is valuable in the ancient, polity of European nations, should be contemned, in behalf of any poetry which ever emanated from Rome. Among men of letters a fashion has long prevailed of decrying the writings of civilians, the usual magnitude of whose works is certainly not calculated to render them inviting. This scorn they inconsiderately endeavour to extend to the Cor. pus Juris itself, the influence of which in pro. moting the advancement of civilization does not seem to have been fairly appreciated. To the pages of that immortal collection, mankind were chiefly indebted for those delicate and logical distinctions of right and wrong, and those invaluable maxims of distributive justice, which ameliorated the condition of the inferior ranks in society, and opposed a barrier to the baneful effects of feudal institutions, during the barbarism and violence of the middle ages.
It is probable, that the mere circumstance of directing his attention, although in a fuperficial degree, to the Roman code and the municipal laws of his own country, gave a Night bias to his studies, which, being seconded by favourable events, sug
gested, at a future period, the project of compiling his History: a task which he undertook, not from a wish to detail battles, and exhibit a tedious fuccession of political broils, but for the more dignified purpose of tracing the progress of legislation and civility.
As Hume was a younger brother, his patrimony, according to the custom of his country, was very slender; and this, combined with his disin. clination to the business of a lawyer, and the representations of his friends, induced him to repair to Bristol in 1734, with a design to engage in the commercial line. He carried with himn letters of recommendation to several eminent merchants of that city; but from his confirmed love of literature, or some other cause now unknown, he found himself, in a few months, totally unequal to the bustle incident to his new situation. He therefore abandoned it, and went to France,
His motive for this journey, as he himself informs us, was to prosecute his studies in a rural retreat; but that was an object which he might have attained more readily and completely by continuing in his own country. It is believed, that he did not chuse to return to Ninewells, as his relations must, by this time, have regarded him as young man, whose habits of indolence were repulsive to all their exertions in his behalf. The cheapness of living in France suited the smallness of the fortune he inherited; and this seems to have been,
if not the inducement, at least the excuse for his retiring into that country. Hume was, at an early period, sensible of the inadequacy of his income to support the easy enjoyments of a literary life; and he, at the same time, formed a resolution to remedy this misfortune, as far as he was able. After mentioning his journey to France, he adds, in the biographical sketch formerly alluded to,“I there laid that plan of life, which I have steadily " and successfully pursued. I resolved to make a
very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of for
tune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, ss and to regard every object as contemptible, ex
cept the improvement of my talents in literature.”
On his arrival in France, he established his refidence at Rheims, but soon afterwards removed to La Fleche in Anjou. During his abode there, he completed his Treatise on Human Nature, the plan of which he had formed while at the University of Edinburgh ; and after spending three years in these agreeable labours, and acquiring an intimate knowledge of the French language, he returned to London in 1737. In the end of the following year he printed and published, in octavo, the two first volumes of his work under the title of A TREATISE OF (ON) HUMAN NATURE: being an Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects *
* This work bears the year 1739 in the imprint. bę necessary to apprise the reader, that booksellers generally set
The first volume of this performance treats of the Understanding, and the second of the Passions. From a diffidence in his own abilities, or from a wish to hear the opinion of the public before he acknowledged himself to be the author of the work, it was published without his name. The third volume, which comprises the subject of Morals, did not appear until the year 1740. It was sold by a different bookseller ; a circumstance owing probably to the discouraging reception of the two first. Annexed to the last volume is An APPENDIX, wherein some passages of the foregoing volumes are illustrated and explained.
Mr. Hume, it has been stated, formed the plan of his Treatise, while he was at college ; and although, from the very imperfect manner in which it was executed, a severe critic might be inclined to condemn the presumption of a stripling in thus venturing to enter the lists with a formidable body of metaphysicians, whose elaborate works were the matured productions of advanced life, it must be confessed, that the boldness of the undertaking was worthy of the future reputation of the author. That a lad of only twenty-seven years of
should fail in accomplishing a task, which had baffled the labours of so many philosophers, eminent for their erudition and fagacity, cannot excite surprise. It
down the ensuing year in the title-pages of all books ready for sale in or after the month of November. Hence a work actually printed during that month in the year 1738, will bear, in the imprint, the date of 1739.