'The virtuous infidel': David Hume, 1711-1776
From 5 May to 28 June 2011 we highlighted treasures from our David Hume collections.
In 2011 we celebrated the 300th birthday of David Hume — generally regarded as the most important philosopher to have written in English.
Edinburgh-born Hume (1711-1776) was the author of major philosophical works, most notably the 'Treatise of Human Nature' (1739-1740), that have remained important to the present day.
The international Hume Society fosters the study of Hume and publishes the twice-yearly journal 'Hume Studies'.
Hume was one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment — a period of great intellectual and scientific change and achievement in Scotland when many great thinkers rubbed shoulders in Edinburgh.
Hume debated with them at the Select Society, and regularly exchanged letters with the likes of the economist Adam Smith, author of 'The Wealth of Nations', and the historian William Robertson.
Hume the historian
But in his lifetime Hume enjoyed a greater reputation across Europe as an historian.
While Keeper of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh (1752-1757), he began to write his multi-volume best-seller 'The history of England'.
The first volume, on the reigns of James VI and I and Charles I, was published in 1754. It was entitled ‘The history of Great Britain’ because it it covered a period following the Union of the Crowns. Earlier volumes required Hume to change the title to ‘The history of England’.
Popular but controversial
Although in his lifetime Hume became popular and respected as an essayist and best-selling historian, he was also a controversial figure on account of his philosophical scepticism and perceived atheism.
The only known copy of his 'A letter from a gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh' (Edinburgh, 1745) shows him responding to accusations of heresy and atheism directed at him by clergy and academics
Centre of Hume scholarship
As Keeper of the Advocates Library, Hume played his part in building the collections which at its foundation in 1925 formed the basis of the new National Library of Scotland.
NLS has assiduously collected the work of one of its most famous forebears. Today it is a centre of Hume scholarship, with world-renowned collections of his correspondence, papers and books.
Most distinguished of all is the collection of Hume manuscripts bequeathed to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1838 by the philosopher’s nephew, and now on deposit in NLS.
Collections highlights on display
Among highlights on display from the Hume collections were:
- 'A treatise of human nature', volume 1. Hume's first great work in any subject, although it was not an immediate success when published (London, 1739)
- The only known copy of Hume's 'A letter from a gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh'. This contains accusations such as heresay, atheism directed at Hume by clergy and academics, along with the philosopher's responses (Edinburgh, 1745)
- Hume's 'An enquiry concerning the principles of morals' (London, 1751), with the Advocates' Library's 'ex libris' (mark of ownership) in Hume's writing
- A letter from Hume to historian William Robertson in which he describes his feelings about his life in Paris (1763)
- A letter Hume wrote to Adam Smith in December 1765, sharing his thoughts on where he should live
- The manuscript of Hume's memoir. At only 12 pages, this is perhaps the shortest autobiography of any great man written in the English language. Also the published edition of 1777
- The codicil to Hume's will, with personal touches illuminating some of his close friendships, for example Adam Smith and especially his cousin John Home
- The manuscript of Hume's 'Dialogues concerning natural religion', published privately by Hume's nephew (1779)
- The only surviving copies of two printed dissertations — 'Of suicide' and 'Of the immortality of the soul' — that were suppressed from the published version of Hume's 'Four dissertations' (1757)
- The manuscript of the last published part of Hume's 'History'.
The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.