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The Life of David Hume$

Ernest C. Mossner

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780199243365

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199243365.001.0001

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Four Dissertations

Four Dissertations

(p.319) Chapter 24 Four Dissertations
The Life of David Hume

Ernest Campbell Mossner

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The four dissertations which Andrew Millar accepted for publication had probably been composed between 1749 and 1751, after David Hume's return from Turin and before he plunged into active composition of the History in the spring of 1752. The first, so coyly alluded to as ‘that which Allan Ramsay mentioned’, and again, as containing ‘a good deal of Literature’, is ‘The Natural History of Religion’. ‘Of the Passions’ is a brief reworking of Book II of the Treatise. ‘Of Tragedy’ is a short essay on the aesthetic problem of why grief in art is enjoyable. The fourth dissertation, ‘Some Considerations previous to Geometry & Natural Philosophy’ was presumably a reworking of Book I, Part II, of the Treatise. This fourth item was never actually set in type. Its history is summed up by Hume in a letter of January 25, 1772 to William Strahan, who had in the meanwhile succeeded Millar in the publishing business.

Keywords:   dissertations, Andrew Millar, David Hume, Natural History, Allan Ramsay, Literature, Of the Passions, Of Tragedy, Treatise, William Strahan

“Two Essays of mine…which from my abundant Prudence I suppress’d.”

HAVING taken the decisive step of publishing “Of Miracles” and “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State,” in 1748, Hume continued to apply his philosophical tenets to religion in the 1750s. Apart from historical observations on religion in the first Stuart volume, he was primarily concerned with philosophical and psychological investigations into the theory of religion. The Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and “The Natural History of Religion” are his most comprehensive and important contributions to the philosophy and psychology of religion respectively. But the first remained unpublished until 1779, three years after his death, and the second underwent ordeal by fire before appearing in 1757. Hume’s notion of the function of creative scepticism is stated in a letter of March 1751 to Gilbert Elliot of Minto:

If in order to answer the Doubts started, new Principles of Philosophy must be laid; are not these Doubts themselves very useful? Are they not preferable to blind, & Ignorant Assent? I hope I can answer my own Doubts: But if I coud not, is it to be wonder’d at? To give myself Airs, & speak magnificently, might I not observe, that Columbus did not conquer Empires & plant Colonies?

Hume was already composing the Dialogues when he consulted Elliot. The three speakers in that work are Cleanthes, a theist adhering to the modern empirical philosophy; Demea, a fideistic divine yet alternatively a rationalist; and Philo, a sceptic. Cleanthes may be taken historically as Bishop Butler of the Analogy of Religion; Demea as Samuel Clarke; and Philo, as a letter to Elliot makes positive (“…I shou’d have taken on me the Character of Philo, in the Dialogue, which you’ll own I coud have supported naturally enough”) as Hume himself.1

In order to avoid “that Vulgar Error…of putting nothing but Nonsense into the Mouth of the Adversary,” Hume (p.320) asked for Elliot’s assistance “in supporting Cleanthes.”. His friend’s argument, published many years later by Dugald Stewart in the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, may not have been of much value to Hume. Of more importance was Elliot’s success in dissuading Hume from publishing the Dialogues.

As late as March 1763 Hume, playfully rebelling against this injunction, inquired of his friend: “Is it not hard & tyrannical in you, more tyrannical than any Act of the Stuarts, not to allow me to publish my Dialogues? Pray, do you not think that a proper Dedication may atone for what is exceptional in them? I am become much of my friend Corbyn Morrice’s Mind, who says, that he writes all his Books for the sake of the Dedications.” That Hume’s threat of publishing under cover of a dedication was not entirely in jest may perhaps appear from an exchange of letters later in the same year with Hugh Blair. From Edinburgh in September Blair wrote to Hume, who was then at London on the way to France, to congratulate him on “going to a Country where you will want nothing of being worshipped, except bowing the knee to you….” In religion alone, banters Blair, the philosophes may consider you “as being somewhat bigotted…. For this indeed they make an excuse that the hypocrisy of the Country may have somewhat infected even you, as a native.” then he comes to the point at issue: “But had you but gone one Step farther—I am well informed, in several Poker Clubs in Paris your Statue would have been erected. If you will show them the MSS of certain Dialogues perhaps this honour may still be done you. But for Gods sake let that be a posthumous work, if ever it shall see the light: tho’ I really think it had better not.”1 So it is certain that the Dialogues had circulated in manuscript among the friendly Moderate divines in Edinburgh and that it was on their advice, as well as Elliot’s and undoubtedly Adam Smith’s, that it remained unpublished. Hume replied to Blair: “I have no present thoughts of publishing the work you mention; but when I do, I hope you have no objection of my dedicating it to you.”2 Had Blair had the temerity to permit Hume to carry out this threat, the Dialogues might well have appeared during his lifetime. But that was not to be, and Hume apparently left the manuscript alone, except for some minor revisions in about 1761, until shortly before his death.3

(p.321) To return to “The Natural History of Religion” and the curious story of the “Four”, “Three”, “Five”, “Three” and yet again, “Four” “Dissertations.”1 The story opens in June 1755, when Hume wrote to Andrew Millar:

There are four short Dissertations, which I have kept some Years by me, in order to polish them as much as possible. One of them is that which Allan Ramsay mentiond to you. Another of the Passions; a third of Tragedy; a fourth, some Considerations previous, to Geometry & Natural Philosophy. The whole, I think, wou’d make a Volume a fourth less than my Enquiry [concerning the Principles of Morals]; as nearly as I can calculate: But it wou’d be proper to print it in a larger Type, in order to bring it to the same Size & Price. I wou’d have it publish’d about the new Year; I offer you the Property for fifty Guineas, payable at the Publication. You may judge, by my being so moderate in my Demands, that I do not propose to make any Words about the Bargain. It wou’d be more convenient for me to print here; especially one of the Dissertations, where there is a good deal of Literature, but as the Manuscript is distinct & accurate, it wou’d not be impossible for me to correct it, tho’ printed at London. I leave it to your Choice: tho’ I believe, that it might be as cheaply & conveniently & safely executed here. However, the Matter is pretty near indifferent to me.

These four dissertations which Millar accepted for publication had probably been composed 1749–51, after Hume’s return from Turin and before he plunged into active composition of the History in the spring of 1752. The first, so coyly alluded to as “that which Allan Ramsay mentiond to you,” and again, as containing “a good deal of Literature,” is “The Natural History of Religion.” “Of the Passions” is a brief reworking of Book II of the Treatise. “Of Tragedy” is a short essay on the aesthetic problem of why grief in art is enjoyable. The fourth dissertation, “some Considerations previous to Geometry & Natural Philosophy” was presumably a reworking of Book I, Part II, of the Treatise.

This fourth item was never actually set up in type. Its history is summed up by Hume in a letter of 25 January 1772 to William Strahan, who had in the meanwhile succeeded Millar in the publishing business. It is there referred to as “on the metaphisical Principles of Geometry.” The passage reads: “I sent them [the four dissertations] up to Mr Millar; but before the last was printed, I happend to meet with Lord Stanhope, who was in this Country, and he convincd me, that either there was some Defect in the Argument or in its perspicuity; I forget which; and I wrote to Mr Miller, that I woud not print that Essay….”

Of Philip, second Lord Stanhope, it has been said that, “He (p.322) had great talents, but fitter for speculation than for practical objects of action. He made himself one of the best—Lalande used to say the best—mathematicians in England of his day, and likewise deeply skilled in other branches of science and philosophy.”1

Stanhope had married in 1745 the Hon. Grizel Baillie, a distant cousin of David Hume’s, and the two cousins exchanged sprightly letters over the course of years. Apropos of the quarrel with Rousseau in 1766, the Countess wrote to Hume: “If there is a Hell, that man will fry; bad as you are, I think you’ll not go to the same place.”2 Beyond Hume’s ambiguous and incomplete explanation to Strahan of the conference with Lord Stanhope, nothing whatsoever is known of the suppressed dissertation, the manuscript itself having disappeared.

The three remaining essays, however, Millar remonstrated, “woud not make a Volume,” continued Hume in the 1772 letter to Strahan, and “I sent him up these two, which I had never intended to have publishd.” In addition to the original three remaining, the proposed volume was now to include “Of Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul,” the incendiary nature of both which was granted by Hume himself. For better or for worse, however, they were printed by Millar as numbers IV and V of what was re-entitled, “Five Dissertations, to wit, The Natural History of Religion. Of the Passions. Of Tragedy. Of Suicide. Of the Immortality of the Soul.” This title, apparently in Hume’s hand, was inscribed on a bound copy of proof sheets that was in the possession of the Advocates’ Library (now the National Library of Scotland) in 1875. It has since been lost, which is regrettable, because “Five Dissertations” was never published.3

Hume’s 1772 letter to Strahan is neither clear nor full on why “Five Dissertations” was not published. All he says in reference to “Of Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul” is, first, that they “were printed by Andrew Millar about seventeen Years ago, and…from my abundant Prudence I suppress’d [them]”; and, second, that, “They were printed; but it was no sooner done than I repented; and Mr Millar and I agreed to suppress them at common Charges….” While there is no reason to doubt the truth of these statements, it is plain that Hume was not telling the whole truth. His “abundant Prudence” is evident in his (p.323) original disinclination to publish these “two obnoxious Dissertations” at all; yet the question arises, why, once he had allowed them to be printed, did he again change his mind?

The lost bound copy of proof sheets referred to above provides some evidence. On it was attached a note initialled “A.R.,” presumably standing for Allan Ramsay. The note opened: “This book contains a piece of Mr. D. Hume’s, of which there is, I believe, but another copy existing. Having printed the volume as it here stands, Mr. Hume was advised by a friend, to suppress the Dissertation upon Suicide; which he accordingly did.” The combined testimony of Hume and Ramsay, therefore, is to the effect that the suppression took place in two stages, “Of Suicide” preceding “Of the Immortality of the Soul,” and that it was effected by Hume himself voluntarily in the name of prudence after friendly persuasion. The persuasion, there is some reason to believe, came from Adam Smith.

Yet even Hume and Ramsay combined do not tell the complete story of the suppression, for they fail to mention pressure, if not intimidation, from official sources. The basic facts of this new phase are provided in an unprinted letter by William Warburton, who had been dogging Hume ever since 1749—if not since 1739. Warburton’s letter of 14 February 1756 to the Reverend Thomas Balguy of St John’s College, Cambridge, is the earliest known reference to the suppression:

Hume has printed a small Vol: which is suppressed, & perhaps forever,—on the origin of Religion, on the Passions, on suicide, & on the immortality. The Vol. was put into my hands & I found it as abandoned of all virtuous principle, as of all philosophic force.—I believe he was afraid of a prosecution, & I believe he would have found one: For the Attorney is now in a disposition to support the religious principles of Society, and with vigour.—He finds a generous connivance, infamously abused—and the other day he told me, he was going to support & defend us.—I said it was high time. The person marked out for prosecution is one Annet, a Schoolmaster on Tower hill, the most abandoned of all two legged creatures.1

Here, then, is a different version of the suppression and one which is supported by further testimony.

Dr William Rose, as one of the editors of the Monthly Review, kept a close check on the literary pulse, and, as a friend of Hume’s, was in a position to know the inside story of the 1756 suppression.

(p.324) His statement, though appearing as late as 1784, provides valuable substantiation of Warburton’s:

The Writer of this article knows that the essays here mentioned [“Of Suicide” and “Of the Immortality of the Soul”] were written by Mr. Hume. That almost thirty years ago they made a part of a volume, which was publicly advertised to be sold by Mr. Millar; that, before the day fixed for publication, several copies were delivered to some of the Author’s friends, who were impatient to see whatever came from his pen; that a noble Lord, still living, threatened to prosecute Mr. Millar, if he published the essays now before us; that the Author, like a bold veteran in the cause of infidelity, was not in the least intimidated by this menace, but that the poor bookseller was terribly frightened, to such a degree, indeed, that he called in all the copies he had delivered, cancelled the two essays, and with some difficulty, prevailed upon Mr. Hume to substitute some other pieces in the room of those objected to by the noble Lord; that, by some means or other, however, a few copies got abroad, and have been clandestinely circulated….1

How is this testimony of Warburton and Rose to be reconciled with that of Hume and Ramsay? To begin with, there is the connexion between Warburton and Millar. Late in 1755 War-burton had announced to Balguy that Millar was to be his publisher for the future. And undoubtedly Millar, in accordance with well-established publicity practice of the eighteenth-century booksellers, had distributed copies of “Five Dissertations” in advance of publication to people influential in the world of letters. A copy, therefore, was put into Warburton’s hands. Exactly what happened then is conjectural; but it seems likely that Warburton brought it to the attention of several officials, governmental and ecclesiastical, and demanded action. One of these officials was the Attorney General, William Murray, whose acquaintance with Hume over the Annandale tutorship has previously been noted. A second official was the Lord Chancellor, Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke, who earlier in his career, when Attorney General, had prosecuted several deistic writers. A third official was Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London, and Warburton’s ecclesiastical superior. I should further conjecture that after these interviews Warburton informed Millar that the Church of England would demand, and that the government would agree to, a prosecution if the book was published. No trace has been found of the alleged threatening letter from Hardwicke.

Later hearsay accounts of the 1756 suppression actually refer to an official prosecution; but of that there is no evidence whatsoever and it is probably a fabrication. The reactions of Hume and (p.325) Millar to Warburton’s intimidation are problematical, but the result is clear. Millar must have been a man of some strength of character as he had boldly brought out the Works of Lord Bolingbroke in 1754, yet two years later he apparently exerted his influence over Hume to suppress the “two obnoxious Dissertations” and to tone down some passages in the “Natural History of Religion.” For his part, Hume had already yielded to friendly persuasion to suppress one of the dissertations, and although a great exponent of the freedom of the press, desired neither controversy, notoriety, nor martyrdom. He had, in addition, good reason to believe that at the coming General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 1756 he would be investigated as an infidel writer; and a publicly ordered suppression at London would play into the hands of the Scottish Highflyers and make it difficult for his friends in the Moderate Party to defend him.1 For these reasons Hume might reluctantly have been inclined to give in; his hand, moreover, may have been forced bv an ultimatum from Millar. At all events, “Five Dissertations” was suppressed in part voluntarily and in part under pressure. “The liberty of the press is not so secured in any country, scarce even in this,” Hume acknowledged a few years later, “as not to render…an open attack of popular prejudices somewhat dangerous.”

With the excision of the two essays of suicide and immortality, however, “Five Dissertations” was again reduced to three; “and I wrote,” therefore, Hume goes on to say in the 1772 letter to Strahan, “a new Essay on the Standard of Taste, to supply their place.” This essay was finished in the spring or summer of 1756. The completed work, now entitled Four Dissertations, was published on schedule, Monday, 7 February 1757—but not without further action on the part of Warburton and further problems of composition and of suppression on the part of Hume.

Once again, prior to publication, a copy of the book was put into Warburton’s hands. Not satisfied with the omission of the two essays and with the revision of some passages of the “Natural History of Religion,” the truculent Warburton wrote to Millar on 7 February. This time he did not threaten a public prosecution, but he bullied for a voluntary suppression and hinted his intention of bringing out a devastating reply:

Sir, I supposed you would be glad to know what sort of book it is which you are about to publish with Hume’s name and yours to it. The design of the first essay [that on natural religion] is the very same with all Lord Bolingbroke’s, to establish naturalism, a species of atheism, instead of religion: (p.326) and he employs one of Bolingbroke’s capital arguments for it. All the difference is, it is without Bolingbroke’s abusive language.

All the good his mutilation and fitting it up for the public has done, is only to add to its other follies, that of contradiction. He is establishing atheism; and in one single line of a long essay professes to believe Christianity. All this I shall show in a very few words in a proper occasion.

In the meantime, if you think you have not money enough, and can satisfy your conscience, you will do well to publish it; for there is no doubt of the sale among a people so feverish, that to-day they burn with superstition, and to-morrow freeze with atheism. But the day of the publication and the fast day will be in admirable contrast to one another.

I dare say you knew nothing of the contents; but the caution of poor Mr. K[incaid?] was admirable on a like occasion with this very man, Hume. He wrote to Mr. K. to offer him a copy, that had nothing to do with religion, as he said. Mr. K. replied, that might be; but as he had given great offence, and he (Mr. K.) was himself no judge of these matters, he desired to be excused.

You have often told me of this man’s moral virtues. He may have many, for aught I know; but let me observe to you, there are vices of the mind as well as of the body; and I think a wickeder mind, and more obstinately bent on public mischief, I never knew.1

The “mutilation” of the “Natural History of Religion” noticed by Warburton, is a clear reference to two short passages prudentially changed by Hume. They do not amount to much, merely altering phraseology that might conceivably have led to the charge of blasphemy.2 In February or March 1757 Hume laconically remarked to Adam Smith: “You have read all the Dissertations in Manuscript; but you will find that on the natural History of Religion somewhat emended in point of Prudence. I do not apprehend, that it will much encrease the clamour against me.”

In May Warburton made good his threat to Millar by bringing out anonymous Remarks on Mr. David Hume’s Essay on the Natural History of Religion: Addressed to the Rev. Dr. Warburton. The dissimulation lay in the fact that the remarks, originally made by Warburton on the margin of Hume’s book, were pieced together with an introduction by the Reverend Richard Hurd. Although boasting to Hurd that, “I will trim the rogue’s jacket, at least sit upon his skirts,” Warburton’s answer to Hume is limited to abuse—“a puny Dialectician from the North…who came to the attack with a beggarly troop of routed sophisms.” Hume, on hints from Millar, soon saw through the hoax and linked together the names of Hurd and Warburton. The latter, Hume assured Millar, was a “low Fellow…. And any thing so low as Warburton, or his Flatterers, I shoud certainly be ashamd to (p.327) engage with.” When writing his own life in 1776, however, Hume permitted himself to describe the Remarks as having been written “with all the illiberal Petulance, Arrogance, and Scurrility, which distinguishes the Warburtonian School. This Pamphlet,” he added, “gave me some Consolation for the otherwise indifferent Reception of my Performance.” Warburton’s pamphlet is remembered today solely through Hume’s outburst.

One other feature of the publication of Four Dissertations remains to be mentioned, the dedication “To the Reverend Mr. Hume, Author of Douglas, a Tragedy.” It will suffice to say here that this dedication involved David Hume in a controversy raging in Scotland over the propriety of a minister’s writing a play and of ministers’ attending the performances.1 The chief consequence of the affair so far as Four Dissertations is concerned was that that work received wide publicity with the scandalmongers spreading rumours concerning the suppression of 1756. Yet the suppression, involving so eminent a figure as Hume, could hardly have been kept quiet under any circumstances.

Among the ephemeral addresses, admonitions, ballads, letters, plays, and songs dealing with the controversy over Douglas during the first half of 1757, many mention Hume by name and no fewer than six allude to the suppressed dissertations. The Usefulness of the Edinburgh Theatre Seriously Considered is heavily ironical:

Another advantage peculiar to the North-British stage is not so well known, but no less true. To this we owe the cure of that dark and desperate wound given through David’s sides to the liberty of the press. The public need not now lament the suppression of his celebrated essay on the lawfulness of suicide: This is more beautifully represented in the character of Lady Barnet, who throws herself over a rock with more than Roman courage. Nor need we mourn the loss of his incomparable treatise on the mortality of the soul, while viewing Glenalvon nobly risking eternal fire. It is hoped the next Production of our Reverend author will solace us too for the want of the’ Squire’s third and last essay, on the advantages of adultery, that we may have a complete triumph over the impotent malice of the late Ch[ancello]r [Hardwicke] and the B[isho]p of L[ondo]n [Sherlock], who murdered these real essays in cold blood.

The mysterious reference to a suppositious essay of Hume’s on adultery is repeated in another of the Douglas squibs and in several of the notices appearing after the death of Hume. It may merely have been based upon scattered passages in his printed works; or it may be the truth that, among the essays he had written without ever intending to publish, there was one on the subject of adultery. Hume’s intriguing remark of 1757 may (p.328) just be meant seriously: “I believe I shall write no more History; but proceed directly to attack the Lord’s Prayer & the ten Commandments & the single Cat; and to recommend Suicide & Adultery: And so persist, till it shall please the Lord to take me to himself.”1

Even before the publicity ensuing from the Douglas affair of 1757, news of the suppression had already leaked out. In Scotland, the Reverend George Ridpath heard about it and made the following entry in his diary, 4 June 1756: “Robert [Turnbull]…confirmed what Brown had before been telling me, that David Hume had got printed at London a Collection of Atheism which his bookseller Andrew Millar dares not sell.”2 Notoriety of the suppressed “Collection of Atheism,” it would seem, was also being used to promote the sale of the Treatise in London, for John Noon and M. and T. Longman, the original publishers, advertised that work in the Daily Advertiser of 26 January 1756 and the London Evening Post of 10 February.3

The “two obnoxious Dissertations” themselves, the primary cause of the suppression and of most of the ensuing notoriety, remained to plague Hume throughout the rest of his life. For the suppression, it turned out, was not complete. Andrew Millar, despite his promise to Hume to cut out the two essays and to burn the sheets, succumbed to importunity from the eminent in the world of letters and allowed an indeterminate number of copies to get into circulation. As early as 27 May 1756 Hume responded to a request from Millar: “I have no Objection to Mr Mitchels having a Copy of the Dissertations.” Mitchell, it will be remembered, had been a classmate of Hume’s at Edinburgh University, and the two had always maintained cordial relations. Moreover, what made Mitchell particularly safe at the moment was that he had just been appointed British Ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great and had left London on 17 April. Mitchell’s copy, then, was the only copy authorised by Hume beyond one or two that he kept for himself.

Yet during the course of years the existence of several other copies came to his attention. From Paris he wrote to Millar in May 1764 in regard to one of these:

(p.329) I never see Mr Wilkes here but at Chapel, where he is a most regular, & devout, and edifying, and pious Attendant. I take him to be entirely regenerate. He told me last Sunday, that you had given him a Copy of my Dissertations, with the two which I had suppressd; and that he forseeing Danger from the Sale of his Library, had wrote to you to find out that Copy and to tear out the two obnoxious Dissertations. Pray how stands that Fact? It was imprudent in you to intrust him with that Copy: It was very prudent in him to use that Precaution: Yet I do not naturally suspect you of Imprudence, nor him of Prudence. I must hear a little farther before I pronounce.

Millar’s reply tells a different story and one unmistakably closer to the truth:

I take Mr Wilkes to be the same man he was acting a part. He has forgot the story of the Dissertations. The fact is upon importunity I lent to him the only copy I preserved and for years never could recollect he had it till his Books came to be sold. Upon this I went immediately to the Gentleman that directed the sale, told him the fact & reclaimed the two Dissertations which were my Property. Mr Coates who was the person imediatly delivered me the volume and so soon as I got home I tore them out and burnt them that I might not lend them to any for the future. Two days after Mr Coats sent me a note for the volume as Mr Wilkes had desired it should be sent to him to Paris. I returned the volume but told him the two Dissertations I had tore out of the volume and burnt being my Property. This is the Truth of the matter and nothing but the truth. It was certainly imprudent for me to lend them to him.1

Living in Paris temporarily as a political outlaw from Britain, John Wilkes thus had returned to him a copy of “Five Dissertations” from which the two essays had been torn out.

Two years later the existence of two other copies came to light. Allan Ramsay’s note on the bound copy of proof sheets, which has already been quoted in part, proceeds: “A copy, however, had somehow got into the hands of Mr. Muirhead, a man of letters, who had made a very valuable collection of books. Mr. Hume, after the death of Mr. Muirhead,2 employed me to beg that copy from the nephew, who very politely delivered it up.” This copy, then, was returned to Hume, but what he did with it is unknown. Ramsay’s note concludes: “Upon this Mr. Hume gave me leave to keep the present copy, which he had lent me; I promising not to show it to any body.” Ramsay’s copy has disappeared; but its place in the National Library of Scotland has been taken by a copy of Four Dissertations in which are bound printed sheets of the original edition of the two (p.330) suppressed dissertations with final corrections in the hand of Hume.1 Pasted on the flyleaf is Hume’s own note: “This Book is to be considerd as a Manuscript and to be deliverd to Mr Strahan according to my will.” Strahan, however, acting on the advice of several of Hume’s friends after his death, refused to publish, and so no authorised edition of the two essays has ever appeared.

The two essays, however, were published surreptitiously from some of the copies that Millar had let slip through his fingers. The story of one of these and of a transcript made from it illustrates how such publication may have been effected. In a letter2 of 17 December 1776, James Beattie, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen University, and one of Hume’s bitterest opponents, informed Mrs Elizabeth Montagu that “These Essays were printed; but suppressed by the Bookseller, in consequence of a threatening message from the Lord Chancellor Hardwicke.” He then proceeds: “A few copies, however, got abroad; one of which is in the hands of a Gentleman in England, who gave me this account, and promised to let me have a copy in manuscript, as he could not part with the printed one.” One or another of such loose copies was responsible for the first publication of the two essays in a French translation of 1770.

Items X and XI of a miscellany entitled Recueil Philosophique ou Mélange de Pièces sur la Religion & la Morale are “Dissertation sur 1’immortalité de 1’âme” and “Dissertation sur le suicide,” respectively, and are described as “Traduite de l’Anglois.” Modern scholars attribute the editorship to Jacques André Naigeon, and the translation of the Hume essays to Baron d’Holbach. How Holbach got a copy seems unascertainable; but this much can be said with certainty, that he did not use the copy that had been forwarded to Wilkes at Paris, because from that copy the two items had been cut out. Hume, it is also clear, knew nothing about this French translation, as it remains unmentioned in his 1772 letter to Strahan, where he lists all the copies that he knew about and where he is up in arms about the report of an unsanctioned English edition. About this last Hume comments: “I am not extremely alarmd at this Event, but if threatening him [“some rascally Bookseller”], woud prevent it, I woud willingly employ that means. I am afraid all will be in vain; but if you know him, be as good as [to] try what can be done; and also learn from what hand he had the Copy. I believe an Injunction in Chancery might be got against him; but then I must acknowledge (p.331) myself the Author and this Expedient woud make a Noise and render the Affair more public. In a post or two, I may perhaps get you more particular Intelligence of the Booksellers Name.”

Report of the publication, however, proved groundless. Richardson and Urquhart had advertised in the London Chronicle of 4 January 1772 a collection entitled Beauties of the Magazines, which contained, among many other items, “some Essays by D. Hume, Esq. not inserted in the late Edition of his Works.” But the essays in question prove to be the innocuous “Of Impudence and Modesty” and “Of Love and Marriage,” which Hume had withdrawn from his collected works in 1764, and “Of Avarice,” which he had withdrawn in 1770.

Although Hume’s deathbed efforts to induce Strahan to bring out an authorised posthumous edition were not successful, an unauthorised version appeared at London in 1777, entitled simply Two Essays and with no indication of either author or publisher. The outrageously high price of five shillings for a mere forty-one pages is convincing proof that some unscrupulous person was seeking to profit by the notoriety of the suppressed work of the recently deceased Hume. The name of David Hume was first put to the suppressed essays in 1783 in Essays on Suicide, and The Immortality of the Soul, Ascribed to the late David Hume, Esq. Never before published. With Remarks, intended as an Antidote to the Poison contained in these Performances. By the Editor, a work as disingenuous as the former. Several other editions and attacks in English, French, and German appeared before the close of the century.

In view of the tumult occasioned by Four Dissertations, it is not easy to interpret the remark of Hume in his autobiography concerning the “indifferent Reception of my Performance.” Certainly he could not have meant that it went unnoticed, for the Critical Review of February 1757 observes that “The ingenious Mr. Hume, already so well known to the learned world by his four volumes of essays, and the history of Great Britain, hath once more excited the attention of the public by the dissertations now before us….”

The “Natural History of Religion” inevitably received most attention. In addition to the Warburton-Hurd scurrility, the work was respectfully handled in two anonymous pamphlets by the Reverends Caleb Fleming and Thomas Stona. Fleming’s Three Questions Resolved…. With a Postscript on Mr. Hume’s Natural History of Religion appeared in 1757 and Stona’s Remarks (p.332) upon the Natural History of Religion, the following year. Stona finds no conviction in Hume’s arguments, while Fleming, to the contrary, concludes that Hume “has finely exposed superstition and popery: professeth himself an advocate of pure theism, and so far as he is a theist, he cannot be an enemy to pure Christianity.” More judicious than either is the review by William Rose in the Monthly for February 1757. Hume’s first dissertation, concludes Rose, “abounds with shrewd reflections, and just observations, upon, human nature; mixed with a considerable portion of that sceptical spirit, which is so apparent in all his works; and with some insinuations, artfully couched, against the Christian religion.” In Scotland, Ridpath, who had first heard Hume’s dissertations described as a “Collection of Atheism,” after reading the work himself, commented, “The Natural History of Religion is entertaining, and has curious things in it, but its tendency is bad.”

What is the teaching of David Hume in the three controversial works on religion? The two suppressed essays need not delay us long, because, however cogent in argument, they are but popular renditions of principles implicit in all his thinking on the subject. “Of the Immortality of the Soul” opens with a statement of its thesis:

By the mere light of reason it seems difficult to prove the Immortality of the Soul. The arguments for it are commonly derived either from metaphysical topics, or moral, or physical. But in reality, it is the gospel, and the gospel alone, that has brought life and immortality to light.

“Of Suicide,” purporting to accept philosophical theism, argues the incapacity of man to commit any act against the divine will:

’Tis impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course, or invade the prerogatives of nature. ’Tis impious, says the French superstition, to inoculate for the small-pox, or usurp the business of providence by voluntarily producing distempers and maladies. ’Tis impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life, and thereby rebel against our creator; and why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions we employ our powers of mind and body, to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in none of them do we any more. They are all of them therefore equally innocent, or equally criminal….

’Tis a kind of blasphemy to imagine that any created being can disturb the order of the world or invade the business of providence! It supposes, that that Being possesses powers and faculties, which it received not from its creator, and which are not subordinate to his government and authority. A man may disturb society no doubt, and thereby incur the displeasure of the Almighty: But the government of the world is placed far beyond his reach and violence.

(p.333) This is eloquence, no doubt—but is it philosophy? The debate continues to this day and competent authorities still disagree.

The “Natural History of Religion” is quite another matter. Alone of all the so-called dissertations it is truly a work of scholarship. The problem presented is essentially modern, and to’ Hume should go the credit for being the first great modern to treat of it systematically. From it arises much modern thinking on the subject. Again blandly assuming the validity of philosophical theism in the form of the argument from design, Hume restricts himself to the “origin of religion in human nature,” that is, to the psychological bases of religion. The limitations that he actually placed upon the argument from design had already been stated in Section XI of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and were to be further developed in the posthumous Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.1

The thesis of the “Natural History of Religion” is the paramount one in all of Hume’s philosophical productions, the essential a-rationality of human nature, here applied specifically to religion, which is treated as a natural product of the human mind. Sentiment, emotions, affections precede reason and philosophy in human nature and always remain dominant. The monotheistic deity of Christianity is, therefore, an advanced concept far beyond the primitive or popular mind in early or in late ages. The popular mind is ruled by hopes and fears, and out of these hopes and fears creates a religion of multifarious outside controlling forces; in short, polytheism. Polytheism thus antedates monotheism, and even after the general acceptance of philosophy still survives in the popular mentality.

The doctrine of one supreme deity, the author of nature, is very ancient, has spread itself over great and populous nations, and among them has been embraced by all ranks and conditions of men: But whoever thinks that it has owed its success to the prevalent force of those invincible reasons, on which it is undoubtedly founded, would show himself little acquainted with the ignorance and stupidity of the people, and their incurable prejudices in favour of their particular superstitions. Even at this day, and in Europe, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds them with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the (p.334) sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another: These he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole argument for it.

The historical comparison of polytheism with monotheism yields some unexpected results. If the former is bad philosophy and the latter is good philosophy, their actual influences upon human conduct have not been entirely so adjusted. Polytheism breeds superstition: “full scope is given, for knavery to impose on our credulity, till morals and humanity be expelled the religious systems of mankind.” At the same time, polytheism naturally requires toleration and “renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other.” Monotheism works conversely: high moral standards are held up, but intolerance sets in, for “the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious.” This intolerant spirit breeds controversy and war. Furthermore, all popular religions, as distinct from philosophical religions, have a bad influence on morality. “It is certain, that, in every religion, however sublime the verbal definition which it gives of its divinity, many of the votaries, perhaps the greatest number, will still seek the divine favour, not by virtue and good morals, which alone can be acceptable to a perfect being, but either by frivolous observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous exstacies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions.” It is, therefore, the duty of the philosopher to combat all influences which so degrade human nature and to seek for himself the “calm sunshine of the mind.” But such is the general infirmity of human nature that that seems possible only for the few and is precariously maintained even by them.

What a noble privilege is it of human reason to attain the knowledge of the supreme Being; and, from the visible works of nature, be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator? But turn the reverse of the medal. Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the religious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are any thing but sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational.

Yet if the historical and psychological perspectives prove so devastating, what is the philosopher to do? What conclusions can he come to? Can he remain satisfied with those conclusions?

(p.335) The whole is a riddle, an aenigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspence of judgment appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny, concerning this subject. But such is the frailty of human reason and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld; did we not enlarge our view, and opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy.


(1) Mossner, “The Enigma of Hume,” in Mind, xiv (1936), 334–49Dialogues

(1) RSE, III, 51

(2) NHL, p. 72

(3) DialoguesDialogues,David Hume: Bicentenary Papers, ed. George Morice (Edinburgh 1977), pp. 1–22

(1) Mossner, “Hume’s Four Dissertations: An Essay in Biography and Bibliography,” in Modern Philology, XLVIII (1950), 37–57

(1) P. H. Stanhope, History of England (London 1836–54), m, 242

(2) RSE, VII, 45

(3) All that is known about this lost copy is contained in T. H. Grose’s account in the “History of the Editions,” prefixed to Phil. Wks., III, 71.

(1) This letter [11, No. 32] appears in a collection of three MS volumes of War-burton’s letters transcribed in 1863 by James Crossley. A fourth volume is an “Abstract” of the letters to Balguy. The four Crossley volumes are now in the University of Texas Library, the legacy of Dr R. H. Griffith.

(1) Monthly Review, LXXX (17841), 427. For the attribution to Rose, see Nangle The Monthly Review…Indexes, p. 99, No. 1400.

(1) See Ch. 25, below.

(1) Warburton’s Unpublished Papers, pp. 309–10

(2) See below, Appendix E, p. 618

(1) See Ch. 26, below.

(1) NHL, p. 43

(2) Ridpath, p. 73

(3) Treatise, 7 and 9 Dec. 1754Daily Advertiser

(1) RSE, VI, 31.

(2) Muirhead died on 12 June 1766.

(1) NLS, MS 509.

(2) In Aberdeen University Library, Beattie MSS.

(1) See Ch. 40, below,