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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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Academic Illusion

Academic Illusion

(p.152) (p.153) Chapter 12 Academic Illusion
The Life of David Hume

Ernest Campbell Mossner

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

It is perhaps a truism that scholars are peculiarly susceptible to returning to the academic societies that nourished their scholarship. If so, David Hume was no exception to the rule. The chance to succeed Dr John Pringle in the chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at Edinburgh University occurred in the summer of 1744. Here was a dignified position with a good salary that would give him the opportunity to cultivate his literary and philosophical ambitions. Hume was soon to find through sad experience that the new-modelled world did indeed remain intolerant. He was also to find that the Treatise was not dead. Pringle had never taken his chair over-seriously and, since 1742, had been on leave of absence as physician to the army.

Keywords:   academic societies, scholarship, David Hume, John Pringle, Ethics, Pneumatical Philosophy, Edinburgh University, Treatise

“Such a popular Clamour has been raisd against me in Edinburgh, on account of Scepticism, Heterodoxy & other hard Names…that my Friends find some Difficulty in working out the Point of my Professorship.”

IT is perhaps a truism that scholars are peculiarly susceptible to returning to the academic societies that nourished their scholarship. If so, David Hume was no exception to the rule. The chance to succeed Dr John Pringle in the chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy at Edinburgh University occurred in the summer of 1744. Here was a dignified position with a good salary that would give him the opportunity to cultivate his literary and philosophical ambitions. In his eagerness, Hume incautiously forgot his own precept stated to Hutcheson some five years before: “Except a Man be in Orders, or be immediatly concern’d in the Instruction of Youth, I do not think his Character depends upon his philosophical Speculations, as the World is now model’d….” Hume was soon to find through sad experience that the new-modelled world did indeed remain intolerant. He was also to find that the Treatise was not dead.

Pringle “was an agreeable lecturer, though no great master of the science he taught,” commented one of his students, Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk,1 later Hume’s great friend. Pringle had never taken his chair over-seriously and, since 1742, had been on leave of absence as physician to the army. Soon after being appointed Physician-General to the Forces in Flanders, Pringle wrote from Brussels, on 20 June 1744, to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh: “I take therefore this opportunity to acquaint your Lordship I am ready to do what your Lordship and the Patrons of the university shall judge for the good of that Society, and beg that your Lordship will upon the receipt of this let me know your mind, That if it is necessary, I may send immediately a formall Resignation to allow my Patrons time for chuseing a proper person to succeed before the next winters Session.”2

(p.154) The Lord Provost, John Coutts, delighted with the imminent vacancy, immediately asked his young friend, David Hume, if he was interested in standing as a candidate. Hume was, and Coutts mentioned his name to several members of the Town Council, also advising him “to mention myself as a Candidate to all my Friends, not with a View of sollicking or making Interest, but in order to get the Public Voice on my Side, that he might with the more Assurance employ his Interest in my Behalf. I accordingly did so,” declares Hume in a letter of 4 August; “& being allow’d to make use of the Provost’s Name, I found presently that I shou’d have the whole Council on my Side, & that indeed I shou’d have no Antagonist.”

Nevertheless, when Coutts read Pringle’s letter before the Town Council on 18 July, other letters from him to individual members of the Council were produced which made it abundantly clear that Pringle was really angling for an extension of leave for a third year. But the majority of the Council were firm and instructed Coutts to demand that Pringle should either return by 1 November or resign immediately: “and in case the Doctor wrytes no Letter signifying that he is to Return or Demitt, the Councill Resolve they will then hold and Declare the office vacant.” “But Mr Couts,” continues Hume in the above letter, “tho his Authority be quite absolute in the Town, yet makes it a Rule to govern them with the utmost Gentleness & Moderation; this good Maxim he sometimes pushes even to an Extreme.” The actual letter, therefore, that Coutts sent to Pringle on 20 July, with the Council’s consent, offered a compromise, which Coutts was certain would be rejected:

I am further commanded by the Councill to say that in order to demonstrate the great Regard they have for you, They would even make a Stretch of Indulgeing you another year, provided they were absolutely certain, That you would return to your Residence here at the end thereof, And that this may not appear to you a bare Compliment, I have the Authority of the Councill to say that you can still command that Indulgence by expressing to me in a Letter by Course of post, that you positively will in any Event make your Residence here before sitting of the Colledge. And that if it be then war, you will Resign your office of Physician to the army or any other office you shall be possest of incompatable with your attendance on the University….

“This last Condition,” wrote Hume in the letter of 4 August, “Mr Couts thinks it impossible he [Pringle] will comply with: Because he has a Guinea a day at present as Physician to the Army, along with a good deal of Business, & half pay during Life: And there seems at present to be small Chance for a Peace before (p.155) the Term here assign’d.” But Coutts’s desire to placate both sides enabled Pringle to equivocate further. Within two hours of receiving the Council’s communication, he penned his reply, dated 15 August, N.S. Seizing the offer of an extension of leave, he “can never think they [the Town Council] intended to burthen their free Gift with a Condition implying ane utter Impossibility of being able to profite of their Good Will, which impossibility I have not as the Words stand been able to separate from the Offer.” Were he free, he would return at once; but a soldier, he reminds them, is not free. “The Council will likewise advert that it is not here in the Active part of War as at home with Civil posts, when a Man may resign or promise to Resign when he pleases; but whoever is here engaged, is engaged strictly’ till he is dismiss’d….” He, therefore, freely submits a new proposal to the effect that, “…as the Council has agreed there may yet ane Indulgence be allowed for another Year on Condition of a Certainty for having a Professor teaching the Year following; I hereby solemnly engage myself by Aprile next to assure the Council of my returning or not returning by Winter….”

Realising his tactical blunder, Lord Provost Coutts replied to Pringle unambiguously: “…I am desir’d [by the Council] to give for Answer, that since they cannot have a Security for your Returning to the Exercise of your profession in this University in terms of their Letter of the 20. Ulte, they think themselves bound in Duty to desire that in Course of post, you will be pleased to send your Resignation….” Pringle could hardly evade this.

But evade it he did. On 17 August, N.S., he accepted the original offer of a year’s extension of leave and promised to return then. The promise, however, is vaguely worded: “I can with Assurance acquaint your Lordship, that as my last Engagements were made with Sincerity & Inclination to return, I have now the firm belief of having it in my power to doe it by November 1745, in the terms offered me by the Council.” Naturally the Council was dissatisfied and required a direct answer with positive assurances of the terms of their original letter of 20 July.

All these exchanges of letters proved time-consuming, and time was working for the doctor and against David Hume. With the start of the University session in November, no answer had been received from Pringle. So to him went the victory by default. The chair had not been declared vacant and his substitute, a Mr William Cleghorn, was the only person authorised to conduct his classes. At the Town Council meeting (p.156) on 7 November the newly elected Lord Provost, Archibald Stewart, informed his colleagues that although Pringle had not replied, he had definitely received the Council’s ultimatum. His Lordship, who was also Hume’s good friend, recommended to the Council “(after a decent time still allowed to the Doctor to send his Answer) That in Case no Answer came, or none to their Satisfaction, That they would take such measures as might tend to Vindicate the Honour and Authority of the Council, and Security to the true Interest of the University whereof they are patrons.” The Council agreed to act “as soon as the Nature of the thing will admit.”

The nature of the thing admitted of no action until 27 March 1745, when Pringle’s letter of resignation was finally produced before the Town Council. Provost Stewart being on official business in London at the moment, the Council was presided over by Baillie Gavin Hamilton, the eminent Edinburgh bookseller. The resignation was accepted and the chair declared vacant. As the University was in session, Mr William Cleghorn, who had been teaching Pringle’s classes for nearly three years, was instructed to continue, “so as the Students may have no Cause of Complaint during the Vacancy of the Professorship.” In the meanwhile, the Council “may have under their Consideration the Supplying the said office with an able and well qualified person.” The continued postponements, together with the loss of the influential Coutts and Stewart as Lords Provost, were not helping Hume’s candidacy. The opposition was growing.

As early as August 1744 Hume had informed Mure of Caldwell that, “The accusation of Heresy, Deism, Scepticism, Atheism &c &c &c. was started against me; but never took, being bore down by the contrary Authority of all the good Company in Town.” By April 1745, however, he was forced to admit “that such a popular Clamour has been raisd against me in Edinburgh, on account of Scepticism, Heterodoxy & other hard Names, which confound the ignorant, that my Friends find some Difficulty, in working out the Point of my Professorship, which once appear’d so easy.” This letter to Matthew Sharpe of Hoddam, therefore, requests him to use his good offices with his nephew, Lord Tinwald, to bring influence to bear upon certain members of the Council. The philosopher, with tongue in cheek, tells Sharpe, “Did I need a Testimonial for my Orthodoxy I shoud certainly appeal to you. For you know that I always imitated Job’s Friends, & defended the Cause of Providence when [you] attackt it, on account of the Headachs you felt after a Deba[uch].”

(p.157) By the spring of 1745 Hume’s friends faced an opposition which included such important figures as Professors Hutcheson and Leechman of Glasgow University as well as William Wishart, the Principal of Edinburgh University. Hume was greatly distressed; he found it “absolutely incredible” that Hutcheson and Leechman “agreed that I was a very unfit Person for such an office.” To Mure he complained bitterly:

All my Friends think that he [Hutcheson] has been rendering me bad Offices to the utmost of his Power. And I know, that Mr Coutts, to whom I said rashly, that I thought I coud depend upon Mr Hutcheson’s Friendship & Recommendation; I say, Mr Coutts now speaks of that Professor rather as my Enemy than as my Friend. What can be the Meaning of this Conduct in that celebrated and benevolent Moralist, I cannot imagine. I shall be glad to find, for the Honour of Philosophy, that I am mistaken; & indeed, I hope so too: And beg of you to enquire a little into the Matter; but very cautiously, lest I make him my open and profess’d Enemy, which I woud willingly avoid.

Hutcheson presumably deemed Hume unfit for the chair as the University Senatus had imposed on the holder, at Pringle’s election in 1734, the duty of reconciling Moral Philosophy with Divinity. The Professor was especially directed to “praelect” every Monday “upon the Truth of the Christian religion.”

On 3 April 1745 the Town Council, in the absence of some of Hume’s friends, met and elected Francis Hutcheson to the professorship. The Minutes actually read “George Hutchison”! Baillie Hamilton was instructed to convene the Reverend Ministers of the City of Edinburgh for their avisamentum or advice. The Ministers declared themselves, “well pleased” but hoped that in future the Honourable Town Council would “order the ministers avisamentum to be held prior to any Choice, and that such avisamentum should be taken by the whole Councill and not by a Committee as heretofore has been the practice.”

On 10 April Baillie Hamilton was chagrined to have to inform the Council that Professor Hutcheson had declined to accept the office. Here was an unexpected blow to the anti-Hume forces! Hutcheson’s letter also shows that he had been apprised of the Council’s intention “some time agoe,” but had been undecided. “…Severall other persons,” including David Hume and William Cleghorn, were “named as proper Candidates…” but Hume’s enemies refused to allow a decision. It was voted to delay action for a month or six weeks and, in the meantime, to take the ministers’ avisamentum. During this tense period Hume wrote the desperate appeal for help to Matthew Sharpe of Hoddam: “There is no Time to lose…. A Word to the Wise.”

Although Hutcheson’s refusal made it still possible, in theory, (p.158) for Hume to be elected, political factors intervened. The Principal Secretary of State for Scotland was John Hay, fourth Marquess of Tweeddale, the leader of the “Squadrone Volante,” a third force operating between the Argyll-Islay interest and the Jacobites. His office afforded him tremendous powers of patronage and he was receiving almost daily reports from various “informers,” notably Alexander Arbuthnot and Thomas Hay.1 Much of the opposition to Hume, from the Edinburgh ministers and others, was in reality opposition to Coutts and his party, and political intrigue worked against Hume equally with the charges of “Heresy, Deism, Scepticism, Atheism &c &c &c” that he had complained about to Mure of Caldwell.

On 26 May, for instance, Hay told Tweeddale that “Deacon Cuming had declared he was under promise to Lord Elibank to vote for Mr Home because his Lordship had got a Brother of Cumings recommended in the fleet & Mr Arbuthnot said that all he believed it would be practicable to bring Cuming to would be to be absent.” Like many laymen concerned, Hay viewed the election in a purely political light, but he was not without a certain ironic awareness of the effect that Hume’s “Heresy” and “Atheism” were having on his friends and supporters. “I hardly think,” he opined, “that any politic consideration has led Lord Elibank to draw Cuming off. I presume he has meddled out of friendship to Mr Hume for My Lord & he [Cumin] & Provost Couts are all too wise to enter into the vulgar mistakes of Christianity.” Hume would surely have appreciated that sally, had he known it, but he was unaware of the political confrontation, as well as of the friendly intervention of his old friend Lord Elibank.

No official record survives of the joint session of the Ministers of Edinburgh (a body quite distinct from the Presbytery of Edinburgh) and the Town Council. The precise function of the advice of the ministers remains undefined, that is, whether the ministers could veto any candidate proposed by the patrons of the university, the Town Council, or whether they merely had the opportunity to express their preference. In Hutcheson’s case, the ministers were consulted after the election, but urged that in future they should be consulted beforehand. In Hume’s case, they were consulted in advance, a fact which spelt his doom.

At the meeting early in May, the attack on Hume was led by the Principal, William Wishart, who had himself been accused (p.159) of heterodoxy a few years before (for not sufficiently stressing the importance of Original Sin). The son of the principal during Hume’s student days, and a professor of divinity, he had been elected Principal in 1737. Hume’s account of the principal’s charge, in a letter to Henry Home, is illuminating:

The Principal found himself reduc’d to this Dilemma; either to draw Heresies from my Principles by Inferences & Deductions, which he knew wou’d never do with the Ministers & Town Council. Or if he made use of my words, he must pervert them & misrepresent them in the grossest way in the World. This last Expedient he chose, with much Prudence but very little Honesty.1

Hume was not, however, entirely undefended by the ministers. “I think,” he continues in this letter, “Mr Wallace’s Conduct has been very noble & generous; & I am much oblig’d to him.” Robert Wallace, once Professor Gregory’s substitute in his mathematical class and a member of the Rankenian Club, had in 1733 become minister to the New Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh and in 1739 was translated to the New North Church. He was also charged with church patronage in Scotland, and in 1744 was appointed one of His Majesty’s chaplains for Scotland. A man with the courage of his convictions, Wallace had in 1737 defied the national government over the Porteous Riots, and in 1739 the Town Council of Edinburgh over his church translation. In ecclesiastical polity he was one of the leaders of the Moderate Party, whose views he summarized in the title of an early sermon: Ignorance and Superstition a Source of Violence and Cruelty. In 1743 he was Moderator of the General Assembly. Robert Wallace was a man of influence and prestige, as well as of liberal principles. The friendly connexions with Hume, his junior by some fourteen years, continued for a long time.

The writer of an unsigned letter to the London Chronicle, 5–7 November 1776, soon after Hume’s death, was clearly present at the meeting of Ministers and Town Council in 1745:

…it is true that most of the clergy objected to the electing of honest David, grounding their objection on “A Treatise on Human Nature,” published in 1739, which had been ascribed to him. All the body, however, did not concur in the measure. The late celebrated Dr. Wallace, faithful to those generous sentiments which he had early imbibed and uniformly professed, with an impartiality as well as dignity becoming them, declared to the counsellors in strong terms, that he did not think himself entitled to give his opinion, on pretext too of a juvenile as well as anonymous performance, which had been little read, and which was less understood, against chusing that ingenious gentleman, more than any of the other candidates. The Doctor’s liberal mind (p.160) was elevated far above, and his philosophic indignation was greatly raised at the inquisitorial zeal discovered on this occasion.

But Wallace’s sweet reasonableness was brushed aside by the inquisitorial zeal of Wishart and his followers of the “Popular” or Evangelical Party, and twelve of the fifteen ministers of Edinburgh advised against David Hume’s election. The three in the minority were Patrick Cumin, Professor of Church History at Edinburgh University; Alexander Webster, minister of the Tolbooth Church; and of course Robert Wallace. The case was not yet finally lost, however, as the Town Council still had to hold its election and clearly did not consider itself necessarily bound by the minister’s avisamentum.

When the news of the ministers avisamentum reached Hume, at Weldehall near St Albans, he immediately wrote a “hastily compos’d” letter to Coutts, dated 8 May 1745. This reached Henry Home, who rushed it into print as: A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh: Containing some Observations on a Specimen of the Principles concerning Religion and Morality, said to be maintain’d in a Book lately publish’d, intituled, A Treatise of Human Nature, &c. The anonymous pamphlet was advertised in both the Caledonian Mercury and the Edinburgh Evening Courant for Tuesday 21 May 1745. This recently discovered item has its bearing on Hume’s thought.1

A Letter from a Gentleman is more personal in tone than the Abstract because Hume is defending his qualifications for a professorship and refuting Principal Wishart’s six specific charges against him. Not having a copy of the Treatise at hand, he is relying on memory and reason, so that his views on scepticism and causality are stated afresh in accounts as clear and forthright as they are concise. His rejection of the a priori in the realm of matters of fact is vigorously put and his “common sense” and “orthodox” attitudes are emphasized. In a few instances, he plays down certain highly unorthodox religious scepticisms, already stated in the Treatise, or to be stated later, notably in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. This was, moreover, Hume’s first opportunity since the Treatise to defend his system of morality. In addition this letter augments what had been rather neglected in the Treatise, though somewhat developed in the Abstract: the naming of names and the placing of the author in past and contemporary contexts. For example, the Moderns instanced (p.161) include Descartes, Huet and Malebranche; and Berkeley, Clarke, Cudworth, Locke, Newton, Hutcheson, Tillotson and Wollaston. (The italicized names are not mentioned in either the Treatise or the Abstract.)

All was in vain. Convinced that defeat was inevitable, Hume wrote to Archibald Stewart in the attempt “to disengage myself from my friends in Edinburgh”; and Stewart “very frankly and kindly allow’d me my liberty of choice…” So on 1 June Hume asked Henry Home to withdraw his candidacy, provided his supporters agreed. “I can now laugh,” he added, “at the Malice of those who intended to do me an Injury, without being able to reach me.” But this letter arrived too late for the Council meeting of 5 June, when, according to Hume, “the matter was brought to an issue, and by the cabals of the Principal, the bigotry of the clergy, and the credulity of the mob, we lost it.” In the official language of its Minutes, the Town Council, “being satisfied that Mr William Cleghorn merchant burgess of Edinburgh (who has had the Care and Teaching of Doctor Pringles Class these three years past, and is otherwise well Recommended) is sufficiently qualified to discharge the Duty of that office,” duly elected the said Mr Cleghorn “to be Professor of Pneumaticks and morale Philosophy in this Citys university ad vitam aut Culpam” At the next meeting on 19 June, Cleghorn accepted the post and was sworn in. An academic question was settled.

Four days before Hume had commented to Henry Home: “I have indeed a great Regard as well as Sense of Gratitude for Mr Couts, & am heartily sorry he shou’d have been defeated by a Pack of Scoundrels, tho it was entirely by his own Fault.” What Hume was not aware of was that Coutts had been not only inept but actually faithless. Arbuthnot, the “informer” spells out to Tweeddale Coutts’s shifting strategy:

The man Mr Coutts first Sett up was Mr Home a Son of Ninewalls; when he found that he could not carry him then Mr Law whose father [William] had formerly been prophessor [1708–29] was Sett up and when that could not be brought to bear as his Last Shift, he sett up principal Wishart, though he by no means Liked the man, yett he judged him the only person that could defeat his opposers and therefor sett him up but yesterday when the affair came to be determined he had only twelve of the Councill for him and Mr Cleghorn had nineteen….

So much for politics—and friendship.

“I never was very fond of this Office of which I have been disappointed, on account of the Restraint, which I forsaw it wou’d have impos’d on me.” Hume’s last words on the (p.162) Edinburgh chair strike me, regrettably, as sour grapes, for he had not really learnt his lesson. Academic life, under a principal who had opposed his election and with an antagonistic clergy denouncing him from the pulpit, could never have been calm or lasting. Astonishingly, Hume was willing to stand in 1751 for the Logic Chair at Glasgow University, but happily for his peace of mind, with the same result. (Edinburgh’s greatest non-Professor is now vindicated by the David Hume Tower in George Square.)

After Hume’s death, the debate raged in the press over certain events of his career. For the Edinburgh University chair, the affirmative side declared “he was eminently qualified…[and in that office] could have been of more service to his country than in any other.” The negative side waxed ironical: “Ye illiberal and narrow-minded men of the presbytery of Edinburgh, what hurt did you not do to your country, in depriving it of David Hume for professor of morality! What a blessed system of ethicks would he have instilled into our youth!”1

The episode of the Edinburgh chair was further evidence that the Treatise of Human Nature was never strictly dead. Its reputation branded the author as unfit to teach the young. An ill-fated work, it not only failed to interest thinkers capable of grasping its ideas, but it was beginning to be read by those who, without understanding it, could make trouble for the author. Hume’s feelings against the Treatise became so intense that, after rewriting some sections of it, he ultimately disowned it publicly. The Letter to a Gentleman contains the first disavowal: “I am indeed of Opinion, that the Author had better delayed the publishing of that Book; not on account of any dangerous Principles contained in it, but because on more mature Consideration he might have rendered it much less imperfect by further Corrections and Revisals.”

Baulked at the University, David Hume yet became an educator in 1745—at least, in name. Invited in January to be the tutor to the Marquess of Annandale, he left Edinburgh in February, in secrecy, “which I thought necessary for preserving my Interest there.” From Weldehall near St Albans, he directed the final stages of the campaign for the Edinburgh chair and lost it.


(1) Carlyle, pp. 54–5.

(2) This and all otherwise unacknowledged quotations from the Town Council minutes are taken from the MS “Council Records,” VOLS, LXIV, LXV, under dates specified, in the City Chambers, Edinburgh.

(1) All succeeding quotations from letters of the “informers” to Lord Tweeddale are taken from NLS, MS 7076 (part of the Yester Papers).

(1) NHL, p. 15.

(1) David Hume: A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh (1745), edited, with detailed introduction, by Mossner and J. V. Price (Edinburgh 1967). The NLS acquired the pamphlet in 1966. See Textual Supplement.

(1) “An Account of the Life and Writings of the late David Hume,” in Annual Register, XIX (1776), 30; “Strictures on the Account of the Life and Writings of David Hume,” Weekly Magazine, XXXVIII (1777), 291.