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HISTORICAL, MORAL, POLITICAL, AND THEOLOGICAL
WRITERS OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
§ 1. DAVID HUME. His life and publications. Treatise on Human Nature and
History of England. § 2. WILLIAM ROBERTSON. Histories of Scotland, Charles V., and America. § 3. EDWARD GIBBON. His life and works. $ 4. Criticism of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. $ 5. SAMUEL JOHNson. His early life and struggles. London. Life of Savage. $6. English Dictionary. Vanity of Human Wishes. Tragedy of Irene. $7. The Idler and Rambler. Rasselas. Johnson receives a pension from the government. § 8. His acquaintance with Boswell. Edition of Shakspeare. Journey to the Hebrides. Lives of the Poets. Johnson's death. $ 9. EDMUND BURKE. His life and writings. Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful. His impeachment of Warren Hastings. Letter to a Noble Lord. Reflections on the French Revolution. Letter on a Regicide Peace. § 10. Letters of Junius. § 11. ADAM SMITH. Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. § 12. SIR WILLIAM BLACKSTONE. Commentaries on the Laros of England. § 13. Bishop BUTLER and WILLIAM PALEY. § 14. GILBERT WHITE. Natural History of Selborne.
§ 1. In accordance with that peculiar law which seems to govern the appearance, at particular epochs, of several great names in one department of art or literature, like the sculptors of the Periclean age, the romantic dramatists in that of Elizabeth, and the novelists who peared in England the days of Richardson and Fielding, the eighteenth century was signalized by a remarkable wealth of historical genius, and gave birth to Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon.
DAVID HUME (1711-1776) was born, of an ancient Scottish family, in 1711, and received his education in the University of Edinburgh. His desires and ambition were irresistibly set upon literary fame, and after reluctantly trying the profession of law and the pursuit of commerce, he lived abroad some years, devoting himself, by means of prudence and economy, to the cultivation of moral and metaphysical science, and to the preparation of his mind for future historical labors. His intellect was calm, philosophical, and sceptical, and he imbibed that strong disbelief in the possibility of miracles which, when expressed in his subtle logic and refined purity of style, has rendered him one of the most dangerous enemies of revealed religion. In 1737 he returned to England, and was so much discouraged with the coldness of the public towards his first moral and metaphysical productions that he at one time meditated changing his name and expatriating himself forever. In 1746 and the following year a gleam of success shone upon him, for he had hitherto lived in such narrow circumstances that his extreme prudence and economy scarcely enabled him to subsist respectably, and
he was even at one time reduced to the painful and uncongenial office of taking charge of the young Marquis of Annandale, who was insane. He now entered the public service, and was employed as Secretary to General St. Clair in various diplomatic missions. When again residing at Edinburgh, in 1752, he accepted the post of Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, for which he received no salary, but which placed at his disposal a large and excellent collection of books. With the aid thus furnished he began his great work, the History of England from the accession of the Stuart Dynasty to the Revolution of 1688, to which he afterwards added in successive volumes the earlier history from the invasion of Julius Cæsar to the reign of James I. Though the first volumes were received with the same neglect as had encountered his previous publications, the extraordinary merits of the plan and the incomparable clearness and beauty of the narration soon overcame the indifference of the public, and the history gradually and rapidly rose to the highest popularity, and took that place among the prose classics of the language which it has ever since retained. The admiration excited by the History, by a natural consequence, reacted also upon his previous works, which now began to enjoy a high degree of popularity, in spite of the heterodox tenets which they were accused of maintaining. Hume's reputation was now solidly established: he was again employed in the public service, and accompanied as secretary the embassy of General Conway to Paris, where he became one of the lions of the fashionable society of the French capital, a popularity which he owed more to his literary glory and to the sceptical theories - then so prevalent in France of which he was one of the apostles, than to any personal aptitude for the society of wits and fine ladies ; for Hume was heavy and inelegant in appearance, and possessed few charms of conversation or readiness of repartee. He afterwards fulfilled for a short time the still higher functions of Under-Secretary of State, and retiring with a pension passed the evening of his life in philosophic and intellectual tranquillity, enjoying the respect and affection which his virtuous and amiable qualities attracted, and which not even his scepticism could repel. Hume died in 1776. He was distinguished by great benevolence of heart, and by a spirit of candor and indulgence to the opinions of others, which might have been advantageously imitated by many of those who controverted his opinions.
As a moral and metaphysical writer Hume certainly deserves a high place in the history of philosophy. The prominent feature of his Treatise on Human Nature, published in 1738, was the attempt to deduce the operations of the mind entirely from the two sources of impressions and ideas, which he looks upon as distinct, and his denying the existence of any fundamental difference between such actions as we call virtuous and vicious, other than as they are practically found to be conducive to or destructive of the advantage of the individual or the species. In other words Hume is the assertor of the theory of Utility, as the only one capable of satisfactorily explaining the mysterious question – What is the essential difference between good and
evil? Such a theory was received with intense dissatisfaction by the orthodox: but seldom has the controversialist to encounter a tougher antagonist than Hume, the clearness of whose exposition, and the subtlety of whose arguments, a subtlety the more formidable as it is always veiled under an air of philosophic candor, were but too often met with declamation and unfair attacks on a personal character which was above reproach. But the chief danger of Hume's philosophical doctrines lies in his famous argument on the impossibility of miracles, based upon the two propositions: first, that it is contrary to all human experience that miracles should be true, both reason and facts tending to show the invariable nature of the laws which govern all physical phenomena; and secondly, that the improbability of a miracle ever having taken place is far greater than the improbability of the testimony to such an event being false, the witnesses being likely either to have been duped themselves or to dupe others.
The History of England is a book of very high value. In a certain exquisite ease and vivacity of narration it certainly has never been surpassed; and in the analysis of characters and the appreciation of great events, Hume's singular clearness and philosophic elevation of view give him a right to one of the foremost places among modern histori
But its defects are no less considerable. Hume's indolence induced him to remain contented with taking his facts at second-hand from preceding writers, without troubling himself about accuracy. Thus legendary and half-mythological stories are related with the same air of belief as the more well-authenticated events of recent times; a fault pardonable enough in Herodotus and Livy, but less venial in a writer who ought to have applied his powerful critical faculty to the sifting of truth from tradition. Hume, essentially a classicist of the Voltaire and Diderot type, too much despised the barbarous monkish chroniclers to think of consulting them as authorities, or of separating the germ of fact which they envelop in a mass of superstitious and imaginative detail. Moreover, the history of England is essentially the history of the conflict of opinion on religious and political questions; and Hume was indifferent to religion, and a partisan of extreme monarchical opinions in politics. Thus he shows a strong leaning to the Stuart dynasty, and even to the Catholic church as opposed to Protestantism; for he belonged to the aristocratical section of the Scottish people, who were almost uniformly Jacobites, while the middle and lower classes were as ardent supporters of liberal principles. The sceptical and philanthropic reasoner was, by a singular paradox, inclined from personal sympathies to opinions precisely contrary to those which he might have been expected to maintain, and struggles by sophistry to excuse the crimes and follies of the arbitrary Stuarts, while he exhibits an indifference, strange in a man so benevolent by nature, to the sufferings and heroism of those who, in Parliament or on the field of battle, fought the great fight for political and religious freedom.
§ 2. Contemporary with Hume was his countryman WILLIAM ROB
ERTSON (1721-1793), distinguished, like him, by the eloquence of his narrative, by the luminous dissertations on great historical questions introduced into his works, by the picturesque power of delineating characters and events, and also by a singular dignity and purity of style, which is almost free from Scotticisms. His personal career was that of a Presbyterian pastor, and he was highly celebrated for his eloquence in the pulpit. In 1762 he was elected Principal of the University of Edinburgh, where he had received his education, and he exhibited remarkable powers as a speaker and debater in the Scottish General Assembly of Divines. He produced three great historical works, the History of Scotland, enbracing the reigns of the unfortunate Mary and of her son James VI. down to the accession of the latter to the throne of England, the History of the Reign of Charles V., and the History of the Discovery, and first Colonization by the Spaniards, of America. These three productions appeared respectively in 1759, 1769, and 1777.* In all of them we perceive a rich and melodious though somewhat artificial style, great though not always accurate research, and a strong power of vivid and pathetic description. The History of Scotland is perhaps the work most honorable to Robertson's genius, for in the other two the grandeur and dramatic interest of the subject were such that, in the hands even of an inferior author, the reader's curiosity could not but be excited and gratified. Moreover, though many of the general disquisitions prefixed to or introduced in Robertson's history are marked by largeness of view and lucidity of arrangement, his account of many episodes of the life of Charles V., and in particular of his retirement to San Yuste, contains much of the romantic and theatrical inaccuracy which recent investigations have dispelled: and in this work, as well as in the wondrous story of Columbus and the Conquestadors, he either knew not or neglected vast stores of information which would have thrown a very different light upon the characters and events he had to portray. This assertion will be amply proved by comparing Robertson's account of these great events with the more recent labors of Prescott, Motley, and others. In spite of these defects, Robertson's name will always retain an honorable place among the prose-writers and historians of England.
§ 3. But by far the greatest name in English historical literature indeed one of the very foremost names in all historical literature — is that of EDWARD GIBBON (1737-1794). Descended from an ancient family, he was born at Putney near London in 1737, and was the grandson of a merchant of large fortune. His health, during his boyhood and early youth, was exceedingly precarious, and he owed the gradual fortifying of his constitution, and the first development of his intellectual faculties, to the more than maternal care of an aunt, Catherine Porten. His education was at first neglected, but he gradually acquired an insatiable appetite for reading of all kinds, which at length
* Robertson also published, in 1791, an Historical Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Antients had of India; a work of great merit, though now superseded by more recent investigations.
concentrated itself upon historical literature. He passed a short time at Westminster school, and was intrusted to several successive private tutors, but at the early age of fifteen was placed at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he remained only fourteen months, still pursuing his studies in a vague and desultory manner. An ardent fit of controversial reading, and the arguments he found in Pascal and Bossuet, overthrew his attachment to the doctrines of Protestantism, and on his formally embracing the Catholic faith, his father, shocked at such apostasy, sent him to Lausanne, where he was placed under the care of M. Pavillard, an eminent Swiss theologian. The arguments of his tutor so far prevailed as to induce him to re-enter the Protestant Church, though his religious belief from this time forward was little more than a sort of philosophical Deism. In Switzerland, however, he commenced that course of regular and systematic study, which gradually filled his mind with immeasurable stores of sacred and profane learning: and here too his mind acquired that strong sympathy with French modes of thought that make him the least national of all our great authors. While in Switzerland he conceived a passion for Susanne Curchod, afterwards the wife of Necker, and the mother of Madame de Staël; but Gibbon’s sensibility was never very ardent, and he acquiesced, with decent readiness, in the refusal of his father to permit the union. Returning to England, he passed some time in the frivolous pleasures of a young gentleman of fortune; but without relaxing in his intense diligence of study, which he found means to maintain even during the five years he passed in military service as captain of the Hampshire militia. It was at this period that he gave to the world the first-fruits of his pen in the excellent little essay, written in French, on the Study of Literature. Between 1763 and 1765 he travelled over France, Switzerland, and Italy, and while at Rome, in 1764, the first idea of writing the history of the Decline and Fall of the mighty empire first flashed upon his mind. He has given a most striking and picturesque description of the moments of the generation and the completion of his great work. The sudden shock of conception given amid the sunset ruins of the Capitol, “ while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter,” found its picturesque consummation in the “valley of acacias” by the moonlit lake of Geneva in 1787. Gibbon returned to England in 1765, and set strenuously to work on the composition of his history, the first volume of which appeared in the following year, and was received not only with the applause of the learned, but with universal popularity among the fashionable world and the ladies. The praises of Hume found an echo in the gayest and most frivolous circles. At various intervals appeared the successive volumes, each of which excited the admiration and enthusiasm which the grandeur of the work was so calculated to inspire. Gibbon has related the hesitation, and almost terror, with which the immense extent and difficulty of his enterprise at first filled him, and the fastidious care with which he revised and re-revised the opening chapters, the first of which he wrote thrice, and the second twice over,