« VorigeDoorgaan »
DAVID HUME was born at Edinburgh in 1711, and died there in 1776. His father was a small Scottish laird of the great Border clan of Home or Hume. His mother was a daughter of Sir David Falconer, President of the College of Justice. She was a woman of singular merit; and being left a widow with several young children, devoted herself to their education. David, the second son, was left with a very slender inheritance, and it was resolved that he should try his fortunes at the law. But this study was distasteful to him, and for a few months he entered the house of a merchant at Bristol. Trade, however, he disliked even more than law, and at twenty-three he resolved to devote his life to philosophy and literature. For the next three years he lived with great frugality in a French country town, where he wrote his Treatise on Human Nature, and then came to London to publish it. At his brother's house in Scotland he heard that it had fallen 'dead-born from the press.' He continued to reside with his brother for some years, and in 1742 published the first part of his Essays, which were received somewhat more favourably. His studious habits were a few years later interrupted by an engagement to serve as secretary to General Sinclair, during that officer's military embassy to Vienna and Turin. Returning to his brother's hospitable house, he published in 1751 the second part of his Essays, and recast the first part. This first part related to the Principles of Morals, and he considered it his best work; but it failed to achieve so high a place in popular esteem as the political discourses which formed the second part.
He now made Edinburgh his head-quarters, and being appointed Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, obtained what he chiefly valued, a great command of books. This led him to historical studies; and in 1754 he published his History of Charles I. But his first trial in this department met with no encouragement; in twelve months only forty-five copies were sold. Notwithstanding, in two years' time he put out a continuation of the History of the Stuarts, from the Death of Charles I to the Revolution of 1688; and this volume had much greater success. Partly by this history, but still more by the Natural History of Religion, which appeared about the same time, he gained a character for irreligion. In the following year he completed his History of England; the House of Tudor furnishing the subject of his next volumes, and the Early Annals being published last in order.
His name had now become famous; and in 1763, when he visited Paris as attached to Lord Hertford's Embassy, he was received by the literary society of that city with extraordinary enthusiasm. Returning to England in 1766, he was appointed Under-Secretary of State by General Conway, brother of Lord Hertford, and served for two or three years in the Home Office. In 1769 he retired for the last time to Edinburgh, in the possession of a handsome income. But in 1775 he was attacked by a lingering disorder, which he bore with unfailing patience and cheerfulness tlll he died in his sixty-fifth year.
The philosophical opinions of this eminent man, especially in their bearing on theological subjects cannot be discussed in this place. The style in which he wrote reflects his character with great exactness: it is simple and luminous; not calculated to raise high admiration or greatly excite the feelings, but seldom failing to win the reader by its singular grace and unaffected
1. Eloquence in Ancient and Modern Times.
It is seldom or never found, when a false taste in poetry or eloquence prevails among any people, that it has been
preferred to a true, upon comparison and reflection. It commonly prevails merely from ignorance of the true, and from the want of perfect models to lead men into a juster apprehension, and more refined relish of those productions of genius. When these appear, they soon unite all suffrages in their favour, and, by their natural and powerful charms, gain over even the most prejudiced to the love and admiration of them. The principles of every passion, and of every sentiment, is in every man; and, when touched properly, they rise to life, and warm the heart, and convey that satisfaction, by which a work of genius is distinguished from the adulterate beauties of a capricious wit and fancy. And, if this observation be true, with regard to all the liberal arts, it must be peculiarly so with regard to eloquence; which, being merely calculated for the public, and for men of the world, cannot, with any pretence of reason, appeal from the people to more refined judges, but must submit to the public verdict without reserve or limitation. Whoever, upon comparison, is deemed by a common audience the greatest orator, ought most certainly to be pronounced such by men of science and erudition. And though an indifferent speaker may triumph for a long time, and be esteemed altogether perfect by the vulgar, who are satisfied with his accomplishments, and know not in what he is defective; yet, whenever the true genius arises, he draws to him the attention of every one, and immediately appears superior to his rival.
Now, to judge by this rule, ancient eloquence, that is, the sublime and passionate, is of a much juster taste than the modern, or the argumentative and rational, and, if properly executed, will always have more command and authority over mankind. We are satisfied with our mediocrity, because we have had no experience of anything better: but
the ancients had experience of both; and upon comparison, gave the preference to that kind of which they have left us such applauded models. For, if I mistake not, our modern eloquence is of the same style or species with that which ancient critics denominated Attic eloquence, that is, calm, elegant, and subtile, which instructed the reason more than affected the passions, and never raised its tone above argument or common discourse. Such was the eloquence of Lysias among the Athenians, and of Calvus among the Romans. These were esteemed in their time; but, when compared with Demosthenes and Cicero, were eclipsed like a taper when set in the rays of a meridian sun. Those latter orators possessed the same elegance, and subtilty, and force of argument with the former; but, what rendered them chiefly admirable, was that pathetic and sublime, which, on proper occasions, they threw into their discourse, and by which they commanded the resolution of their audience.
Of this species of eloquence we have scarcely had any instance in England, at least in our public speakers. In our writers, we have had some instances which have met with great applause, and might assure our ambitious youth of equal or superior glory in attempts for the revival of ancient eloquence. Lord Bolingbroke's productions, with all their defects in argument, method, and precision, contain a force and energy which our orators scarcely ever aim at; though it is evident that such an elevated style has much better grace in a speaker than in a writer, and is assured of more prompt and more astonishing success. It is there seconded by the graces of voice and action: the movements are mutually communicated between the orator and the audience: and the very aspect of a large assembly, attentive to the discourse of one man, must inspire him with a peculiar elevation, sufficient to give a propriety to the strongest figures
and expressions. It is true, there is a great prejudice against set speeches; and a man cannot escape ridicule, who repeats a discourse as a schoolboy does his lesson, and takes no notice of anything that has been advanced in the course of the debate. But where is the necessity of falling into this absurdity? A public speaker must know beforehand the question under debate. He may compose all the arguments, objections, and answers, such as he thinks will be most proper for his discourse. If anything new occur, he may supply it from his own invention; nor will the difference be very apparent between his elaborate and his extemporary compositions. The mind naturally continues with the same impetus or force, which it has acquired by its motion, as a vessel, once impelled by the oars, carries on its course for some time when the original impulse is suspended.—Essay on Eloquence.
2. The Virtues of Cheerfulness and of Magnanimity.
WHOEVER has passed an evening with serious melancholy people, and has observed how suddenly the conversation was animated, and what sprightliness diffused itself over the countenance, discourse, and behaviour of every one, on the accession of a good-humoured, lively companion; such a one will easily allow, that cheerfulness carries great merit with it, and naturally conciliates the good-will of mankind. No quality, indeed, more readily communicates itself to all around; because no one has a greater propensity to display itself in jovial talk and pleasant entertainment. The flame spreads through the whole circle; and the most sullen and morose are often caught by it. That the melancholy hate the merry, even though Horace says it, I have some difficulty to allow; because I have always observed that, where the