David Hume, by J. Y. T. Greig

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His duties as Librarian cannot have been very onerous. He did the necessary jobs, or some of them: he ordered new books, and now and then took a turn behind the issue desk. But he probably considered that a salary of £40 a year measured the services he ought to render; and after less than three years, having fallen foul of the Curators, he declined to pocket even the £40, handing the whole sum over to the blind poet, Blacklock, and installing him, despite his blindness, as assistant.

He already had at least one assistant, Watty Goodall, whom he had taken over from the previous Librarian. What precisely Watty did, and who paid him for it, are alike mysteries I cannot solve. The Faculty allowed him £5 a year. But that would scarcely buy his drinks. For Watty, so the legend goes, could seldom be discovered sober. Nevertheless he wrote the first defence of Mary Stuart, and so started that interminable controversy on the question of the Casket Letters and the murder at the Kirk o’ Field.

One day David came upon the drunken Watty in the library, fast asleep, his head resting on his table; and he crept up to him and shouted in his ear: “Queen Mary was a whore.”

Watty started up, half awake (or whole drunk), seized David by the throat and nearly throttled him, shouting: “Ye’re a bawdy Presbyterian minister, wha’s come to murder the reputation o’ a sainted queen. Ye’re a’ the same, you Presbyterians. Your predecessors told a wheen lies aboot her to that bitch Elizabeth, and helped to murder her; and noo …”

David, before he died, was called many names; but this, one fancies, was the only time that “Presbyterian” and “minister” were hurled at him.

Editor’s Comments

When I started assembling the initial set of lists for this site, I googled a number of phrases such as “lost masterpiece,” “forgotten classic,” and “neglected work” in hopes of finding a few relevant needles in the Internet’s haystack. The last phrase led me to Adam Potkay’s selected bibliography on David Hume, which had the following to say about J.Y.T. Greig’s biography of Hume: “A literate, witty, and unjustly neglected work. As an instructive contrast to Mossner’s serene and saintly Hume, Greig offers us a more feisty and pugnacious character.” “Literate, witty, and unjustly neglected”–it sounded like a perfect candidate.

A little more searching revealed that the book won the 1931 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography. That cinched it. I located a copy on AddAll and ordered it.

From the very first page, it’s quite apparent that this is a style of biography no longer written. Today, it is taken for granted that a serious biography demands the writer don an impersonal, objective voice. The word “I” shall not appear outside of quoted material. Greig, on the other hand, often inserts himself into the text. He does so out of candor, not vanity.

At times, it is to admit gaps in his own research or knowledge: “But why February, not September or October, as the date for signing [the Matriculation Book of Edinburgh College, which Hume attended]? I have no idea.” In other cases, it’s to mark his opinions with an honest copyright:

A noisy, primitive, confused and very casual mode of education, we should deem it now. It had little system and still less equipment. The teacher kept is going by a deal of flogging, cruelty and hard driving of his often half-starved and shivering pupils; he assumed, as his religion taught him, that a boy is naturally wicked and must therefore be dragooned to virtue. But with all its faults of theory and practice it had certain admirable qualities: it was homely, human, un-mechanical; it treated boys as persons, not as units in a system. I cannot lay my hand upon my heart and swear I think our present methods overwhelmingly superior.

Greig also recognizes that his readership might include both serious students of philosophy and amateurs simply interested in a good tale of a noteworthy life. Thus, he advises at the very start: “Readers who do not take an interest in philosophy as such will be well advised to skip the first chapter. The biography of David Hume opens with the second.”

Indeed, Greig manages to craft an account that is just as full and diverse as Hume’s life itself. As Hume spent much of his life jousting with the conservative side of the Scottish Kirk (church), Greig takes care to help the reader understand the church, “its discipline, its forms of worship, and its doctrines” in a remarkable set-piece early in the book. He describes a typical Sunday for the Hume family in precise detail, concluding,

So ends the holy Sabbath. It has been a day devoid of beauty, liberty and joy. The kirk, twice visited, was bare, ugly, mean, dirty and dilapidated; no instrument of music has been heard in it; the singing has been half-hearted and lugubrious; no liturgy, composed with loving care by men sensitive to the cadences of speech, has charmed the ear; the unwritten sermons and extempore addresses to the Deity have lacked every grace except vigour. Every moment of the day had been controlled, every free movement of the children’s minds and bodies checked and thwarted: to run, hop, whistle, sing, laugh, throw a stone, cut a stick, or even walk a hundred years except to kirk and back again–these have been repressed as sins…. Need we wonder at the bitterness with which David Hume afterwards assailed Puritan and Presbyterian “enthusiasts?”

Greig gives the church a healthy number of knocks for its strident practices and positions, but he acknowledges its suitability for the majority of its followers. Reviewing the reformist trends that began to emerge in the mid-1700s, he writes,

The Moderates of the XVIIIth century, like their successors, the would-be Moderates of the XXth, offered a religion that was cool, respectable and decked out to look extremely rational. But it did not give the Scotsman what he wanted. In Scotland, those who want religion want it hot, and those who do not want it hot do not want religion. The absurd but quite effective compromises of the English are abhorrent to the Scottish mind.

By now, it should be clear that Greig’s opinions offer some of the finest fare in the book. Hume turned Scotland on its ear with his hearty disbelief, and confounded many with his affectionate embrace of the outcast. In much the same way, Greig injects a measure of humor into his accounts of many of the controversies of the time:

… the Select Society, momentarily off its head, published a scheme to suppress the Scots dialect and accent, and to teach Scotsmen how to speak like Cockneys or like Oxford dons. Happily the Scots people overwhelmed the whole affair with ridicule.
   As Hume’s biographer, I am happy to report that he escaped participating in this folly, being in London at the time. Otherwise he might, I fear, have shown himself as crazy as his friends.

Greig is also willing to take Hume himself to task on occasion. His harshest criticism deals with Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. In his original manuscript, Hume deftly dispenses with those who would personify God:

It is an absurdity to believe that the Deity has human passions, and one of the lowest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause. It is an inconsistency to believe that, since the Deity has this human passion, he has not others also; and, in particular a disregard to the opinions of creatures so much inferior.

After talking it over with his friends Adam Smith and Gilbert Elliott, though, Hume had second thoughts and altered the text to end, in Greig’s words, “on a note of sham piety.” “That, at least,” he continues, “is my conjecture; and if I am right, it represents the weakest action of his whole career.”

Hume’s composure in the face of his imminent death (apparently from cancer of the colon) has been written of eloquently by James Boswell and Adam Smith. Boswell was so unsettled by Hume’s calm declaration of his disbelief in immortality that he had to console himself with a wench afterward. Greig, however, offers an interesting psychological take on Hume’s attitude towards his death:

The equanimity and fortitude with which David Hume faced death, when he saw it imminent, is worthy of all praise. But the supposition that his philosophical indifference was attained suddenly, and with private struggles, is improbable and needless. David may have been a brave man–as I think he was–but was not more exempt than Dr Johnson from instinctive fears common to the whole human race. He conquered his instinctive fear of death. All honour to him. But he did not do it in a week or month; and the symptoms of his quiet struggles with himself in the few years before 1776 is that he attempted to persuade himself that nothing was amiss with him.

Greig edited the first comprehensive edition of Hume’s letters, and his text is speckled with excerpts of these and those of many of Hume’s contemporaries. It’s a mark of Greig’s accomplishment, though, that even these nuggets from the greatest of all letter-writing centuries often come as unwelcome interruptions from the flow of his own lively and irreverent prose. Rarely have a subject and a biographer complemented each other so well.

Other Comments

Wallace Brockway, Bookman, November 1932

Hume’s present biographer, who obviously admits humanity as a sufficient reason for the reconciliation of such disparate qualities and attributes, leaves a splendid, all-dimensional portrait of the great materialist.

The Christian Science Monitor, 24 December 1932

Mr. Greig’s work is excellent in almost every respect; it is learned without ostentation, and lively without being facetious.

Percy Hutchinson, New York Times, 8 January 1933

An excellent life…. The Scotsman, Hume, is vividly set forth in his many sturdy qualities; and as the biographer has the keenest appreciation of Hume’s dry, frequently mordant Scotch wit, the biography is at times also lively in the extreme.

Find a Copy

David Hume, by J.Y.T. Greig
London: Jonathan Cape, 1931

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