David Hume (1711–1776) is a towering and intriguing figure. He was the preeminent philosopher in what is now called the Scottish Enlightenment, a time that was “crowded with genius” and in a place regarded as the rebirth of the golden era of Athens. His writing displayed an astonishing range, addressing everything from metaphysics to politics, and in subject after subject he produced fresh, novel, and brilliant insights.
Hume was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father died when Hume was only two years old, and he was raised by his mother, Katherine, an advocate (or lawyer). Hume matriculated at the University of Edinburgh at the tender age of 10, pursuing the then-standard course of study of Greek, Latin, metaphysics, and “natural philosophy” or natural science. Until he was 22, he engaged in independent study, reading widely in history, literature, philosophy, law, and theology.
Hume wanted to devote himself to reading and writing literature and philosophy. His resources were “very slender,” however, so he traveled to France and resolved to live as frugally as possible so that he could maintain his independence and dedicate his life to “the improvement of my talents in literature.” During his time there, and by this time in his late twenties, he wrote what is now considered one of the great texts in Western philosophy, his Treatise of Human Nature, which was published in two parts in 1739 and in 1740. The Treatise offered an account of human psychology, of causation and the limits of human knowledge, and of the origins and nature of moral judgments. He went on to produce penetrating insights on topics in political economy such as debt, interest, trade, and the origins and limits of political obedience, along with insights on many other areas ranging from aesthetics to religion. This book focuses on a handful of his central contributions with an emphasis on political economy, in particular his conception and defense of commercial society and of the role government should play in protecting it.
To his regret, Hume never married and had no children, and he was twice denied university professorships because of his religious “scepticism.” He included among his friends Adam Smith and many other luminaries of his time, but it was and is through his writings that his brilliance, his insight, his wit, his curiosity, and his joy emanate.