Letter from Adam Smith, L.L.D. to William Strahan, Esq.
LETTER FROM ADAM SMITH, LL.D. TO WILLIAM STRAHAN, ESQ.
IT is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour of our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness.
Though, in his own judgment, his disease was mortal and incurable, yet he allowed himself to be prevailed upon, by the entreaty of his friends, to try what might be the effects of a long journey. A few days before he set out, he wrote that account of his own life, which, together with his other papers, he has left to your care. My account, therefore, shall begin where his ends.
He set out for London towards the end of April, and at Morpeth met with Mr. John Home and myself, who had both come down from London on purpose to see him, expecting to have found him at Edinburgh. Mr. Home returned with him, and attended him during the whole of his stay in England, with that care and attention which might be expected from a temper so perfectly friendly and affectionate. As I had written to my mother that she might expect me in Scotland, I was under the necessity of continuing my journey. His disease seemed to yield to exercise and change of air, and when he arrived in London, he was apparently in much better health than when he left Edinburgh. He was advised to go to Bath to drink the waters, which appeared for some time to have so good an effect upon him, that even he himself began to entertain, what he was not apt to do, a better opinion of his own health. His symptoms, however, soon returned with their usual violence, and from that moment he gave up all thoughts of recovery, but submitted with the utmost cheerfulness, and the most perfect complacency and resignation. Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. “I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmondstone,” said Doctor Dundas to him one day, “that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovery.” “Doctor,” said he, “as I believe you would not chuse to tell any thing but the truth, you had better tell him, that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.” Colonel Edmondstone soon afterwards came to see him, and take leave of him; and on his way home, he could not forbear writing him a letter bidding him once more an eternal adieu, and applying to him, as to a dying man, the beautiful French verses in which the Abbé Chaulieu, in expectation of his own death, laments his approaching separation from his friend, the Marquis de la Fare. Mr. Hume’s magnanimity and firmness were such, that his most affectionate friends knew, that they hazarded nothing in talking or writing to him as to a dying man, and that so far from being hurt by this frankness, he was rather pleased and flattered by it. I happened to come into his room while he was reading this letter, which he had just received, and which he immediately showed me. I told him, that though I was sensible how very much he was weakened, and that appearances were in many respects very bad, yet his cheerfulness was still so great, the spirit of life seemed still to be so very strong in him, that I could not help entertaining some faint hopes. He answered, “Your hopes are groundless. An habitual diarrhoea of more than a year’s standing, would be a very bad disease at any age: at my age it is a mortal one. When I lie down in the evening, I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning, weaker than when I lay down in the evening. I am sensible, besides, that some of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die.” “Well,” said I, “if it must be so, you have at least the satisfaction of leaving all your friends, your brother’s family in particular, in great prosperity.” He said that he felt that satisfaction so sensibly, that when he was reading a few days before, Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. “I could not well imagine,” said he, “what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay. I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am now likely to leave them; I, therefore, have all reason to die contented.” He then diverted himself with inventing several jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit the character of Charon to return to them. “Upon further consideration,” said he, “I thought I might say to him,
But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require: it was a subject indeed which occurred pretty frequently, in consequence of the inquiries which his friends, who came to see him, naturally made concerning the state of his health. The conversation which I mentioned above, and which passed on Thursday the 8th of August, was the last, except one, that I ever had with him. He had now become so very weak, that the company of his most intimate friends fatigued him; for his cheerfulness was still so great, his complaisance and social disposition were still so entire, that when any friend was with him, he could not help talking more, and with greater exertion, than suited the weakness of his body. At his own desire, therefore, I agreed to leave Edinburgh, where I was staying partly upon his account, and returned to my mother’s house here, at Kirkaldy, upon condition that he would send for me whenever he wished to see me; the physician who saw him most frequently, Doctor Black, undertaking, in the mean time, to write me occasionally an account of the state of his health.
On the 22d of August, the Doctor wrote me the following letter:
“Since my last, Mr. Hume has passed his time pretty easily, but is much weaker. He sits up, goes down stairs once a day, and amuses himself with reading, but seldom sees any body. He finds that even the conversation of his most intimate friends fatigues and oppresses him; and it is happy that he does not need it, for he is quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing books.”
I received the day after a letter from Mr. Hume himself, of which the following is an extract.
23d August, 1776.
“MY DEAREST FRIEND, I am obliged to make use of my nephew’s hand in writing to you, as I do not rise to-day….
“I go very fast to decline, and last night had a small fever, which I hoped might put a quicker period to this tedious illness, but unluckily it has, in a great measure, gone off. I cannot submit to your coming over here on my account, as it is possible for me to see you so small a part of the day, but Doctor Black can better inform you concerning the degree of strength which may from time to time remain with me. Adieu, &c.”
Three days after I received the following letter from Doctor Black.
Edinburgh, Monday, 26th August, 1776.
“DEAR SIR, Yesterday about four o’clock afternoon, Mr. Hume expired. The near approach of his death became evident in the night between Thursday and Friday, when his disease became excessive, and soon weakened him so much, that he could no longer rise out of his bed. He continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness. I thought it improper to write to bring you over, especially as I heard that he had dictated a letter to you desiring you not to come. When he became very weak, it cost him an effort to speak, and he died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.”
Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.
Most affectionately your’s,
Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Earlier it had been published several times, beginning in 1748, under the title
Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals was first published in 1751. I have drawn this and other information about the various editions of Hume’s writings from two sources: T. E. Jessop,
A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1966), and William B. Todd, “David Hume. A Preliminary Bibliography,” in Todd, ed.,
Hume and the Enlightenment (Edinburgh and Austin: Edinburgh University Press and the Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas, 1974), pp. 189-205.
Treatise were published in 1739; Book III, in 1740.
Dialogues about 1750 but decided to withhold publication during his lifetime. When Adam Smith proved unwilling to take responsibility for the posthumous publication of the
Dialogues, Hume entrusted it to his own publisher, William Strahan, with the provision that the work would be committed to Hume’s nephew David if Strahan failed to publish it within two and one-half years of Hume’s death. When Strahan declined to act, the nephew made arrangements for the publication of the
Dialogues in 1779.
History was published between 1754 and 1762 in six volumes, beginning with the Stuart reigns, then working back to the Tudor and pre-Tudor epochs. A “New Edition, Corrected,” with the six volumes arranged in chronological order, appeared in 1762 under the title
The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Caesar to The Revolution in 1688.
Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. The title of essay 15 was changed to “Of Civil Liberty” in the 1758 edition of
Essays and Treatises.
Three Essays, Moral and Political, contained: (1) “Of National Characters”; (2) “Of the Original Contract”; and (3) “Of Passive Obedience.”
Essays and Treatises incorporated, from a 1757 work entitled
Four Dissertations, the essays “Of Tragedy” and “Of the Standard of Taste” as well as two other works,
The Natural History of Religion and
A Dissertation on the Passions. Two new essays, “Of the Jealousy of Trade” and “Of the Coalition of Parties,” were added late to some copies of the 1758 edition of
Essays and Treatises, then incorporated into the edition of 1760. Finally, Hume prepared still another essay, “Of the Origin of Government,” for the edition that would be published posthumously in 1777.
A Bibliography of David Hume and of Scottish Philosophy, pp. 7-8.
The Moral and Political Philosophy of David Hume (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963); F. A. Hayek, “The Legal and Political Philosophy of David Hume,” in V. C. Chappell, ed.,
Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 335-60; Duncan Forbes,
Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); David Miller,
Philosophy and Ideology in Hume’s Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981); and Donald W. Livingston,
Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
Essential Works of David Hume, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Bantam Books, 1965);
Of the Standard of Taste, And Other Essays, ed. John W. Lenz (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965);
Writings on Economics, ed. Eugene Rotwein (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955);
Political Essays, ed. Charles W. Hendel (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953);
Theory of Politics, ed. Frederick M. Watkins (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1951); and
Hume’s Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. Henry D. Aiken (New York: Hafner, 1948).
A Sketch of the character of Mr. Hume and Diary of a Journey from Morpeth to Bath, 23 April-1 May 1776, ed. David Fate Norton (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1976), p. 8.
Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, admits to being struck by “the suddenness with which his labours in philosophy came to an end” with the publication of the
Treatise (see “History of the Editions,” in
The Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose [New Edition; London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889], 3.75). Grose maintains that Hume “certainly lacked the disposition, and probably the ability,” for constructive philosophy, once the critical or negative task of the
Treatise was completed (ibid., p. 76). Though contrary to what Hume himself says about his mature writings as well as to what other interpreters have said about his abilities, this view was a rather common one at the turn of the century. It helped gain for Hume’s
Treatise the attention that it deserves, but at the same time it discouraged the study of Hume’s other writings, particularly the
Essays, as proper sources for his philosophy.
Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary have not been properly edited, and the best text may still be that in the Green and Grose
Philosophical Works.” See
Fifty Years of Hume Scholarship: A Bibliographical Guide (Edinburgh: University Press, 1978), p. 5.
The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke (Oxford, 1975, in progress).” See
An Apparatus of Variant Readings for Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (Department of Philosophy, University of Sheffield, 1976), p. 34.
Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, proper names and adjectives derived therefrom (e.g., “BRITISH,” “FRENCH”) are printed entirely in capital letters, with the first letter being larger than the rest. Abstract nouns are sometimes printed the same way for emphasis or to indicate divisions in the argument (e.g., “FORCE,” “POWER,” and “PROPERTY” in “Of the First Principles of Government”; “AUTHORITY” and “LIBERTY” in “Of the Origin of Government”). Occasionally, however, words are printed entirely in large capital letters (“GOD”) or entirely in small capitals (e.g., “INTEREST” and “IIGHT” in “Of the First Principles of Government”). It is uncertain to what extent this reflects Hume’s manuscript practice, as distinguished from contemporary book trade convention, but in any event, Hume did have the opportunity to correct what finally went into print. Since these peculiarities of capitalization may be relevant to the interpretation of the text, they have been preserved in the present edition.
Essay provide a very helpful discussion of the techniques and terminology of critical-text editing. Nidditch’s editorial work on some of Hume’s most important writings is also noteworthy. He has revised the texts and added notes to the standard Selby-Bigge editions of the
Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), and the
Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). Nidditch discusses the problems of editing Hume as well as the merits of various editions of Hume’s writings in the aforementioned texts as well as in
An Apparatus of Variant Readings for Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.
Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, and Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 348.
My Own Life, by David Hume
The Life of David Hume, Esq. Written by Himself (London: Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, in the Strand). At the time the autobiography was written, the disorder that would take Hume’s life on August 25, 1776, was already well advanced. To Adam Smith, who had been entrusted with his manuscripts, Hume wrote on May 3: “You will find among my Papers a very inoffensive Piece, called
My own Life, which I composed a few days before I left Edinburgh, when I thought, as did all my Friends, that my life was despaired of. There can be no Objection, that this small piece should be sent to Messrs Strahan and Cadell and the Proprietors of my other Works to be prefixed to any future Edition of them” (in J. Y. T. Greig,
The Letters of David Hume [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932], 2:318). Concerned lest Smith delay the publication of this and other manuscripts, Hume added a codicil to his will, dated August 7, leaving all of his manuscripts to Strahan and giving specific directions as to their publication. Regarding
My own Life, he wrote: “My Account of my own Life, I desire may be prefixed to the first Edition of my Works, printed after my Death, which will probably be the one at present in the Press” (in Greig, 2:453). The 1777 edition of
Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects did not contain the autobiography, but it was added to the first, 1778, posthumous edition of the
History of England. In writing his autobiography, Hume anticipated the keen desire on the public’s part to know, in view of his scepticism about the claims of revealed religion, if he would face death with philosophical tranquillity. It was in the context of the lively public debate following Hume’s death that Adam Smith composed his letter to William Strahan, describing Hume’s tranquil state of mind during his final months and testifying to his strength of character. With the publication of his letter to Strahan, Smith himself now became the target of widespread indignation for his approval of Hume’s manner of death. A decade later he would write: “A single, and as I thought, a very harmless Sheet of paper which I happened to write concerning the death of our late friend, Mr. Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain” (quoted in Ernest Campbell Mossner,
The Life of David Hume [Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1954], p. 605.) The attacks on Hume’s
Life and Smith’s
Letter are discussed by Mossner,
The Life of David Hume, pp. 604-607, 620-622, and by T. H. Grose in the “History of the Editions” that begins the Green and Grose edition of Hume’s
Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889), 1:80-84. Almost all printings of Hume’s
Life and Smith’s
Letter, including that of Green and Grose, have followed the edition of 1777. A reliable version of the 1777 edition can be found in Norman Kemp Smith’s “Second Edition” of Hume’s
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1947; Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, n.d.), pp. 231-48. I have compared the Green and Grose version with that of 1777 and corrected a few errors of wording and punctuation. In the case of Hume’s
Life, the manuscript has been preserved; and it is reprinted in Greig,
Letters, 1:1-7, and in Mossner,
Life of David Hume, pp. 611-15. The first printed version of
My own Life and subsequent printings based upon it differ markedly from Hume’s manuscript version in punctuation, capitalization, and spelling; and there are also some important differences in wording. Hume did not, of course, have the opportunity to correct the printed version. I have noted these differences in wording at appropriate places in the present text.]
Part I, Essay I