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David Hume (1711-1776) is considered one of the most important figures in Western philosophy. The following letter by Hume was originally published in Life and correspondence of David Hume by John Hill Burton in 1846.
"SIR,-- Not being acquainted with this handwriting you will probably look to the bottom to find the subscription and not finding any will certainly wonder at this strange method of addressing to you. I must here in the beginning beg you to excuse it and to persuade you to read what follows with some attention, must tell you, that this gives you an opportunity to do a very good natured action which I believe is the most powerful argument I can use. I need not tell you that I am your countryman, a Scotsman; for without any such tie, I dare rely upon your humanity even to a perfect stranger, such as I am. The favour I beg of you is your advice, and the reason why I address myself in particular to you, need not be told,-- as one must be a skilful physician, a man of letters, of wit, of good sense, and of great humanity, to give me a satisfying answer. I wish fame had pointed out to me more persons, in whom these qualities are united, in order to have kept me some time in suspense. This I say in the sincerity of my heart, and without any intention of making a compliment; for though it may seem necessary, that, in the beginning of so unusual a letter, I should say some fine things, to bespeak your good opinion, and remove any prejudices you may conceive at it, yet such an endeavour to be witty, would ill suit with the present condition of my mind; which, I must confess, is not without anxiety concerning the judgment you will form of me. Trusting, however, to your candour and generosity, I shall, without further preface, proceed to open up to you the present condition of my health, and to do that the more effectually, shall give you a kind of history of my life, after which you will easily learn why I keep my name a secret. "You must know then that, from my earliest infancy, I found always a strong inclination to books and letters. As our college education in Scotland, extending little further than the languages, ends commonly when we are about fourteen or fifteen years of age, I was after that left to my own choice in my reading, and found it incline me almost equally to books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors. Every one who is acquainted either with the philosophers or critics, knows that there is nothing yet established in either of these two sciences, and that they contain little more than endless disputes, even in the most fundamental articles. Upon examination of these, I found a certain boldness of temper growing in me, which was not
and till I had already ruined my health. for that I had fairly got the disease of the learned. which must be overcome by redoubling my application. In this way. the force of the mind meeting with no resistance. There was another particular. studied moderately. I felt no uneasiness or want of spirits. and indeed from any other disease. and I could think of no other way of pushing my fortune in the world. finding in myself nothing of that lowness of spirit. when I was nineteen years of age. leaving off before I was weary. Seneca. and rode eight or ten Scotch miles. but in solitude they serve to little other purpose. about which I consulted a very knowing physician. I fancied myself so far removed from. anti-hysteric pills. which. a symptom. drank an English pint of claret wine every day. which was. and poverty. works it into the soul. This. but that of a scholar and philosopher. yet I was able to make considerable progress in my former designs. he laughed at me and told me I was now a brother. I lived with satisfaction enough. In this condition I remained for nine months. which was the business I designed to follow. After much study and reflection on this. such as Cicero. but without growing any worse. very uneasy to myself. but that my coldness proceeded from a laziness of temper. by which truth might be established. but from a disease to which any one may be subject. yet the knowledge of it set me very much at ease. and shame. except a slight scurvy. which I had noticed a little from the beginning. which those who labour under that distemper so much complain of. and Plutarch. I now began to take some indulgence to myself. and at the same time gave me a warning against the vapours. However upon his advice I went under a course of bitters and. though it was no uneasiness. it was what they call a ptyalism or wateryness in the mouth. Some scurvy spots broke out on my fingers the first winter I fell ill. and on my return to town next winter found my spirits very much recruited. at last. by satisfying me that my former coldness proceeded not from any defect of temper or genius. and being smit with their beautiful representations of virtue and philosophy. so that. and only when I found my spirits at their highest pitch. though they sank under me in the higher flights of genius. appeared nauseous to me. but led me to seek out some new medium. though I was labouring under at that time. that having read many books of morality. more than any thing. "Though I was sorry to find myself engaged with so tedious a distemper. but wasting itself in the air. with an ardour natural to young men. than to waste the spirits. and I could no longer raise my mind to that pitch.inclined to submit to any authority in these subjects. when I was about eighteen years of age. and all the other calamities of life. and trifling away the rest of my time in the best manner I could. like our arm when it misses its aim. as you may well imagine. about April 1730. and therefore never imagined there was any bodily distemper in the case. about the beginning of September. to waste my spirits and bring on me this distemper. till at last. 1729. the novelty of it made me ask advice. and made me. there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought. that I despised his warning. Upon my mentioning it to my physician. I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death. and pain. which contributed. when I laid aside my book. along with my reason and understanding. I was very . because the occasion being presented along with the reflection. which was a miracle. increased considerably. though I was not sensible of it. At last. throw up every other pleasure or business to apply entirely to it. I was infinitely happy in this course of life for some months. These no doubt are exceeding useful. and makes it take a deep impression. when joined with an active life. This I continued for about seven months after. which formerly gave me such excessive pleasure. however. who gave me some medicine that removed these symptoms. Of this he found great difficulty to persuade me. which transported me beyond measure. so that. I did not learn but by experience. I undertook the improvement of my temper and will. The law. all my ardour seemed in a moment to be extinguished.
and so it would had it been done to any purpose. acquiring the Italian. and being before tall. In excuse for my riding. shall explain to you how my mind stood all this time. French. I resolved to make my study. This gave me such hopes. as is ordinary. of being entirely hypothetical. and rather think me a better companion than I was before. I began to consider seriously how I should proceed in my philosophical inquiries. and without staying to ask pardon.regular in my diet and way of life from the beginning. have a very near connexion together. For these reasons. and without any bad gout. and all that winter made it a constant rule to ride twice or thrice-a-week. about May 1731 there grew upon me a very ravenous appetite. lean. and see me at all times. robust. and that little is required to make a man succeed in this study. I sleep well. which I had felt very little of before. but now every body congratulated me upon my thorough recovery. as I ought to do. without regarding human nature. Having now time and leisure to cool my inflamed imagination. I have multiplied to such a degree. This unnatural appetite wore off by degrees. when I returned to the country. “Thus I have given you a full account of the condition of my body. and a good deal of wind in my stomach. I found that the moral philosophy transmitted to us by antiquity laboured under the same inconvenience that has been found in their natural philosophy. and raw-boned. and could renew my exercise with less interruption. which was to nourish me extremely. However. became on a sudden the most sturdy. these symptoms are little or no uneasiness to me. which was to travel eight miles every morning. along with anti-scorbutic juice. I found that I was not able to follow out any train of thought. and as quick a digestion. that most of the philosophers who have gone before us. except in the winter time. but my disease was a cruel encumbrance on me. therefore. I find I have scribbled many a quire of paper. But in this I was much mistaken. and even that degree I feel very seldom. healthfullike fellow you have seen. at least never more than what one of the best health may feel from too full a meal from sitting too near a fire. and the source from which I would derive every truth in criticism as well as morality. however. I passed from the one extreme to the other. had an effect very unusual. and care of my health. cannot observe the least alteration in my humour. with the reading most the celebrated books in Latin. which on every occasion. for next summer. This. in which there is nothing contained my own inventions. I eat well. and was very much surprised to find it bring back a palpitation of heart. and last summer undertook a very laborious task. except abating the symptoms for a little time. as choosing to pass more of my time with them. for so tedious a story. but without any considerable effect. you may think a sufficient business for one in perfect health. which comes away easily. so that in six weeks' time. and English. that within three years. especially in this distemper. and as many in the forenoon. that I would perfectly recover. This. and by refreshing my eye from time to time upon other objects. have been overthrown by the greatness of their genius. and depending more upon invention than experience: every one consulted his fancy in erecting schemes of virtue and of happiness. than to throw off all prejudices either for his own or for those of others. I renewed the bitter and anti-hysteric pills twice. with a ruddy complexion and a cheerful countenance. which I at first took for a good symptom. I always said that I was afraid of consumption. but by repeated interruptions. I believe it is a certain fact. by one continued stretch of view. that I scarce ever missed a day's riding. I expected. last spring. Those who live in the same family with me. to and from a mineral well of some reputation. and walk every day. but left me as a legacy the same palpitation of the heart in a small degree. This appetite. have no lowness of spirits. . upon which every moral conclusion must depend. and never almost in the morning or forenoon. which was readily believed from my looks. At least this is all I to depend on for the truth of my reasonings.
It is a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me. to lay them aside for some time. I found. As this kind of devotion depends entirely on the force of passion. was. because not being persons of great learning beyond their own profession. I had no hopes of delivering my opinions with such elegance and neatness. from a bashful temper. with a resolution to forget myself. with little or no share of the good. I found my choice confined to two kinds of life. and had not confidence and knowledge enough of the world to push my fortune. and from a narrow fortune. however just sentiments they may be esteemed. till I leave this behind me. besides that it is in some respects an idle life. as far as is possible. and that their rapturous admirations might discompose the fabric of the nerves and brain. except in those who are possessed of them. and consequently of the animal spirits. and though I could not quit my pretensions in learning but with my last breath. my only security was in peevish reflections on the vanity of the world and of all human glory. . and that my whole time was spent betwixt the bad. I am just now hastening thither. I began to rouse up myself. so as to contemplate its minutest parts. "As I am come to London in my way to Bristol. which frequently returns and some of them. I found.-. To keep myself from being melancholy on so dismal a prospect. as betwixt vapours and madness. they mention a coldness and desertion of the spirit. and having got recommendation to a considerable trader in Bristol. to get your advice. as to draw to me the attention of the world. or to be serviceable in that way. All the physicians I have consulted. and every thing that is past. I had been little accustomed to general companies. I have not come out of the cloud so well as they commonly tell us they have done. unfit for me. study and idleness. so as to copy these parts in order . and there seems to be as great a difference betwixt my distemper and common vapours. or rather began to despair of ever recovering. in that course of life. as well as by the assurances of my physicians. nor were my spirits equal to so severe an employment. so there are two things very good. I began to think of something more effectual than I had hitherto tried. Here lay my greatest calamity. if possible. nearer to him. and that of a merchant. that of a travelling governor. Being sensible that all my philosophy would never make me contented in my present situation. but in reducing these to words. have been tormented with it many years. and to toss about the world. For this reason I resolved to seek out a more active life. and being encouraged by instances of recovery from worse degrees of this distemper. I have resolved. from the one pole to the other. "However this may be. that as there are two things very bad for this distemper. which. at the beginning. I have noticed in the writings of the French mystics. Upon examination. that when they give a history of the situation of their souls. and I would rather live and die in obscurity than produce them maimed and imperfect. they were unacquainted with these motions of the mind.this I found impracticable for me. to engage myself. and that warmth or enthusiasm which is inseparable from them. "Such a miserable disappointment I scarce ever remember to have heard of. when one must bring the idea he comprehended in gross. though I should take this absurd method of procuring it. The small distance betwixt me and perfect health makes me the more uneasy in my present situation. in order the more effectually to resume them. business and diversion. and that because from a sedentary and retired way of living. I have found can never be sincere. though very able. The first.Yet with this inconvenience I have collected the rude materials for many volumes. could never enter into my distemper. as much as profound reflections. I have often thought that their case and mine were pretty parallel. and in those of our fanatics here. I therefore fixed my choice upon a merchant. and keep it steadily in his eye.
and I was determined to have somebody's opinion. incident to so lingering a distemper. among all those scholars you have been acquainted with. so as to endure the fatigue of deep and abstruse thinking? Whether I have taken a right way to recover? I believe all proper medicines have been used. you have ever known any affected in this manner? Whether I can ever hope for a recovery? Whether I must long wait for it? Whether my recovery will ever be perfect. perhaps. The questions I would humbly propose to you are: Whether. have been too particular. or rather. I hope I have been particular enough in describing the symptoms to allow you to form a judgment. and therefore I need mention nothing of them." . and my spirits regain their former spring and vigour.Your fame pointed you out as the properest person to resolve my doubts. which I could rest upon in all the varieties of fears and hopes. to delight in complaining and talking of itself. But you know it is a symptom of this distemper.
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