Item of the Day: Hume’s Essays (1767)

Full Title:

Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. In Two Volumes. By David Hume, Esq; Vol. I. Containing Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. A New Edition.

Written by David Hume, 1711-1776. Printed in London for A. Millar, in the Strand and in Edinburgh for A. Kincaid and A. Donaldson, 1767.

From Essay XV, “The Epicurean,” pp. 155-158.

‘TIS a great mortification to the vanity of man, that his utmost art and industry can never equal the meanest of nature’s productions, either for beauty or value. Art is only the underworkman, and is employed to give a few strokes of embellishment to those pieces, which come from the hand of the master. Some of the drapery may be of his drawing; but he is not allowed to touch the principal figure. Art may make a suit of clothes: But nature must produce a man.

Even in those productions, which are commonly denominated works of art, we find that the noblest of the kind are beholden for their chief beauty to the force and happy influence of nature. To the Oestrum or native enthusiasm of the poets, we owe whatever is admirable in their productions. The greatest genius, where nature at any time fails him (for she is not equal) throws aside the lyre, and hopes not, from the rules of art, to reach that divine harmony, which must proceed from her inspiration alone. How poor are those songs, where a happy flow of fancy has not furnished materials for art to embellish and refine!

But of all the fruitless attempts of art, no one is so ridiculous, as that which the severe philosophers have undertaken, the producing an artificial happiness, and making us be pleased by rules of reason, and by reflection. Why did none of them claim the reward, which XERXES promised to him, who could invent a new pleasure? Unless, perhaps, they invented so many pleasures for their own use, that they despised riches, and stood in no need of any enjoyments, which the rewards of that monarch could procure them. I am apt, indeed, to think, that they were not willing to furnish the PERSIAN court with a new pleasure, by presenting it with so new and unusual an object of ridicule. Their speculations, when confined to theory, and gravely delivered in the schools of GREECE, might excite admiration in their ignorant pupils: But the attempting to reduce such principles to practice would soon have betrayed their absurdity.

You pretend to make me happy by reson, and by rules of art. You must, then, create me anew by rules of art. For on my original frame and structure does my happiness depend. But you want power to effect this; and skill too, I am afraid: Nor can I entertain a less opinion of nature’s wisdom than of yours. And let her conduct the machine, which she has so wisely framed. I find that I should only spoil it by my tampering.

To what purpose should I pretend to regulate, refine, or invigorate any of those springs or principles, which nature has implanted in me? Is this the road by which I must reach happiness? But happiness implies ease, contentment, repose, and pleasure; not watchfulness, care, and fatigue. The health of my body consists in the facility with which all its operation are performed. The stomach digests the aliments: The heart circulates the blood: The brain separates and refines the spirits: And all this without my concerning myself in the matter. When by my will alone I can stop the blood, as it runs with impetuosity along its canals, then may I hope to change the course of my sentiments and passions. In vain should I strain my faculties, and endeavour to receive pleasure from an object, which is not fitted by nature to affect my organs with delight. I may give myself pain by my fruitless endeavours, but shall never reach any pleasure.

Away then with all those vain pretences of making ourselves happy within ourselves, of feasting on our own thoughts, of being satisfied with the consciousness of well-doing, and of despising all assistance and all supplies from external objects. This is the voice of PRIDE, not of NATURE. And it were well, if even this pride could support itself, and communicate a real inward pleasure, however melancholy or severe. But this impotent pride can do no more than regulate the outside; and with infinite pains and attention compose the language and countenance to a philosophical dignity, in order to deceive the ignorant vulgar. The heart, mean while, is empty of all enjoyment: And the mind, unsupported by its proper objects, sinks into the deepest sorrow and dejection. Miserable, but vain mortal! Thy mind be happy within itself! With what resources is it endowed to fill so immense a void, and supply the place of all thy bodily senses and faculties? Can they head subsist without thy other members? In such a situation,

What foolish figure must it make?

Do nothing else but sleep and ake.
Into such a lethargy, or such a melancholy, must thy mind by plunged, when deprived of foreign occupations and enjoyments.

Keep me, therefore, no longer in this violent constraint. Confine me not within myself; but point out to me those objects and pleasures, which afford the chief enjoyment. But why do I apply to you, proud and ignorant sages, to shew me the road to happiness? Let me consult my own passions and inclinations. In them must I read the dictates of nature; not in your frivolous discourses.

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Filed under 1760's, Philosophy, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

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