Lessons From a Flawed Genius

Julian Baggini in Persuasion:

David Hume (1711–1776) is justly considered to be one of the greatest philosophers that Western civilization has produced. His legacy, however, is a strange one: The works for which he was most celebrated in his lifetime are now largely ignored, while those that had the smallest impact have fared better over time.

His greatest success while alive was his six-volume History of England (1754-61), which earned him the sobriquet “Tacitus of Scotland” (after the Roman historian), and the geographically and politically incorrect “English Tacitus” from his French admirers. Today, it is his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), which is considered his magnum opus, even though Hume felt it “fell dead-born from the presses.” This reversal would have seemed bizarre to Hume—akin to declaring the minor works of Bob Dylan masterpieces and dismissing albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as juvenilia.

Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (1758) were second only to his histories in popularity in his day. But few are read or taught in universities now.

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