Sunday 24 January 2016

#realacademicbios with David Hume

There’s a hashtag trending on Twitter right now of #realacademicbios. It’s pretty cynical and a bit too whiny for my tastes, but some of them are funny. The idea is to come up with an honest and realistic academic bio instead of the usual thing. For example:
It reminds me of David Hume’s short autobiography written a few months before his death in 1776. He sent the piece, titled “My Own Life,” to his friend Adam Smith. His health was deteriorating rapidly and he wanted the bio to be added as a preface to the next (posthumous) edition of his collected works.

The two main threads of Hume’s narrative are (1) his efforts to earn enough money, and (2) his difficulties in achieving much success as a writer.

Like any modern academic, Hume documents the publication of each of his books. But instead of telling us how important his books were, he tells us how badly they sold and how little attention they commanded from other scholars. His first book, the Treatise of Human Nature, “fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” So he tried again, with the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, which “was at first little more successful.” His collected essays performed better, especially when they were lucky enough to be attacked in the press by “Answers by Reverends, and Right Reverends.”

When Hume published his next major work, the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, he was convinced that it was by far his best book. Yet “it came unnoticed and unobserved into the world.” Later he began his huge multi-volume History of England, feeling that now at last he would achieve literary glory and a solid income. But the first volume was greeted with momentary hostility followed by indifference. Hume’s London bookseller “told me, that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five copies of it.”

Still, by the time of his fiftieth birthday his books were bringing in enough income that Hume could live independently. That was his only aim in life, to be able to retire to the quiet and independent life of a writer. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he didn’t want to be indebted to powerful patrons or to generous friends. He worked variously as a tutor, a military secretary, a secretary to an embassy, and a librarian (the latter job was unpaid but gave him access to a lot of books). He lived very frugally and saved as much as he could. He tells us with joy that, after his years in the military, he had saved up “near a thousand pounds,” and that in his last years he was earning a thousand pounds a year – enough money at last for a life of philosophical ease, though no sooner had he begun to enjoy that life than he was struck down by cancer of the bowels, and died.

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