Journal of the History of Ideas 54 (4):659-673 (1993)

Paul Russell
Lund University
Hume's Treatise of Human Nature was published in the form of three separate books. The first two, "Of the Understanding" and "Of the Pas- sions," were published in London in January 1739 by John Noon. The third, "Of Morals," was published independently in London by Thomas Longman in November 1740.2 The title and subtitles on all three books are the same: A Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt to introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. On the title page of the first two books Hume employs an epigram from Tacitus: Rara temporumfelicitas, ubi sentire, quae velis; & quae sentias, dicere licet. ["Seldom are men blessed with times in which they may think what they like and say what they think."] On the title page of the third book this epigram is replaced by an epigram taken from the ninth book of Lucan's Pharsalia: Durae semper virtutis amator, Quaere quid est virtus, et posce exemplar honesti. ["Thou that to virtue ever wer't inclined, learn what it is, how certainly defin'd, and leave some perfect Rule to guide Mankind."] Given the context and the prominence of these epigrams, it is a curious fact that they have attracted little or no attention or comment from Hume scholars. In this paper I argue that Hume's use of the epigram from Lucan is directly relevant to his use of the epigram from Tacitus. The epigrams flag very clearly the anti-Christian nature of Hume's intentions in the Treatise and his affiliations with and allegiance to an anti-Christian tradition of thought that stretches from Hobbes and Spinoza in the late seventeenth century to a circle of anti-Newtonian radical freethinkers that appeared in Britain in the first part of the eighteenth century. In more general terms these epigrams are a notable and illuminating example of esoteric communication in this context, and they indicate that the Treatise has an important place in the literature of the radical enlightenment.
Keywords David Hume  Scottish Enlightenment  Radical Enlightenment  Atheism  Esoteric Communication  Pantheism  Spinioza  Treatise of Human Nature
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Reprint years 1993
DOI 10.2307/2709828
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