Saturday, January 4, 2014


AM | @HDI1780

"He is a very fine genius" — David Hume

In letter No. 165 (to Adam Smith, 12 April 1759), David Hume mentions Helvétius's De l'Esprit: "It is worth your reading, not for its philosophy, which I do not highly value, but for its agreeable composition." (*) (In the previous letter, to William Roberston, he had called Helvétius "a very fine genius"). Then, as he changes the subject of the letter —to the reception of the Theory of Moral Sentiments— he warns Smith: "...and Phocion, you know, always suspected himself of some blunder, when he was attended with the applause of the populace."

* * *

As it turns out, Hume wasn't loosely quoting from Plutarch, but from ... Helvétius! Here's De l'esprit (II.10): "Il en a tant de fois éprouvé la faiblesse [de l'esprit humain]; au milieu des applaudissemens d'un aréopage, il a tant de fois été tenté, comme Phocion, de se retourner vers son ami pour lui demander s'il n'a pas dit une grande sottise". Thus, when Hume praised the Frenchman's "agreeable composition", he was fully deserving the 'bon mot':

Il ne croyait pas si bien dire! 

In a footnote, the editor of the Letters quotes Helvétius's first missive to Hume (1 April 1759): "Votre nom honore mon livre, et je l'aurois cité plus souvent, si la sévérité du censeur me l'eût permis." (This is the line I had in mind when I wrote about Gibbon & d'Alembert.) In the end, this bagatelle is, I think, quite revealing. It tells us something about censorship and 'auto-censorship', about the importance of éloquence, about how these authors read and quoted each other's works, and even about their attitude towards what we would nowadays call ... populism.

(*) J. Y. Creig. The Letters of David Hume, Vol. 1, 1727-1765 (OUP: 2011).

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