HUME, David. Four Dissertations. I. The Natural History of Religion. II. Of the Passions. III. Of Tragedy. IV. Of the Standard of Taste. London: [William Bowyer] for A. Millar, 1757.

Duodecimo (163 x 95mm), pp. [2 (title, verso blank)], vii (dedication), [1 (blank)], [2 (section-title to ‘Dissertation I’, verso blank)], 240. Ll. C12 and D1 cancellantia, K5-8 cancellanda and excised. Woodcut title vignette, type-ornament headbands and decorations. (Some variable light spotting, small sections excised from margins of title with old repairs on verso, bound without half-title π1.) Contemporary British calf, boards with gilt-ruled borders, skilfully rebacked, gilt morocco lettering-piece. (Offsetting boards onto free endpapers and first and last ll., splitting on hinges, front and rear free endpapers reversed [?when rebacked], boards rubbed and scuffed.) Provenance: 19th-century pressmark on upper pastedown – late-19th-/early-20th-century printed [?lot] ticket on upper pastedown.

First edition. The pieces comprising Four Dissertations were composed when David Hume (1711-1776) was resident in Edinburgh, where he had been elected Keeper of the Library of the Faculty of Advocates and Clerk to the Faculty in 1752. On 12 June 1755 Hume wrote to the publisher Andrew Millar offering him ‘four short Dissertations, which I have kept some years by me in order to polish them as much as possible. One of them is that which [the artist] Allan Ramsay mentioned to you. Another of the Passions; a third of Tragedy; a fourth, some Considerations previous to Geometry & Natural Philosophy. The whole, I think, would make a volume a fourth less than my Enquiry; as nearly as I can calculate: but it wou’d be proper to print it in a larger type, in order to bring it to the same size and price. I wou’d have it publish’d about the new year; I offer you the property for fifty guineas, payable at the publication. You may judge, by my being so moderate in my demands, that I do not propose to make any words about the bargain’ (J.Y.T. Grieg, The Letters of David Hume (Oxford, 2011), I, p. 223). 

The last essay, on ‘Geometry & Natural Philosophy’, was removed on the advice of the mathematician Lord Stanhope and, in order to make good the lacuna, Hume suggested replacing it with two unpublished pieces on suicide and on the immortality of the soul. The volume proceeded to typesetting as a collection of five essays – ‘The Natural History of Religion’, ‘Of the Passions’, ‘Of Tragedy’, ‘Of Suicide’, and ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’ – and a small number of copies were printed and circulated. Very shortly afterwards, however, concerns over the controversial nature of the two new pieces caused the leaves they were printed on (K5-12, and L1-12) to be cancelled, and the two essays were replaced with Hume’s ‘Of the Standard of Taste’. This restructuring of the text was achieved by resetting quire K as an eight-leaf quire bearing the final pages of ‘Of Tragedy’ with some further text on K5-8, and setting a new twelve-leaf quire L bearing ‘Of the Standard of Taste’. The unidentified text on K5-8 evidently troubled the author or the publisher, and it was cancelled by excision, as here (no copies are known to exist with those leaves still present).

Beyond these, the publication of the volume was further complicated by another change – the suppression of the dedication to the author’s friend and kinsman, the minister and dramatist John Home. Home’s tragedy Douglas, which had been staged in Edinburgh on 14 December 1756 attracted the praise of luminaries such as Robert Burns, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Sheridan, but also ‘sparked a religious controversy. Presbyterian opposition to drama was exacerbated by the circumstances: the dramatist was a clergyman and performances were attended by ministers. Charges were brought against [Home’s friend and fellow-minister] Alexander Carlyle, and Thomas White of Liberton was suspended, though with mitigated sentence on his pleading “that he attended the representation only once, and endeavoured to conceal himself in a corner to avoid giving offence”’ (ODNB). 

In his dedication to John Home, dated 3 January 1757, the philosopher wrote that ‘I have the ambition to be the first who shall in public express his admiration of your noble tragedy of Douglas; one of the most interesting and pathetic pieces, that was ever exhibited on any theatre. […] the unfeigned tears which flowed from every eye, in the numerous representations which were made of it on this theatre; the unparalleled command, which you appeared to have over every affection of the human breast: these are incontestible proofs, you possess the true theatric genius of Shakespeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one, and the licentiousness of the other’ (pp. iv-vi). Dismayed by the controversy (and aware that many would seek to use the dedication to harm him), Hume ‘withdrew the dedication […], but cancelled the withdrawal four days later: in the interval 800 copies were sold without it […]. He never reprinted it’ (Jessup). Todd identifies three states of the preliminary quires (with the dedication correctly bound; without the dedication; and with the dedication erroneously inserted before B1), and this copy conforms to his state ‘(a)’, with the dedication (ll. a1-a4) quired within the unsigned bifolium [A]1.2. 

Four Dissertations was published on 7 February 1757 in two forms: the ordinary paper copies (as here) and ‘a few on “superfine Royal Paper”’ (Todd) and it was never reprinted as a separate work. In this copy the typographical error ‘ ative’ is present on p. 9 but that on p. 131 has been corrected to ‘lancing’.ESTC T4011; J. Fieser, A Bibliography of Hume’s Writings and Early Responses14, A, 1 (issue with dedication to John Home); Jessop, Hume, pp. 33-35; Todd, ‘David Hume. A Preliminary Bibliography’, pp. 200-201.


· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

To order this book and learn about the available delivery options, please contact us: enquiries@typeandforme.com. Our Terms & Conditions apply.