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Hume's interest in religion, natural or revealed, as a suitable subject for philosophical inquiry, appeared, according to his own account, at a very early age. His interest in the dialogue form cannot be precisely dated, but as early as 1743 he was reading dialogues on religious subjects. In a postscript to a letter of 30 June to William Mure of Caldwell, he stated, 'I have frequently in Edinburgh enquir'd for the Dialogues on Devotion publish'd at Glasgow some time ago; but coud not find them. If you have a Copy send it me, & I shall restore it with the first Occasion. It may be a means of my Conversion.'1

By 1748, he was ready to try his hand at a dialogue on natural religion when he published his Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding. The eleventh section of this book, entitled 'Of the Practical Consequences of Natural Religion', is in the form of a dialogue; Hume purports to have argued with a sceptical friend about the efficacy of the argument from design. In the second edition of the work, in 1750, Hume changed the title of this section to 'Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State'. The later title is misleading, and it is worth noting that Hume felt constrained to camouflage his conclusions both by adopting the dialogue form in order to attribute sceptical, if not heterodox, observations to 'a friend' and by later changing the ostensible subject of that section.

By 1751, Hume's interest in the dialogue form was even more emphatic. He was preparing for publication his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which appeared in December of that year; the final portion of this work is 'A Dialogue'. In this instance Hume brings the advantages of the dialogue form to bear upon the pg 106question of moral relativity. Yet in February, he had asked Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto to examine this work, saying of it, 'I have scarcely wrote any thing more whimsical, or whose Merit I am more diffident of' (Letters, i. 145).

A month later, on 10 March 1751, his diffidence had completely disappeared. Once more asking Elliot for his advice and opinion, he makes the first known reference to the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion: 'You wou'd perceive by the Sample I have given you, that I make Cleanthes the Hero of the Dialogue. Whatever you can think of, to strengthen that Side of the Argument, will be most acceptable to me' (Letters, i. 153–4). Elliot drafted a long reply, but whether he sent it to Hume or not is unknown.2

It is difficult to guess how much of the Dialogues was completed when Hume wrote this letter. The draft of Elliot's reply does not refer to anything beyond Part III. Kemp Smith suggested that Hume had completed only a portion of the work and perhaps nothing beyond Part IV. That Hume sent Elliot only a 'Sample' would indicate that he was actively working on the Dialogues, but he must also have been composing the long essay, 'A Natural History of Religion', which was published in 1757, at about the same time. Certain similarities in example and word choice imply a similar time of composition, but these similarities occur in the early sections of the Dialogues. Hume may have temporarily abandoned the Dialogues for another project.

In January 1753, Hume wrote to John Clephane, 'As there is no happiness without occupation, I have begun a work which will employ me several years, and which yields me much satisfaction. Tis a History of Britain, from the Union of the Crowns to the present time. I have already finished the reign of King James' (Letters, i. 170). This work would and did in fact keep Hume occupied for several years, and it is unlikely that he gave much time to the Dialogues. Upon the completion of the History of England in early 1762, Hume would have been able to return to the Dialogues. Though he mentions the work to his friends, he gives no specific pg 107indication that he is writing: 'I am engag'd in no work at present' he wrote to Elliot on 12 March 1763, 'But if I tire of Idleness, or more properly speaking, of reading for Amusement, I may probably continue my History.' Referring to the Dialogues, Hume adds, 'Is it not hard & tyrannical in you, more tyrannical than any Act of the Stuarts, not to allow me to publish my Dialogues? Pray, do you not think that a proper Dedication may atone for what is exceptional in them?' (New Letters, p. 71). Hume even had in mind a potential dedicatee: The Revd. Hugh Blair. In October 1763, just over a year after Blair had been appointed the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in the University of Edinburgh, Hume wrote, with tongue firmly in cheek, 'I have no present thoughts of publishing the work you mention; but when I do, I hope you have no objection of my dedicating it to you' (New Letters, p. 72).

Blair, like others Hume consulted, did not think the Dialogues should be published. Hume's letter had been in response to one Blair had written him on 29 September 1763, when Hume was on his way to France. Blair notes that Hume was regarded by the philosophes as being insufficiently heterodox on the subject of natural religion, an oversight easily rectified: 'I am well informed, in several Poker Clubs in Paris your Statue would have been erected. If you will show them the MSS of certain Dialogues perhaps that honour may still be done you. But for Gods sake let that be a posthumous work, if ever it shall see the light: Tho' I really think it had better not' (R.S.E., iii. 51; cited in New Letters, pp. 72 n.–73 n.). Blair's advice prevailed. Though Hume was definitely canvassing his friends and fellow authors during the period 1751– 63 for advice and help on the Dialogues, he was actively engaged in so many other literary projects that he could forgo the publication of the Dialogues. There is no further mention of the work in Hume's correspondence until 1776. It is unlikely that he had forgotten it, even if Blair, Elliot, and others would have preferred to have it drop forever from sight.

Perhaps with an awareness of his approaching death, Hume prepared his Will in January 1776. It contains the following provision:

pg 108To my friend Dr Adam Smith, late Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow, I leave all my manuscripts without exception, desiring him to publish my Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which are comprehended in this present bequest; but to publish no other papers which he suspects not to have been written within these five years, but to destroy them all at his leisure. And I even leave him full power over all my papers, except the Dialogues above mentioned; and though I can trust to that intimate and sincere friendship, which has ever subsisted between us, for his faithful execution of this part of my will, yet, as a small recompense of his pains in correcting and publishing this work, I leave him two hundred pounds, to be paid immediately after the publication of it. (Letters, ii. 317 n.)

Adam Smith was not very happy with this responsibility and wrote to Hume about it. While Hume was travelling to Bath to take the waters for his ultimately fatal illness, he met Smith in Morpeth, on 23 April 1776. During this meeting, Smith apparently apprised Hume of his misgivings about being constrained to publish the Dialogues after Hume's death. To comply with Smith's request to publish the work at his discretion, Hume sent him an 'Ostensible' letter from London on 3 May, stating:

My dear Sir

After reflecting more maturely on that Article of my Will by which I left you the Disposal of all my Papers, with a Request that you shou'd publish my Dialogues concerning natural Religion, I have become sensible, that, both on account of the Nature of the Work, and of your Situation, it may be improper to hurry on that Publication. I therefore take the present Opportunity of qualifying that friendly Request: I am content, to leave it entirely to your Discretion at what time you will publish that Piece, or whether you will publish it at all. You will find among my Papers a very inoffensive Piece, called My own Life, which I composed a few days before I left Edinburgh, when I thought, as did all my Friends, that my Life was despaired of. There can be no Objection, that this small piece shoud be sent to Messrs Strahan and Cadell and the Proprietors of my other Works to be prefixed to any future Edition of them. (Letters, ii. 317–18.)

Hume's qualification is carefully worded. It does not enjoin Smith absolutely to publish the Dialogues, and Smith's 'Discretion' is to pg 109be exercised only in deciding if he, Smith, wishes to publish the work. If Smith should choose not to publish it, Hume's qualification leaves the field open for someone else to publish the Dialogues.

In a more familiar letter of the same date, addressed to 'My dear Friend', Hume tried to convince Smith that he was being unduly circumspect about accepting responsibility for publication of the Dialogues:

I send you enclosed an ostensible Letter, conformably to your Desire. I think, however, your Scruples groundless. Was Mallet any wise hurt by his Publication of Lord Bolingbroke? He received an Office afterwards from the present King and Lord Bute, the most prudish Men in the World; and he always justify'd himself by his sacred Regard to the Will of a dead Friend. At the same time, I own, that your Scruples have a specious Appearance. But my Opinion is, that, if, upon my Death, you determine never to publish these papers, you shoud leave them, seal'd up with my Brother and Family, with some Inscription, that you reserve to Yourself the Power of reclaiming them, whenever you think proper. If I live a few Years longer, I shall publish them myself. I consider an Observation of Rochefoucault, that a Wind, though it extinguishes a Candle, blows up a fire. (Letters, ii. 316.)

Hume was not convinced that the unhappy Smith would observe his wishes about publishing, and while in Bath began to make other plans. Just over a month later, on 8 June 1776, he wrote to William Strahan, his printer:

I am also to speak to you of another Work more important: Some Years ago, I composed a piece, which woud make a small Volume in Twelves. I call it Dialogues on natural Religion: Some of my Friends flatter me, that it is the best thing I ever wrote. I have hitherto forborne to publish it, because I was of late desirous to live quietly, and keep remote from all Clamour: For though it be not more exceptionable than some things I had formerly published; yet you know some of these were thought very exceptionable; and in prudence, perhaps, I ought to have suppressed them. I there introduce a Sceptic, who is indeed refuted, and at last gives up the Argument, nay confesses that he was only amusing himself by all his Cavils; yet before he is silenced, he advances several Topics, which will give pg 110Umbrage, and will be deemed very bold and free, as well as much out of the Common Road. As soon as I arrive at Edinburgh, I intend to print a small Edition of 500, of which I may give away about 100 in Presents; and shall make you a Present of the Remainder, together with the literary Property of the whole, provided you have no Scruple, in your present Situation, of being the Editor: It is not necessary you shoud prefix your Name to the Title Page. I seriously declare, that after Mr Millar and You and Mr Cadell have publickly avowed your Publication of the Enquiry concerning human Understanding, I know no Reason why you shoud have the least Scruple with regard to these Dialogues. They will be much less obnoxious to the Law, and not more exposed to popular Clamour. Whatever your Resolution be, I beg you wou'd keep an entire Silence on this Subject. If I leave them to you by Will, your executing the Desire of a dead Friend, will render the publication still more excusable. Mallet never sufferd any thing by being the Editor of Bolingbroke's Works. (Letters, ii. 323–4.)

This letter was written the day before Hume found out the true state of his health. He learned on the next day, as is revealed in a letter to his brother,3 that his illness was mortal. Knowing this, he must have begun to make yet further provision for the eventual publication of the Dialogues.

A month after he had returned to Edinburgh, he revoked the provision in his Will that left open the question of what would happen should Smith decide against publication. On 7 August, eighteen days before his death, he made the following Codicil to his Will:

In my later Will and Disposition I made some Destinations with regard to my Manuscripts: All these I now retract; and leave my Manuscripts to the Care of Mr William Strahan of London, Member of Parliament: Trusting to the Friendship that has long subsisted between us for his careful and faithful Execution of my Intentions. I desire, that my Dialogues concerning Natural Religion may be printed and published any time within two Years after my Death; to which, he may add, if he thinks proper, the two Essays formerly printed but not published… . I also ordain, that if my Dialogues pg 111from whatever Cause, be not published within two Years and a half after my Death, as also the Account of my Life, the Property shall return to my Nephew, David, whose Duty, in publishing them as the last Request of his Uncle, must be approved of by all the World. (R.S.E., ix. 24.)

The rebuke implied in this codicil must have given Hume some uneasiness, as he wrote to Smith on 15 August a further letter about the Dialogues. At the same time, he had taken the opportunity to see that the one extant copy of the manuscript did not run the risk of accidental disappearance:

I have orderd a new Copy of my Dialogues to be made besides that which will be sent to Mr Strahan, and to be kept by my Nephew. If you will permit me, I shall order a third Copy to be made, and consignd to you. It will bind you to nothing, but will serve as a Security. On revising them (which I have not done these 15 Years) I find that nothing can be more cautiously and more artfully written. You had certainly forgotten them. Will you permit me to leave you the Property of the Copy, in case they shoud not be published in five Years after my Decease? Be so good as to write me an answer soon. My State of Health does not permit me to wait Months for it. (Letters, ii. 334.)

Smith's answer to Hume was delayed because the letter was sent by carrier and not by post and lay in the carrier's quarters for eight days. In his reply, Smith is content to accept whatever Hume thinks fit, adding that Hume 'should not menace Strahan with the loss of anything in case he does not publish your work within a certain time' (R.S.E., vii. 39). In proof of Strahan's willingness to publish the work, he enclosed a letter from Strahan, adding at the same time that he wishes to append a few words as a postscript to Hume's autobiography.

The letter to which Smith refers is probably one of 10 June 1776 in which Strahan, after noting how Hume is bearing his poor health with 'Magnanimity and Resignation' adds, 'Some Particulars he has communicated, and some Directions he has given about his Works, in case of his Death, which shall be duly attended to and religiously observed. You already know all, so I need not say more of this to you till I see you. My Instructions are to keep pg 112an entire Silence upon the Subject to every body else' (R.S.E., viii. 48). This letter was written before Hume's of 12 June from Bath, in which Hume expressed his obligation to Strahan and gave him the property of his manuscripts. Thus, it would appear at this stage that Hume was relatively satisfied that Strahan would publish or at least print the Dialogues but later was revising his decision virtually to the moment before his death. Hume's last extant letter, to Adam Smith, leaves open various possibilities:

There is No Man in whom I have a greater Confidence than Mr Strahan, yet have I left the property of that Manuscript to my Nephew David in case by any accident it should not be published within three years after my decease. The only accident I could forsee, was one to Mr Strahans Life, and without this clause My Nephew would have had no right to publish it. Be so good as to inform Mr Strahan of this Circumstance. (Letters, ii. 335–6.)

This letter is in the holograph of Hume's nephew, Hume being too ill to write himself.

The close relationship that Hume developed with his brother, John, and the rest of his family doubtless played an important role in securing the eventual publication of the Dialogues. Of David's religious inclinations and general character, his brother is alleged to have said, 'My brother Davie is a good enough sort of man, but rather narrow minded.'4 Whatever his opinion of his brother's scepticism, he was nevertheless as solicitous of Hume's literary reputation and his last work as David himself had been. Barely a week after Hume's death, John Home wrote to Adam Smith, on 2 September, about My own Life and the Dialogues:

The Copys of the Dialogues are finished and of the life, and will be sent to Mr Strahan to morrow; and I will mention to him your intention of adding to the last, something to finish so valuable a life, and will leave you at liberty, to look into the correction of the first, as it either answers your leisure, or ideas with regard to the composition, or what effects you think it may have with regard to your self. The two copys intended for you, will be left with my sister, when you please to require them… . (R.S.E., viii. 17.)

pg 113If John Home kept the original holograph of the Dialogues, and it seems highly likely that he did, there would have been in addition to Smith's two copies the one for Strahan. Hume's family were also taking no chances that the manuscript might be lost or forgotten.

John Home had been in touch with Strahan very soon after Hume's death. Apparently he had asked Strahan whether he intended to carry out Hume's request to publish the Dialogues. Strahan's reply, dated 9 September 1776, is as emphatic in its assurances to the brother as if he had been writing to the philosopher:

If your deceased Brother, and my most worthy Friend, whose Loss I shall sincerely lament as long as I live, shewed you the Letters that lately passed between us relating to his MSS., or if he left them behind him, you will see that I there promise to fulfill his Intentions most exactly; a Promise I shall most assuredly perform. I see no Sort of Objection to their Publication this ensuing Winter; but it is unnecessary to come to any fixed Resolution about them till I return to Town, and till I see Mr. Adam Smith, whose Addition to the Life will, I doubt not, be a very proper one; for he knew him well, and loved him much. (R.S.E., viii. 43.)

At this stage, of course, the various parties were interested in publishing both My own Life and the Dialogues, and Strahan concentrated his immediate attention on the former. It is one of the ironies surrounding the posthumous publications of Hume's writings that the zealots took far more umbrage with Adam Smith for his addition to My own Life than they raised about the publication of the Dialogues; yet Smith's apprehensions about the effect of the Dialogues was greater than his awareness of the stir his eulogy would provoke.

Three weeks after Hume's death, most of Edinburgh seems to have been aware of the gossip about Hume's literary property, if we are to judge from the various printed reports and private letters. For example, one W.G., writing to the young Dugald Stewart, on 15 September 1776, reports:

You must have heard long before this time of David Hume's death. He was sensible to the last, & died with the greatest compusure. pg 114He has left Memoirs of his own life and Dialogues on Natural Religion, which he desired to be published. I have heard that he once had left them to Adam Smith for that purpose, but that Mr. Smith had refused to have any concern in the matter.5

The allusion to Smith's refusal is clearly to the Dialogues, since Smith was very emphatic about the addition he wanted to make to My own Life. He even submitted his original draft to Hume's brother for suggestions and emendations.6

It is not difficult to suspect that Hume perceived his friend's reluctance to have anything to do with publishing the Dialogues. Were there any doubts at all on this matter, Smith extinguished them in a letter he wrote to Strahan about the middle of September. A surviving rough draft of the letter leaves no doubt that he would never have given his imprimatur:

By a codicil to the will of our late most valuable friend Mr Hume the care of his manuscripts is left to you. Both from his will and from his conversation I understand that there are only two which he meant should be published, an account of his own life, and, Dialogues concerning natural religion. The latter, tho' finely written, I could have wished had remained in manuscript to be communicated only to a few people. When you read the work, you will see my reasons without my giving you the trouble of reading them in a Letter. But he has ordered it otherwise. In case of their not being published within three years after his decease he has left the property of them to his Nephew. Upon my objecting to this clause as unnecessary and improper, he wrote to me by his Nephews hand in the following terms. 'There is no man in whom I have a greater confidence than Mr Strahan; yet have I left the property of that Manuscript to my Nephew David in case by any accident they should not be published within three years after my decease. The only accident I could foresee was one to Mr Strahans Life; and without this clause my nephew would have had no right to publish it. Be so good as to inform Mr Strahan of this circumstance.' Thus far his letter which was dated on the 23 of August. He dyed on the 25 at 4 o'clock afternoon. I once had pg 115perswaded him to leave it entirely to my discretion either to publish them at what time I thought proper, or not to publish them at all. Had he continued of this mind the manuscript should have been most carefully preserved and upon my decease restored to his family; but it never should have been published in my lifetime. When you have read it, you will perhaps, think it not unreasonable to consult some prudent friend about what you ought to do.

I propose to add to his Life a very well authenticated account of his behaviour during his last Illness. I must however, beg that his life and those dialogues may not be published together as I am resolved for many reasons to have no concern in the publication of the dialogues. His Life I think ought to be prefixed to the next edition of his former works upon which he has made many very proper corrections chiefly in what concerns the Language. (R.S.E., viii. 41.)

A letter from Strahan to Smith dated 16 September 1776 may not be a direct reply to this one, but it does take cognizance of Smith's misgivings:

I had a Letter from the Brother of our late excellent Friend, a few Days before I received yours, and my Son writes me that the MSS. are also come to hand; but the Parcel will not be opened till my Return. All therefore that I can say just now, is, that I shall do nothing precipitately, and without the Advice of my Friends, to whose Opinion, and particularly to yours, I shall pay great Regard. I will likewise give the Dialogues a very attentive Perusal, before I consult any body, that I may at once see how far their Judgments coincide with my own. I own I did not expect to hear they were so very exceptionable, as in one of his late Letters to me, he tells me there is nothing in them worse than what I have already published, or Words to that Effect.—But at any Rate they shall certainly be published distinct from the Life; which I think we may throw out this Winter, and afterwards prefix to the Edition of his History now printing. I have not the least doubt that your Addition to it will be highly proper, and if it is ready, I beg you would transmit it to me without Delay; for I long myself very much to see it.—Every Particular respecting that great and good Man I would wish to know and to remember.—You see by his leaving the Dialogues ultimately to his Nephew in case of any Accident to me his extreme Solicitude that they should not be suppressed; so that if it is at all judged proper to pg 116let them see the Light, I should wish to execute his Intentions.—But of this, as I said before, I shall not hastily determine. (R.S.E., viii. 49.)

Strahan's proposal to read the Dialogues in order to see 'how far their Judgments coincide with my own' suggests a criterion for printing the Dialogues that perhaps could not have been applied to all the works submitted to him. But it does seem that he would not suppress them, which is clearly what Adam Smith intended to do.

Smith was probably not made any happier by a letter he received from John Home dated 14 October. Writing from Nine-wells, Hume's brother records that he has had a letter from Strahan about having received the manuscripts of both My own Life and the Dialogues, 'which last he makes no difficulty of publishing, as he had promised …' (R.S.E., viii. 18). A surviving draft of a letter from Smith to Strahan, written sometime in October 1776, contains the following deleted passage:

You certainly judge right in publishing the new Edition of Mr Humes works before you publish the dialogues. They might prevent the sale of this Edition; and it is not impossible that they may hereafter occasion the sale of another. I am still uneasy about the clamour which, I forsee, they will excite… . (R.S.E., viii. 42.)

The ambiguity in this fragment must have been obvious to Smith, and in the succeeding paragraph, he suggests other reasons why it might be a good idea to publish the Dialogues later:

I am much obliged to you for so readily agreeing to print the life, together with my additions, separate from the Dialogues. I even flatter myself that this arrangement will contribute, not only to my quiet, but to your interest. The clamour against the dialogues, if published first, might hurt the sale of the new edition of his works; and when that Clamour has a little subsided, the dialogues may hereafter occasion a quicker sale of another edition.

The appeal to Strahan's commercial instincts is a new wrinkle in Smith's attempts to forestall, if not prevent, publication of the Dialogues. Strahan did not print the Dialogues in an edition of pg 117Hume's collected Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects until 1788; it was omitted from the editions of 1779 and 1784.

Two months after Hume's death, Strahan was thus as determined to print the Dialogues as Adam Smith was determined not to have anything to do with the publication. From the surviving letters, it is evident that Hume's family were keeping up the pressure on Strahan to carry out his promise. Early next year, just before My own Life was published, young David Hume, the nephew, began to add his voice to those inquiring about the Dialogues. In a letter of 30 January 1777 (unlocated) to Strahan, he asked about both My own Life and the Dialogues. He was at the time living in Glasgow, and Strahan wrote to him there on 13 February 1777, announcing the imminent publication of My own Life, copies of which were being sent to Scotland by the first ship sailing for Leith. Strahan then adds,

As for his Dialogues on Natural Religion, I am not yet determined whether I shall publish them or not.—I have all possible Regard to the Will of the Deceased: But as that can be as well fulfilled by you as by me, and as the Publication will probably make some Noise in the World, and its Tendency be considered in different Lights by different Men, I am inclined to think it had better be made by you. From you some will conclude it comes with Propriety, as done in Obedience to the last Request of your Uncle, as he himself expresses it;—from me, it might be suspected to proceed from Motives of Interest.—But in this Matter I hope you will do me the Justice to believe I put Interest wholly out of the Question. However, you shall not, at any rate, be kept long in Suspence, as you shall soon have my final Resolutions. (R.S.E., viii. 46.)

A fortnight later, Strahan had made up his mind: he would not publish the Dialogues. He wrote to John Home of Ninewells on 3 March 1777 informing him of this decision:

I am favoured with yours of the 17th and 25th ult. the first of which I should have sooner answered, had I not, in effect, done so before, in my Letter of the 13th to your Son at Glasgow, in reply to one he wrote me, dated the 30th of January, and which I did indeed conceive he would have communicated to you.—Probably he has, by this time, done so.

pg 118But lest he has not, I beg leave to acquaint you, without farther Delay (tho' your Brother allowed me a much longer Time to determine) that I decline publishing the Dialogues on Natural Religion.—My Reasons are, That the Work will probably make some Noise in the World, and be considered in various Lights by different Readers; and that therefore the Publication may be made with more Propriety by your Son, as done in obedience to the last Request of his Uncle, as your Brother himself expresses it: Whereas if the Book was published by me, I might be suspected of doing it from interested Motives, which, on this Occasion, have no Place with me, I do assure you.—The Copy you sent me I suppose I need not return to you, as you are possessed of the Original. Indeed, the Copy I have is, in general, very carelessly written, and in some Places quite unintelligible. (R.S.E., viii. 44.)

It is just possible to detect the slightest tone of relief in this letter. That the work was likely to 'be considered in various Lights by different Readers' is hardly the most astute observation in the world, and Strahan, in offering it as a serious pretext for not publishing the work, is totally unconvincing. He could have made the same observation, with equal accuracy, about any number of books he printed or published. His reluctance is amplified later in the same letter when he refers to the two essays on suicide and immortality, which had originally formed part of the Four Dissertations but which were suppressed; these he proposes should 'never more see the Light', but in fact they were published in 1777 anonymously and clandestinely.7

Early in 1777, then, it is obvious that neither Smith nor Strahan would superintend the publication of the Dialogues, and the task thus fell to Hume's nephew. A fragment of a letter or memorandum from John Home to Strahan (or perhaps vice versa), about the publication of the work, does indicate some of the considerations that young David bore in mind in deciding when to publish. The fragment appears to be from Home to Strahan in which he seems to pg 119apologize to Strahan for not answering his letter sooner 'till he had consulted his son, and laid it before him as he was materially concerned, and tho a young man only just 20 and able to come to a sound and rational determination …' (R.S.E., viii. 45). As David Hume the younger was born on 27 February 1757, this would date the letter some time after that of Strahan's declining to publish the work. The reasons are outlined for David's wishing to press ahead with publication even though his father has advised against it:

my oppinion was that he should delay the publication till the end of two years that he had a title by his uncles settlement, upon your next publication of it. Otherwise it was being too forward, & more than he was called upon in duty. & if a clamour rose against him it might be difficult to support himself against it almost in the commencement of his life. What weighes with him, is that his publishing it as early as he could, would looke more like obedience, than a voluntary deed, & of judgement, & as such exculpate him in the eyes of the world, as well as that the publick being in expectation of the publication, would receive it much better, than after some time when it might be almost forgotten. As it [is] a question of great importance & the young man will not be here from Glasgow for near 2 months, he will advise with his uncles & his own friends, & will then inform you, whether he accepts of your offer of immediate surrender of the title & in which case, may possibly desire from you a more formal resignation if such is requisite, after what you have wrote me. Copy to be kept as I am posesed of the original, which it seems has not been correctly taken, as it was taken in a hurry & among the last things done by my brother… . (R.S.E., viii. 45.)

Strahan's copy of the Dialogues has not survived, but it is difficult to say whether he surrendered his title to publication or not. If, however, he decided not to do so, for whatever reasons, the codicil of Hume's will meant that the property of the Dialogues was his until 25 February 1779, when it reverted to Hume's nephew. In view of the date of eventual publication of the Dialogues, it is not altogether impossible that Strahan decided not to relinquish his interest in the work. A shrewd and commercially successful pg 120printer, he perhaps did not believe in burning bridges until he had crossed them.

At this stage, however, an 'entire Silence' descends on the proceedings and negotiations for publication. The lamentable paucity of evidence and documents, printed or manuscript, between February 1777 and the appearance of two editions of the Dialogues in 1779 prompts some speculation. Strahan, in conformity with Adam Smith's wishes, did not relinquish his ownership of the publication rights; he may have possibly considered including the Dialogues in the posthumous 1777 edition of the Essays and Treatises on Various Subjects but decided against doing so when My own Life stirred up such a controversy. The furore was provoked by Smith's 'letter' to him as an addendum to My own Life; it was sufficiently heated to make him think twice about printing a work regarded by Smith, Blair, Elliot, and others of his acquaintance as pernicious or dangerous. If so innocuous a letter, in praise of the worthiness of Hume's life and his personal goodness, could create so much turmoil and acrimony, then a work continuing the themes of the controversial discussion of religion in Hume's other writings would doubtless encourage a public outcry and a condemnation of the printer or publisher. Strahan, who had been elected to Parliament in 1774, perhaps did not wish to be involved in another vitriolic and pointless controversy; thus, he temporized.

For two years very little is known about the fortunes or misfortunes of the manuscript of the Dialogues. The next important mention that I have been able to find is concerned with its actual publication: the entry in the Stationer's Register for 10 May 1779. The work is entered for 'The Author' with 'The Whole' of the shares assigned to him: 'Then entered For His Copy / Dialogues concerning Natural / Religion. By David Hume Esqr / Printed in 1779'.

To which of the 1779 editions does this entry refer? Of the two published in 1779, only one, that with 'The Second Edition' on its title-page, gives evidence of having been entered in the Stationer's Register. The imprint on the verso of the half-title reads: 'Entered in Stationers-Hall, according to / Act of Parliament.' I have never seen a copy of the other edition with a half-title; it might conceivably pg 121have had a Stationer's Register entry, but no indication is given on any of the copies I have examined. The title-page of this edition (edition A, the first) is spartan enough to serve as a half-title:

DIALOGUES / concerning / NATURAL RELIGION. / by / david hume, Esq; / [short swelled rule] / Printed in 1779.

8o: π2A–T4; pp. [iv], 1–152.

The title-page of the 'Second Edition' (or edition B) is not much more informative:

DIALOGUES / concerning / NATURAL RELIGION. / by / david hume, Esq. / the second edition. / [short swelled rule] / london: / m.dcc.lxxix.

8o: π2A–Q8R2; pp. [5]6–264.

Though we have seen that Strahan eventually refused to publish the Dialogues, there is an enigmatic hint in a letter from Hugh Blair to Strahan, dated 3 August 1779, that Strahan may have had some role in the publication: 'as to D. Hume's Dialogues, I am surprised that though they have been published for some time, they have made so little noise. They are exceedingly elegant. They bring together some of his most exceptionable reasonings; but the principles themselves were all in his former works. The Part you took, was I think in one of your character & situation well judged.'8 There are no entries in Strahan's ledgers for 1779 that might refer to the Dialogues, but Blair's letter does hint at something other than Strahan's outright refusal to publish the work. In view of the clamour raised by the publication of My own Life, Blair might reasonably have expected the Dialogues to provoke even more noise. For the same reason, Strahan might have decided to give what assistance he could to the publication of the Dialogues but to keep quiet about it. He was a master of the Stationers' Company and could thus have been responsible for the entry in the Register.

Towards the end of 1779, the Dialogues began to make a 'little noise'; it was reviewed in at least four journals, two in Edinburgh and two in London. The Gentleman's Magazine for October 1779 pg 122carried a brief notice (pp. 507–8) which named 'Robinson' as the publisher, or at least the distributor. This is doubtless George Robinson of Paternoster Row, a jobbing publisher with a very large wholesale trade. The longest review appeared in the November 1779 issue of The Monthly Review; or, Literary Journal (pp. 343–55); here too Robinson is listed as the publisher. A three-part review came out in an Edinburgh journal, The Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement. Beginning in the Wednesday, 27 October 1779 issue (xlvi. 113–15), the review continued for another two issues, 3 and 10 November (xlvi. 136–8, 162–4), with Robinson named as the publisher. Another brief notice appeared in the Edinburgh Eighth-Day Magazine for Thursday, 28 October 1779, p. 243. Here the publisher is listed as 'Cadell', i.e., Thomas Cadell the younger, who had been associated with Scottish authors as early as 1769, when he published William Robertson's Charles V and who, with Strahan, published the first edition of Hume's autobiography.

The mention of both Cadell and Robinson as publisher is, to say the least, confusing; it is possible that the reviews refer to different editions, but as no publisher is specified on the title-page of either edition A or B, no certain identification can be made. Robinson had never published any of Hume's works in the author's lifetime, nor have I found him associated with the publication of any posthumous editions of Hume's works. Thomas Cadell, the successor to Hume's publisher Andrew Millar, was mentioned by Hume in a letter to Strahan in October 1766 (Letters, ii. 96) and appears in the imprint to the 1770 edition of Hume's Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects; he continued to be associated with the publication of Hume's works for some time. He could thus be considered as a likely candidate for the publisher of at least one of the editions. But which one?

Contemporary advertisements, as well as other new information, may offer a clue. In the Caledonian Mercury for 19 June 1779, published in Edinburgh, there is an advertisement announcing the imminent publication of the Dialogues—but 'The Second Edition'. In the same journal for 23 June 1779 appears an advertisement from John Balfour and Co. announcing the availability of the Dialogues pg 123'just arrived from London …'. A similar notice was inserted by Charles Elliot in the issues of 26 June, 17 July, and 24 July, specifying 'The Second Edition'. Other advertisements for the same appear in the Edinburgh Evening Courant for 19 June, 23 June, 3 July, 17 July, and 31 July. Elliot, in his notice for 23 June, advertises the Dialogues as 'arrived this day from London …'.

John Balfour's long association with Strahan and later with Cadell could easily suggest a surreptitious publication of 'The Second Edition' of Hume's Dialogues. What, then, of the first edition? It was also available in Scotland at this time.

James Beattie, one of Hume's most prominent critics, had received a copy of edition A and wrote to Mrs. Montagu on 25 June 1779,

An extraordinary Book has just now appeared in this country… . The copy, which I have, was sent me two days ago, by my friend and neighbour Dr Campbell … who accompanied it with a note in the following words. 'You have probably not yet seen this posthumous performance of David Hume. As the publisher, with whom I am not acquainted, has favoured me with a copy, I have sent it to you for your perusal, and shall be glad to have your opinion of it, after you have read it.'9

This observation clearly excludes Strahan and Cadell as publishers of the edition sent to Beattie, as they, along with William Creech of Edinburgh, had published Campbell's The Philosophy of Rhetoric in 1776.

Beattie, then, owned the book by 23 June 1779, and George Campbell had it even earlier. A clue to its source is offered by a letter of Beattie to the Duchess of Gordon, dated 15 July 1779. Forbes, in his biography of Beattie, printed part of this letter but omitted the following paragraph:

I know not whether your Grace has heard, that David Hume's Posthumous Dialogues are at last published. My neighbour Dr Campbel lately sent me a copy of them, with a card to the following purpose:—'that he had read them—that they seemed too dry and pg 124metaphysical to do much hurt;—that he did not discover any thing new or very curious in them, they being only a sort of commentary to the dialogues on Natural Religion and providence published in his life time. What most astonishes me, says the Principal, is the zeal which he shows for disseminating his sceptical principles.' I answered the Doctor's card in these words 'that I was glad to hear on so good authority, that this book was not likely to do so much harm, as the author and publisher intended;—that I would acquiesce in his judgement, which I was sure was just, for that my spirits were not at present in such a state as would permit me to read any writings of that kind.'—I have been assured, that Mr Hume, when he knew that he was dying, took such precautions in regard to the Manuscript, as that it was not even in the power of his Executors to prevent the publication. Adam Smith, to do him justice, refused to have any thing to do with it. Mr Strahan refused to print it. The King was said to have signified his desire, that it might be suppressed. But Mr Hume's nephew, to whom his uncle had bequeathed his whole fortune both in money and atheism, and who, it seems, is a brisk young man, declared that the world should not be deprived of such a treasure, though he should be obliged to print it in Holland. The copy I have seen has no name of place or printer. But I know enough of the business to see, that it is printed in Edinburgh.—And so the world is now in possession of Mr Hume's Legacy. Dr Gregory left a Legacy too, but a very different one. Was Dr Gregory known to Your Grace? He and Mr Hume were well acquainted for many years; but at last the Doctor's partiality to me produced a total separation. If my mind were more at ease, I would try my hand on a Dialogue of the dead between Dr Gregory & Mr Hume… .10

How Beattie came by this information is unknown, but it can to some extent be confirmed by other facts. His disclosure that Hume's nephew would have had the work printed in Holland if necessary is another measure of just how little inclined publishers were to be associated with the publication of the Dialogues. The possibility of foreign publication, though it may sound a bit like pg 125adolescent bravado, suggests that Hume's nephew was finding it difficult to publish the work.

Beattie's copy is clearly edition A, even though he received it from Campbell at the same time that edition B was beginning to appear in Edinburgh. He describes the work as having 'no name of place or printer', and this confirms his allegation about the place of publication. Edition B at least gives an ostensible place of publication. If we accept as accurate the advertisement in the Edinburgh Eighth-Day Magazine, then Cadell could have been associated with Robinson in publishing edition B. Robinson could have distributed the work for Cadell and thus have blurred responsibility for publication of the work in case public reaction was as inflammatory and outraged as expected.

Beattie's contention that edition A was published in Edinburgh can be further corroborated by examining Hume's holograph of the Dialogues, of which Hume's nephew had the original and a copy. Beattie's mention of young Hume's determination to carry out his uncle's wishes and the statement that the work was printed in Edinburgh clarify one of the few notes (in this case the longest) that the nephew made on the holograph of Part XI: 'I have sent two Leaves of the original Manuscript, as I have not been able to get the Copy compared with it.' It would be difficult to think that he might have sent these two leaves to a printer in London and then have got them back, but local printing would make the retrieval of two leaves easy. Compositorial marks appear in the last fifth of the manuscript, and they correspond to the gatherings and pagination of edition A (see below, pp. 131–5). In other respects as well, chiefly that of punctuation, edition A more closely resembles Hume's holograph than edition B, though both leave much to be desired in the way of fidelity to Hume's text. Edition B seems to have been set either from one of the manuscript copies Hume had made or from edition A. The greater closeness of the text of edition A to Hume's holograph indicates further support for Beattie's contention that the work was published in Edinburgh, since Hume's nephew would have been able to read proof against Hume's holograph.

Neither edition A nor edition B has press figures or printer's pg 126ornaments. It was more characteristic of Scottish printing than of English in the latter half of the eighteenth century to be without press figures; a few books with London imprints are free of press figures, but not many. The absence of press figures in both is, however, only negative evidence and does not necessarily support the conclusion that edition A was published in Edinburgh. Though the title-page of edition B indicates that it was published in London, it could just possibly have been printed in Edinburgh, since it was not unknown for Edinburgh printers to issue books with a London imprint. In addition, I must note that edition A looks Scottish, from its austere title-page to the arrangement of words on the page. The style is far more representative of Scottish printing at this time than of English. Edition B, though more spaciously and in some ways more attractively printed, does not look Scottish.

There are over five hundred differences between punctuation and capitalization in editions A and B; the differences are even more marked between either text and Hume's holograph. By comparing texts quoted in the reviews with the passages in A and B, it might have been possible to infer which edition the reviewer was quoting. This is a vain hope, as the punctuation sometimes follows that of edition A, sometimes that of B, and all too frequently that of neither. None of the reviews gives page references, so the considerable differences in pagination (152 pages v. 264 pages) between A and B cannot be used to check which text is being quoted.

One of the first discussions of Hume's book was Thomas Hayter's Remarks on Mr. Hume's Dialogues, concerning Natural Religion (Cambridge, 1780). It is clear from the first page reference that he is using edition B, and on several occasions he refers to a page number higher than 152. The same is true of Joseph Milner's book Gibbon's Account of Christianity considered: Together with some Strictures on Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (London, 1781). Edition A, having been printed in Edinburgh, might not have been widely available in England. Moreover, edition B could have been rushed into print by the London trade to prevent the Scots from having any commercial advantage.

From these various facts, both old and new, several conclusions pg 127may with reasonable probability be inferred. Edition A, correctly described as the first edition, was published in Edinburgh, not London, and before May 1779. The difficulty that Hume's nephew had in getting it published is greater than hitherto supposed, when we know that he considered the possibility of printing the work in Holland. This would be true a fortiori if the King did signify 'a desire that it might be suppressed', but in the absence of any supporting evidence I find it difficult to take seriously this bit of Beattie's tittle-tattle.

In a footnote appended to Beattie's letter of 25 June 1776, Forbes noted 'the "Dialogues concerning natural Religion" are now never heard of'.11 He could not have seen the so-called 'third edition' of 1804, which consists only of the sheets of the 'second edition' with a new title-page.12 Moreover, the work had been available since 1788 in collected editions of Hume's works, and a separate edition might be expected to sell poorly. Considering the difficulty Hume had in ensuring that the work was published and the problems in discovering the exact identity of the publisher(s), I have to report two further ironies. One is a Dublin edition of 1782, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. By David Hume, Esq. To which is added, Divine Benevolence asserted, and vindicated from The Objections of Ancient and Modern Sceptics. By Thomas Balguy… . Hume would surely have been amused to see himself gathered into such company. But divinity can never hope to correct the failings of bibliography. An edition of 1821, styling itself 'A New Edition, with Additions' prefixes the following advertisement to the text:

The following Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, were first Published at Edinburgh in 1742, and at London in 1744, and have, since that period, gone through several editions. To render this Edition more worthy of pg 128Public approbation several essays have been added, by Hume and Voltaire, some of which were never before printed.

In the face of such confident assertion, Hume scholars can only marvel that the work's publishing history is no more complicated than it is.


1 Printed both in Letters, i. 52, and New Letters, p. 14.

2 The whereabouts of this draft is now unknown, but at one time Dugald Stewart made a copy with the intention of printing it. It was in fact printed in The Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, edited by Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh, 1854–60), i. 605–7, and is here reprinted in Appendix A.

3 'You made me promise, that I shoud write you sincerely the true State of my Health, than which really nothing can be worse' (Letters, ii. 325).

4 [Samuel Jackson Pratt], Supplement to the Life of David Hume (London, 1777), pp. 33–4.

5 Edinburgh University Library, MS. Dc. 6. 111, fols. 46–7.

6 In a letter of 7 October 1776, he included a draft of his proposed addition to My own Life (R.S.E., viii. 39). John Home replied a week later suggesting some minor alterations, which Smith accepted (R.S.E., viii. 18).

7 The two essays were 'Of Suicide' and 'Of the Immortality of the Soul' which Hume had originally planned to include in a volume of 'Five Dissertations'. These essays were suppressed, another one added, and Four Dissertations appeared in 1757. An unauthorized edition of these essays, simply entitled Two Essays, was published in London in 1777 with no author or publisher indicated. In 1783, they appeared as Essays on Suicide, and The Immortality of the Soul, Ascribed to the late David Hume, Esq. See Professor Colver's introduction in this volume, pp. 8–11.

8 Edinburgh University Library, MS. Dc. 2. 7610.

9 Sir William Forbes, An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie (Edinburgh, 1806), ii. 52–3.

10 Quoted from the Forbes (Fettercairn) papers (now in the National Library of Scotland) by the permission of Mrs. P. G. C. Somervell and the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland.

The 'Dr Gregory' to whom Beattie refers is John Gregory (1724–73), Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, 1766–73; the book to which Beattie refers is his posthumous A Father's Legacy to his Daughters (London, 1774).

11 Forbes, ii. 53 n.

12 The title-page of this 'third edition' (merely a reissue of sheets of edition B with a new title-page) is 'printed by and for Thomas Hughes'. As the title-page is the only thing new, the inescapable implication is that Thomas Hughes printed the second edition. If so, this would seem to be the only work he ever printed. He is not listed in William B. Todd's Directory of Printers and Others in Allied Trades, London and Vicinity, 1800–1840 (London: Printing Historical Society, 1972), pp. 102–3, and I have been unable to find any other reference to him or to his printing activities from 1779 to 1804.

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