Essay 6

The Study of History

by David Hume Icon

I fully recommend the study of history as an occupation to my female readers. It is:

  • the best suited to their sex and education
  • much more instructive than their ordinary books of amusement
  • more entertaining than those serious compositions in their closets

History can teach them two important truths that can give them peace:

  1. Both sexes are far from being such perfect creatures
  2. The male-world is not only governed by love, but is often overcome by avarice, ambition, vanity, and a thousand other passions.

Women love romances and novels so much. I don’t like to see women hate facts and like falsehood.

I remember I was once desired by

A young beauty, for whom I had some passion, to send her some novels and romances for her amusement in the country; but was not so ungenerous as to take the advantage, which such a course of reading might have given me, being resolved not to make use of poisoned arms against her.

So I sent her Plutarch’s lives. I assured her that there was not a word of truth in them from beginning to end.

She read them very attentively until she came to the lives of Alexander and Caesar, whose names she had heard of by accident. She then returned the book to me saying that I deceived her.

Women have no such aversion to history provided it be secret history, and contain some memorable transaction proper to excite their curiosity.

But as I do not find that truth, which is the basis of history, is at all regarded in those anecdotes, I cannot admit of this as a proof of their passion for that study.

However this may be, I see not why the same curiosity might not receive a more proper direction, and lead them to desire accounts of those who lived in past ages, as well as of their cotemporaries.

What is it to Cleora, whether Fulvia entertains a secret commerce of Love with Philander or not?

Has she not equal reason to be pleased, when she is informed (what is whispered about among historians) that Cato’s sister had an intrigue with Cæsar, and palmed her son, Marcus Brutus, upon her husband for his own, tho’ in reality he was her gallant’s? And are not the loves of Messalina or Julia as proper subjects of discourse as any intrigue that this city has produced of late years?

But I know not whence it comes, that I have been thus seduced into a kind of raillery against the ladies: Unless, perhaps, it proceed from the same cause, which makes the person, who is the favourite of the company, be often the object of their good-natured jests and pleasantries. We are pleased to address ourselves after any manner, to one who is agreeable to us; and, at the same time, presume, that nothing will be taken amiss by a person, who is secure of the good opinion and affections of every one present.

I shall now proceed to handle my subject more seriously, and shall point out the many advantages, which flow from the study of history, and show how well suited it is to every one, but particularly to those who are debarred the severer studies, by the tenderness of their complexion,° and the weakness of their education. The advantages found in history seem to be of three kinds, as it amuses the fancy, as it improves the understanding, and as it strengthens virtue.

The best entertainment to the mind is:

  • to be transported into the remotest ages of the world,
  • to observe human society in its infancy, making the first faint essays towards the arts and sciences
  • to see the policy of government and the civility of conversation refining and everything ornamental advancing towards perfection
  • to remark the rise, progress, decline, and extinction of the most flourishing empires, as well as
    • the virtues, which contributed to their greatness, and
    • the vices, which drew on their ruin

In short, to see all human race, from the beginning of time pass before us, appearing in their true colours, without those disguises which, during their life-time, perplexed their beholders.

But history is a most improving part of knowledge, as well as an agreeable amusement;

A great part of Erudition, and value so highly, is nothing but an acquaintance with historical facts.

An extensive knowledge of this kind belongs to men of letters; but I must think it an unpardonable ignorance in persons of whatever sex or condition, not to be acquainted with the history of their own country, together with the histories of ancient Greece and Rome.

A woman may behave herself with good manners, and have even some vivacity in her turn of wit. But where her mind is so unfurnished, ’tis impossible her conversation can afford any entertainment to men of sense and reflection.

History is not only a valuable part of knowledge, but opens the door to many other parts, and affords materials to most of the sciences.

If we consider the shortness of human life, and our limited knowledge, even of what passes in our own time, we must be sensible that we should be for ever children in understanding, were it not for this invention, which extends our experience to all past ages, and to the most distant nations; making them contribute as much to our improvement in wisdom, as if they had actually lain under our observation.

A man acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.

There is also an advantage in that experience which is acquired by history, above what is learned by the practice of the world, that it brings° us acquainted with human affairs, without diminishing in the least from the most delicate sentiments of virtue. And, to tell the truth, I know not any study or occupation so unexceptionable as history in this particular. Poets can paint virtue in the most charming colours; but, as they address themselves entirely to the passions, they often become advocates for vice.

Even philosophers are apt to bewilder themselves in the subtilty of their speculations. Some have even denied the reality of all moral distinctions.

But I think it a remark worthy the attention of the speculative, that the historians have been, almost without exception, the true friends of virtue, and have always represented it in its proper colours, however they may have erred in their judgments of particular persons.

Machiavelli discovers a true sentiment of virtue in his history of Florence.

When he talks as a Politician, in his general reasonings, he considers poisoning, assassination and perjury, as lawful arts of power; but when he speaks as an Historian, in his particular narrations, he shows so keen an indignation against vice, and so warm an approbation of virtue, in many passages, that I could not forbear applying to him that remark of Horace, That if you chace away nature, tho’ with ever so great indignity, she will always return upon you.

Nor is this combination of historians in favour of virtue at all difficult to be accounted for.

When a man of business enters into life and action, he is more apt to consider the characters of men, as they have relation to his interest, than as they stand in themselves; and has his judgment warped on every occasion by the violence of his passion.

When a philosopher contemplates characters and manners in his closet, the general abstract view of the objects leaves the mind so cold and unmoved, that the sentiments of nature have no room to play, and he scarce feels the difference between vice and virtue.

History keeps in a just medium betwixt these extremes, and places the objects in their true point of view. The writers of history, as well as the readers, are sufficiently interested in the characters and events, to have a lively sentiment of blame or praise; and, at the same time, have no particular interest or concern to pervert their judgment.


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