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David Hume: A Letter to a Physician

A Coldness and Desertion of the Spirit

David Hume (1711-1776) is considered one of the most important figures in Western philosophy. The following letter by Hume was originally published in Life and correspondence of David Hume by John Hill Burton in 1846. It is provided here as a contribution to Serendip's explorations of mental health in general and depression in particular. Thoughts are welcome in the on-line forum below.

 

"not without anxiety concerning the judgment you will form of me"

"SIR,-- Not being acquainted with this handwriting you will probably look to the bottom to find the subscription and not finding any will certainly wonder at this strange method of addressing to you. I must here in the beginning beg you to excuse it and to persuade you to read what follows with some attention, must tell you, that this gives you an opportunity to do a very good natured action which I believe is the most powerful argument I can use. I need not tell you that I am your countryman, a Scotsman; for without any such tie, I dare rely upon your humanity even to a perfect stranger, such as I am. The favour I beg of you is your advice, and the reason why I address myself in particular to you, need not be told,-- as one must be a skilful physician, a man of letters, of wit, of good sense, and of great humanity, to give me a satisfying answer. I wish fame had pointed out to me more persons, in whom these qualities are united, in order to have kept me some time in suspense. This I say in the sincerity of my heart, and without any intention of making a compliment; for though it may seem necessary, that, in the beginning of so unusual a letter, I should say some fine things, to bespeak your good opinion, and remove any prejudices you may conceive at it, yet such an endeavour to be witty, would ill suit with the present condition of my mind; which, I must confess, is not without anxiety concerning the judgment you will form of me. Trusting, however, to your candour and generosity, I shall, without further preface, proceed to open up to you the present condition of my health, and to do that the more effectually, shall give you a kind of history of my life, after which you will easily learn why I keep my name a secret.

 

"I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life. These no doubt are exceeding useful, when joined with an active life...in solitude they serve to little other purpose, than to waste the spirits, the force of the mind meeting with no resistance, but wasting itself in the air, like our arm when it misses its aim"
"You must know then that, from my earliest infancy, I found always a strong inclination to books and letters. As our college education in Scotland, extending little further than the languages, ends commonly when we are about fourteen or fifteen years of age, I was after that left to my own choice in my reading, and found it incline me almost equally to books of reasoning and philosophy, and to poetry and the polite authors. Every one who is acquainted either with the philosophers or critics, knows that there is nothing yet established in either of these two sciences, and that they contain little more than endless disputes, even in the most fundamental articles. Upon examination of these, I found a certain boldness of temper growing in me, which was not inclined to submit to any authority in these subjects, but led me to seek out some new medium, by which truth might be established. After much study and reflection on this, at last, when I was about eighteen years of age, there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought, which transported me beyond measure, and made me, with an ardour natural to young men, throw up every other pleasure or business to apply entirely to it. The law, which was the business I designed to follow, appeared nauseous to me, and I could think of no other way of pushing my fortune in the world, but that of a scholar and philosopher. I was infinitely happy in this course of life for some months; till at last, about the beginning of September, 1729, all my ardour seemed in a moment to be extinguished, and I could no longer raise my mind to that pitch, which formerly gave me such excessive pleasure. I felt no uneasiness or want of spirits, when I laid aside my book; and therefore never imagined there was any bodily distemper in the case, but that my coldness proceeded from a laziness of temper, which must be overcome by redoubling my application. In this condition I remained for nine months, very uneasy to myself, as you may well imagine, but without growing any worse, which was a miracle. There was another particular, which contributed, more than any thing, to waste my spirits and bring on me this distemper, which was, that having read many books of morality, such as Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, and being smit with their beautiful representations of virtue and philosophy, I undertook the improvement of my temper and will, along with my reason and understanding. I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life. These no doubt are exceeding useful, when joined with an active life, because the occasion being presented along with the reflection, works it into the soul, and makes it take a deep impression; but in solitude they serve to little other purpose, than to waste the spirits, the force of the mind meeting with no resistance, but wasting itself in the air, like our arm when it misses its aim. This, however, I did not learn but by experience, and till I had already ruined my health, though I was not sensible of it. Some scurvy spots broke out on my fingers the first winter I fell ill, about which I consulted a very knowing physician, who gave me some medicine that removed these symptoms, and at the same time gave me a warning against the vapours, which, though I was labouring under at that time, I fancied myself so far removed from, and indeed from any other disease, except a slight scurvy, that I despised his warning. At last, about April 1730, when I was nineteen years of age, a symptom, which I had noticed a little from the beginning, increased considerably; so that, though it was no uneasiness, the novelty of it made me ask advice; it was what they call a ptyalism or wateryness in the mouth. Upon my mentioning it to my physician, he laughed at me and told me I was now a brother, for that I had fairly got the disease of the learned. Of this he found great difficulty to persuade me, finding in myself nothing of that lowness of spirit, which those who labour under that distemper so much complain of. However upon his advice I went under a course of bitters and, anti-hysteric pills, drank an English pint of claret wine every day, and rode eight or ten Scotch miles. This I continued for about seven months after.

 

"the knowledge of it set me very much at ease, by satisfying me that my former coldness proceeded not from any defect of temper or genius...Those who live in the same family with me, and see me at all times, cannot observe the least alteration in my humour"

"Though I was sorry to find myself engaged with so tedious a distemper, yet the knowledge of it set me very much at ease, by satisfying me that my former coldness proceeded not from any defect of temper or genius, but from a disease to which any one may be subject. I now began to take some indulgence to myself; studied moderately, and only when I found my spirits at their highest pitch, leaving off before I was weary, and trifling away the rest of my time in the best manner I could. In this way, I lived with satisfaction enough; and on my return to town next winter found my spirits very much recruited, so that, though they sank under me in the higher flights of genius, yet I was able to make considerable progress in my former designs. I was very regular in my diet and way of life from the beginning, and all that winter made it a constant rule to ride twice or thrice-a-week, and walk every day. For these reasons, I expected, when I returned to the country, and could renew my exercise with less interruption, that I would perfectly recover. But in this I was much mistaken; for next summer, about May 1731 there grew upon me a very ravenous appetite, and as quick a digestion, which I at first took for a good symptom, and was very much surprised to find it bring back a palpitation of heart, which I had felt very little of before. This appetite, however, had an effect very unusual, which was to nourish me extremely; so that in six weeks' time, I passed from the one extreme to the other; and being before tall, lean, and raw-boned, became on a sudden the most sturdy, robust, healthful-like fellow you have seen, with a ruddy complexion and a cheerful countenance. In excuse for my riding, and care of my health, I always said that I was afraid of consumption, which was readily believed from my looks, but now every body congratulated me upon my thorough recovery. This unnatural appetite wore off by degrees, but left me as a legacy the same palpitation of the heart in a small degree, and a good deal of wind in my stomach, which comes away easily, and without any bad gout, as is ordinary. However, these symptoms are little or no uneasiness to me. I eat well; I sleep well; have no lowness of spirits, at least never more than what one of the best health may feel from too full a meal from sitting too near a fire, and even that degree I feel very seldom, and never almost in the morning or forenoon. Those who live in the same family with me, and see me at all times, cannot observe the least alteration in my humour, and rather think me a better companion than I was before, as choosing to pass more of my time with them. This gave me such hopes, that I scarce ever missed a day's riding, except in the winter time; and last summer undertook a very laborious task, which was to travel eight miles every morning, and as many in the forenoon, to and from a mineral well of some reputation. I renewed the bitter and anti-hysteric pills twice, along with anti-scorbutic juice, last spring, but without any considerable effect, except abating the symptoms for a little time.

 

"the moral philosophy transmitted to us by antiquity laboured under the same inconvenience that has been found in their natural philosophy, of being entirely hypothetical, and depending more upon invention than experience"
"Thus I have given you a full account of the condition of my body; and without staying to ask pardon, as I ought to do, for so tedious a story, shall explain to you how my mind stood all this time, which on every occasion, especially in this distemper, have a very near connexion together. Having now time and leisure to cool my inflamed imagination, I began to consider seriously how I should proceed in my philosophical inquiries, I found that the moral philosophy transmitted to us by antiquity laboured under the same inconvenience that has been found in their natural philosophy, of being entirely hypothetical, and depending more upon invention than experience: every one consulted his fancy in erecting schemes of virtue and of happiness, without regarding human nature, upon which every moral conclusion must depend. This, therefore, I resolved to make my study, and the source from which I would derive every truth in criticism as well as morality. I believe it is a certain fact, that most of the philosophers who have gone before us, have been overthrown by the greatness of their genius, and that little is required to make a man succeed in this study, than to throw off all prejudices either for his own or for those of others. At least this is all I to depend on for the truth of my reasonings, I have multiplied to such a degree, that within three years, I find I have scribbled many a quire of paper, in which there is nothing contained my own inventions. This, with the reading most the celebrated books in Latin, French, and English, acquiring the Italian, you may think a sufficient business for one in perfect health, and so it would had it been done to any purpose; but my disease was a cruel encumbrance on me.

"I was not able to follow out any train of thought, by one continued stretch of view, but by repeated interruptions, and by refreshing my eye from time to time upon other objects"
I found that I was not able to follow out any train of thought, by one continued stretch of view, but by repeated interruptions, and by refreshing my eye from time to time upon other objects. Yet with this inconvenience I have collected the rude materials for many volumes; but in reducing these to words, when one must bring the idea he comprehended in gross, nearer to him, so as to contemplate its minutest parts, and keep it steadily in his eye, so as to copy these parts in order ,-- this I found impracticable for me, nor were my spirits equal to so severe an employment. Here lay my greatest calamity. I had no hopes of delivering my opinions with such elegance and neatness, as to draw to me the attention of the world, and I would rather live and die in obscurity than produce them maimed and imperfect.

 

"It is a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me... a coldness and desertion of the spirit"
"Such a miserable disappointment I scarce ever remember to have heard of. The small distance betwixt me and perfect health makes me the more uneasy in my present situation. It is a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me, and there seems to be as great a difference betwixt my distemper and common vapours, as betwixt vapours and madness. I have noticed in the writings of the French mystics, and in those of our fanatics here, that when they give a history of the situation of their souls, they mention a coldness and desertion of the spirit, which frequently returns and some of them, at the beginning, have been tormented with it many years. As this kind of devotion depends entirely on the force of passion, and consequently of the animal spirits, I have often thought that their case and mine were pretty parallel, and that their rapturous admirations might discompose the fabric of the nerves and brain, as much as profound reflections, and that warmth or enthusiasm which is inseparable from them.



"I found, that as there are two things very bad for this distemper, study and idleness, so there are two things very good, business and diversion"

"However this may be, I have not come out of the cloud so well as they commonly tell us they have done, or rather began to despair of ever recovering. To keep myself from being melancholy on so dismal a prospect, my only security was in peevish reflections on the vanity of the world and of all human glory; which, however just sentiments they may be esteemed, I have found can never be sincere, except in those who are possessed of them. Being sensible that all my philosophy would never make me contented in my present situation, I began to rouse up myself; and being encouraged by instances of recovery from worse degrees of this distemper, as well as by the assurances of my physicians, I began to think of something more effectual than I had hitherto tried. I found, that as there are two things very bad for this distemper, study and idleness, so there are two things very good, business and diversion; and that my whole time was spent betwixt the bad, with little or no share of the good. For this reason I resolved to seek out a more active life, and though I could not quit my pretensions in learning but with my last breath, to lay them aside for some time, in order the more effectually to resume them. Upon examination, I found my choice confined to two kinds of life, that of a travelling governor, and that of a merchant. The first, besides that it is in some respects an idle life, was, I found, unfit for me; and that because from a sedentary and retired way of living, from a bashful temper, and from a narrow fortune, I had been little accustomed to general companies, and had not confidence and knowledge enough of the world to push my fortune, or to be serviceable in that way. I therefore fixed my choice upon a merchant; and having got recommendation to a considerable trader in Bristol, I am just now hastening thither, with a resolution to forget myself, and every thing that is past, to engage myself, as far as is possible, in that course of life, and to toss about the world, from the one pole to the other, till I leave this behind me.

 

"All the physicians I have consulted, though very able, could never enter into my distemper; because not being persons of great learning beyond their own profession, they were unacquainted with these motions of the mind"

"As I am come to London in my way to Bristol, I have resolved, if possible, to get your advice, though I should take this absurd method of procuring it. All the physicians I have consulted, though very able, could never enter into my distemper; because not being persons of great learning beyond their own profession, they were unacquainted with these motions of the mind. Your fame pointed you out as the properest person to resolve my doubts, and I was determined to have somebody's opinion, which I could rest upon in all the varieties of fears and hopes, incident to so lingering a distemper. I hope I have been particular enough in describing the symptoms to allow you to form a judgment; or rather, perhaps, have been too particular. But you know it is a symptom of this distemper, to delight in complaining and talking of itself. The questions I would humbly propose to you are: Whether, among all those scholars you have been acquainted with, you have ever known any affected in this manner? Whether I can ever hope for a recovery? Whether I must long wait for it? Whether my recovery will ever be perfect, and my spirits regain their former spring and vigour, so as to endure the fatigue of deep and abstruse thinking? Whether I have taken a right way to recover? I believe all proper medicines have been used, and therefore I need mention nothing of them."

Posted by Laura Cyckowski and Paul Grobstein 8 March 2008.

Comments

Dalton Bentley's picture

David Hume illness

I just finished reading this letter from David Hume to a doctor. The first question I had was regarding the authenticity of the document. I assume that John Hill Burton's sources were vetted since 1846. The dates seemed about right from what I know of Hume's life, i.e., the Bristol trip was around 1736. The comment about college ending in Scotland typically around 14 or 15 years of age seems somewhat odd considering Hume reportedly have attended college there at the unusually young age of 10 - 12 years.

In any case, it seems to me the intent of Ms Cyckowski and Mr. Grobstein (in posting this letter) was to offer it as an example of depression of other mental health problems. I do not believe the letter or Hume's history are compatible with a mental health etiology for his health problems. Hume did confuse his mental fatigue (which sounds very much like CFS/ME symptoms, i.e., "brain fog", but without the numbing physical exhaustion of that disease constellation) with descriptions by mystics of what St. John of the Cross called "the long night of the soul." Mystics often suffer tremendously seeking the direct communication with the divine, particularly when that has occurred and is then denied them (see the suffering of Mother Teresa which came to light only after her death). Hume being an atheist, that is obviously not something he would be familiar with.

One might suggest that brain fog is a symptom of depression, but clinical depression is much more than problems focusing, e.g., doing high level academic work. There would be general retardation, depressed mood, difficulty doing the normal activities of life. Hume did not seem to display any of those symptoms. His mood was good and he easily resorted to activitity in an attempt to regain his mental capability.

I have only taken a quick look at his case, but it appears likely Hume was suffering from metabolic or endocrine problems, e.g, hypothyroidism perhaps brought on by insufficient iodine in the diet. His diet was probably poor, in light of his necessary frugality in his early years. He worked long hours and did not eat well. Poor electrolye intake (sodium, potassium) would predispose to heart palpitations as he reports. It is also likely he was exposed to various parasites, which might explain the morbid progression of his disease in his last year, where chronic diarhea further depleted his stock of absorbed nutrients. He seems to mention some arthropathy, some joint pain along with skin spots and likely signs of vitamin c deficiency (scurvy). The abrupt obesity transition is not surprising in the context of hypothyroidism, where his metabolic rate is low but may still have enough food intake to cause weight gain (I notice images of him in later life to show a portly fellow, with a fairly enlarge neck area, another possible sign of a hypothryoid type disorder, e.g., Hashimoto's).

If David Hume had mental health issues, he certainly coped with them in a positive manner, seeming to pave the way for current CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) where he attempted to talk his way out of his problems with positive mental processing.

Anabel's picture

Hume at university

Comment to Dalton: Hume only attended lectures at the end of 12 (not 10!) at university; he began to study law with 15.

Katharina Paxman's picture

Dalton, I really appreciated

Dalton, I really appreciated your comment, it is very insightful. I am curious- have you read anywhere else the suggestion that Hume was not suffering from depression, but rather something like hypothyroidism? I've been studying Hume's life, and it seems to me that your suggestion does indeed fit his case better than depression. And this becomes an interesting observation when one notes that some of the current scholarship on Hume make quite a bit of the claim that he was depressed in his youth- in some cases it clearly colors readings of his philosophical thought and intentions.

I'd love to follow up with you, so I am replying here in hopes to connect. I'm writing a paper in which I am hoping to develop a more nuanced understanding of Hume's 'disease of the learned.' Your comment here is the only place I have come across a well-articulated modern diagnosis that is alternative to depression. Let me know if you are willing to chat with me a little further about this!

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