David Hume: A Letter to a Physician
A Coldness and Desertion of the Spirit
|"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"|
|"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"|
|"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"|
|"It is a weakness rather than a lowness of spirits which troubles me... a coldness and desertion of the spirit"|
|"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."