Philosopher David Hume on Why You Should Read History

(From Hume’s Of the Study of History, a misogynistic essay criticizing women’s reading habits.)

According to Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), there are three valuable reasons to read history:

 
1. It is entertaining.

“In reality, what more agreeable entertainment to the mind than to be transported into the remotest ages of the world, and to observe human society, in its infancy, making the first faint essays toward the arts and sciences. To see the policy of government, and the civility of conversation, refining by degrees, and everything which is ornamental to human life advancing towards its perfection. To remark the rise, progress, declension, and final extinction of the most flourishing empires: 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, as it were, in review before us; appearing in their true colours, without any of those disguises which, during their lifetime, so much perplexed the judgment of their beholders. What spectacle can be imagined so magnificent, so various, so interesting? What amusement, either of the senses or imagination, can be compared with it?”

 

2. It improves the understanding.

“A great part of what we call erudition, and value so highly, is nothing but an acquaintance with historical facts.”

“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 forever 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.”

 

3. It strengthens virtue. 

“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…Poets can paint virtue in the most charming colours; but, as they address themselves entirely to the passions, the often become advocates for vice. Even philosophers are apt to bewilder themselves in the subtility of their speculations; and we have seen some go as far as to deny the reality of all moral distinctions. But I think it a remark worthy of 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.”

 

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