How to Treat the Symptoms of a Rising Reputation: David Hume on the Only Adequate Response to Haters
By Maria Popova
In the final year of his life, the great Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist David Hume (May 7, 1711–August 25, 1776) penned a short, beautiful autobiography titled My Own Life (public library) — a potent packet of wisdom on the measure of a life well lived, which became a major inspiration for the contemporary counterpart Oliver Sacks wrote at the end of his own life.
What makes Hume’s book so powerful and enduringly insightful is that it has less in common with traditional autobiography than it does with memoir — a genre that, at its best, uses the writer’s own story to access universal human truths. Among those, Hume describes how a simple contract he made with himself became the saving grace of his character — a resolution, first, not to be discouraged by failure and rejection (“Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature,” he recounts of his first book); then, upon attaining success, to resist the petty jealousies and embittering trifles that all too often accompany fame and recognition.
Despite the dismal fate of his debut, published when he was twenty-eight, Hume persisted in writing intellectually ambitious essays and philosophical treatises, which eventually gained traction and enveloped him in considerable attention. But, as Kierkegaard so keenly observed a century later, public admiration can metastasize into resentment in the envious and insecure. Two and a half centuries before “don’t feed the trolls” became the mantra for handling Internet squabbles, Hume reflects on how choosing not to engage with haters expands one’s enjoyment of life:
I had fixed a resolution, which I inflexibly maintained, never to reply to any body; and not being very irascible in my temper, I have easily kept myself clear of all literary squabbles. These symptoms of a rising reputation gave me encouragement, as I was ever more disposed to see the favourable than unfavourable side of things; a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year.
Looking back on his life, Hume traces this seemingly simple choice to the very architecture of his character:
I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments.
Published January 28, 2016