O.P. Recommends: Alison Gopnik’s ‘David Hume and the Buddha’

I just read a delightful piece in The Atlantic‘s October 2015 issue which combines three of my favorite things: history of ideas, a detective story, and David Hume. In her article ‘David Hume and the Buddha’, psychology researcher, philosopher, and author Alison Gopnik tells the tale of how she detected elements of Buddhist philosophy in Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature, and how she set out to discover if he had indeed been influenced by it.

In Hume’s time, mid-1700’s, there was very little access to Buddhist philosophy in Europe, at least in part due to church suppression of its public dissemination. There was, however, some accounts of it buried in private libraries here and there, especially among the Jesuits, travelers, missionaries, and scholars as they were (and are). As Gopnik read up on Buddhist philosophy and European first encounters with it, she stumbled upon more than an ideological link with Hume: a possible way he could have discovered as a young scholar.

Like the 23-year-old Hume, Gopnik had fallen into a depression, but in her case, it was brought on by the changes that so often occur in mid-life: the children have grown up and left home, her marriage had broken up, she moved, and the stress of it all left her unable to work for a time. Hume’s depression was likely brought on by too many years of intense study, too much time spent indoors all alone. His Letter to a Physician of 1734 is a clear and detailed account of what it’s like to suffer a severe bout of depression, and he recognized it, clear-headed naturalist that he was, as an ailment of the physical body, and just as amenable to a cure if only the right one could be found.

Hume found the cure for depression in regular exercise and in enjoying the company of other people; Gopnik found in in a new love and renewed enthusiasm for her favorite pursuits, but first she found it in Hume. After finishing Gopnik’s story, I find myself even more impatient for my next traveling philosophy adventure in the history of ideas. Until then, I’ll continue to be inspired by Hume’s, Gopnik’s, the Buddha’s, and other great thinkers’ work, and heed Thomas Jefferson’s advice: if you keep yourself busy and your mind occupied, depression will be hard pressed to find its way in.

Gopnik, Alison. ‘David Hume and the Buddha’. The Atlantic, October 2015 issue.
Published online as ‘How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis:

David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment’.

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