Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of my favorite philosopher if I was pressed to chose only one. I fell in love with his native Edinburgh when I originally visited in the spring of 2014 but even so, I wouldn’t have predicted I would now be living here furthering my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my flat would be located directly across the narrow square from the University’s David Hume Tower. I was moved to observe one day, and still am whenever I think or tell of it, that the windows of that glassy tower often reflect the light of the rising sun into my window. I could imagine no more poetic image than that of how this great Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.

Here they are in the order I wrote them, starting several years back. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do when I return to old pieces from time to time, that my thinking has developed and my mind has changed, to various degrees, on some things:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
A memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh
Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume
Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society
Photobook: Robert Adam, Architect of Edinburgh
Photobook: Letter from David Hume to James Balfour, Mar 15, 1753

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh

Interior of the Advocates Library, Edinburgh

This September, I visited the Advocates Library at Parliament House on the Royal Mile. It was open to the public during Edinburgh’s annual Doors Open Days. I had long wanted to visit Advocates’ Library and was planning to contact Parliament Hall to arrange one, but DOD made this much easier!

The philosopher who first brought me here to Edinburgh, David Hume, was the keeper of the Advocates’ Library from 1752-1757. The Library was founded by  George Mackenzie in 1682. Now strictly a law library, it originally acted as Scotland’s library of deposit, which, since 1925, is now the function of the National Library of Scotland.

The original building which housed the Advocates Library burned down in the great fire of 1824. Just as it happened with the destruction of two-thirds of the Library of Congress’ original collection in 1851, once Thomas Jeffersons’ private library, the surviving books from the original Advocates’ Library collection retain scorch marks. The library I visit today was completed in 1830 and designed by renounced Edinburgh architect William Playfair.

The Advocates Library and the Scottish Enlightenment, placard at Parliament Hall, Edinburgh for Doors Open Days

Keeper of the Advocates Library chair and desk. David Hume was the keeper of the Library from 1752-1757. The position was a poorly paid one, but it gave Hume access to a treasure trove of resources for his History of England, which brought him wealth and fame

Ways to enter the original Advocates Library, placard at Parliament Hall, Edinburgh

Interior of the Advocates Library, Edinburgh

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell‘s Visit to the Advocates Library, placard near the entrance from Parliament Hall, Edinburgh for Doors Open Days

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Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh

The site of James Boswell’s place in James Court off the Royal Mile is near one of my favorite pubs in Edinburgh: the Jolly Judge. You can see the plaque on the wall near the doorway just beyond the lamp.

In James Court, just off Edinburgh’s famed Royal Mile, there’s a little winding set of stone steps leading to a simple wood door. The plaque near the steps reveals that they lead to the place where James Boswell lived from 1773 to 1786. The first flat that Boswell occupied in James Square was torn down, but the recently discovered remains of a very old staircase in one of these oft-reconstructed buildings may be the one which linked the two floors of his home. From what I’ve read thus far, it seems this marked building, site of Boswell’s second flat here in James Court, contains only parts of the original structure.

Boswell, the Edinburgh-born lawyer, diarist, and writer most well known for his biography of Samuel Johnson, has connections to two towering figures of the Enlightenment: David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The ways in which his life intersected with theirs exemplify his vibrant and complex life and personality.

On Sunday, July 7, 1776, Boswell visited the bedside of his dying friend Hume. Hume was the leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment, often honored as the greatest philosopher to write in English. In fact, Boswell first moved to in James Court, into Hume’s cute but tiny old flat, taking it over when Hume moved to New Town in 1772. It was at the latter place that Boswell, ‘too late for church’ anyway, stopped by to see if Hume, notorious for his religious skepticism, ‘persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes.’ Boswell, habitual bacchanalist in wine and women, was nevertheless very religious and had a superstitious terror of hell. He was dismayed and shocked to find that his old friend did not only persist in his disbelief but was at ease, even happy, and showed no discernable fear of his impending annihilation. Boswell was left ‘disturbed… for some time.’

The doorway to James Boswell’s home in James Court, Edinburgh, Scotland. The plaque reads: ‘James Boswell 1740-1795, lawyer, diarist & biographer lived here 1773-1786’

Ten years earlier, Boswell played a part in destroying the trust and friendship between Hume and Rousseau. Hume had agreed to help Rousseau, who was fleeing political persecution in Europe, find safe haven in England. Mutual admiration and a warm friendship sprung up between the two menimmediately though Baron d’Holbach (another mainstay of the French Enlightenment community) warned Hume that Rousseau was not to be trusted. This proved true. Rousseau’s growing paranoia led him to believe that Hume was plotting to destroy him and began to spread word of Hume’s perceived deviousness. The unraveling situation was not helped when Hume’s friend Boswell, charged with escorting Rousseau’s beloved mistress Thérèse Le Vasseur to join him in England, had an affair with her along the way. Rousseau believed that Hume had helped orchestrate this betrayal as well. Aware of Boswell’s notoriously insatiable sexual appetite, Hume certainly showed very poor judgment in trusting Boswell with this task. Before long, Hume and Rousseau became bitter enemies. Hurt and angry, Hume attacked Rousseau publicly as well, sometimes in very unseemly ways, and the whole episode revealed that even the most wise can also be the most foolish.

Another view of the site of James Boswell’s home in James Court. This would have been the second and larger flat that Boswell occupied here; the building which held the first, formerly David Hume’s, was torn down.

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He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel, by Dennis Rasmussen

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Dennis Rasmussen is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Photobook: Portrait of James Boswell, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

James Boswell portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 2014 Amy Cools

James Boswell portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Boswell’s diary of Samuel Johnson has been called the greatest biography in the English language. I visited this portrait during my journey to Edinburgh in 2014 following the life and ideas of David Hume, my favorite philosopher, if I had to name just one. Boswell sat at the bedside of the dying Hume and marveled at his composure in the face of suffering and death.

 

 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!