The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?

I attended a meeting of the Humanist Society of Scotland the other day, and some of us were chatting about my David Hume project. They recommended sites to see and people and ideas to add to my research, and I was telling them what I had seen and discovered so far. They also regaled me with some Hume anecdotes. Such a friendly group of people, so engaged with important issues of the day, and so welcoming and ready to chat and have a good time!

One thing that came up was the classical statue of Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. I noticed that the left toe of the statue is polished to a bright brassy shine, from the tradition of students and others rubbing it for luck, so as to absorb some of his wisdom.

Some who I was talking to laughed, as if at a friendly little joke, while others took it a little more seriously. What would Hume, the greatest philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, skeptic, naturalist, and pragmatist, think about this seemingly superstitious practice? Some thought he would very much disapprove, as Richard Wiseman does.

That’s a very good question, I thought. Although he did not approve of superstitious thinking generally, would he consider the toe-rubbing an example of real superstition? Would he take it seriously?

A few days later, standing in the square across from the statue, I watched the crowd go by as I was waiting. Many paused and looked a little wonderingly at the big shiny toe, while others stopped, usually people who were in groups, and rubbed it, laughing and chatting. There was an Asian couple who did this more solemnly and almost ritualistically, rubbing the toe and than their heads, as if to physically rub in the absorbed knowledge like a salve. The scene, to anyone who is not just a little too grouchy for their own good (I think), was a charming and friendly one.

In thinking it over, I recalled another Hume story recounted, for my benefit, at the HSS meeing. One day, Hume was crossing the bog created by the recent draining of the Nor Loch; he was going from his house in Old Town to check on the progress of the house he was having built in New Town. On the way, he slipped in the mud, and partially because it was slippery and partly because he was a fat man, he couldn’t get up. He asked a passing sturdy fishseller for help, but she knew who he was: a reputed atheist. She refused to help, unless he recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. He obliged, she offered him her hand, and they went on their way. For some time afterwards, this was a favorite funny anecdote of Hume’s, and he referred to her as the most astute theologian that he had ever met.

So I was thinking: would Hume, who recognized the humor, even charm, in the story of the fishseller, really disapprove of the toe-rubbing? He was such a sociable person; he thought that the most virtuous people were the charming, friendly,  conversational, generous people. Sharing a happy time and a laugh is among the best things one person can do for another.

My conclusion: Hume himself would look on the toe-rubbers, smile and laugh, and probably join in, getting great satisfaction out of the joke. I think that sometimes, in the pursuit of reason, some of us can forget the role that the little rituals and talismans we create are a sort of game or story that we engage in to facilitate friendly communication, and play. This can go for astrology, tarot cards, knocking on wood, whatever. I’m not talking about those who sell their services, hoodwinking people into believing that if they pay enough money, their fortunes can be changed. I’m talking about how most people actually engage in these practices. They might say sometimes that they believe, maybe a little, in the magic power of these practices and objects.

But if you observe people closely, most carry on as if they didn’t believe in actual magic. They still go to work, study hard, pay for insurance, and go about the business of life as if it’s up to them to take responsibility for as much of their future as they have control over, whether or not they had just read the tarot or rubbed a brass toe.

People need stories and games, rituals and talismans, and some need these things more than others. it’s as ancient a part of our nature as just about anything else. By taking it all too seriously, committed  rational thinkers run the danger of giving so-called magical thinking too much credit, and too much power. All of these things are human creations, and we should use them only insofar as they help our lives, as opportunities for fun and human bonding.

So as long as your life is not hindered by superstition, play with those cards with the mysterious and pretty pictures, splash around the ‘holy’ water, and touch the ‘lucky’ statue! Chill out, and have a good time, people! I believe this philosopher wouldn’t mind a bit.

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