My Top Shelf – 29 – Hume


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



David Hume

Edited by L A Selby-Bigge, Second Edition, 1902; reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1977; rebound in stone cloth boards with Mediterranean half blue leather, with gold print on red label.

Either as a man or as a philosopher, the name of David Hume is fit to be mentioned in the company of Spinoza and Kant.

He was born in Edinburgh on 26 April 1711.  He was happy to have come from a good family.  His father was a lawyer who owned a large estate at Ninewells that had been held in the Hume or Home family for centuries.  His mother was the daughter of the President of the Court of Justice.  He lost his father when he was very young.  His mother was a strict Calvinist.  Like Spinoza, Hume lost God early; like Kant, he was put off religious fanatics early.  The Scottish Sunday tended to be very dour and drab.

David spent three years at Edinburgh University, starting when he was not quite twelve years of age.  He did a general course in Greek, Logic, Metaphysics and Natural Philosophy.  University as such left no deep imprint on him; nor did the Church.

At the age of only eighteen years he embarked on the work that was to be his most famous, A Treatise of Human Nature.  He experienced a psychosomatic condition that turned him from a ‘tall, lean, raw-boned youth’ to a ‘sturdy robust healthful like fellow … with a ruddy complexion and a cheerful Countenance’. The portraits of Hume do show a very full face, at peace, with a kind of restful somnolence.  The portrait by Allan Ramsay shows a face at once serene yet somehow vulnerable.  While he was still ill, Hume described it as ‘the Disease of the Learned’.  His doctor helpfully prescribed a ‘Course of Bitters & Anti-hysteric Pills’ and ‘an English pint of claret wine every day’, a course of treatment that is still faithfully followed to the letter by some who suffer from a ‘Disease of the Learned’.

Hume never married.  Sir Alfred Ayer was qualified to speak on this and said that Hume was ‘too thoroughly immersed in intellectual pursuits to qualify as an amorist’.

Hume spent two years at La Flèche, where Descartes had been educated, writing the Treatise.  It was published and, said Hume, ‘it fell dead-born from the Press’.  He went on to publish an Abstract, setting out the substance of his arguments.  He also published essays and later came to write The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding which was a re-write of part of the Treatise.  The present work has a section on miracles that Hume had deliberately omitted from the Treatise.  In it he said that ‘no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact that which it endeavours to establish’.

Hume had odd jobs in government positions, but he derived substantial income from his writing.  His six volume History of England was a great hit and a great money earner.  He was more famous for his History during his life than for his philosophy.  Montesquieu was impressed with the essays and he and Hume kept up a correspondence.  Voltaire said that ‘nothing can be added to the fame of this History, perhaps the best ever written in any language’.  It is still extremely readable.  Here is part of his judgment –and Hume was certainly judgmental in his History – on Mary Queen of Scots.

Her numerous misfortunes, the solitude of her long and tedious captivity, and the persecutions, to which she had been exposed on account of her religion, had wrought her up to a degree of bigotry during her later years; and such were the prevalent spirit and principles of the age, that it is the less wonder, if her zeal, her resentment, and her interest uniting, induced her to give consent to a design, which conspirators, actuated only by the first of these motives, had formed against the life of Elizabeth.

It is all there – balance, grace and rhythm.  As writers go, Hume was a natural.  The marginal note for the next paragraph reads:  ‘The Queen’s affected sorrow’.  As Russell dryly remarked, Hume ‘did not consider history worthy of philosophic treatment’. But what was entirely fundamental to Hume was that to be a philosopher was to be a man of letters.  That, sadly, is no longer the case.

When Adam Smith vacated the Chair of Logic, Hume would have been a natural selection, but the opposition of the church faction prevented the appointment.  But when he went to Paris, Hume was an instant success.  The French took to him with the same zeal that they were later to show toward Miles Davis.  As Lytton Strachey said, ‘He was flattered by princes, worshipped by fine ladies, and treated as an oracle by the philosophers’.

He was, like Gibbon after him, fluent in French.  One of his women admirers was the Comtesse de Boufflers.  She was younger than Hume, le bon David – and the mistress of a Prince of the Blood, the Prince de Conti.  Although she wanted to marry the Prince after presumably outliving her husband, she appears to have fallen for the corpulent Scot.

The relationship was not consummated and le bon David may have been well out of it.  It is difficult to avoid the impression that he was punching well above his weight with these French women.  In one petulant letter to Hume, the Comtesse asked, ‘Do you want to confirm me in the idea which I hold, that your sex like to be handled roughly … to confess to you my opinion, the majority seem to have by nature servile souls?’  On one occasion the Comtesse upbraided the Maréchale de Mirepoix, her intimate friend, for associating with Madame de Pompadour, saying, ‘She is, after all, merely the first prostitute of the Kingdom’.  It is said that Madame de Mirepoix quietly returned, ‘Don’t ask me to count up to number three’. That is cattiness of a very big hitting calibre, the stuff of European championships.

Hume was taken in by Rousseau – as, surprisingly enough, Kant was to be.  They got on famously until Rousseau’s paranoia broke out and he behaved appallingly toward Hume, as he tended to do to anyone who ever got close to him (such as his children).

Hume was wealthy and successful and feted.  He built a house in New Town off St. Andrew’s Square, which came to be known as St. David’s Street in his honour.  He worked on his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  They were published after his death, for the same reason that Spinoza left his Ethics to be published after his death.

Like Spinoza and Kant, Hume had run-ins with government over his views on religion, but like them, Hume died at peace with himself.  He told his doctor that ‘I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire’.  He could not understand why people were asking him if he would retreat from his unbelief in God in the face of death. According to Ayer, Boswell intruded on him to see ‘how he was handling the prospect of death; Hume convinced Boswell that he faced the prospect serenely; equally characteristically, Dr. Johnson insisted that Hume must have been lying’.

In his autobiographical Memoir, Hume said this of himself:

I was 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.

Hume had a mind like a lightning conductor.  He was like one of those who come along every hundred years or so in the law, who can put novel ideas so simply and surely that you wonder how people of goodwill could seek to argue the contrary.  They have a beguiling simplicity that charms those who are not so gifted, and for that reason they are greatly feared by the guardians of the intellectual peace who are also not so gifted.

Hume had said that ‘Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous’.  Russell said:  ‘He has no right to say this.  ‘Dangerous’ is a causal word, and a sceptic as to causation cannot know that anything is ‘dangerous’.’  Russell then went on to say:

In fact, in the later portions of the Treatise, Hume forgets all about his fundamental doubts, and writes much as any other enlightened moralist of his time might have written; he applies to his doubts the remedy that he recommends, namely ‘carelessness and inattention’.  In a sense, his scepticism is insincere, since he cannot maintain it in practice.  It has, however, this awkward consequence, that it paralyses every effort to prove one line of action better than another.

Hume’s scepticism in philosophy never interfered with his enjoyment of life.  Those who fear a void opening up after Hume’s destruction of empiricism and his questioning of causation should take solace from the six volumes of his History of England.  How could anyone write a history of England from The Invasion of Julius Caesar to The Revolution in 1688 without giving full weight to what every person understands by the word ‘causation’ on every single page?  Even the little citation above, about Mary Queen of Scots, is laced with references to causation from beginning to end.  We may therefore doubt whether the philosophy of David Hume was as much a guide for him in the conduct of his life as has appeared to be the case with Spinoza and Kant.  After Rousseau had affronted Hume for the third time, and as Hume realised that Rousseau was mad rather than bad, he wrote to his Comtesse:

For the purpose of life and conduct, and society, a little good sense is surely better than all the genius, and a little good humour than this extreme sensibility.

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