David Hume
David Hume

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David Hume

1 Prelude: Hume's death

In mid-August 1776 crowds formed outside the family home of David Hume. Hume was a pivotal figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and his imminent death was widely anticipated. The crowds were anxious to know how he was facing up to his coming demise.

Hume is best known today as a historian (through his History of England of 1754–62) and a philosopher. His Treatise of Human Nature is regarded by many as one of the most significant philosophical works to have been written in English. But when it originally appeared in 1739 it had, in Hume's words, ‘fallen dead-born from the press’ (Hume, 1962, p. 305). Hume attributed this lack of commercial success to an overly academic style, and set about publishing a more reader-friendly version in the form of two Enquiries in 1748 and 1751 (Hume, 1975). He dithered over whether or not to include some new material in the first of these, eventually choosing to do so in a chapter called ‘On miracles’. The choice led to instant notoriety. In the chapter he argued that no reasonable person should believe in miracles, particularly not the miracles described in religious scripture. (To his regret, few at the time bothered to read the other parts of the Enquiries.)

As a result of that chapter, along with several later essays, Hume became infamous in his day as a critic of ‘religious superstition’. His views on religion were rarely published openly, but this did not prevent them becoming known (and often distorted). In 1755 he nearly went too far. In an essay called ‘Of the immortality of the soul’ he cast doubt on a doctrine that was, and is, central to most religions: that we survive the death of our bodies. After consulting with some eminent reviewers, his publisher withdrew the essay from the printers. A few pre-publication copies escaped into the public arena all the same, and Hume's scandalous reputation was sealed. The reason people gathered at his home in 1776 was to see if ‘the great infidel’ would succumb to the promise of an afterlife by recanting his unpopular views.

Samuel Johnson (1709–84) was a defender of the solace provided by thoughts of an afterlife, and had anticipated this moment as early as 1768. His biographer James Boswell (1740–95) reports the following exchange:

Boswell: David Hume said to me he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.

Johnson: Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad. If he does not think so, he lies. He may tell you he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him? When he dies, he at least gives up all that he has.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Joseph Wright of Derby, The Old Man and Death, 1773, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Photo: reproduced by courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection

Many would regard fear at his approaching death as indicating Hume to be disingenuous in his scepticism about religion: to deny God was to risk damnation. But Hume had in fact dismissed many years earlier the supposition that mortal fear indicated belief in an afterlife (see section 4), claiming it should properly be seen as attachment to one's present and only existence.

Fear of death is the theme of the painting by Wright of Derby (1734–97). The skeleton, presumably taken from an anatomical print, would have been more alarming, or at least less funny, two centuries ago, but the fear on the man's face is clear enough. The painting is based on a fable by Aesop called Death and the Woodsman, as adapted in one of a popular series of poems by Jean de la Fontaine (1621–95). The moral of the painting is expressed in the final lines of the poem:

A poor woodsman, covered in foliage,

Burdened by branches and years,

Groaning and bent, walks in heavy steps,

Struggling to reach his smoky cottage.

Finally, out of energy and in great pain,

He lays down his load and ponders his misery.

‘What pleasure have I had since entering this world?

Is anyone on this globe worse off?

So often without bread, never any rest!’

His wife, his children, soldiers, tax officers,

Debt, and drudgery

Complete for him this image of misfortune.

He calls on Death, who comes without delay,

Asking what is required.

‘I want you’, he says, ‘to help me

Reload this wood. Then you can go.’

Death cures all;

But let us not hurry things along.

Sooner to suffer than to die,

That is the maxim of men.

(Fontaine, 1946, pp. 19–21; trans. Barber and Poirier)

Boswell: Foote, Sir, told me that when he was very ill he was not afraid to die.

Johnson: It is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote's breast, or to Hume's breast, and threaten to kill them, and you'll see how they behave.

(Boswell, 1986, p. 148)

Eight years later, Boswell travelled to Hume's house with ‘a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes’ (Wain, 1990, p. 247).

Boswell found Hume to be:

lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present … He seemed to be placid and even cheerful … He said he was just approaching to his end … He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal … I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered 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 … I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time.

(Wain, 1990, pp. 247–50)

The economist Adam Smith (1723–90) was a close friend and colleague of Hume, and reported the same high spirits in letters first to Hume himself (22 August 1776):

You have, in a declining state of health, under an exhausting disease, for more than two years together now looked at the approach of death with a steady cheerfulness such as very few men have been able to maintain for a few hours, though otherwise in the most perfect health.

(Mossner and Ross, 1987, p.206)

and later to Hume's literary executor, William Strahan (9 November 1776):

His symptoms, however, soon returned with their usual violence, and from that moment he gave up all thoughts of recovery, but submitted with the utmost cheerfulness, and the most perfect complacency and resignation. Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. ‘I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmondstone,’ said Doctor Dundas to him one day, ‘that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovery.’ ‘Doctor,’ said he, ‘as I believe you would not choose to tell anything but the truth, you had better tell him 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.’ …

I told him that, though I was sensible how very much he was weakened, and that appearances were in many respects very bad, yet his cheerfulness was still so great, the spirit of life seemed still to be so very strong in him, that I could not help entertaining some faint hopes. He answered, ‘Your hopes are groundless. An habitual diarrhoea of more than a year's standing, would be a very bad disease at any age: at my age it is a mortal one. When I lie down in the evening, I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning, weaker than when I lay down in the evening. I am sensible, besides, that some of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘if it must be so you have at least the satisfaction of leaving all your friends, your brother's family in particular, in great prosperity.’ He said that he felt that satisfaction so sensibly, that when he was reading, a few days before, Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. ‘I could not well imagine’, said he, ‘what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay. I have done everything of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am now likely to leave them; I, therefore, have all reason to die contented.’ He then diverted himself with inventing several jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit the character of Charon to return to them. ‘Upon further consideration’, said he, ‘I thought I might say to him: “Good Charon, I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the public receives the alterations.” But Charon would answer, “When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There will be no end of such excuses; so, honest friend, please step into the boat.” But I might still urge, “Have a little patience, good Charon. I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.“

(Mossner and Ross, 1987, pp. 217–21)

Charon is a character in Greek mythology (later recorded and satirised by the Greek writer Lucian) who ferries often reluctant souls across the river Styx to Hades on their journey to an afterlife.

Hume died shortly after this reported exchange.

See Plate 1 (portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1713–84), which relates to the comment below.

Lord Charlemont said of Hume: ‘Nature, I believe, never formed any man more unlike his real character than David Hume … The powers of physiognomy were baffled by his countenance; neither could the most skilful in that science pretend to discover the smallest trace of the faculties of his mind in the unmeaning features of his visage. His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless, and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher’ (quoted in Warburton, 2002, p. 41).

Spiritless though his eyes may have been, his vacant stare had disturbing effects. The philosophe d'Alembert advised him in 1766: ‘It is not necessary to gaze intently at the people you are speaking to … it might play you a nasty trick’. It did. After a collapse in their friendship, Rousseau wrote of Hume: ‘The external features and the demeanour of le bon David denote a good man. But where, Great God, did this good man get those eyes with which he transfixes his friends?’ Hume's ‘ardent and mocking’ stare so unnerved Rousseau on their last evening together, he claimed, that he attempted to stare back but fell into a ‘giddy and confused state’, leading to their split. Hume claimed to be unaware of his habit (quotations in this paragraph Mossner, 1980, pp. 477, 529, 522 respectively).

Click to view Plate 1: Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1766, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Photo: SNPG/Bridgeman Art Library [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Hume's reportedly high spirits in the face of death struck a dissonant chord with many of his religious opponents. Johnson insisted to Boswell that Hume must have been pretending to be cheerful (Boswell, 1971, p.155). The following comment on Adam Smith's letter to Strahan was sent anonymously to the Weekly Magazine, or Edinburgh Amusement (1777, vol.36, pp. 139–41):

Doubtless the doctor [i.e. Smith] intends a panegyric upon his friend; but in truth the publication of his frolicsome behavior in dying is a satire which must expose Mr Hume's memory to the pity, if not to the contempt, of the truly wise … From the doctor's narrative of Mr Hume's dying behavior, a Christian cannot easily allow that the concluding eulogy of his character fairly follows. [In his letter, Smith had described Hume as ‘approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.] … It is an affecting picture the doctor exhibits to view. A man of distinguished intellectual powers acting the fool at his end – dying indecently humorous – … dying in a manner that betrayed the darkest ignorance of an Indian savage … Can anything be more frivolous, more childish, more indecently wanton and presumptuous in a dying man, perceiving himself on the verge of time, than Mr Hume's sportful dialogue with Charon? … We are told that Mr Hume was quite resigned. Resigned! To what? Not to the will of God … How miserable the comforter, who could minister no other consolation to his dying friend, than that he was to leave his friends in great prosperity!… Compare together a sceptical philosopher and a scripture saint in dying, and see the abject meanness into which the one sinks, the grandeur, in hope of everlasting glory, to which the other rises.

Reacting to the same letter by Smith, the Bishop of Norwich, George Horne (1730–92), wrote anonymously to Adam Smith in 1777. Though addressed to individuals, such letters were in effect public statements (this one was eventually published in Horne, 1806, pp. xvii–xxi):

You have been lately employed in embalming a philosopher - his body, I believe I must say, for concerning the other part of him, neither you nor he seem to have entertained an idea, sleeping or waking …

Sir, friend as I am to freedom of opinion, … I am rather sorry, methinks, that men should judge so variously of Mr Hume's philosophical speculations. For since the design of them is to banish out of the world every idea of truth and comfort, salvation and immortality, a future state, and the providence and even existence of God, it seems a pity that we cannot be all of a mind about them, though we might have formerly liked to hear the author crack a joke, over a bottle, in his lifetime. And I would have been well pleased to have been informed by you, Sir, that, before his death, he had ceased to number among his happy effusions tracts of this kind and tendency …

Are you sure, and can you make us sure, that there really exist no such things as a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments? If so, all is well. Let us then, in our last hours, read Lucian, and play at whist, and droll upon [i.e. joke about] Charon and his boat; let us die as foolish and insensible, as much like our brother philosophers, the calves of the field and the asses of the desert, as we can … But if such things be [i.e. if God and a future state exist], as they most certainly are, is it right in you, Sir, to hold up to our view, as ‘perfectly wise and virtuous’, the character and conduct of one who seems to have been possessed with an incurable antipathy to all that is called religion; and who strained every nerve to explode, suppress, and extirpate the spirit of it among men, that its very name, if he could effect it, might no more be had in remembrance? Are we, do you imagine, to be reconciled to a character of this sort, and fall in love with it, because its owner was good company, and knew how to manage his cards? Low as the age is fallen, I will venture to hope it has grace enough yet left to resent such usage as this.

The vehemence and explicitness of these and other attacks on Hume's character is at odds with the charity often extended to those who have recently died. Ten years later Smith expressed his amazement at the reaction to Hume's temperament before his death, and to his own description of it in the letter to Strahan:

A single, and as I thought, a very harmless sheet of paper which I happened to write concerning the death of our late friend, Mr Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain [i.e. Smith's The Wealth of Nations, 1776, a groundbreaking work in economics].

(Quoted in Scott, 1937, p. 283)

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