For Hume the bell tolls: What mark did the philosopher make?
As the tercentenary of Scotland's greatest philosopher approaches, our reporter considers the lessons he left for our political class
MY LITTLE straw poll was instructive. Standing by the statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile, I asked ten sets of passers-by whether they had heard of the 18th-century Scot described by the Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy as "the most important philosopher ever to write in English". Nine stared blankly at me, including six of Hume's countrymen and women. The only one who didn't turned out to be a philosophy graduate who evangelised on Hume at such length that I eventually made my excuses and scuttled away.
Sadly, that pony-tailed goth's familiarity with Hume was the exception rather than the rule. Less than a fortnight before the tercentenary of his birth, his fame doesn't rival that of fellow giants of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Robert Burns and Adam Smith, although as a philosopher he ranks today alongside Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Wittgenstein. Nor does popular awareness of Hume's ideas even begin to match his huge impact on history, philosophy, economics, religion or modern Scotland.
Indeed, although there is a small likeness of Hume in a recess at the National Portrait Gallery, it wasn't until 1995 that the bronze statue commissioned by the Saltire Society and sculpted by Sandy Stoddart was placed on the High Street outside the High Court. Then again, some of Hume's beliefs - particularly an ambiguity about religion that many suspected was barely concealed atheism - were enormously controversial in his lifetime. After he was buried in the Old Calton graveyard in a howling gale on the afternoon of 25 August, 1775, his friends stood guard night and day for a week over the ornate, classical mausoleum designed for him by his friend Robert Adam, pistols in one hand, flaming torches in the other, ready to repulse the expected attempts to desecrate his tomb. As Hume said shortly before his death: "I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians."
Hume's genius lay in his ability to affect a whole slew of disciplines from philosophy and economics to science and history through his core belief in the centrality of man, and our ability to effect change in the world around us. Adam Smith, whose free-market credo provided the moral underpinning for the expansion of Empire and rabid mercantilism of the Victorian era, was a disciple of Hume's.
Hume also provided the philosophical bedrock for Thatcherism.
The Iron Lady saw in Hume, from whom she extracted exactly those lessons she wanted to hear, a fellow traveller. His stress on the free will of the individual, his belief that nothing in life is pre-ordained and that we have the chance to change our circumstances for the better, chimed with her worldview. When Hume said that "the greatest number (is] number one" or wrote that "avarice (is] the spur of industry", she would surely have applauded.
But there was far more to Hume than the rugged individualism that characterised Thatcher, and in many ways it's almost wince-inducing to imagine how vehement the arch-sceptic would been in his denunciation of today's Scottish politicians. The cornerstone of Hume's philosophy, and that of the Enlightenment in general, was a rejection of received wisdom, and a rigorous examination of all policy against reason. Hume asserted that "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence", and his belief in evidence-based policy constituted a thoroughgoing empiricism that would have jarred next to the opportunism and expediency of all today's main Scottish parties, for whom pre-conceived prejudice remains a driver of policy and analysis.
There are, however, many aspects of modern Scotland that Hume would have recognised, says Professor Michael Moss of Glasgow University. "There are definite parallels between Hume's Scotland and the Scotland of today," says Moss. "The milieu in which he lived was torn between the Union and the Jacobite legacy. There were two camps - the Whigs, who supported the Union and were largely metropolitan, and the Tories, who were split into two camps held together by their adherence to the principle of monarchy: those with a romantic attachment to Jacobitism, and the Protestants who dominated the Church of Scotland.
"In Hume's time, the Tories hankered for some notion of Scottishness, for an imagined past; today, the SNP are the equivalent of those Tories in that they share that same romantic attachment and because they see modern Scotland as a client state in which everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault. Hume had such powerful notions of the role of the individual, whose self-determination was at the heart of his philosophical outlook, that he would never externalise issues in this way."
Self-determination has strong Protestant antecedents, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Hume came from conventionally Tory, rural stock, with his father a landowning lawyer and his mother the daughter of Sir David Falconer, president of the College of Justice. Born just off the Royal Mile but privately tutored at the family estate in Chirnside, just outside of the Borders town of Duns, after his father died when he was a boy, Hume showed such brilliance that by the age of 12 he was studying at Edinburgh University.
Once there, instead of studying law he developed "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the pursuits of philosophy and general learning".By nature single-minded, he had a love of introspection that meant he was prone to bouts of debilitating depression, and at one stage came close to a nervous breakdown. A naturally garrulous soul, in later life he countered his dark moments through a love of socialising, backgammon, prodigious sessions of claret drinking and "rumbustious disputation". The latter was often undertaken in the company of fellow members of the Poker Club and the Select Society, two gentlemen's clubs whose fellow members included economist Adam Smith, artist Allan Ramsay, philosopher Adam Ferguson, and rhetorician Hugh Blair.
Clubs such as these were undoubtedly the engine room of the Scottish Enlightenment, but that was not why Hume attended. As he said: "Most fortunately it happens that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose... I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours amusement, I return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther."
Although of a cheery disposition, Hume occasionally had reason to be downcast. His first published work A Treatise Of Human Nature: Being An Attempt To Introduce The Experimental Method Of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects went into print when he was 26 and was immediately derided as "abstract and unintelligible". Hume later admitted that it "fell dead-born from the press without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots".
Although regarded as a brilliant thinker by many of the other key Enlightenment figures, and a big influence on opinion-formers like Smith and philosopher Thomas Reid, Hume's scepticism and belief in the centrality of man over God led to brushes with the Church - accusations of heresy were never far away - and to being overlooked for key jobs at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities.
Instead Hume managed to get a job as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, a position which put him in charge of a huge collection of books, access to which he used to write a million-word, six-volume work, The History Of England. A best-seller, it was described by Voltaire as "perhaps the best (history] ever written in any language."
Yet much as he loved Edinburgh, Hume yearned to make it in London, "as any Scot on the make did", according to Moss. He conscientiously removed every hint of Scots-English from his writings so that he wrote in what James Buchan, in his excellent book Capital Of The Mind, called "Southern English". He even changed his name from Home, as it had been at birth, to Hume so that "thae English glaekit buddies" could pronounce it more easily.But anti-Scottish feeling was rife in London, and once again a frustrated Hume moved on, this time to France, where by day he worked as under-secretary at the British Embassy and by night he was feted by the Parisian elite, befriending and then falling out with Rousseau. Just how battered he had been by his experience in London shone through in an exchange of letters with Gilbert Elliot, an old Edinburgh friend who told him to "love the French as much as you will; but above all continue still an Englishman". Hume's reply leaves nothing to the imagination: "I do not believe there is one Englishman in fifty who, if he heard I had broke my neck tonight, would be sorry. Some because I am not a Whig; some because I am not a Christian; and all because I am a Scotsman. Can you seriously talk of my continuing an Englishman?"
Although Hume loved the two years he spent in France, he finally felt the call of Edinburgh, saying of his Parisian high life: "I really wish often for the plain roughness of The Poker Club, to correct and qualify so much lusciousness". Yet he was also deeply ambivalent about Scotland, where he felt he had met with "nothing but insults and indignities".
If Hume felt unloved and unappreciated, he needn't have. On a personal level, Adam Smith declared him as "near to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit", while his theories took hold in America during the 19th century, and were disseminated throughout the Empire and Enlightenment Europe.
Attention to Hume's philosophical works grew after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumbers", while Schopenhauer said "there is more to be learned from each page of David Hume than from the collected philosophical works of Hegel, Herbart and Schleiermacher taken together." Even Karl Popper and Albert Einstein wrote of how they were energised by Hume's ideas.
Perhaps a fitting accolade comes from Elizabeth Radcliffe, president of the Virginia-based Hume Society. "David Hume is the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language," she said. "It is difficult to overestimate the legacy he left to the intellectual world. His writings have had a lasting influence in literary circles and in the disciplines of science, history, and economics, among others. The fact that we are poring over his theories 300 years after his birth is a tribute to the depth of intellect."
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