Hume, giant of the Enligh-toe-nment

HE WAS a passionate defender of rationality and a scourge of the superstitious. Yet more than two centuries after his death, a statue of David Hume has become a lucky charm for those who hope some of the great philosopher's wisdom will rub off on them.

The prominent big toe of the 9ft statue, which stands on a 15ft plinth at the top of the High Street in Edinburgh, has become a touchstone for philosophy students and for children hoping to gain knowledge.

The sculptor Sandy Stoddart predicted the practice would become an "ancient tradition".

He said philosophy students had been known to touch the statue for knowledge since it went up in 1997, but it was only recently that tourists and children had been doing the same.

Mr Stoddart appeared both flattered and amused, pointing out that there were statues in the Vatican in Rome that no longer had any toes because they had been worn away by the adoration of the multitude.

However, he did not think David Hume, "the scourge of superstition and religiosity", would approve of having his toe rubbed for luck.

"The great thing is that it's so ironic that David Hume, who is the patron saint of all the atheists, should now have his toe adored," he said.

Just like spitting on the nearby Heart of the Midlothian for luck, Mr Stoddart believes the action will be passed down the generations. "We are seeing the birth of an ancient tradition with this toe rubbing," he said. "What we are seeing is the future - they will be doing this 100 years from now."

Mr Stoddart said it could be interpreted as a vacuous tourist activity, but those doing the rubbing were taking the first step on the road to the aesthetic life.

"The more people are seen to do that kind of thing, the more cultivated and cultured they become," he ventured.

However, ultimately he would prefer passers-by to appreciate the statue for its art rather than focusing on what it could do for them. "What we really want in Scotland is not toe-rubbing imposed by fascination; what we want is somebody to take a dispassionate and cultivated look at the statue," he said.

Chris Corry, 19, a second-year student at Edinburgh University, made sure that he touched the statue before his first exams last term. "A friend of mine told me there is this statue on the Royal Mile that you touch the feet of for knowledge. So I did it before my philosophy exam," he said.

Mr Corry duly passed all his exams, and yesterday he said: "I didn't work very hard, so it was probably luck ... maybe it [touching Hume's toe] had something to do with it."

Bob Watt, who has lifted up his grandchildren to touch the toe, said: "I got them to climb up and rub it. When they came down, I tested them and they were much wiser."

HIS PRONOUNCEMENTS

On religion: "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous."

On the nature of government: "Nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few."

On liberty: "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once."

On the true quality of beauty: "Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them."

On happiness: "When we reflect on the shortness and uncertainty of life, how despicable seem all our pursuits of happiness."

On leading a good life: "The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstruction in this way, or open up any new prospect, ought, so far, to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind."

On friends: "Truth springs from argument amongst friends."

On morality: "The rules of morality are not the conclusion of our reason."

TOUCH OF TRADITION

STATUES have become central to some long-held traditions:

• The left foot of Winston Churchill's bronze statue in the members' lobby of the House of Commons has been rubbed gold by MPs touching it for luck before going into the debating chamber. The habit has been going on for so long that hairline fractures have been found in the foot, and the Speaker's advisory committee on works of art is worried about the long-term implications.

• Pilgrims to the Vatican ritually kiss the foot of a bronze 13th-century statue of St Peter. However, so many people have kissed the right foot that today St Peter's toes are almost completely worn down.

• Before their exams, students at George Mason University in the American state of Virginia rub a toe of the statue to the man who gave his name to the institution and was one of the founding fathers of the United States.

• It is a Saturday night tradition in Glasgow to put a traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington's statue in Queen Street.