Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume is still a man for our times – Julian Baggini

Not so long ago, few would have disputed that David Hume was not only the greatest philosopher to come out of Scotland but also of Britain, if not the entire Western world.

The statue of philosopher David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The statue of philosopher David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

He was the leading figure in the 18th-century European Enlightenment at a time when Edinburgh was as much its centre as Paris.

But one ill-judged racist footnote – mild for its time – has seen Hume pilloried as a bigot. Placards denouncing him have been attached to his statue on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile while that city's university removed his name from one of its tower blocks.

It is a sign of our times that even a once undisputed genius has become a focus of conflict. We have become riddled with divisions: leavers vs remainers, nationalists vs unionists, metropolitan winners of globalisation and provincial left-behinds.

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Such schisms are not unique to the United Kingdom. The gulf between blue and red states in the USA is bigger than ever, with record numbers saying that they would not consider a supporter of a different political party to be a suitable life partner for their children. The tearing apart of the historically tight links between Ukraine and Russia is the most extreme example of our increasingly divided world.

Hume may be a victim of this polarisation but he also offers a model for how to overcome it. Hume became know as “the great infidel” for his critical views on religion but he was no atheist zealot. Hume enjoyed the company of many clerics, including the Jesuit monks at La Flèche in France who provided almost all of his intellectual stimulation in the years he spent in the village writing his first book.

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Thomas Carlyle attested that Hume “took much to the company of the younger clergy, not from a wish to bring them over to his opinions, for he never attempted to overturn any man’s principles, but they best understood his notions, and could furnish him with literary conversations”.

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Hugh Blair was once such clerical friend and when Hume was in Paris he sent him “common letters” to be read by “my Protestant Pastors”. To the Rev Robert Wallace he once wrote, “Why cannot all the World entertain different Opinions about any Subject, as amicably as we do?”

Despite this, it seems some were determined to portray Hume as a militant anti-cleric. When Hume met the famous novelist Rev Laurence Sterne in Paris in May 1764, where he delivered his last sermon, reports circulated they had clashed.

Sterne sternly denied this. “Mr Hume and I never had a dispute – I mean a serious, angry or petulant dispute, in our lives – indeed I should be exceedingly surprised to hear that David ever had an unpleasant contention with any man.”

Hume was as keen to avoid strife in politics as he was in religion. He despised factionalism. “When men act in a faction, they are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party.” These words should be read by every Conservative MP who voted for Boris Johnson as their leader, knowing he was not fit for the office.

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For Hume, the role of the government was to rule for all, not only its supporters. Factionalism undermines this by pitting group against group. In another sentence that resonates as much today as it did then, he wrote: “Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection to each other.”

Hume also had a warning for nationalist populists, who claim to stand up for “the will of the people” when in reality “the people” are not of one will. This portrays any who disagree as being against the will of the people – traitors, in effect. Under the guise of a unified national will, they in fact divide the country.

As Hume put it: “Public Spirit, methinks, shou’d engage us to love the Public, and to bear an equal Affection to all our Country-Men; not to hate one Half of them, under Colour of loving the Whole.”

Hume’s desire for peace and civility could make him something of a cautious conservative. As an historian of England, he believed that royal power had gone too far in the Tudor and Stuart eras.

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But he was opposed to Britain becoming a republic, believing it was a form of government only suitable for small states. His fear was the the leader of a republic could easily turn into a despot, whereas a constitutional monarch is held in check by parliament.

Holding up Hume as a role model today has become controversial because of that notorious footnote, which began “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites". But, like Hume, we should not be quick to judge harshly those who disagree with us.

Hume got race very wrong but the very fact that he made his remark in a footnote, prefaced by “I am apt to suspect” tells us that he was not a hard-boiled racist, merely a sincere thinker who had made the terrible mistake of believing then popular theories about racial difference.

To Hume, this looked like science and as someone who believed a wise man “proportions his belief to the evidence” there is no doubt that he would renounce this footnote in a flash today.

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One of our problems today is that we are intolerant of anyone who we think is wrong about something that matters a lot to us. Hume shows us that if instead we seek to understand each other, to converse calmly and intelligently, we will find that we will more easily correct each other’s errors and that more unites us than divides us.

Julian Baggini's book The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well is published by Princeton University Press

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