Who Was David Hume?

David Hume; portrait by Allan Ramsay, 1754
Edinburgh University Library, University of Edinburgh/Bridgeman Images
David Hume; portrait by Allan Ramsay, 1754

David Hume, who died in his native Edinburgh in 1776, has become something of a hero to academic philosophers. In 2009, he won first place in a large international poll of professors and graduate students who were asked to name the dead thinker with whom they most identified. The runners-up in this peculiar race were Aristotle and Kant. Hume beat them by a comfortable margin. Socrates only just made the top twenty.

This is quite a reversal of fortune for Hume, who failed in both of his attempts to get an academic job. In his own day, and into the nineteenth century, his philosophical writings were generally seen as perverse and destructive. Their goal was “to produce in the reader a complete distrust in his own faculties,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1815–1817. The best that could be said for Hume as a philosopher was that he provoked wiser thinkers to refute him in interesting ways. As a historian and essayist, though, Hume enjoyed almost immediate success. When James Boswell called him “the greatest Writer in Brittain”—this was in 1762, before Boswell transferred his allegiance to Dr. Johnson—he was thinking mainly of Hume’s History of England, which remained popular for much of the nineteenth century. “HUME (David), the Historian” is how the British Library rather conservatively still catalogued him in the 1980s.

Hume the philosopher did have his early admirers, but they had to be careful what they said about him. Six months after Hume’s death, one of his closest friends, Adam Smith, implicitly likened him to Socrates, which caused a scandal. Smith had recently published a controversial treatise on economics, The Wealth of Nations, yet his eulogy of Hume, and especially his account of Hume’s composure in the face of death, “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” In a published account of his visit to the expiring Hume, Smith reported that he had found him making jokes about the underworld, apropos a satire of Lucian’s, and in good spirits, as usual:

Thus died our most excellent, and never-to-be-forgotten friend…. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime, and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.

Educated readers of the time will have heard in Smith’s effusive words an echo of Plato’s encomium on the death of Socrates (“Such…was the end of our comrade, who was…of all those whom we knew…the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man”). The problem was that Hume was widely known to have been some sort of infidel. He was therefore clearly a reprehensible fellow, albeit a jovial one,…

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