by Kevin Williamson
Yesterday* was the tercentenary of the birth of the 18thC Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), a man widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, and often spoken of in the same breath as Aristotle, Plato and Kant.
It was fitting that Scotland celebrated his 300th birthday with a national holiday, street parties, live televised debates on the relevance of his ideas, and innumerable press articles on his legacy today. People chanted his name on the streets and mothers lifted their children’s heads up to the sky to see clouds and stars and darkness. Because that’s all that is there.
Except we didn’t. There was barely a murmur of recognition, hardly a ripple of appreciative applause. The media ducked while the churches and state sang praise of lesser men. David Hume? Move along. Nothing to see here.
There is an honourable exception. Hume was a distinguished academic at Edinburgh University so it is no surprise, but appreciated nonetheless, that Edinburgh University have organised a series of events and lectures to mark his tercentenary.
In one of the few articles in the national press a reporter for The Scotsman stopped passers-by at Hume’s statue in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and inquired whether they knew who the guy with the manbreasts was. Not many did, and even fewer knew anything of his ideas.
Further down the Royal Mile a Parliament building lay empty of the usual politicos, awaiting a new influx of visionaries, chancers and careerists after 5th May. Politicians out on the campaign trail have more important things to do this week than halt their electoral bandwagons to sing the praises of a long dead philosopher.
Yet Hume, even from the grave, can still threaten to puncture their bubbles of conceit and deception:
“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”
Be wary of the zealot, the man of firm convictions, the rigid ideologue, the belligerent know-all, and the impassioned orator. Yet so many of us who like to expound on politics, life and ideas – and I include myself in the number – often shoot from the hip first rather than weigh things up carefully from every possible sceptical angle. More fool us.
It does come as a surprise that journalists haven’t stopped to honour the great man. After all, perhaps more than any other thinker, Hume promoted the best possible modus operandi for their trade: a healthy dose of scepticism.
Hume often challenged religious and moral authority and cultivated a new method of inquiry in order to do so. He ruffled a few feathers and continues to do so. As he approached death he commented drily: “I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.” In 18thC Scotland that would have covered just about everybody!
And perhaps (“perhaps” being my favourite Humeian word) therein lies the true reason for Hume’s 300th anniversary getting widely ignored. The same faiths whose spiritual leader taught the philosophical merits of forgiveness refuse to forgive or forget a man they considered a dangerous atheist. It would seem that Hume, despite his international reputation, is still regarded in some quarters as a beyond-the-pale heretic and intellectual outlaw.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on Hume. Some of his ideas are complex and difficult to understand. The Wikipedia page on Hume is a useful starting point but even there it’s not plain sailing. Nor should it be. Trying to understand Hume is akin to trying to understand ourselves, our motivations, our hopes and fears, and our unavoidable mortality. It takes time and a little effort but the rewards are plenty.
Roderick Graham’s recent biography The Great Infidel (Birlinn, £9.99), described by The Herald as “a tremendous, sometimes mischievous piece of work” is a good starting point. There is brand new interview (audio and transcript) of Roderick Graham on The Life of Hume which was posted on The Philosopher’s Zone on 23d April.
We take what we need from most philosophers. In this respect Hume is no different. But sometimes it’s useful to listen to what we don’t want to hear and get inside the heads of those with diametrically opposite points of view. This is one of the foundations of sceptical thinking. Reading writers and thinkers you broadly agree with is a one-way ticket to intellectual stagnation.
Hume enjoyed life to the full and understood too that there is more to life than the purely functional, the practical and the workaday. He once wrote that:
“Reading and sauntering and lownging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.”
I like that quote not least because it flies straight in the face of the godawful Protestant work ethic that has been a plague on our country for so many centuries. It should be engraved in large letters above every school in the land.
(*26th April was Hume’s birthday according to the old calendar. The new calendar has it as 7th May. Which gives the Scottish establishment and media one more crack of the whip at organising some appropriate celebrations.)