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The Great Infidel at 300

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What do you get a man for his 300th birthday? For David Hume, the University of Edinburgh has decided to pay him the kind of tribute it withheld during his lifetime, when the most important philosopher of the mid-18th century was denied the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatical Philosophy. Having come to terms with Hume's heresies, the most notorious of which was placing certainty about God's existence beyond the ken of mortal knowledge, the university held a birthday celebration on April 26 and is sponsoring a series of events commemorating the life and achievement of The Great Infidel. If Hume is looking down -- a development that would come as quite a shock to him -- surely, he is pleased.

The intellectual highlight of the Tercentenary Celebration will take place this summer, when Amartya Sen is scheduled to deliver the university's Enlightenment Lecture. The Scottish Enlightenment has always been overshadowed by the French, a tribute more to its strong personalities than enduring ideas. Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume were a more subdued lot than Voltaire, d'Alembert, and Diderot, but they left an intellectual legacy that has proven more durable and humane.

That legacy marries a deep skepticism about the powers of reason with an abiding faith in the wisdom of feeling. Hume provided its most memorable and extreme expression when he said that, "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." This may seem like a strange formulation -- if reason is a slave to the passions, how could it do otherwise than obey them? -- but Hume is trying to balance a scientific conclusion about the tendencies of human nature with a moral conviction about the dangers of thwarting them. He believed that, by nature, we feel our way through the world, with reason acting the part of a capable valet, occasionally lending advice, but mostly justifying decisions we've already made. This did not mean that we couldn't force reason to take the lead, merely that, if we did so, it would inevitably lead us astray.

Hume reached this conclusion after his first foray into philosophy, when he was led by his own considerable powers of reason "into such dreary solitudes, and rough passages, as I have hitherto met." He was not yet 20, but he had already given up on a promising career in law, the study of which had brought him to Edinburgh in 1723 when he was only 12. Frightfully precocious, he left just a few years later without taking a degree to spend almost a decade "confined to my self & Library for Diversion." He had just enough income from his family to enjoy the shabby nobility of a struggling academic and spent his days reading widely, "sometimes a Philosopher, sometimes a Poet," all in service of a new goal, his life's goal, becoming a man of letters.

A "love of literary fame," Hume would later admit, is "my ruling passion." It led him to try his hand writing essays and, later, the histories that brought him wealth and popular acclaim, but as a young man, it prodded him in the direction of Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Hobbes. He took up the great challenge of 18th century philosophy, to do for human nature what Isaac Newton had done for the natural world, to establish a "Science of Man."

This is how Hume spent the end of his adolescence, engaged in a solitary inquiry that saw him steadily strip away any beliefs about the world that could not withstand logical scrutiny. Typically, the aim of such efforts is to crack the hard shell of popular opinion to reveal the seeds of certain truth, but Hume found the exercise more akin to peeling an onion. It left him teary-eyed and empty handed. Our "understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself," he said, "and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence of any proposition, either in philosophy or common life."

The young man fell into a funk -- reason was getting him nowhere. He grew pale and shed weight, finding himself by turns anxious and fatigued. Finally, he consulted a physician, who, upon hearing his symptoms, informed the young man that he had the "Disease of the Learned" and prescribed a regimen of "Anti-hysteric Pills," long horseback rides, and English claret. You could do worse for 18th-century medicine, but the cure was fairly obvious: Hume had to occasionally leave his thoughts behind. "I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour's amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter them any farther."

Hume's philosophical odyssey culminated in A Treatise of Human Nature, not a very modest title, especially for a first work, but then again the 27 year-old author had immortal longings. They would have to wait. "Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature," he declared in his brief autobiography. "It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots." Unfortunately, for Hume, only the first part of that sentence is true. The Treatise was by no means a bestseller, a fate he attributed more to style than substance, but it still branded him a skeptic -- a radical skeptic, whose work left no room for certainty, not about the world we lived in, much less about a promised land beyond.

Such attacks were not altogether unfair, but they omitted the fact that the Treatise was primarily concerned with how we formed our beliefs, not whether they could withstand skeptical scrutiny. Moreover, insofar as Hume had argued that the felt necessities of experience shaped and strengthened our beliefs, he was merely following the lead of the most distinguished philosopher in Scotland, Francis Hutcheson, who had made similar arguments in his own work on ethics and aesthetics. The difference was that Hume had extended his analysis to cover all beliefs, fixing them, as a category, firmly in the realm of sensibility, away from reasoned truth. He also declined to argue, as Hutchesen before him and Thomas Reid after, that our feelings were themselves the sentiments of a higher power embroidered in our very being. Human nature spoke clearly, but for Hume, it didn't bother explaining itself.

The French rejoiced. They delighted in Hume's skepticism and celebrated the Treatise, so much so that, when he arrived in Paris as Secretary to the British Ambassador in 1763, he received a hero's welcome. More than flattered, Hume was stunned. "[C]an I ever forget," he wrote Adam Smith, "that it is the very same Species, that wou'd scarce show me common Civilities a very few Years ago at Edinburgh, who now receive me with such applause in Paris?"

The philosophes, in particular, hailed this dragon-slayer of dogma. "I am hees great admeerer," Voltaire hissed, irreverently dubbing him my St. David. The Gallic gremlin had already been banned from Paris, so the two men never met. Still, it is safe to say that the admiration was not entirely mutual. Not only was Hume unconvinced of Voltaire's merits as a philosopher, his writing embraced the acid-tongued certainty that seemed the popular vice of Parisian salons. Hume, for his part, was temperamentally agnostic, his skepticism muted and ecumenical. He was no more likely to be an evangelist for the Cult of Reason than he was the Church of Rome.

Though he toyed with the idea of remaining in France, Hume returned to Edinburgh in 1769 after a brief detour through London. It was only a few years before he fell into the slow and gradual decline that saw him succumb to illness in August of 1776. The philosopher who woke Kant from his dogmatic slumbers had only begun to enjoy the recognition he so richly deserved. We all die too soon, but some of us feel the pain more keenly.

To the very end, however, Hume retained those qualities that always made the greatest impression on those around him: his good humor, warm wit, and gentle decency. As Smith said in a short tribute, "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 permit."

Once again, Hume would have been pleased. Enlightenment, if it meant anything to him, meant the wisdom that came from reckoning with the greatest of frailties, human ignorance. It was a practice that lent itself to sensibility as much as science -- the sensibility that allowed for science -- for it showed a particular care for the very things to which dogmas are indifferent, inconvenient facts and human eccentricity. It compelled us to be patient with others, with the world and most of all with ourselves, in service of understanding and equanimity, of getting by as well as getting along. "Be a philosopher," Hume said, "but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."

Wise advice. Happy birthday, David Hume.

John Paul Rollert is a doctoral student at The Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His essay "Reversed on Appeal: The Uncertain Future of President Obama's 'Empathy Standard'" was recently published by the Yale Law Journal Online.