David Hume turns 300 on May 7. It is fitting, I suppose, that a man so resolutely mortal should be enjoying such immortality. Most of Hume’s contemporaries are long forgotten. Hume, somehow, endures. His old pal Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), relates that in Hume’s dying days he told his friends, “I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented.”
It was that ancient and ugly Greek, Socrates, who first made the claim that philosophy is a preparation for death. He said it just before taking his hemlock, so we can assume that he was being serious. What Socrates meant, more or less, was that philosophy is an attempt to come to terms with life. We are born, through no particular fault of our own, and so we must deal with that ambivalent gift. Soon we discover that although we have been given life, we are fated, alas, to die. This all happens rather quickly: the being born, the growing old, the dying. The best thing, Socrates suggests, would be to embrace the brevity of our life, as we hurtle inexorably toward death, with a dose of equanimity. Since we are always engaged in the act of dying, thought Socrates, we might as well try to do it well.
David Hume was — at least on the matter of death and dying — a Socratic man. Even in his most canonical works, A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume was largely preoccupied with establishing limits. The way Hume saw it, our brief lives, crowned by unavoidable death, are unlikely to put us in touch with any grand absolutes. On the other hand, the human mind is an indubitably powerful tool and its powers of reasoning have penetrated many an enigma. Hume was as amazed by human knowledge as the next guy. He simply wanted us to be honest about its failings and limitations. Most of the things we know come from observing what happens around us and making the reasonable inference that what happens one day will continue to happen the next. The sun will rise, dropped objects will fall, harsh words will bite, etc. We don’t know the greater “why” of such things, suggested Hume, and there is no reason to think we ever will.
Perhaps Hume’s continuing relevance can be explained by the fact that with all the accumulation of scientific knowledge over the three centuries since he lived, the basic point remains true. For all the light we shine upon ourselves and our surroundings, we remain deeply and fundamentally in the dark.
Hume makes this point eloquently in one of his least read works. It is called Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and was only published after Hume’s death. The purpose of the dialogue is to express opinions that are inherently uncertain and yet relentlessly interesting. “Opposite sentiments,” writes Hume, “even without any decision, afford an agreeable amusement; and if the subject be curious and interesting, the book carries us, in a manner, into company; and unites the two greatest and purest pleasures of human life, study and society.”
Hume always found himself astraddle those two great pleasures, study and society. When he spent too much time studying, the mechanisms of human reason would take flight, leading him into seemingly logical conclusions that defied his actual experience of the world. Thinking hard in his study, Hume would reach the conclusion, for instance, that there is no such thing as causality. Then he would step outside and go about the business of daily life in the full assurance that cause and effect operates just as we’ve always experienced it. Everyday experience would do its work, grounding him again in reality. That contrast between reason and experience never failed to amuse, trouble, and delight Hume.
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a discussion between an all-around skeptic, Philo; a religious dogmatist and believer in abstract reason named Demea; and a moderate empiricist, Cleanthes. The three characters debate the existence of God and other light topics. Scholars have long debated the question as to which of the interlocutors represents Hume’s true position. The answer is that none of them do, and all of them do. Hume was fully reconciled to being bifurcated, trifurcated even, if we can put it that way. He tried to love the war that was always raging inside. In this, he was an honest philosopher, and an honest man. • 27 April 2011