The Great Infidel
The Great Infidel
David Hume’s was one of the greatest minds to come out of Scotland. He managed, through his writing, to turn established (and Establishment) philosophy on its head, introducing the latest trends in European thought to our rather blinkered shores, and forcing his peers to reevaluate their various grand, groundless suppositions. He showed the great fallacy of inductive logic, which says that if x has happened a thousand times before then it is bound to happen again – a fallacy upon which much of the science of his time was based – and made the famous assertion that ‘reason is a slave to the passions’. But he also offered several sceptical treatments of the nature and existence of God, and refused Him a place in his moral theories, which led to his being branded the Great Infidel, refused a teaching post at Edinburgh University, and having to retreat to lewd Europe, where the majority of the intelligentsia couldn’t give two hoots about God, His existence or otherwise. He was a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, without whom it would have had an altogether different, less exciting, nature – which makes him a rather interesting subject for a biography. So Roderick Graham, another of Edinburgh’s sons, decided to write one, uncovering a deal of new information on Hume’s life in the process.
What was it that originally motivated you to write a biography of DH?
Because I was born and bred in Edinburgh, I always knew that Hume was one of the great men of the city. But I never quite knew why. ‘Why was David Hume famous, mother?’ ‘Because he was a philosopher.’ And that shut the whole thing off – you don’t want to know any more than that. Too difficult. Too complicated. This stayed with me up until four or five years ago, when I realised I wanted to know more about this man who was so famous. So I read him, and thought, ‘Oh, what an interesting life!’ First of all, he didn’t describe himself as a philosopher, he said he was a historian. His philosophy was part of his life.
As I discovered more and more about him, I fell in love with David Hume as part of the 18th century, and of 18th century Edinburgh. He exhibited so many of that century’s traits, and took part in so much of it – not only in Edinburgh but in France and London (which he didn’t like, describing it as a town ‘filled with the barbarians that dwell on the banks of the Thames.’ They didn’t take to him very well, either). Anyway, I thought I would look at the possibilities of doing a biography.
The first thing I did, obviously, was read A Treatise on Human Nature, the key work in his philosophy. It was none too easy. So I thought I might write a biography of somebody easier. I left it sitting aside for about a year, but it kept nagging at me so I read it again and discovered the second time round that it was plain as a pikestaff. So off I went, and started researching Hume. There was a monumental life of Hume written by an academic back in the 1950s, but a lot of research has been done and a lot of material has appeared since then, which rendered much of that monster quite plainly wrong. He became the one to beat.
Hume was a great friend. So many people liked him. In 18th century Edinburgh, when you dined with friends you tipped the servants. (Not something I find a great need to do nowadays.) Well, Hume was always broke, and never tipped the servants, but the servants never minded. He was always welcome. Whenever he left the master of the house was always in such a good mood because Hume had been there. He was also thought to be slightly shocking – very shocking, rather. In the Treatise he did something appalling: he never mentioned God. He didn’t say that God didn’t exist, he just never mentioned him. It was completely irrelevant. Immediately everyone said ‘Oh, he’s an atheist’. And when he died, at his house in St Andrews’ Square, and the funeral cortege was leaving to go to Calton Burial Ground, somebody in the crowd shouted out ‘You can’t! He’s an atheist!’ And somebody else shouted out ‘Ah, but you can! He was honest!’
That, I think, was what attracted me to Hume. He made enemies, he didn’t like making enemies, he didn’t like upsetting his friends. But he had to say what he believed. What he believed in was mankind, was humanity. He got himself into general hot water by writing the Treatise; he was a Whig born and bred. His father was part farmer, part advocate, died when Hume was very young. He was destined for the law, but hated it and gave up the studies halfway through (in fact, he’s Edinburgh University’s most celebrated dropout!) He decided to be a writer instead.
But Hume did write about religion, the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. He must have mentioned God there?
He did write about religion, and he did write about God a great deal. He mentioned the Scriptures a great deal; he wrote on various tendentious subjects such as suicide – he shocked everybody by saying there was no reason why suicide should be thought of as a sin. If the pain of life is too great, you have the capacity to finish it. Nowhere in the Bible is suicide condemned – it doesn’t appear in Scripture, only in the teachings of the Church. He thought this was wrong, that the choice should be yours. He wrote about the immortality of the soul, which he couldn’t conceive of whatsoever. He thought you died, and that was the end of your life. He wrote about miracles, bringing his philosophy to bear by simply saying that a miracle, to be a miracle, must be unbelievable. If you can believe in it, it’s not a miracle. It’s just an event. Therefore you must have an act of faith to allow you to believe in a miracle, an act of faith is a miracle. Which you can’t believe in. Therefore there are no such things as miracles; there are only what people believe to be miracles.
His most influential works on religion were his Dialogues, which weren’t published until after his death. He showed them to quite a few people whilst he was alive and they all said ‘Wait until you’re dead.’ Adam Smith, in fact, begged him never to publish them at all. But in his will he actually left the Dialogues to Smith to publish, and Smith lost his bottle and passed them along to Hume’s brother, who did finally publish them. They’re a debate as to whether there is an innate religion, whether we’re born with a sense of the knowledge of God – that would be ‘natural religion’ – or whether we come to believe it because we’re taught it – which would be ‘deism’, a God created by man to serve his own purposes – or whether there is a divine spark.
He rides both horses, really, though this was written by somebody who didn’t believe. But as a strict philosopher he could find no proof for the non-existence of God. It all caused him a great deal of trouble. A lady friend who came to see him as he was dying wished him well, and begged that he ‘burn all his wee bookies.’
Did she mean all of them, including what was published? Or was that a reference to things she didn’t even know about?
I think it was a reference to things she didn’t even know about as well. He wrote a lot of political essays, and his history was very political. He was born a Whig, and believed in Whiggery – in other words, he was against the Jacobite cause, anti-supreme monarch, against the Stuarts and Bonny Prince Charlie. None of that – though he met him, oddly enough.
How did he meet him?
I was afraid you’d ask that. He had been secretary to an emissary that had gone to Vienna. On the way back from Vienna they stopped at St Germaine aux Lait to change horses. They were having lunch at the inn, and there were some soldiers there who realised these people were British, and said ‘Come through the back room, there’s something you ought to see.’ And there, in manacles, was Charles Edward Stuart, en route from exile in Italy. He had been thrown out of Paris the night before. Hume records this, but does not record whether they exchanged a single word. It’s a conversation one would love to have known about. But I think Charles was drunk, and they probably wouldn’t have come to anything.
He became very disillusioned with the jobbery, the corruption, inside the Whig party, and he felt that they had lost their way. He criticised them, at which point the Whigs said ‘Oh, you’re a Tory.’ He then continued in his history and criticised the Tories, at which point they said ‘Oh, you’re really a Whig.’ Dr Johnson said of him ‘He is only a Tory by accident.’ Hume simply believed ‘A plague on both your houses.’ Everybody can be wrong and everybody can be right – there’s no divine path of righteousness running through any political party. He did think that political parties were necessary, but they had to be taken with large pinches of salt.
The thing I like about Hume is that he is looking for the way things don’t quite add up. He does that both logically and passionately, the sense of ‘Here I am, I’m alive, but I didn’t ask to be born. But I’m equipped with this particular brain and body, and I’m going to set about putting down what this means.’ When he finds that things are not following logic, you then reach conclusions that seem to be contradictory – and he has the courage to state that, and accept that in that sense. I wouldn’t even call him modern; it’s like someone who isn’t shackled by conventions.
Not at all. He broke the law. One of his great statements in the Treatise is that reason is, or should be, no more than the slave of the passions. You must remember that this was written n the 18th century, so the words are slightly different in meanings. By the passions he didn’t mean unbridled lust. It’s more like mediaeval humours – the sentiments, your feelings and emotions. And your experience. Now, reason should be their slave, but in what way? Does reason do what they want? No, Hume wasn’t answering or proposing that. He was, of course, entirely classically trained (fluent Latin, etc). He would have remembered that the man holding the laurel leaf over the victor’s head in Rome on his triumph also whispered into his ear ‘Remember, you are only a man.’ And that man was a slave. In the slave’s view reason’s purpose was to moderate - the great 18th century thought: balance – the passions and the emotions. But it’s through the sentiments, and therefore our own experience, that we actually learn.
Hume took the example of billiard balls. He was a keen billiard player, had learned at university. He said that if you found someone who had never seen a billiard table, who didn’t know anything about it, and put a billiard ball in the middle of the table and rolled another ball up to hit it, there is no reason why that man should presume the second ball would move. We all know it will, but that’s experience, not reason. Reason doesn’t work. Experience works.
My son is just studying Zeno, who says that there is no proof of any motion whatsoever.
Oh, yes. That’s the extreme version, which lets Bishop Berkeley have his fun. Hume didn’t actually comment much on Berkeley.
I suppose it’s easy to forget how much the 18th century was influenced by the classical world.
Absolutely. Also by what was coming out of Europe. There was a German jurist with the wonderful name of Pufendorf, and some of the early French like Malebranche and Pierre Bayle. And Bayle really was the founder of rational scepticism, which said that unless you can actually prove something it doesn’t make any sense; it can’t be carried forward. If you see a brick fly through a window, then you know that bricks break glass. There’s no way of proving it, however. You know it but you can’t prove it. And so Bayle asked people to question everything. I think one of the things that people found difficult about Hume is that he asked you to think for yourself. And that’s very difficult. Most people read philosophy thinking ‘Well, this is a self-help book. It will tell me how to behave.’ Of course it isn’t, not at all.
He is very challenging. I think that it takes real courage to do that, the courage that I personally admire.
Well, he had so many other careers. He was tutor to the Marquess of Annandale, who was a dribbling idiot unfortunately, but Hume got on with him very well.
How do you mean, he was a dribbling idiot?
He lived in St Alban’s, and we would now say he was educationally subnormal. On a good day.
How did Hume come to be his tutor?
In the early part of his life he was desperately short of money. He got fifty pounds for the Treatise, which didn’t really go very far. He had some very influential friends, one of whom was a man called Henry Home, who was eventually Lord Kames. The Marquess, or the factor of the estate, was looking around for a suitable tutor – in other words, a companion. And Kames knew that Hume needed the money, and so off he went. Through him Hume started to meet a lot of other aristocrats. Now, it’s difficult for us to think that in Hume’s day there was no such thing as a public library. They didn’t exist, at all. You had to know somebody who had a private library, and they were noblemen. So Hume was avid. One of the reasons he was great friends with Kames was that Kames could get him into the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh. He also met through Annandale and Kames a man called James Sinclair, who was a soldier. When he finished his time with the Marquess, a year, he went off with Sinclair as his secretary when he was sent to invade Canada. It all went very pear shaped. They failed, totally.
Hume would have been very young at this stage.
In his twenties, yes. Having failed to invade Canada – they got as far as Plymouth – they then got instructions to invade France instead. They said they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have any maps of France. They had mappers, people who spoke Iroquois and trappers and whatnot, but they weren’t equipped to invade France. They didn’t know anything about it. The warrant officer said do it anyway. So they did. It was a complete farce – 18th century comedy. They besieged the town of L’Orient, badly, the only map they had being in the back of a book that they had bought in Plymouth on the way. It really was that badly organised. The French were not much better. Having besieged L’Orient the Brits thought ‘We’re definitely going to lose,’ and blew up their guns, and went back to the ships. The French heard the guns and thought they were starting a really big campaign, and marched out to surrender. But the Brits had gone, there was nobody there to surrender to, and so they had to go home again.
I was going through all the papers in the NLS in Edinburgh that pertained to this campaign, and there was a letter, a single sheet, to Sinclair, assuring him that it wasn’t his fault, no harm would come to him, it wouldn’t in any way damage his career, and that he’d done the best he could in impossible circumstances and that it was hard luck, lad. It was odd because it was obviously written by the person who had dictated it – most letters you find had been done by a clerk, but this was in somebody’s normal handwriting. It was simply signed ‘William.’ I thought, who on earth could it have been that had the power to actually do this? To say ‘no harm done, you’ll be all right?’ There was no government minister, so it was probably a royal, and then I realised whose letter I was holding in my hand. It was William, Duke of Cumberland, Butcher Cumberland.
Oh my. Was that picked up by the 50s academic? I think you’d found some bits of original information – was that one, and did you find any others?
Well, that was one of the joys of research – I wanted to go to France, he studied in France, in Reims, and then again in a place called La Fleche which nobody goes through, near the Loire. He studied there in a Jesuit seminary because there had to be a beautiful library – there was a big Jesuit library in Reims, they had very good libraries. I knew where he had lived in Reims, that’s fine, the house is gone, it’s a children’s playground, that was ok. And I thought if I could find out what the library catalogues were in those days, I could find out what books he’d have read, and that’s a big key into somebody’s mind. And, so I found all that in Reims and there it all was, and then went to La Fleche, and I knew that he lived there, in a house called Yvandeau, which had been a villa in a suburb of La Fleche, a very small town, but that had gone, that had been pulled down, or knocked down, or blown up and disappeared. So I arrived in La Fleche, checked into the hotel, met the nice man who ran it. He said, ‘Why are you here,’ because they don’t get many tourists. And I said, ‘I’m here to research the biography of a man called David Hume,’ and he said ‘Oh! David Hume, he wrote his Treatise in my bedroom!’
And I thought, this man is a maniac! I said ‘He wrote his Treatise in a house called Yvandeau,’ and he said ‘I live in Yvandeau!’ And I said ‘I thought it was pulled down,’ and he said ‘No! It never was! No, it’s still there! Come and visit.’ So I stood in the very room in which he wrote the Treatise! The view he describes in the Treatise out of his window is there, it’s the view, it’s absolutely true. And all the catalogues are still there, in what’s no longer a Jesuit seminary, now a military school actually, but all the catalogues are there and all of that was wonderful, yes.
That chap you were referring to, did he seem to have a sense of what Hume was about?
So tell me about that…
I don’t know if he’d read him, but Hume was kindly regarded in France. He was at an odd bit of his career, he was at one time what we would now call the cultural attaché to the embassy in Paris. He was there as a sort of secretary to the ambassador. And he by now was very rich, he’d written the History. This had been a worldwide bestseller, it had been translated all over the place, and so in Paris he was le bon David. And this was Paris in the 1760s. He was taken up by the great hostesses who held their salons, and they all had a philosopher or a mathematician. They were like football managers. And you know, woe betide any philosopher who went to visit the wrong salon. Hume was allowed to visit them all. They all adored him. He spoke perfect French with a broad Berwickshire accent. What is sounded like, I’ve no idea. He was entertained by the richest in the land, the prince de Conti, who was cousin of the king. He was also dined and wined (he liked both dining and wining) by the philosophe, especially people like Holoboff. The lot of them were openly avowed atheists. And Hume at dinner with them at one point said ‘I don’t think I’ve ever actually met a man who really believed in atheism.’ And Holobuff said ‘Well, there are twelve round this table, and apart from yourself there are two that haven’t quite made up their minds, but the rest are convinced.’ And he found all that wonderful. What he found puzzling about them was that they were completely firm in their minds. They had no sense of argument. He also thought that France was getting a little unstable, and that possibly the system of government might not last much longer. He found no debate about this whatsoever. None of them had the faintest interest. They were interested in philosophy and economics, but the fact that it was in ten years time that they’d cut off the king’s head never entered their minds. Only one of them: Rousseau, who was not allowed to dine with them of course, because Rousseau was not an aristocrat. Rousseau insisted when he was invited anywhere that his mistress, he called her his Gougenot, accompany them. She was an illiterate kitchen maid, by whom Rousseau had I think seven children, each one of whom was taken from her at birth by Rousseau and placed into an orphanage because he thought she wasn’t capable of looking after children.
Yes! He was a complicated man. Wore a kilt, well he didn’t, wore Armenian dress. He was stricken and he’d never part, he said. Couldn’t wear trousers. God knows why. He was barking mad. Hume befriended him greatly. Dug him out of exile and possible arrest in France, brought him to London and fixed up accommodation and a house and everything for him, and Rousseau repaid him by attacking him violently and they sent vicious letters back and forth, well, from Rousseau, saying that Hume had betrayed him, tried to get him arrested, was going to have him put in prison, and none of it was true. And Hume basically threw his hands up and said ‘Well, forget it!’
If you could arrange a dinner party, I know it’s mad, but it you could arrange a dinner party, and Hume could be there…
And someone else could pay for the wine…
Someone else could pay for the wine, and you could invite people who in their own time had upset some of the basic ideas, which indeed Hume did do, who would you have along with him?
Have him along with John Wilkes Booth, I think… Paine, Rights of Man. I think they could find something to talk about. I think he’d find quite a lot to talk about with someone like Che Guevara.
Why would you say so? Because both of these people were either ameliorists or revolutionaries?
Yes, Hume believed that people had minds and were entitled to use them, and were entitled to express what they found in their thought.
And do you mean that as ‘people’ without necessarily any references to any sort of class or education then?
Oh no, no. No, no.
Leave that as a sort of fundamental.
In lots of ways, Hume was self-educated. Yes, he went to school, probably the village school in Chirnside down in Berwickshire, then went to Edinburgh University. When he matriculated the letter 2 was in the book beside his name, which meant he went straight into second year, because he already spoke enough Latin to be able to understand. All the lectures were in Latin. This was changing while he was there, but then he left university, and then he read himself into his state of mind. It very nearly gave him a nervous breakdown. So yes, he would not be impressed in any way by the fact that somebody said ‘But you must believe me, I’m an MA, PhD.’ Well, sorry, you’re still talking nonsense.
He was apparently very popular not just with men, but with women, but didn’t marry. Did he have love affairs that you know of?
Not as far as I know.
What do you think was going on there? And no one’s ever said, that I’ve heard, that he was a homosexual man. There’s been no suggestion of that has there?
No, there’s no suggestion that Hume had any interest in sex whatsoever, really. There’s a story that he proposed in his younger days to a lady in Edinburgh but he wasn’t employed or qualified in any way at all. She wrote back and said that she was not really terribly willing. When he returned to Edinburgh, he returned many times, but on his last return he was very rich indeed, and he got a message to say that she had changed her mind, and he said, ‘Please tell her so have I!’ He didn’t have an affair, but he wooed a French countess in Turin, which was laughable in that she was attracted by him because he was such an imminent mind. He was the great Hume. He thought this was growing toward love. Now he was in his late thirties, very, very fat. When he fell on one knee, she just roared with laughter. He was very upset by this, but after that, no, he was a great friend of the ladies, and he was a wonderful conversationalist. He frequently forgot himself, by suggesting to Edinburgh ladies that they have a hand at the cards, and they pointed out that it was actually Sunday, and Hume said ‘Oh, but we often have a hand at the cards on Sunday,’ and then being asked to leave. He was never shocking. He never actually sat at a teatable in Merchiston and said there is no God, but he was dangerous to be around.
The Great Infidel: A Life of David Hume by Roderick Graham is available from Tuckwell Press (£25 HBK, ISBN 1862322287). His earlier book, John Knox: Democrat, is published by Robert Hale (ISBN 0709069847).
© Jennie Renton 2005