History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.
David Hume (1711-1776)
David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher. His best-known work was the three volume, A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739.
Book I lays out Hume’s views on understanding, how we arrive at ideas, and his own philosophy of free thinking, or skepticism. Book II tackles the emotions and free will. Hume concludes with Book III, with the nature of moral ideas, justice, obligations, as well as benevolence.
Hume's philosophical tour de force is infused with a radical skepticism about anything and everything. Based on his own interpretation, Hume looked at Locke’s empiricism, which to him was not much more than self-conscious common sense. He then used it as a potent weapon against the sacred cows of belief in his day. Through it all, Hume lobbied for an empirical approach, an approach that warrants some consideration today, particularly given the rise of anti-rational forces in the U.S.
It’s interesting how many conservatives claim to be fans of Adam Smith, most often to promote unfettered capitalism, yet, don’t know the first thing about Hume, despite his influence on his friend, Smith. Hume’s ideas are evident in Smith’s writings, and ideas on moral philosophy and his economic writings.
Hume was born in Edinburgh, and spent his childhood at Ninewells, the family's modest estate on the Whitadder River in the border lowlands near Berwick. His father died shortly after David's second birthday, “leaving me, with an elder brother and a sister under the care of our Mother, a woman of singular Merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself to the rearing and educating of her Children.” (From Hume's autobiographical essay, “My Own Life”). A precocious child, Hume was reading widely in history and literature, as well as ancient and modern philosophy, and also studying mathematics and contemporary science, all before the age of 12! He was taking classes at the University of Edinburgh when he turned 12.
Hume's family wanted him to pursue a career in the law, but like many autodidacts of his era, he preferred reading classical authors, especially Cicero, whose Offices became his secular substitute for The Whole Duty of Man and his family's strict Calvinism. Hume vigorously pursued his goal of becoming “a Scholar & Philosopher,” following his own rigorous program of reading and reflection for three years until “there seem'd to be open'd up to me a New Scene of Thought.”
While intensely engaged in developing his own philosophical vision, Hume arrive upon the idea that “a more active scene of life” might improve his education and make him more well-rounded. His decision to enter the world of commerce, which Hume characterized as “a very feeble trial,” serving as a clerk for a Bristol sugar importer. This idea soon passed and he returned to attempts at articulating his “new scene of thought.” Hume moved to France, where he lived very frugally, and finally settled in La Flèche, a sleepy village in Anjou best known for its Jesuit college. Here, where Descartes and Mersenne studied a century before, Hume read French and other continental authors, especially Malebranche, Dubos, and Bayle; he occasionally baited the Jesuits with his own brand of developing skepticism. Between 1734 and 1737, he worked on A Treatise of Human Nature.
Hume’s other philosophical works include An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748; a simplified version of the first book of the Treatise), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Political Discourses (1752), The Natural History of Religion (1755), and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Hume also wrote an exhaustive History of England (1754–62), which became the standard work of English history for many years, and became a best seller. In 1763, Hume returned to Paris as secretary to the British embassy. It was at that time that he became a friend of Jean Jacques Rousseau, to whom he later gave refuge in England.
He returned to Edinburgh in 1768. In 1776, he was stricken by what some believe was either cancer of the liver, or bowel. He died on August 25, 1776.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hume’s “various writings concerning problems of religion are among the most important and influential contributions on this topic. In these writings Hume advances a systematic, skeptical critique of the philosophical foundations of various theological systems. Whatever interpretation one takes of Hume's philosophy as a whole, it is certainly true that one of his most basic philosophical objectives is to unmask and discredit the doctrines and dogmas of orthodox religious belief.”