Le bon David - Hume, Part 1

In 1734, when Hume was 23 years old, he wrote an absolutely extraordinary letter. He begins it thus ...

Le bon David - Hume, Part 1

The French called him le bon David - the good David.

As the author of the definitive biography of Hume says,

the epithet cannot readily be translated into one English word. To call Hume good would be misleading, for he was certainly no saint. In many ways, however, he was good : he was humane, charitable, pacific, tolerant, and encouraging of others, morally sincere and intellectually honest.

Perhaps we can sum it up by saying that David Hume was the very model of a civilised man.

Calm, collected, possessed of a worldly wisdom and serene temperament, witty but not too much, committed but not fanatic. He ate well, drank well, enjoyed life and participated fully in it. At the same time, he kept a judicious distance from life’s turmoil and he maintained his equanimity under all circumstances. He never allowed passion to unseat his reason, but neither did he allow reason to tyrannize his feelings.

When we hear about great people, we most often hear about them as the finished product. We see them in the full flower of their greatness rather than seeing them in the activity of striving towards it.

This does both them and us a disservice, so let’s go back a little, to David Hume before he was David Hume, to David as he was before he became le bon David.

In 1734, when Hume was 23 years old, he wrote an absolutely extraordinary letter. He begins it thus:

SIR,-- Not being acquainted with this handwriting you will probably look to the bottom to find the subscription and not finding any will certainly wonder at this strange method of addressing to you.

This is already giving us a flavour of how extraordinary this letter is going to be, because Hume’s saying, umm, you don’t know me, and you’re going to find this strange, but …

Trusting, however, to your candour and generosity, I shall, without further preface, proceed to open up to you the present condition of my health, and to do that the more effectually, shall give you a kind of history of my life, after which you will easily learn why I keep my name a secret.

Just to recap, then, let’s begin by repeating that he had never met this person. He was writing as a complete stranger. Next, let’s observe that this was 1734 - almost 300 years before the invention of social media and oversharing. And what he proposes to do is tell this stranger the condition of his health and the history of his life - and he is going to be so frank that he needs to keep his name a secret.

Hume then proceeds to describe a personal collapse. It began in the September of 1729, he says, when

all my ardour seemed in a moment to be extinguished, and I could no longer raise my mind to that pitch, which formerly gave me such excessive pleasure.

Initially, this did not worry him. In fact, rather than letting it worry him, he used it as an occasion to berate himself for laziness.

Doesn’t that sound familiar, by the way?  At a moment when life is difficult, when something is not working the way it normally does or the way you want it to, when times are hard, our instinct is often to blame ourselves rather than be loving (or even just curious).

Life has a way of pressing its reality on us. Over time, it became clear to David that he could not blame himself for being lazy. In addition to the troubles of the spirit, he developed physical symptoms - first scurvy spots around the fingers, then “what what they call a ptyalism or wateryness in the mouth.”

Something had gone very wrong indeed. And according to Hume,

there was another particular, which contributed, more than any thing, to waste my spirits and bring on me this distemper.

According to Schopenhauer, the real concern of the university philosophers is not the search for truth. Rather,

their real concern is to earn with honour a fair livelihood for themselves, their wives and their children and also to enjoy a certain prestige in the eyes of the people.

And so

normally a teacher of philosophy would be the last person to whom it would occur that philosophy could in effect be dead earnest, just as the most irreligious Christian usually is the Pope.

Hume, in common with all the great philosophers apart from Kant, was never a professor of philosophy. Like the great philosophers, and unlike the professors, he was in deadly earnest about philosophy: it was no game to him, no means to worldly success, no vehicle to exercise the crude human urges. Philosophy was instead the most sacred and the most serious of human pursuits: the pursuit of wisdom.

And wisdom was not pursued so that one could write about wisdom or talk about wisdom. It was pursued for one reason and one reason only: so that one could live wisely.

That is what it means to say that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom. A lover consecrates his life, his entire being, to his beloved: that is exactly what a philosopher does.

And, like Othello, it is possible to love not wisely but too well.

As Hume explains in his letter:

Having read many books of morality, such as Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, and being smit with their beautiful representations of virtue and philosophy, I undertook the improvement of my temper and will, along with my reason and understanding. I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life.