Thursday 7 May 2020

Hume's birthday

Today is the philosopher David Hume’s 309th birthday. He was the first well-known European freethinker or atheist to die without making a conversion, according to Paul Johnson, admittedly not a professional historian. Hume's defiantly godless death shocked intellectuals throughout Europe, in the way that belief in the Deity now shocks most of them.

I wonder if Paul Johnson forgot Marlowe, but Marlowe, who was killed in a brawl in 1593, was a blasphemer rather than an atheist, like King William II. Marlowe said God was dog spelt backwards. That sort of thing. 

Until the 1960s Hume and Lock were on the Index of Prohibited Books that Catholics were not permitted to read. Now Catholics read and write the most extraordinary things.

This is from Boswell's Life of Johnson, (Samuel not Paul, of course) which might be my favourite book. 

‘…I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. 'Well,' said I, 'Mr Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.' 'No, no,' said he. 'But I shall have
been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.' In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother's pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson's noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history. Said he: 'You do not believe it as you believe the Revolution'….’'

Boswell was, of course, troubled by Hume’s scepticism: 

‘…He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state; and he would rather not be more than be worse…’

Dr. Johnson was less impressed:

‘…I mentioned to Dr. Johnson, that David Hume's persisting in his infidelity, when he was dying, shocked me much. Johnson: "Why should it shock you, Sir? Hume owned he had never read the New Testament with attention. Here then was a man, who had been at no pains to inquire into the truth of religion, and had continually turned his mind the other way. It was not to be expected that the prospect of death would alter his way of thinking, unless God should send an angel to set him right." I said, I had no reason to believe that the thought of annihilation gave Hume no pain.

Johnson: "It was not so, Sir. He had a vanity in being thought easy. It is more probable that he should assume an appearance of ease, than that so very probable a thing should be, as a man not afraid of going (as, in spite of his delusive theory, he cannot be sure but he may go,) into an unknown state, and not being uneasy at leaving all he knew. And you are to consider, that upon his own principle of annihilation he had no motive to speak the truth."

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