David Hume’s 300th birthday was yesterday, and the New York Times ran an editorial by historian Robert Zaretsky commemorating it. Titled “A Philosopher in Love”, it briefly tells the story of Hume’s intimate friendship with the French lady Hippolyte de Saujon.
In building up to the tale, Zaretsky notes Hume’s importance as a philosopher, saying that he was:
…the most important philosopher ever to write in English, according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The conferences being held on Hume this year in Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Brazil suggest that the encyclopedia’s claim is perhaps too modest.
Panelists will cite Hume’s seismic impact on epistemology, political theory, economics, historiography, aesthetics and religion…
Zaretsky argues that Hume’s relationship with Madame Saujon bore witness to an “art of living”, consonant with his philosophy. He says that this might be surprising to many.
Hume was most concerned with the nature of knowledge, morality, causality — not with fashioning a philosophy for everyday life.
Scholars of the urbane and portly Hume typically see him as an unlikely candidate to place alongside, say, Socrates as a philosopher of this “art of living.”
Here I would have to differ with Zeretsky. Anyone who thinks Hume was not a philosopher of the art of living, has not (at least recently) read the following series of beautiful and moving essays by Hume concerning philosophy, life, and happiness: The Epicurean, The Stoic, The Platonist, and The Sceptic. I heartily encourage anybody to give them a read. In each essay, Hume takes on the “voice” of the kind of philosopher in the title. As in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume shows himself to be a master of this kind of literary and philosophical device. In these essays, philosophy verges on poetry as it perhaps never would again until Nietzsche.
David Hume not only exhibited an art of living but, more than any other historical figure I have read of, exemplified the art of dying. Zaretsky gives us a glimpse.
“He corresponded with [Madame Saujon] until the end of his life. In fact, he was on his own deathbed when news of the Prince de Conti’s death reached him. Yet he took up his pen to commiserate with the greatest love of his life.
And at the letter’s end he said goodbye: “I see death approach gradually without any anxiety or regret. I salute you, with great affection and regard, for the last time.”
But the fullest picture was provided by Hume’s best friend, the economist Adam Smith, who in a letter informing another friend of Hume’s death, wrote as follows:
His symptoms, however, soon returned with their usual violence, and from that moment he gave up all thoughts of recovery, but submitted with the utmost cheerfulness, and the most perfect complacency and resignation. Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. “I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmondstone,” said Doctor Dundas to him one day, “that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovery.” “Doctor,” said he, “as I believe you would not chuse to tell any thing but the truth, you had better tell him, that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire. (…)
Smith tells of how Hume even concocted a hilarious imaginary conversation with Charon, the mythical ferryman who carries the souls of the dead across the River Styx.
…when he was reading a few days before, Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish, he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. “I could not well imagine,” said he, “what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay. 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 now likely to leave them; I, therefore, have all reason to die contented.” He then diverted himself with inventing several jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit the character of Charon to return to them. “Upon further consideration,” said he, “I thought I might say to him, Good Charon, I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the Public receives the alterations.” But Charon would answer, “When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There will be no end of such excuses; so, honest friend, please step into the boat.” But I might still urge, “Have a little patience, good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfal of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.””
David Hume’s physician later reported that Hume “died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.”
Adam Smith concluded his letter:
“Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”
David Hume lived and died exhibiting unabated intellectual passion and curiosity, goodwill toward his fellow man, humor, cheer, and love for his friends.
Ludwig von Mises also died admirably, although in an entirely different way. He knew how important his contributions were to human civilization, and his primary concern, as he declined, was his yearning to give even more.
As Guido Hulsmann wrote in Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism:
During a 1971 summer vacation in Manchester, Vermont, Ludwig fell ill with a serious infection. Even though he recovered physically, he had lost the ability to concentrate and was incapable of doing any work from then on. His wife recalled him saying: “The worst is that I still have so much to give to the people, to the world, and I can’t put it together anymore. It is tormenting.”
Mises’ torment exhibited not only his tremendous goodwill toward man, but the fact that he was a creative genius. Because he was one, Mises was able to write eloquently about the tribulations of the creative genius, who
lives in creating and inventing. For him there is not leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. (..) The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster. (…) Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him.