Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote an essay titled That to study philosophy is to learn to die. It is not the cheeriest of slogans for the purposes of recruiting students to study the subject but there is no question that philosopher David Hume learned that lesson well. One of the most interesting features of the well-written book The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis C. Rasmussen that is an intellectual biography of the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith, was its treatment of how Hume viewed his impending death and the great deal of attention that was paid to it during his last days.
The opening sentences of the book are:
As David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, much of the British public, both north and south of the Tweed, waited expectantly for news of his passing. His writings had challenged their views – philosophical, political, and especially religious – for the better part of four decades. He had experienced a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church if Scotland, but he was now beyond their reach. Everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die is a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humor and without religion. (p. 1)
Even before the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was published, Hume’s reputation for impiety was such that his death was a highly anticipated event, As one contemporary put it, during his final month “his situation became the universal topick of conversation and enquiry; each individual expressing an anxious solicitude about his health, as if he had been his intimate and particular friend.” The reason for this widespread interest, of course, was that everyone wanted to know whether Hume would persist in his skepticism to the very end – and if so, whether he would experience the anguish and despair that was assumed to attend the death of the unrepentant. (p. 199)
[Hume was well aware of the intense curiosity that surrounded his looming death, and he was determined to die as he thought a philosopher should – cheerfully and tranquilly, without undue hopes or fears and to do it for a public audience… By living and dying, happily and virtuously, without religion, Hume was demonstrating himself to be above such needs. He was showing, through his example, that this world is enough, that this life is enough, if one approaches it in the right way.(p. 200)
Hume had little use for religion, saying that “the pious tend to seek God’s favor not through everyday moral behavior but rather “by frivolous observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous extasies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions”. (p. 103) He also felt that religion, rather than soothing people’s fears and anxieties, tended to actually increase them.
Once the gods enter the picture, after all, we have to worry not jus about the ills of the natural world – storms, droughts, floods, and the like – but also about propitiating powerful and potentially fickle beings, about the state of our souls, and about the possibility of everlasting punishment. (p. 82)
In the last couple of years of his life, Hume became aware that his symptoms suggested that he had an incurable disease (now suspected to be colon cancer) and that he had not long to live. He accepted it and continued until the end of entertaining and socializing with his friends, something he enjoyed immensely. When they asked about his well-being, he spoke of his impending death matter-of-factly and without pathos, though he did not dwell on it. His friends, of course, were deeply saddened by the impending demise of someone they deeply admired as an intellectual giant as well as being an affable, good humored, companion, and as much as possible tried to spend time with him. His death seemed to weigh so lightly on him that at the early stages some friends wondered whether he really was that ill.
In April 1776, just a few moths before his death, Hume wrote in his biography My Own Life:
In spring 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name the period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities; and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation’s breaking out at last with additional lustre, I knew that I could have but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.
The religious people of the time took an almost ghoulish interest in the topic of his death because he was of course, one of the most prominent skeptics of all time, whose scathing critiques against religion had angered them. What they were hoping to see was that as the end approached, Hume would be seized with terror and repent of his past impiety and seek to be reconciled with their god. Hence they would send out scouts, such as James Boswell (biographer of Samuel Johnson who was very religious and highly critical of Hume), to see what Hume’s mood was like and to probe him for signs of repentance. But Boswell was disappointed by Hume’s cheeriness, and religious people were unsettled and exasperated by his and other people’s reports of Hume’s almost flippant attitude towards death, because he spoke of it in such a manner that, as one scholar remarked, “one might think Hume speaking of taking a stroll” (p. 203)
After Hume’s death, these people turned their abuse on to Adam Smith, who had arranged to have his friend’s biography published with an accompanying letter to the publisher William Strahan that detailed Hume’s last days, confirming that Hume had died as he had lived, cheerfully and without religion.
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.”
What most infuriated the religious was Smith’s closing sentence that “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.”
The idea that an unrepentant infidel could be considered so close to the ideal of a “perfectly wise and virtuous man” was unthinkable and they heaped their anger on Smith who, unlike Hume, had avoided public controversy on the question of religion, though Rasmussen suggests that he shared many of Hume’s views.
David Hume taught us how to die.