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The good life

“I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends,” observed philosopher David Hume, before dragging himself back to his desk

Janna Thompson Books 28 July 2021 2272 words

The destruction of the whole world or the scratching of his finger? Detail from an engraving of David Hume based on a portrait by James Ramsay. Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy

The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well
By Julian Baggini | Princeton University Press | $32.99 | 320 pages

The title of this book doesn’t bode especially well. David Hume (1711–1776) is one of Western philosophy’s most significant and influential figures. His scepticism about human knowledge woke the philosopher Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.” He laid the foundations for the utilitarian ethics of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. His naturalist approach to human behaviour influenced Charles Darwin. Philosophers continue to argue about the implications of his views. By presenting Hume as a guru who can help us to live well, Julian Baggini risks trivialising his contribution to philosophy and missing the real significance of his works.

These doubts are reinforced by the collection of aphorisms and homilies that Baggini abstracts from Hume’s writings and presents at the end of his book.

There is no algorithm for good reasoning.

When life on earth is good, we have no need to gaze longingly to imaginary heavens.

Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.

Nature is always too strong for principle.

And so on. These words of wisdom might sometimes be insightful but they don’t seem especially profound. Out of context their meaning is unclear.

Nevertheless, The Great Guide serves a useful purpose. Baggini, a British philosopher and journalist who aims to make philosophy widely accessible, admires Hume and thinks he should be better known. He follows the philosopher from his family home in southern Scotland to the village in France where he wrote his most famous work, then to London and finally to Edinburgh, where he made his home, on the way telling us about Hume’s ideas and bringing together his philosophy and his life and times. The result is entertaining and informative. The reader learns about Hume’s philosophy and his more popular writings, and about Hume himself and the intellectual circles in Edinburgh and Paris where he was welcomed and celebrated. Baggini’s Hume-inspired homilies are given vital context.

Hume’s life and works lend themselves in two ways to this guide to being human and living well. First of all, there’s the life of a man with many friends who liked fine food and good company and wasn’t at all apologetic about it. He thought religious belief was superstition but wasn’t a militant atheist; indeed, some of his friends were clergymen. He suffered setbacks without becoming embittered. His first book, A Treatise on Human Nature, for which he is now especially renowned, failed to attract the attention he thought it deserved, and he was rejected for university positions because of his reputation as a heretic. He responded by turning his talent to other enterprises, revising his writings, and taking a job as a librarian.

In later life Hume enjoyed being celebrated in the salons of Paris but was content to settle down to a quiet life in Edinburgh surrounded by friends. He faced death with equanimity. When the biographer James Boswell came to see him on his deathbed to find out whether he still refused to believe in an afterlife, Hume calmly replied that he thought it “a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever.” His friend Adam Smith described him as “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfect wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”

To persuade us that Hume has much to teach us about living well, Baggini can also draw on Hume’s own writings. After the failure of his early philosophical work, Hume made his name as a man of letters by writing popular essays on subjects like love and marriage, divorce, commerce, the idea of a perfect commonwealth, and progress in the arts and sciences. He revised parts of the Treatise to make his philosophical ideas easier to understand. His essays, collected together in several volumes, and the history of England that he wrote in midlife made him one of the most celebrated intellectuals of his day. He was also a prolific letter writer who expressed his views about social life and literary topics to his friends and acquaintances. Baggini has a lot of material to draw on.

Is Hume really a good example of a person who lived well? Do his writings provide a good guide to the good life? Baggini admits that Hume’s opinions were not always admirable. He thought that slavery was wrong but believed that “negroes” were naturally inferior to whites. He liked the company of “modest” women but thought that women were by nature deficient in judgement. These prejudices were, to be sure, common among people of his time and place. But by accepting them, Baggini points out, Hume failed to heed his own philosophical good sense: “Prejudice is destructive of sound judgement, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties.”

In his opinions about politics and society Hume was deeply and unshakably conservative. When London workers were massacred by troops for protesting against the imprisonment of the reformer John Wilkes, Hume described the protesters as a “rascally mob” who had “more liberty than they deserved; and perhaps more than any men ought to have.” He had no sympathy for proposed reforms to expand the right to vote or to make parliament more accountable to the people. He supported the monarchy and thought republics were only suitable for small societies.

Reason sometimes led him to explore radical ideas, but he always managed to work his way back to supporting the status quo. A society of equals would achieve the greatest wellbeing, he calculated, but taking from the rich and giving to the poor was unacceptable because it would require an intolerable loss of liberty. People should be able to remove a bad government, he allowed, but the importance of maintaining the rule of law meant that this remedy was permissible only in cases where tyranny was extreme. He supported American independence but only because he thought that control by Britain over a distant unruly population was unfeasible.

Not being able to get a divorce, he said, condemns couples to suffer the cruelty of preserving a union that has dissolved into hatred. But he went on to argue that rules against divorce should be supported for the sake of children and to promote marriage as a binding relationship. Fired up by his views about the dangers of religion, he sometimes suggested that churches should be closed and clergy left to find more useful occupations. But he settled down to the opinion that having an established church is a good thing because it encourages uneducated people to be moral and serves as a barrier to competition among sects that promote fanaticism.

In other words, making Hume’s writings into a guide that modern people can accept requires a careful selection of quotations. A reader of Baggini’s book might also wonder whether Hume was too complacent, too self-satisfied and too lacking in passionate engagement with the world to serve as a model for the good life. He had several close friendships but never anything that can be called a romantic attachment. Relying on his account of his own life, we have to conclude that he got along well with almost everyone but loved no one, that there was no cause that he passionately supported, and that he never had a motivation strong enough to call into question the comfortable, independent life he had achieved. Those who think that a meaningful life should contain close attachments (even at the cost of independence), strong commitments, risk-taking and confrontation of demons won’t be so ready to accept Hume as an example of someone who lived well.

It is also difficult not to suspect that the equanimity he cultivated put limits on his ability to understand human nature. After he befriended the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and invited him to England when he was being persecuted by political authorities, he arranged for the Frenchman to get a pension from the British government but otherwise left him to fend for himself. When Rousseau got the idea that Hume was plotting against him and complained to his friends, an outraged Hume denounced him as wicked and mad. Rousseau was a difficult man, easily offended and subject to paranoia, but just the same, Hume didn’t seem inclined, or was perhaps unable, to sympathise.

I have been a fan of David Hume ever since I wrote my undergraduate honours thesis on his argument against miracles. But I have to confess that Baggini’s account made me like him less. He remains one of the people I would like to dine with — especially since he was noted for being a good host. As an exemplar of the good life or a guide to living well, though, he has limitations.

Yet he was undoubtedly a great philosopher. The Treatise he wrote in his youth is now recognised as a book that challenged not only philosophical orthodoxies but also what many of us would like to believe about the world, human capabilities and the nature of morality.

We are inclined to believe in a necessary connection between causes and their effects — that when a cause occurs its effect must follow. Hume points out that neither perception nor reason is able to discover a necessary connection between physical events. All we experience is a constant conjunction of events that predisposes us to anticipate the second whenever the first occurs. When morning comes we expect the sun to rise. But it is always possible for our predictions to fail.

We are inclined to believe that we have a self that gives us a persisting identity and perhaps survives death. But Hume looked into himself and found only a succession of ideas, impressions and feelings. The self, he concluded, is merely a collection of psychological states held together by contiguity and memory. We would like to think that moral truths are embedded in the nature of things: that causing someone severe pain just is wrong. But Hume points out that no normative conclusions follow from the facts of the world. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Morality, he argues, depends on our emotional responses to our experiences and the behaviour of others.

Hume’s exploration of the limits of human knowledge was difficult work, and in the Treatise he says that it led him to the point of mental collapse:

The manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning… I begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Doing philosophy, as Hume describes it here, is unsettling, uncomfortable and even scary. Those who simply want to live a good life would be better off avoiding it. Baggini does his best to convince us that Hume in his early work is simply exercising common sense and that his aim is not to invite scepticism about human knowledge but to reinterpret or find a better basis for what we want to believe. Few acquainted with Hume’s work will be persuaded.

Hume had an antidote for the mental state caused by philosophical labour:

I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

One interpretation of Hume’s career is that after completing his greatest work he became addicted to the antidote and avoided the speculations that gave him pain. This is not entirely true. He did not give up on the ideas of the Treatise and he rewrote parts of it to make it easier to understand. Near the end of his life he wrote a brilliant essay criticising the deist belief in God as the creator of the world — though by writing it in the form of a dialogue between three friends he was able to be cagey about his own position.

Baggini’s book may succeed in making Hume better known, though it’s likely to leave its readers wondering how he was able to galvanise Kant, inspire Bentham and give generations of philosophers so much to think about. If you are not put off by his bourgeois complacency and his conservative, sometimes obnoxious, views on politics, you will find Hume a congenial character. You will also appreciate Baggini’s description, with photographs, of the places associated with Hume in England, Scotland and France. Although Baggini’s tourism sometimes seems pointless — he found that many of the places where Hume lived and worked no longer exist, have been completely altered, or are inaccessible — he also gives us an imaginative glimpse of Hume living his life and doing his work.

Hume wrote most of the Treatise while staying in the village of La Flèche in the Loire Valley of France. He made use of the library of its Jesuit college (now a school for military families) and got on well with the Jesuits. They were too sophisticated to be much troubled by his irreligion and Hume liked the challenge of arguing with them. By means of Baggini’s evocation of place I imagine Hume strolling through the cloisters of the college with a Jesuit acquaintance, trying out the argument he had just thought of against belief in miracles. “I thought it very much gravelled my companion,” he reported. •

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