David Hume

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher

Hume was an empiricist, arguing that we should only believe those things for which we have good evidence, and has been a major influence on the development of Anglo-American philosophy. He is still frequently cited, for example on miracles. In Section X of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he argues that the evidence for miracles is not strong enough in view of their inherent improbability:

“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”…and should “always reject the greater miracle.”

Hume believed that morality was based on feelings of sympathy with other people, and that benevolence towards others tends “to promote the interests of our species, and bestow happiness on human society.” Hume himself was a happy and benevolent man, believing that the recipe for happiness was moderation and variety. The essayist James Boswell was puzzled by what he saw as the contradiction between Hume’s evident goodness and his lack of religion, but Hume told him that “the Morality of every Religion was bad and …that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded that he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.”

Hume was widely loved and respected, and the street in Edinburgh where he spent his last years was nicknamed “St David’s Street”.

He expressed his atheistic views in dramatic form in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (in which he criticised the “Argument to Design”), but prudently did not publish this in his lifetime – he was not openly an atheist at a time when such a stance would have been a difficult one.

His friends were aware of his scepticism about religion, and some were surprised that he did not convert to religion when he knew he was dying, but he faced death stoically and cheerfully. In an imaginary conversation with Charon (the ferryman of Hades, in Greek mythology) he said of his life and work: “…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 downfall 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…’”

His contemporary Adam Smith, who reported this anecdote in a letter that is reprinted in the bookThinking About Death (BHA), considered him “as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”