The Enlightenment Period

David Hume

How was Hume a man of contradictions?

Hume is famous for having written, “Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” Hume described himself as “a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.” During his last painful illness with cancer, when his friend Adam Smith (1723–1790) visited him, he was calm and had no regrets about his atheism, nor did he desire to make a religious conversion in case there was an afterlife. He did in fact have a lifelong reputation of being pleasant and highly reasonable. He was known as the “the Good David,” in England and “le bon Davide” in France.

But, concerning his moderation, Hume very much enjoyed fine food and drink and weighted over 300 pounds. And as for his mildness, his “friendship” with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) suggests otherwise. When Rousseau was given refuge in England, partly due to Hume’s efforts, in 1766, Hume soon came to regret it. Although le bon Davide had enjoyed great fame in the salons of Paris, Rousseau was a world celebrity of greater wattage. Rousseau was also financially pressed and very sensitive to public opinion. He wore exotic costumes and was made fun of in staid English society. Hume did nothing to temper this reaction. Rousseau soon became distrustful of Hume’s friendship and accused him of perfidy. Instead of letting the matter rest, Hume published their correspondence, going against the advice of his close friends, who were prepared to make allowances for Rousseau, because they knew how personally troubled he was. This publication, together with Hume’s denial that he had himself “leaked” the letters, destroyed his friendship with Rousseau and incurred skepticism about his own good will, good sense, and underlying motives.


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