David Hume: Anecdotes Related to Him

David Hume, whose surname was original spelled Home in Scotland but pronounced Hume, was born on 26 April 1711 in Edinburgh. He was raised on a small property in Berwickshire, near the English border, and changed the spelling of his name from Home to Hume in 1734. From a young age he was interested in philosophy and went on to become one of the most important and influential figures in Western philosophy. He argued against the existence of innate ideas while concluding humans have knowledge of things they directly experience. Hume was also not a fan of organized religion. He regularly discredited the dogmas and doctrines of religion, which is one reason why his adversaries referred to him as “The Great Infidel.”

David Hume

David Hume. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Hume might have been known as “The Great Infidel,” one interesting story involves the Lord and the Lord’s Prayer. It began after Hume fell knee-deep into mud when the North Loch of Edinburgh was being drained to erect a bridge. He was so stuck he could not get out on his own and finally gave a cry for help. An elderly and religious matron, who was familiar with him but whom Hume did not know, found him and noted “the mishap … was a just judgement from Heaven, for his ungodliness and infidelity.”[1] He assured the woman he believed in God and begged for her help, but she refused to help him. She told him the only way he would get help from her was if he said the Lord’s prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. So, he “doff’d his hat, and devoutly rais[ed] his eyes and hands to Heaven, audibly and emphatically pronounced the Lord’s Prayer and Creed.”[2] As promised, she pulled him out.

David Hume was said to have an even keel temperament and to rarely, if ever, demonstrate any great emotion. In fact, the only time it was reported that he did show any great emotion involved his mother, Katherine Falconer. She was devoted to her children and had raised him and his two siblings alone after their father died. According to Eugene Lawrence, a nineteenth-century writer, “the only instance of strong emotion recorded of [Hume] is that passion of tears [shown] … when he … received the news of his mother’s death.”[3]

Another interesting story about Hume involves Paris. Francis Seymour-Conway, Earl of Hertford, solicited Hume to be his secretary in Paris after the Earl was named ambassador. When Hume arrived, Parisians greeted him with much fanfare. It was a mark of distinction shown Hume that was not shown other people, including the Earl of Hertford. It seems too that when David Hume first appeared before Louis XV and his court, he was received well having a high opinion of him:

“[They] rose up to receive him, a conduct indeed which did as much honour to them as it did to him; for it shewed, on the one hand, the high opinion they had of his literary character, it evidently shewed, on the other, that they well knew how to treat such a character with proper respect.”[4]

Louis XV. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

David Hume was also extremely popular in Parisian salons. Hume enjoyed stimulating conversations, plenty of wine, and the attention and affection of various women, just like America’s Founding Father Benjamin Franklin did during his ambassadorship in that country.

When it came to Hume’s abilities at the card game whist, people’s opinions were not so praiseworthy. Despite his fondness for the trick-taking card game, “Professors of Hoyle” did not rate him high even though Hume’s friends claimed that he was a good player. In fact, one friend noted, he regularly won and stated that when Hume visited Edinburgh for several weeks he usually paid for his residence, got a new set of clothes, and carried home what he a brought along with “a pound or two to give in assistance to a necessitous relation.”[5]

One ardent whist player, a Mrs. Mure, got after Hume one day for his poor play. She criticized him to such a degree, his good nature failed, and he huffily gathered his hat and called his Pomeranian dog saying, “Come away Foxey.” However, it did not take long for him to decide he had been too hasty. The next morning, he reappeared at Mrs. Mure’s door “before breakfast, hat in hand, with an apology.”[6]

Engraved portrait of David Hume. Courtesy of the British Museum.

In speaking of his own character, David Hume once described himself in the following manner:

“[I am a] man of mild disposition, 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. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments.”[7]

The Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer of political economy, Adam Smith, who was also Hume’s good friend, agreed with this characterization. He stated of Hume:

“Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life-time, 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 admit.”[8]

References:

  • [1] “Anecdote,” in Chester Chronicle, 31 August 1798, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Lawrence, Eugene, The Lives of the British Historians, 1855, p. 10.
  • [4] Fieser, James, Early Responses to Hume’s Life and Reputation, Volumes 9 and 10, 2003, p. 356. 
  • [5] Burton, John Hill, Life and Correspondence of David Hume, 1846, p. 8.
  • [6] Courtney, William Prideaux, English Whist and English Whist Players, 1894, p. 237.
  • [7] The Scots Magazine, Volume 62, 1800 p. 295.
  • [8] Letters of David Hume to William Straham, 1888, p. xi.

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