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The Infidel and the ProfessorReview - The Infidel and the Professor
David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought
by Dennis C. Rasmussen
Princeton University Press, 2017
Review by John Mullen, Ph.D.
Dec 12th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 50)

This is a story of a friendship between two great geniuses of the eighteenth century. Adam Smith is widely known as the systematizer of the “laws” of the free market and defender of free trade. He is an icon of economic conservatism. David Hume is less widely known, except within philosophical circles. During Hume’s lifetime, he died in 1776 the same year Smith published his Wealth of Nations, Hume was more widely known than Smith. He was famous for his monumental History of England and infamous for his philosophical critiques of the common rationales provided for belief in religion, at least for those within the Abrahamic traditions.

Their friendship was deep. It reflected a common commitment to writing, to thinking, to dialogue and to attempting to make sense of a world that was changing rapidly around them. Smith, known as an economist, was a professor of philosophy and wrote an important book on ethical theory, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hume is known as a philosopher, author of, for example, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. But he also wrote on politics and trade policy in Political Discourses and Essays Moral and Political. Hume was not a professor. Attempts on his and his friends’ parts to acquire such a position were thwarted, like Karl Marx's in Germany after him, by his unacceptable religious writings.

Hume perceived that it was common in his time to base the truth of Christianity upon the fact that Jesus had performed miracles. Hume defined a miracle as a violation of a law of nature performed by a God. So, if there were miracles, there must, of course, be a God and, since Jesus performed them, he must be a God. Hume did not deny that there could be a miracle. He argued instead that if a miracle did occur, it would always be more rational to seek another, non-supernatural, naturalistic, explanation based upon the laws of nature. So, there could never be a good reason to believe that a miracle happened. He also sought to undermine the reasoning that since the world is orderly (There was almost unquestioned belief in this orderliness following Newton’s Principia of 1691.), there must have been a (Godly) designer of that orderliness. This is the basis of the arguments of Creation Science today. Hume's arguments against this reasoning were ingenious and powerful. And they were widely known during his life, if not well understood.

Despite their close friendship and the intertwining of their ideas on many issues, Hume and Smith spent little time together. Smith, an introverted man, resided in, and preferred to remain close to, Glasgow, Scotland for most of his life. Hume, an outgoing, jovial man, and brilliant conversationalist, lived in Edinburgh but journeyed often to London and to Paris, where he was received with adulation by the intellectual set, cavorting with Benjamin Franklin, James Boswell, Denis Diderot Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edward Gibbon.

The Infidel and the Philosopher does not explicate in any detail the philosophic or economic views of either thinker. Its focus is upon their long conversation over many issues and many years and the mutual influences each had upon the other. There are instances where Smith “corrected” points that Hume had made. But Hume was older than Smith and wrote much more and with a great deal more ease. So, it is understandable that where borrowing took place, it would be Smith borrowing from, or expanding upon, ideas that Hume had earlier put on paper.

Rasmussen cites an example of this from ethical theory about the nature and influence of sentiments, sympathy for example, as a motivation for moral action. Smith knew of Hume's writings on this. Yet Rasmussen notes, “… Smith’s account is more complex, and arguably more sophisticated.” They overlapped in treatments of the origins of religion, where Smith speculated that religion was a pre-cursor of science, attempts to reduce the fear of nature by creating a picture of nature as a unified whole. Smith wrote of this early in his career and it remained long unpublished. Yet Rasmussen writes, “Smith’s treatment of religion in the Principles anticipates, almost an eerie degree, the argument of Hume’s, The Natural History of Religion. Naturally they had discussed it.  In the other direction, Smith’s ideas on the development out of Feudalism and into a commercial economy seem to come rather directly from Hume’s History of England, volumes that Smith recommended to his students. Concerning Smith’s magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, Rasmussen quotes an early reviewer as writing, that Hume’s Political Discourses, “… exercised a profound influence on Smith” and that “… without them ‘The Wealth of nations’ is almost unimaginable.” Rasmussen is not convinced, “… some of the key themes [of Wealth of Nations] were scarcely broached in Hume’s writings …” and cited the important arguments by Smith for the economic benefits of the division of labor as an example.

Both Hume and Smith argue for the benefits of increased commerce (thus free trade) and increased manufacturing (thus the division of labor on the production line). What is interesting here, and thoroughly ignored in contemporary evaluations of macro-economic health, is what they believed these benefits to be. Smith writes, “… commerce and manufacturing gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals … [rather than the previous) … continual state of war … [and] … servile dependency upon their superiors.” Smith writes, “Mr. Hume is the only writer who, so far as I know, has taken notice of it.” It reminded me of a phrase on a coffee mug that my father-in-law had acquired at an insurance convention, "All good things come from profit."

Both saw virtue in the rise of commerce and manufacturing. And both saw danger. Smith wrote on the tendency of the merchants to promote laws they, “extort from legislatures”, exhibiting “impertinent jealousy” “mean rapacity” and “interested sophistry.” Smith worried about the deteriorating lives of the worker within the division of labor, the torpor of his mind, incapable of rational conversation, corrupting even the activity of his body. Hume has his own harsh picture of life in the production line and states that this will never end, “… unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” Contemporary devotees of Ayn Rand, not a few in the US Congress, would shriek at Hume’s proposal for, “government regulation" of manufacturing to assure that workers can achieve a full humanity. Socialists and other reformers would delight in it. ." Of course Marx, writing sixty or so years later, would up this line of inquiry in his early theories of the alienation of labor."

Near the end of his life, in 1776, Hume wrote a short apologia, describing himself and how he chose to live. Around that time, Hume asked his friend to oversee the publication of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Smith refused. There is no question that Smith wished to avoid the consequences of appearing to approve of Hume's views, that so many condemned as irreligious or worse. Hume was hurt and made several attempts to change Smith’s decision. He could not. Smith was with Hume during most of his last days. Hume’s death must have been a crashing blow. Yet the manner of that death was equally an inspiration. Smith took up his pen and wrote a long letter about Hume and his dying to Hume’s publisher, William Strahan. Strahan was responsible for publishing Hume’s apologia, My Own Life. This letter became known as the Letter to Strahan. With Smith’s permission Strahan published both short pieces in one pamphlet.

There was a strong interest, during Hume’s last days in the character of his dying. You can imagine. Would he pray? Ask the Lord’s forgiveness? Recant? Be fearful of what was to come. Smith settled this matter in his Letter to Strahan. Smith wrote of Hume’s “magnanimity” at answering friends’ questions about dying. Hume spoke of his impending “dissolution” with great “cheerfulness”, his “happy composure of mind.” Smith wrote, “Thus died our most excellent and never to be forgotten friend.” Rasmussen writes, “Publishing the Letter to Strahan was a brave act. Smith paid for it in spades.” Smith received all manner of criticism and anger; Smith himself must be a “sceptic”, as a nonbeliever Hume could not be virtuous (as Smith had described him), Hume sought, “to obliterate from the hearts of the human species every trace of the knowledge of God.” If Smith had been a true friend, he would have pleaded with Hume to seek eternal salvation. (It reminds one of the priest's pleading to Meursault before his execution in Camus' The Stranger.) So beyond belief did Hume’s honorable and satisfying death seem, it was suggested that Smith had written the Letter to Strahan as a satire, ironically reversing his true intentions. James Boswell referred to the Letter to Strahan as a “daring effrontery.” A decade later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, would address David Hume in a sermon, “At length you [now] know it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And on it went. In the end, though, Adam Smith and David Hume were fast friends.

This is a well-written and well-researched history. It rewards a careful reading. I doubt that I am alone as a philosopher in having known only in the vaguest of terms that Smith and Hume were buddies. I expect that economists are similar in this. So, I appreciate knowing more about these two great geniuses and the circumstances and mutual benefit of their great friendship. I recommend this book highly.

© 2017 John Mullen


John Mullen is a philosopher and novelist. His most recent novel is The Women Who Hated Philosophers, Swallow Tail Press, 2017.


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