Scotlands History\|Scottish Enlightenment

David Hume, philosopher and historian (1711 - 1776)

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Interviewer: David Hume, in Edinburgh society, you are a “weel kent face” as a wit, a raconteur and a bohemian bon vivant. I would suggest that despite your own claims, this is the extent of your contribution to society.

Hume: Beyond the confines of Edinburgh society, I am, as you describe me, a “very weel kent” face throughout the whole of  Europe as a writer, economist, historian and philosopher.

Interviewer: Your philosophy on religion appears to mock the existence of God, and the beliefs of his followers. As a result, you have been condemned as a heretic, and the Catholic Church has placed your work on their Index of Banned Books.

Hume:  The ultimate compliment! I thank you sir, because most of the works on that list are of genuine scientific, humanitarian and literary achievement. The reaction of the church is that of people who see my work as a threat to the hold they have over their congregation. It proves that nothing is more surprising than the ease with which the many are governed by the few.

Interviewer: You’re either a brave man, or a stupid man sir! Are you not afraid that you shall burn in the fires of hell for all eternity for your blasphemy?

Hume: There sir, do you illustrate the fear, fanaticism and superstition by which the church operates! It is that fear that motivates the “beliefs” of the congregation. For “the faithful”, read “the fearful!” I challenge the church to provide one shred of evidence of the existence of this place called hell… or of heaven, or of this higher power called God! Then will I happily acknowledge his, or her, or its existence. Until that day, I shall continue upon my atheistic ways. A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.

Interviewer: You pour scorn on the teachings of the world’s greatest theological minds. Perhaps you might be so gracious as to share with a mere mortal like myself what it you actually believe in.

Hume: Facts... logic... reason... proof… evidence, and my faith in my fellow man. I contend that the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy are only ridiculous. The world does not begin and end with the church in Scotland, and I have lived and travelled extensively throughout Europe, experiencing how the common man views his world.

Interviewer: You write of your experiences with the “common man” of Europe. Let me remind you of the “common man” with whom you fraternise... the Royal Court of France, the Literati of Scotland, and various known heretics across Europe.

Hume: I refuse to rise to your bait, sir. I have many colleagues within these circles, but I have experienced human life at all levels of society. I firmly believe that the basis of all man’s knowledge and learning derives from personal experience - seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling the world around oneself - a man’s encounters with his fellow man. This provides the basis for establishing one’s own ethics and personal morality, as opposed to the teachings of a church which are based on superstition and fanaticism.

Interviewer: You state that facts and evidence are the basis of man’s knowledge, yet insist that this knowledge is informed by his personal morality. You contradict yourself – there are no facts or evidence relating to personal morality - it is a matter of conscience. You either have it or you don’t.

Hume: True! Quite true! And this is where philosophy does contradict itself quite beautifully. You state that personal morality does exist. Correct! The evidence of its existence is in our behaviour, and our treatment of others. These ethics are powerful because although they cannot be proved, no one can deny they exist within us all to some extent. And this is the wonder of man - these morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions, and therefore, are not slaves to reason. I may be a philosopher, but I live by the creed, “Amid all your philosophy, be still a man.”

Interviewer:  I suggest that your philosophical theories are little more than deliberately confusing poppycock! Do you think this balderdash will be sufficient to defend you should you be called to meet your maker tomorrow?

Hume: Tomorrow? And what is tomorrow? There is no proof tomorrow will come. We have only today as fact. The sun rose in the East and set in the West yesterday, and the day before that. However, neither you nor I can state as a fact that this will happen tomorrow simply because it has happened before. The only fact is that it has happened before.

Tomorrow will only become a fact if and when it happens! My philosophy puts me in a far stronger position than you, sir. You wish to state that tomorrow will come, but you cannot state this as a fact. I wish to state that I do not know if tomorrow will come - and I can – this is a fact, as I do not in fact know. There is no evidence for continuity until after the event.

Interviewer: You are an oft quoted man, so permit me to remind you of one in particular… “My love of literary fame, my ruling passion.” I suggest that your theories are designed simply to provoke a reaction and bring you the fame, or infamy you so desire. And your legacy to the world is nothing more than the gibberish of a man more in love with himself than his fellow man.

Hume: As always, let us deal with facts. My six volumes of The History Of England are recognised as the definitive historical text on the subject, a fact you cannot deny. My theories on international trade, interest rates, monetary policy, and the wealth of a nation are based on fiscal evidence, and have been an inspiration to my friend and colleague, Adam Smith.

As a philosopher, I approach my work with the question, “What are the limits of human knowledge?”, and trust that this question and my resulting theories will continue to inspire fellow thinkers long after I have passed on.

And as a man, I hope I have encouraged my fellow man to question blind faith; to demand proof and evidence; and to come to one’s own conclusions based on personal experience, and apply this new found knowledge to his understanding of the world around him.  

An actor portraying David Hume in this video explains the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher's belief in facts, logic, rationalism and evidence and why this meant he was an atheist.

An oil painting portrait of David Hume

Learn more about David Hume

Scotland’s greatest philosopher, Hume's view were not well received at the time because he argued that proof was required in order to establish a truth, such as the existence of God. But his 'History of England' was a bestseller.