'A wise man... proportions his belief to the evidence.’
Scotland’s greatest philosopher, David Hume (1711–76) was a key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.
His great work was 'A Treatise on Human Nature', published in 1739. It was not well-received in his own time but is now a classic text.
Hume was a rationalist and an empiricist: he argued that proof was required in order to establish a truth - hence his problems with simple belief in God.
'The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.’
As a sceptic and an atheist, he was denied professorships at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities. He worked instead as librarian of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, and also as Secretary at the British Embassy in Paris from 1763 to 1766. He was treated like a celebrity in the Parisian salons and called 'le bon David' by the French philosophers - les philosophes. He even considered a permanent move to Paris. He was a friend and correspondent of Voltaire, a man of similar outlook to himself.
'The French are the only people, except the Greeks, who have been at once philosophers, poets, orators, historians, painters, architects, sculptors and musicians.'
Hume was a popular and sociable man, a member of most of the Edinburgh literary societies.
'The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness....Self-denial is a monkish virtue.’
He was also a historian and a good writer, and his 'History of England', published in six volumes from 1753 to 1761, was a bestseller.
'The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstruction in this way, or open up any new prospect, ought, so far, to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind.’
David Hume promoted the study of human nature by scientific means. Today his ideas still inspire fierce debate.
David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher, Allan Ramsay, 1766. © Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Dr Webster preaching in Edinburgh's Tolbooth Church. From page 28 of 'Kay's Originals, Volume 1' (c.1880s). Digitised and published by the Edinburgh Bookshelf.
Inscription from David Hume's mausoleum on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. Taken by Seth Tisue and published on Flickr.
Recording of philosopher Julian Baggini arguing for David Hume in a poll run by BBC Radio 4.
Discussion on BBC Radio 4's 'In Our Time' programme about these ideas, including the debates between Thomas Reid and David Hume.
The work, life and influence of David Hume, described here as 'the most important philosopher ever to write in English'.
Free materials from the Open University about Hume's writings on death and the existence of God, and changing attitudes to religious belief in the 18th century.