Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Vanity

I am writing these words in the Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, sitting next to Hume's manuscript copy of the Dialogues concerning natural Religion.

I did not expect to be moved; and in fact, I wasn't – at first. But it is hard to resist Hume's auto-obituary, "My own life", written in the past tense some months before his death. The script is confident and cleanly legible: it is fitting that Hume, the most agreeable of men, should have such lovely handwriting. Here is what he wrote:
In spring 1775, I was struck with a Disorder to my Bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy Dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my Disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great Decline of my Person, never suffered a Moments abatement of my Spirits: Insomuch, that were I to name a Period of my life, which I shoud most choose to pass over again I might be tempted to point to this later Period. I possess the same Ardor as ever in Study, and the same Gaiety in Company. I consider besides, that a Man of sixty five, by dying, cuts off only a few Years of Infirmities: and though I see many Symptoms of my literary Reputation's breaking out at last with additional Lustre, I know, that I had but few Years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from Life than I am at present.

To conclude historically with my own Character: I am, or rather was (for that is the Style, I must now use in speaking of myself; which emboldens me the more to speak my Sentiments) I was, I say, 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. Even my Love of literary Fame, my ruling Passion, never soured my humour, notwithstanding my frequent Disappointments. My Company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the Studious and literary. And as I took a particular Pleasure in the Company of modest women, I had no Reason to be displeased with the Reception I met with from them. In a word, though most men any wise eminent, have found reason to complain of Calumny, I never was touched, or even attacked by her baleful Tooth: And though I wantonly exposed myself to the Rage of both civil and religious Factions, they seemed to be disarmed in my behalf of their wonted Fury: My Friends never had occasion to vindicate any one Circumstance of my Character and Conduct: Not but that the Zealots, we may well suppose, wou'd have been glad to invent and propagate any Story to my Disadvantage, but they coud never find any which, they thought, wou'd wear the Face of Probability. I cannot say, there is no Vanity in making this funeral Oration of myself; but I hope it is not a misplac'd one; and this is a Matter of Fact which is easily clear'd and ascertained.

Hume has been a Muse of these pages, on several occasions. As Adam Smith wrote in the account of Hume's death he sent to his publisher:

Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime 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 permit.

4 Comments:

Anonymous BRC said...

This, and the recent discussion of polemical philosophical debate, brings to mind Hume's reaction to Reid's criticisms of him. As Sidgwick puts it, Hume's letter of response to Reid is, "a charmingly urbane letter, from a free-thinker of established literary reputation to a parson turned professor, as yet hardly known in the world of letters, who had hit him smart blows and who ventured to laugh at him a little as well as argue with him." Sidgwick's essay, which includes some choice quotations from Hume's letters, appears in the April 1895 issue of Mind (the quotes are on page 149). For those with access, it is available here.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also memorable are Adam Smith's last words, to the assembled intellects: "I believe we must adjourn this meeting to another place."

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guess we'd better lay off the snarky reviews from now on.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Gardner said...

But what of longing, and wild surmises, and outbreaks of the uncanny? To be so perfectly suited to both life and death is to raise my suspicions, not because I do not relish happiness, but because I do.

1:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home