It’s Hume’s tricentennial, and we have articles with which to celebrate the great man and his works. We may begin with this homage to Humean thought, laid out in response to Dan Sperber’s request that Hume be commemorated with a favorite or relevant passage from his body of work. I particularly like the bolded/italicized portion from the beginning of the passage excerpted by Robin Varghese:
Real factions may be divided into those from interest, from principle, and from affection. Of all factions, the first are the most reasonable, and the most excusable. Where two orders of men, such as the nobles and people, have a distinct authority in a government, not very accurately balanced and modelled, they naturally follow a distinct interest; nor can we reasonably expect a different conduct, considering that degree of selfishness implanted in human nature. It requires great skill in a legislator to prevent such parties; and many philosophers are of opinion, that this secret, like the grand elixir, or perpetual motion, may amuse men in theory, but can never possibly be reduced to practice. In despotic governments, indeed, factions often do not appear; but they are not the less real; or rather, they are more real and more pernicious, upon that very account. The distinct orders of men, nobles and people, soldiers and merchants, have all a distinct interest; but the more powerful oppresses the weaker with impunity, and without resistance; which begets a seeming tranquillity in such governments.
It’s not surprising; Hume was most concerned with the nature of knowledge, morality, causality — not with fashioning a philosophy for everyday life. And yet his life, like his work, does offer insights about how to live. Consider an episode in Hume’s life that reflects his most provocative and misunderstood claim: that reason is and always will be the slave to our passions. Predictably, it happened in Paris.
In 1761, Hippolyte de Saujon, the estranged wife of the Comte de Boufflers and celebrated mistress of the Prince de Conti, sent a fan letter to Hume. His best-selling “History of England,” she wrote, “enlightens the soul and fills the heart with sentiments of humanity and benevolence.” It must have been written by “some celestial being, free from human passions.”
From Edinburgh, the rotund and flustered Hume, long resigned to a bachelor’s life, thanked Mme. de Boufflers. “I have rusted amid books and study,” he wrote, and “been little engaged … in the pleasurable scenes of life.” But he would be pleased to meet her.
And so he did, two years later, when he was posted to the British Embassy in Paris. Boufflers and Hume quickly became intimate friends, visiting and writing to each other often. Hume soon confessed his attachment and his jealousy of Conti. Boufflers encouraged him, though no one knows how far: “Were I to add our deepened friendship to my other sources of happiness … I cannot conceive how I could ever complain of my destiny.”
Yet she was also merciless. Men, she wrote to Hume, have “servile souls”; they “like to be mistreated; they are avid for severity, all the while indifferent to kindness.” Hume seemed different, but she warned him: “If I have been mistaken, my affection and all that supports it will soon be destroyed.”
Gentlemen will, of course, wish to take note of that last paragraph.