Saturday is the 300th birthday of David Hume, the most important philosopher ever to write in English according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Scot, who prided himself on his command of written English but blushed over his stubborn burr, might have mischievously added that the conferences being held in Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Brazil suggest that the encyclopedia’s claim is perhaps too modest.
Why the hullabaloo? Panelists will cite Hume’s seismic impact on epistemology, political theory, economics, historiography, aesthetics and religion, and his deep skepticism of the powers of reason. But chances are panelists won’t have much to say about Hume the man.
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 reflected his most provocative and misunderstood claim: that reason is and always will be the slave to our passions. Predictably, the episode occurred in Paris.
In 1761, Hyppolyte de Saujon, 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 Madame 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. Within a matter of weeks, Hume confessed his attachment and his jealousy of Conti. Boufflers encouraged him: “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, “If I have been mistaken, my affection and all that supports it will soon be destroyed.”
While visiting Paris, Gilbert Elliot, a Scottish friend of Hume’s, became alarmed by Hume’s preoccupation with the comtesse. After leaving, Elliot wrote to warn him: “I see you at present upon the very brink of a precipice. … [T]he active powers of our mind are much too limited to be usefully employed in any pursuit more general than the service of that portion of mankind we call our country.”
In his friend’s predicament, Elliot might have seen an echo of Hume’s own philosophical precepts. In his “Treatise on Human Nature,” Hume argued that reason alone “can never be a motive to any action of the will.” Desire, for example, “arises not from reason.” And yet it can be “directed by it.” As Elliot foresaw, his friend’s bliss was soon shattered. Boufflers’ husband died; she was free to try to convince the prince to marry her, and focused on doing so. A distressed Hume was transformed into her platonic adviser and confidant.
Yet he acquitted himself with great dignity and intelligence. When it became clear to everyone except Boufflers that Conti would not marry her, Hume urged her to be, well, reasonable.
In effect, Hume did as Elliot had suggested. Insofar as it never causes or creates our desires, reason is indeed passion’s slave. But it is a most useful slave, for it helps us understand and guide our competing passions. Reason revealed that Conti could no more resist the pressures of his peers and traditions than Boufflers could forget the years she had devoted to him.
The “chief triumph of art and philosophy,” Hume had written years before meeting Boufflers, is that it “refines the temper” and “points out to us those dispositions which we should endeavor to attain, by a constant bent of mind and by repeated habit.”
Such lines sound like those of a philosopher whose life reflects his convictions and offers us a model for our own lives. When we remember Hume today, we tend to see him as an unlikely candidate to place alongside, say, Socrates, as a philosopher of this “art of living.” So it’s worth remembering that Hume proved himself equal to his philosophy in his relationship with Boufflers.
He corresponded with her until the end of his life. In fact, he was on his own deathbed when news of the Prince of Conti’s death reached him. Yet he took up his pen to commiserate with her.
Only at the letter’s end did he report on his own state: “I see death approach gradually without any anxiety or regret. I salute you, with great affection and regard, for the last time.”
By Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the Honors College, University of Houston and a co-author of The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Hume, Rousseau and the Limits of Human Understanding.