Supremely happy

It’s been a Humean autumn: we did David Hume on happiness a couple of weeks ago, in Happiness, I’ve been enjoying our independent readings course on Hume, and today it’s Hume in CoPhi. “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness… Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”

After a few youthful bumps in the road, Hume seems to arrived and stayed in a lifelong condition of supreme happiness. He learned both to practice and to sporadically suspend “abstruse” scholarship, in order that he might “be still a man” amidst his philosophizing.

Hume is commonly misunderstood as a firebrand atheist. He was an atheist, in the strictest sense: he did not affirm the existence of a supernatural creator god, and found much fault with the standard reasons people give for doing so. But Simon Blackburn points out that his practical bent focused his main interest on the natural implications and consequences of belief. So, for instance,

if you find a religious text telling you that homosexuality is a bad thing, well that text is written by someone and he brought to it his ethics, and he takes out of it his ethics. So, in a nutshell, as I like to put it, Hume’s position is you can’t check out of Hotel Supernatural with any more baggage than you took into it. That’s a very important discovery. It means that arguing about the existence of God becomes kind of pointless. What you should argue about is the implications people think they can draw from it.

Whether there is a god or not, in other words, Hume’s point was that nobody can ever prove He/She/It shares, sanctions, or will reward our prejudices. We have to work it out for ourselves.

James Boswell, who we’ve already consulted for a first-hand account of Dr. Johnson’s rocky refutation of Berkeleyan idealism, was also present to refute the legend of Hume’s unmanly demise.

On Sunday forenoon the 7 of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just adying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke… He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious. This was just an extravagant reverse of the common remark as to infidels.

I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever…

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes…

He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state…

…Mr. Hume’s pleasantry was such that there was no solemnity in the scene; and death for the time did not seem dismal. It surprised me to find him talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time…

Le Bon David had, by this account, as good a death as he had a life. Thus he refuted his critics, no craven foxhole conversion, no rocks needing to be kicked. He’d smile to know we’ll next be talking Sisyphus.

5:45/7:05, 57/65

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