Tuesday, 30 January 2018

When there were giants in the land - a review of Dennis C. Rasmussen's "The Infidel and the Professor"

I've just written a review of the Rasmussen book (full title: The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought) for The Salisbury Review. If you spot any howlers, please let me know:

When David Hume died in 1776, his literary executor, the economist Adam Smith, wrote an account of his death in which, after emphasising the cheerfulness with which the philosopher had faced his end, Smith described his great friend as “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” Smith’s eulogistic Letter to Strahan attracted widespread criticism: Dr. Johnson refused to believe that Hume had died fearlessly, while James Boswell (who had studied under Smith at Glasgow University) attacked his old tutor’s account as an example of the “poisonous productions with which this age is infested.”...

...Hume was, notoriously, a religious sceptic, and Christians rejected the notion that an unbeliever (let alone “the great Infidel”, as Hume had been described) could be virtuous, or that any man could die a good death without the prospect of an afterlife to buoy his spirits.

Adam Smith had always been considered less of a religious sceptic than Hume: otherwise he wouldn’t have been allowed to lecture at Glasgow University for twelve years, while clergymen ensured that Hume was denied two professorships. Corroborating Hume’s blasé attitude to death was out of character for the cautious intellectual from Kircaldy. As there was no advantage to be gained from such boldness, what made Smith virtually reveal himself as a fellow-atheist? Perhaps it was simply a sign of Smith’s extraordinarily high regard for his “dearest friend”.

David Hume
One might expect a book by an American political scientist about the relationship between arguably the greatest philosopher to have written in the English language (according to Isaiah Berlin, “no man has influenced the history of philosophical thought to a deeper and more disturbing degree”) and possibly the greatest economist of all time to be a rather dry affair: instead, it’s a very readable, heart-warming account of the genuine, long-lasting friendship between two Scottish thinkers, whose relationship was apparently untroubled by envy, resentment, or (as the 65 surviving letters between them would suggest ) a harsh word. In fact, both men went out of their way to advance each other’s careers and to comment helpfully on each other’s writings. Hume did everything he could to publicise his friend’s books, while Smith offered advice aimed at protecting Hume from his own impetuousness (as when the latter made the mistake of helping the paranoid ingrate Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who characteristically repaid the Scotsman’s kindness by publicly accusing him of trying to steal his ideas).  Smith and Hume’s harmonious relationship would have been more understandable if one had been a slavish protégé of the other, or if they had worked in entirely separate fields. But, despite the fact that Hume was 12 years older and a more famous and more prolific writer than Smith, and that they covered much of the same ground and were in broad agreement on most issues, each was very much his own man.

Their friendship may have been helped by a lack of proximity: while Smith spent most of his time in Glasgow, Kircaldy or London, Hume (apart from a lengthy stay in France, where “le bon David” was lionised by high society) lived mainly in Edinburgh, where he constantly entreated Smith to join him, even proposing that they set up house together. But they weren’t often in the same place at the same time, and it was only after Hume’s death that Smith did what his friend had constantly begged him to do, and moved to Edinburgh, where he gamely took over Hume’s role as host to Auld Reekie’s brilliant intellectual elite: this was the era of the Scottish Enlightenment, when the Scots - as Hume remarked - were “the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe”, and when, as Walter Scott later put it, “there were giants in the land.”

Hume was taller, fleshier, and more gregarious than Smith: he was also more ebullient, more light-hearted, and wittier. In fact, he was positively impish - he seemed to enjoy creating a rumpus. He was more urbane, more polished - he spoke with an English accent, and relished his time in Parisian society. He also, it seems, had an eye for the ladies. If Hume was a “smooth” man, Smith was a “hairy” one. Walter Bagehot described him as possessing a “lumbering bonhomie”: he retained his Scottish accent, and was more of an absent-minded professor - he apparently shared Dr Johnson’s disconcerting habit of muttering distractedly to himself in company. While naturally cautious, he could be extremely blunt: when Dr Johnson referred to Hume as a liar in his presence, Smith reportedly called Johnson “a son of a bitch”.

Adam Smith
They weren’t exactly joined at the hip when it came to ideas - but Rasmussen reveals just how similar their outlook was. Unlike their continental equivalents, both were empiricists, more interested in the here and now and with human nature as it is than with weaving airy theories aimed at forging a new, improved version of humanity.  While Smith is now considered the godfather of classical liberal economics, Hume was the first to write about the subject - and many of his ideas made their way into The Wealth of Nations. Again unlike the French philosophes, the Scotsmen believed in limited government, the rule of law, private property, incremental change rather than violent revolution, freedom of expression and religious toleration. If anything, Hume was even more of a Thatcherite than Smith: he lauded the social, moral and political benefits of commerce, saw nothing intrinsically wrong with the enjoyment of luxury, and dismissed all attempts by governments to interfere in people’s economic choices as futile or counterproductive. Smith largely agreed - but, interestingly, once counselled against the tendency to worship the rich while despising the poor, calling it “the greatest and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” And, while one of Smith’s most brilliant insights was that economic growth depends on the division of labour, he also warned against the soul-crushing effect on a workman of endlessly repeating the same mechanical task.

Just as Hume’s economic views were more influential than is generally supposed, so Smith was more influential in the sphere of moral philosophy. While The Wealth of Nations would have a seismic effect in the real world - it became official British government policy within ten years of publication, and would underpin newly-independent America’s commercial activities - for most of his life, Smith was known for his first major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Hume and Smith both believed that our moral views derive from the sentiments (along with custom, habit and imagination) rather than reason, and are acquired over time rather than being hard-wired. Both held that proper moral judgment requires adopting the viewpoint of an impartial spectator, rather than correctly interpreting Holy Writ. Controversially, they saw morality as a human - not a divine -  creation.

This thoroughly enjoyable book left me feeling grateful that those of us who live in the Anglosphere inhabit societies more influenced by the insights of David Hume and Adam Smith, and not by those of  the philosophes. As Smith wrote: “Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments…faction and fanaticism have always been by far the worst.”


  1. An excellent review. Thank you.

  2. "Whaur's yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?"

    An emotional outburst by an audience member at a staging of the play "Douglas" by John Home at Edinburgh in 1757.