David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

230173_10150178527413954_80 David Hume turns 300 on May 7. It is fitting, I suppose, that a man so resolutely mortal should be enjoying such immortality. Most of Hume's contemporaries are long forgotten. Hume, somehow, endures. His old pal Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), relates that in Hume's dying days he told his friends, “I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented.”

It was that ancient and ugly Greek, Socrates, who first made the claim that philosophy is a preparation for death. He said it just before taking his hemlock, so we can assume that he was being serious. What Socrates meant, more or less, was that philosophy is an attempt to come to terms with life. We are born, through no particular fault of our own, and so we must deal with that ambivalent gift. Soon we discover that although we have been given life, we are fated, alas, to die. This all happens rather quickly: the being born, the growing old, the dying. The best thing, Socrates suggests, would be to embrace the brevity of our life, as we hurtle inexorably toward death, with a dose of equanimity. Since we are always engaged in the act of dying, thought Socrates, we might as well try to do it well.

David Hume was — at least on the matter of death and dying — a Socratic man. Even in his most canonical works, A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume was largely preoccupied with establishing limits. The way Hume saw it, our brief lives, crowned by unavoidable death, are unlikely to put us in touch with any grand absolutes. On the other hand, the human mind is an indubitably powerful tool and its powers of reasoning have penetrated many an enigma. Hume was as amazed by human knowledge as the next guy. He simply wanted us to be honest about its failings and limitations.

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