The Scotsmen Who Invented Modernity

Jacob Heilbrunn in The National Interest:

ScreenHunter_2798 Aug. 23 00.10In August, 1776, a large crowd gathered in front of a grand neoclassical mausoleum. It was designed by Scotland’s greatest architect, Robert Adam, and stood on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. One observer sardonically noted that it almost seemed as though the attendees had either “expected the hearse to have been consumed in livid flames, or encircled with a ray of glory.” To prevent the tomb from being desecrated by the devout, guards were stationed around the mausoleum for several days after the burial ceremony. A few years later, Adam Smith told a companion that the tomb was too ostentatious: “I don’t like that monument. It is the greatest piece of vanity I ever saw in my friend Hume.”

But this was an isolated reproach. No one went to greater lengths to defend David Hume’s posthumous reputation than Smith. Always more prudent than Hume—who was known as “the Great Infidel” and deemed unfit for tutoring the young—Smith, a venerated professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, was guarded in conversation about his religious skepticism. But after Hume’s death, Smith shed his habitual caution and composed a highly controversial supplement to Hume’s brief memoir My Own Life. It was called a Letter to Strahan. In it, Smith described Hume’s final months, emphasizing his affability and serenity in the face of illness and impending death. He observed,

Though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require.

Boswell, who visited Hume on his deathbed and wrote a famous account of it, was astounded by Hume’s phlegmatic acceptance of his demise. Dr. Johnson was not. After Boswell described his interview with Hume, Johnson, who was always beset by a profound fear of death and regarded Hume’s irreligiosity with abhorrence, commented that he had “a vanity in being thought easy.”

More here.