Tuesday, September 12, 2006

More Good Writing from James Buchan

I have praised James Buchan's book, 'Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Lberty', Profile Books, several times on Lost Legacy and below he provides a short cameo from it about Smith's relationship with David Hume (with a walk on part from James Boswell), published in the Sunday Herald (Scotland).

Read it and enjoy good writing (from a great newspaper)"

JAMES BUCHAN delves into the relationship between two of Scotland’s finest minds

ADAM Smith and David Hume believed that a man could be good without much, or indeed any, religious belief. For that to be demonstrated, it was necessary not only to live without fault, but also to die without fear. As Hume put it to James Boswell, as he lay on a sofa in St David’s Street in Edinburgh on July 7, 1776: “If there were a future state, Mr Boswell, I think I could give as good an account of my life as most people.” Among the books he had with him that Sunday was The Wealth Of Nations, “which he commended much”.

Boswell, for whom the very notion of the virtuous infidel was a paradox, was overwhelmed with religious panic, scurrying for security to the half-remembered lectures of his mother and of Dr Johnson. So disturbed was the poor man that he would liquor himself up and, full to the brim with eternal truths, haunt the building sites around St David’s Street. In one act of crapulous defiance, he picked up “a big fat whore” and took her to a mason’s shed beside Hume’s house.

In the middle of the month, Smith stayed with Hume at St David’s Street. Confined to his room in the glorious hay-making weather, Hume told his friends that he was being shown by Smith how to enjoy it “by Sympathy”. Likewise a dinner he could not attend at stingy Adam Ferguson’s. But Smith felt obliged to leave when he saw that his company tired his friend. Back in Kirkcaldy on August 14, he wrote to Alexander Wedderburn in London: “Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things than any whining Christian ever dyed with a pretended resignation to the will of God.”

Like a character in the works of his favourite classical author, Lucian, Hume imagined he was bargaining with the infernal boatman for some stay of execution.
“I began to think of what excuse I could alledge to Charon in order to procure a short delay, and as I have now done everything that I ever intended to do, I acknowledge for some time no tolerable one occurred to me; at last I thought I might say, Good Charon, I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of people; have a little patience only till I have the pleasure of seeing the churches shut up, and the clergy sent about their business; but Charon would reply, O you loitering rogue; that won’t happen these two hundred years; do you fancy I will give you a lease for so long a time? Get into the boat this instant.”

On August 22, Smith wrote from Kirkcaldy asking Hume’s permission to supplement My Own Life with an account “in my own name, of your behaviour in this illness if, contrary to my hopes, it should prove your last”. His letter crossed with a bulletin from Dr Black, which described the invalid as “much weaker”.

On August 23, still worrying at the question of the Dialogues, Hume dictated a last letter by the hand of his nephew. “I go very fast to decline,” he wrote, and signed it: “Adieu My dearest Friend.” Two days later, at 4pm on Sunday afternoon, David Hume died. He died, said Joseph Black in a letter to Smith of August 26, “in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could have made it better”.

The account of Hume’s last illness, one of the very finest pieces Smith ever wrote, occupied much of September, not just in the writing, but in the submission to Hume’s friends, including Hume’s older brother John, as well as Black and playwright John Home. It was published in the form of a letter to his own and Hume’s publisher, William Strahan, and dated from Kirkcaldy on November 9.

In the open letter to Strahan, Smith dropped the insulting phrase “whining Christian” and replaced the Hume-English “seeing the churches shut up” with the Smith-Latin “seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition”. Smith’s approach, which he no doubt thought prudent, was to turn Hume from an anti-Christian to a sort of ante- Christian: that is, to convert him from a modern sceptic into a philosopher of antique character.
In the close, he reproduces the Attic restraint of the obituary for Socrates with which Plato closes the Phaedo. Smith writes: “Upon the whole I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”

Extracted from Adam Smith And The Pursuit Of Perfect Liberty, Profile Books, £14.99. James Buchan is appearing at the Wigtown Book Festival on September 23"

From the Sunday Herald, Scotland's brightest Sunday newspaper - worth every penny it costs and which no Scottish home should be without on Sunday. Also many thanks to the Editor of the Sunday Herald, and the in-house lawyers for not throwing the copyright book at me on this occasion. Also to the good people at Profile Books, London (who also publish one of my books from my previous day job at Edinburgh Business School, Essential Negotiation).


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