THE BRITISH CONNECTIONThere are a series of connections which establish a continuity between Hume and the 4 utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham
James and John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell) I have featured on the web (sites Utilitarianism, Thinkers on Religion,
and elsewhere). Hume's moral and psychological philosophies were compatible with
the developing utilitarianism. Hume was an Empiricist, so were they. Hume not only denied that there was a spiritual realm, he also held that religion had done more harm than
gooda position that the other 4 would take. All in their turn had made a
sizeable contribution to the world of ideas, and also spoke out against the present social order. Hume was the least vocal of the group, probably because of his employment by government. Though Hume never met James Mill (James was 3 years of age when Hume died in 1776), James was thoroughly
aware of Humes teachings. James Mill had made a notable contribution to political
and economy theory as well as psychology. And like Hume his history (Hume of
England, Mill of the conquest of India) was a financial success. Bentham was
the godfather of John Stuart Mill, and John Stuart the godfather of Bertrand Russell. The
5 British philosophers are very much connected.
It is with sadness that I honor the passing of this
great humanist in 17776. He left us much to occupy the scholar and a few
that are simply memorable reading. One is his account of his death, which I have
squirreled away among my papers. If my recollect is correct, it was appended
to a later addition of his history of England. It is 4 pages. Here published is Adams Smiths letter.
1790: The Death of Hume
It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of
the behaviour of our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness. . . .
Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness
never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading
books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game
of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding
all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying. I shall tell your friend, Colonel Edmonda stone, said Doctor
Dundas to him one day, that I left you much better, and in a fair way of recovering. Doctor, said he, as I believe you would
not choose to tell any thing but the truth, you had better tell him, that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any,
could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire. . . .
(On my last visit) I told him, that though I was sensible how
very much he was weakened. . . yet his cheerfulness was still so great, the spirit of life seemed
still to be so very strong in him, that I could not help entertaining some faint hopes. He answered, Your hopes are groundless.
. . . When I lie down in the evening, I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning,
weaker than when I lay down in the evening. I am sensible, besides, that some
of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die. Well, said I, if it must be so, you have at least the satisfaction
of leaving all your friends, your brothers family in particular, in great prosperity. He said that he felt that satisfaction
so sensibly, that when he was reading a few days before, Lucians Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which
are alleged to Charon for not entering readily into his boat, he could not find one that fitted him; he had no house to finish,
he had no daughter to provide for, he had no enemies upon whom he wished to revenge himself. I could not well imagine, said
he, what excuse I could make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay.... He then diverted himself with inventing several
jocular excuses, which he supposed he might make to Charon, and with imagining the very surly answers which it might suit
the character of Charon to return to them. Upon further consideration, said he, I thought I might say to him, Good Charon,
I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time, that I may see how the Public receives the
alterations. But Charon would answer, When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There
will be no end of such excuses; so, honest friend, please step into the boat. But I might still urge, Have a little patience,
good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction
of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition. But Charon would then lose all temper and decency.
You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term?
Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue.
But, 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. . . .
(Adam Smith then relates how he learned the news of Humes death.)
Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions
men will, no doubt, judge variously. . . but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion.
. . . The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions.
His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty,
and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in
other men. . . . And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and
superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest
depth of thought. . . . 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.
Letter to William Strahan, 1776
#18 David Hume on Miracles