The engines of the enlightenmentby Jesse Norman / August 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The date of 4th July 1776 has other claims to fame, of course. But while Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and their fellow revolutionaries were meeting in Philadelphia to publish the Declaration of Independence and launch a new nation, across the Atlantic a private gathering of even greater intellectual distinction was in progress.
David Hume was dying. Slipping away fast; so fast indeed that in February he told his great friend Adam Smith that he had “fallen five compleat stones.” Hume had installed himself some years before in the New Town in Edinburgh, in a house big enough “to display my great Talent for Cookery, the Science to which I intend to addict the remaining Years of my Life.” Now, knowing he was near his end, he had gathered Smith and a few other friends around him for one last dinner in company.
But although Hume’s famous fleshy frame had gone, his sense of humour—no less renowned—had not. When Smith complained that evening at the cruelty of the world in taking him from them, Hume replied: “No, no. Here am I, who have written on all sorts of subjects calculated to excite hostility, moral, political, and religious, and yet I have no enemies; except, indeed, all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”
With Thomas Hobbes, Hume has good claim to be considered the greatest philosopher ever to have written in English, while Smith is widely regarded as “the father of economics.” But even these descriptions underplay the measure of their achievements, for Hume must also be counted one of the greatest of historians, and Smith with equal justice the father of sociology. John F Kennedy once remarked to a dinner of Nobel Prize winners that theirs was the most extraordinary collection of talent seen at the White House since Jefferson dined alone. But in intellectual terms even Jefferson is pretty thin gruel compared to the cornucopic abundance of Smith and Hume.
In many ways they were the original odd couple. Hume, the older man by 12 years, was worldly, open, witty, full of small talk, banter and piercing aperçus, a lover of whist, a gourmand and a flirt. Smith by contrast was reserved, private, considered and often rather austere in his public manner, though he could unwind among friends. Despite, or perhaps because of, these personal differences the two men became firm friends, and their ideas the central intellectual engine of the Scottish Enlightenment.