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Natural Philosopher

The skeptical mind, and sympathetic character, of David Hume.

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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The best thing about this book is the way Baier captures and contemplates, with the help of excerpts from an autobiographical sketch Hume wrote, the odder episodes of his mostly even-keeled life. There’s his first stay in France, for instance, where in his mid-twenties he spent three years writing his first and greatest book, a monument of philosophical and ethical naturalism called A Treatise of Human Nature, while using the library of a nearby Jesuit college. She imagines “the large, clumsy, studious young Scot, with his poor French,” arguing the improbability of miracles with the surprised Jesuits.

It took Hume a year of looking in London to find someone willing to publish it, and then, he said, “it fell dead-born from the press.” His other philosophical works didn’t do much better, but his essays, his Political Discourses, and his massive and sometimes slyly satirical History of England brought him enough money to settle in a handsome house (still standing in Edinburgh) between stays in continental Europe, where he served as secretary to a British general and was a frequent and genial guest welcomed as le bon David in the freethinking salons of Paris.

There a married aristocratic lady called Hippolyte de Saujon, Comtesse de Bouffleurs, openly flirted with him. But Hume politely retreated, preferring the more rough-hewn company of Scotland to French finesse and intrigue. He never married. His one marriage proposal was spurned, but he was no solitary sage. He was, in his own description, “a man of mild dispositions .  .  . of an open, social and cheerful humour,” and he had many loyal friends and avoided intellectual feuds despite his sharply ironic religious skepticism.

Though he deployed it against miracles in a famous essay, and against what is now known as intelligent design in his posthumously published Dialogues on Natural Religion, it was real skepticism, not militant atheism, and he didn’t presume to tell people what to believe; he just resisted the efforts of “enthusiasts” of all stripes to impose their own beliefs. The blasphemies of the Parisian philosophes, Baier thinks, made him uncomfortable. And he would have despised the rationalist fanatics who turned the French Revolution into a massacre.

But before dying in the year that America declared her independence, he was already sympathetic to the far more moderate American cause. Benjamin Franklin visited him in Edinburgh, and Hume, noting the resistance to his work in Scotland, England, and Ireland, wrote to him, “I fancy that I must have recourse to America for justice.” This casual but compelling little book helps prove him right.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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