Best friends

As re-entry reading for the onset of the Autumn semester, I indulged in The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, by Dennis Rasmussen, on the way home this weekend. This is a chatty account of the friendship between David Hume and the 12-years younger Adam Smith, discussing the extent to which Smith’s thought was influenced by Hume (a lot, Rasmussen argues) and analysing the differences between them (he identifies four areas of disagreement: the nature of sympathy, the role of utility, the foundation of justice, and the effects of religion). As a total Hume fan, I enjoyed reading it, and it’s a well-written book. You don’t need to be an expert on either to enjoy it, and get some flavour of the milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Judging from Jesse Norman’s review of the book in Prospect, it might help not to be an expert on either, as he concluded it has little to say about the influence the two had on modern thought. As he points out, the problem Rasmussen faced is that the correspondence between the two men on which he based so much is rather small, and that mainly letters from Hume. Rasmussen fills out more in an interview in 3am Magazine with the stellar Richard Marshall.

I warmed to one comment Rasmussen makes here – a point also covered in the book: “Just as Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy have been unduly neglected in favor of Hume’s, Hume’s contributions to political economy have been unduly neglected in favor of Smith’s. As an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he’s taken notice of at all, but in fact he argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared. Hume’s essay “Of Luxury” (later retitled “Of Refinement in the Arts”) is one of the most forceful, comprehensive, yet succinct defenses of the modern, liberal, commercial order ever written.”

As he notes here, Smith was in his turn an ethicist and analyst of human nature. We do like to pigeon hole people, but one of the joyous aspects of the Enlightenment is not only that knowledge was expanding so quickly but that it touched on so many different areas. We lose so much that falls into the gaps between disciplinary boundaries.

The thing I took away from The Infidel and the Professor was quite how scandalised so many people were by Hume’s skepticism about religion. The book has quite an extensive discussion about the differences between Hume and Smith on religion, and reckons Smith was just as sceptical but keener to observe social convention, though the evidence for this seems rather speculative. But, if public opinion did find Hume as outrageous as Rasmussen says, who could blame Smith for keeping that much quieter about his views. And Smith did honour Hume after death by insisting, in a letter written for publication, that Hume had died in good spirits and completely untroubled by the prospect of nothingness. When so many people hoped the infidel Hume would repent on his deathbed and embrace god, out of fear if nothing else, to make it clear this had not occurred was an act of true respect and friendship.