May 6, 2011
David Hume and the Art of Living
By ROBERT ZARETSKY
HOUSTON — Saturday is the 300th birthday of David Hume, the most
important philosopher ever to write in English according to the
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Scot, who prided himself on
his command of written English but blushed over his stubborn burr,
might have mischievously added that the conferences being held in
Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Brazil suggest that
the encyclopedia’s claim is perhaps too modest.
Why the hullabaloo? Panelists will cite Hume’s seismic impact on
epistemology, political theory, economics, historiography, aesthetics
and religion, and his deep skepticism of the powers of reason. But
chances are panelists won’t have much to say about Hume the man.
It’s not surprising; Hume was most concerned with the nature of
knowledge, morality, causality — not with fashioning a philosophy for
everyday life. And yet his life, like his work, does offer insights
about how to live. Consider an episode in Hume’s life that reflected
his most provocative and misunderstood claim: that reason is and
always will be the slave to our passions. Predictably, the episode
occurred in Paris.
In 1761, Hyppolyte de Saujon, wife of the Comte de Boufflers, and
celebrated mistress of the Prince de Conti, sent a fan letter to Hume.
His best-selling “History of England,” she wrote, “enlightens the soul
and fills the heart with sentiments of humanity and benevolence.” It
must have been written by “some celestial being, free from human
From Edinburgh, the rotund and flustered Hume, long resigned to a
bachelor’s life, thanked Madame de Boufflers. “I have rusted amid
books and study,” he wrote, and “been little engaged in the
pleasurable scenes of life.” But he would be pleased to meet her.
And so he did, two years later, when he was posted to the British
Embassy in Paris. Boufflers and Hume quickly became intimate friends.
Within a matter of weeks, Hume confessed his attachment and his
jealousy of Conti. Boufflers encouraged him: “Were I to add our
deepened friendship to my other sources of happiness ... I cannot
conceive how I could ever complain of my destiny.”
Yet she was also merciless. Men, she wrote to Hume, have “servile
souls;” they “like to be mistreated; they are avid for severity, all
the while indifferent to kindness.” Hume seemed different, but, she
warned, “If I have been mistaken, my affection and all that supports
it will soon be destroyed.”
While visiting Paris, Gilbert Elliot, a Scottish friend of Hume’s,
became alarmed by Hume’s preoccupation with the comtesse. After
leaving, Elliot wrote to warn him: “I see you at present upon the very
brink of a precipice. ... [T]he active powers of our mind are much too
limited to be usefully employed in any pursuit more general than the
service of that portion of mankind we call our country.”
In his friend’s predicament, Elliot might have seen an echo of Hume’s
own philosophical precepts. In his “Treatise on Human Nature,” Hume
argued that reason alone “can never be a motive to any action of the
will.” Desire, for example, “arises not from reason.” And yet it can
be “directed by it.” As Elliot foresaw, his friend’s bliss was soon
shattered. Boufflers’ husband died; she was free to try to convince
the prince to marry her, and focused on doing so. A distressed Hume
was transformed into her platonic adviser and confidant.
Yet he acquitted himself with great dignity and intelligence. When it
became clear to everyone except Boufflers that Conti would not marry
her, Hume urged her to be, well, reasonable.
In effect, Hume did as Elliot had suggested. Insofar as it never
causes or creates our desires, reason is indeed passion’s slave. But
it is a most useful slave, for it helps us understand and guide our
competing passions. Reason revealed that Conti could no more resist
the pressures of his peers and traditions than Boufflers could forget
the years she had devoted to him.
The “chief triumph of art and philosophy,” Hume had written years
before meeting Boufflers, is that it “refines the temper” and “points
out to us those dispositions which we should endeavor to attain, by a
constant bent of mind and by repeated habit.”
Such lines sound like those of a philosopher whose life reflects his
convictions and offers us a model for our own lives. When we remember
Hume today, we tend to see him as an unlikely candidate to place
alongside, say, Socrates, as a philosopher of this “art of living.” So
it’s worth remembering that Hume proved himself equal to his
philosophy in his relationship with Boufflers.
He corresponded with her until the end of his life. In fact, he was on
his own deathbed when news of the Prince of Conti’s death reached him.
Yet he took up his pen to commiserate with her.
Only at the letter’s end did he report on his own state: “I see death
approach gradually without any anxiety or regret. I salute you, with
great affection and regard, for the last time.”
Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the Honors College,
University of Houston, is a co-author of “The Philosophers’ Quarrel:
Hume, Rousseau and the Limits of Human Understanding.”