The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought

[Amazon Link]

A surprisingly entertaining book about the relationship between David Hume (aka "the infidel") and Adam Smith (that would make him "the professor".) A much more interesting subject than I would have guessed.

Here's the basic math: Hume (1711-1776) met Smith (1723-1790) in 1746. They remained steadfast friends until Hume's death. It may sound like an odd-couple deal; Hume was a famed near-atheist religious skeptic; Smith was (at least perceived as) more devout. Hume was a conservative Tory, Smith a liberal Whig. Hume was an airy philosopher, Smith a hard-nosed economist.

The author, Dennis Rasmussen, corrects these and other misperceptions. What's not a misperception, however: Hume had a big, gregarious personality; Smith was more reserved, had odd habits, and tended to be absent-minded. Still, their relationship was a true bromance.

The book works not only as a story of a relationship between two Scotsmen, but also mini-biographies of both, and a picture of their times, especially about the philosophical/religious controversies. Making cameo appearances are Ben Franklin and Voltaire. A chapter is devoted to Hume's misadventures with Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Rousseau comes across as more of a lunatic than I had previously thought. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson come across as a couple of snotty prigs.

One major theme is Hume's death; it was widely speculated that, as a well-known religious skeptic, Hume might see the error of his ways as the end drew near. He did not; in fact, Smith wrote a letter chronicling Hume's cheerfulness and unrepentant irreligiousity to the end, and also detailing his opinion that Hume was one of the most ethical men he'd known.

Publication of this letter cause a lot of vituperation to be directed at Smith for conveying his accurate impressions. He wrote that he experienced "ten times more abuse" from that short letter than he had received for "the very violent attack" he had made against "the whole commercial system of Great Britain" (aka The Wealth of Nations).

One last point: Hume was funny, even to modern ears. Rasmussen's quotes bring a number of chuckles. One example: when asked whether he would extend his series of books on the history of England, Hume demurred: "Because I'm too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich."