The Forgotten Hume

Ernest Campbell Mossner

Read November 2006

Mossner's classic work (Columbia, 1946) on David Hume is subtitled Le Bon David, the affectionate appellation given him by the habitues of Parisian salons. For while Hume was as rigorous and opinionated a thinker as any, he was also a bon vivant in the very best sense, and the conversational salon culture he tasted early in his days he carried with him to Edinburgh, where he helped germinate the Scottish Enlightenment.

Mossner's concern is not with the details of Hume's philosophy, but rather with the man and his very particular biases and concerns. The book studies Hume's interactions with a series of literary figures, many remarkable less for their work and more for their uniquely Scottish context, and indeed its chapters are arrayed as such. First he examines the Scottish poets that he labels their Pindar (Blacklock), Shakespeare (Home) and Homers (Wilkie from the Lowlands, then the Highlander Macpherson); then on to the controversies with Wallace and Rousseau; and finally the showdown with Johnson, here chronicled separately under Johnson and Boswell.

Hume was in the thick of the action surrounding writers like Wilkie and Macpherson. For the most part his position reflects, in fact, a rather weak poetic judgment married to an attitude too generous to fellow Scots, even as Hume was of that region and generation that came to identify itself as North Briton. But Mossner does not judge Hume too harshly, letting his own words—such as his pleading entreaties to his London agent on the behalf of some writer or another—do the talking. Only twice does the caged lion that is Hume's mind spring to action: once to defy his Scottish colleagues when questioning the authenticity of Macpherson's Ossian works, and then to take on Samuel Johnson. While his direct and indirect exchanges with Johnson lack a single dramatic moment—the rapier thrust from one, the bon mot from the other—they do capture the complex relationship between the literary circles of England and Scotland.

Hume lived at the edges of lethal times, a religious skeptic (and perhaps atheist) in a time when merely worshipping the right god from the wrong book or in the wrong language was dangerous enough; yet he earned the love and respect of his city even as he lived. Ultimately, the book succeeds in conveying the spirit of Hume that enabled this: a gentle, generous spirit—what else could have tolerated the abuse of the mentally unstable Rousseau, whom Hume worked so hard to rescue from persecution?—that felt a conversation was more important than a verbal victory, for there were enough tomorrows for battles unmet. Nowhere is this better captured than in Hume's own autobiography (My Own Life), included in this book, which is worth reading, many times, for its modesty but also its humanity.