The Death of David Hume

A play for voices, (running time 25 minutes) in which the main characters. the Narrator excepted, speak lines to be found in the writings of David Hume, James Boswell, Adam Smith, and John Wesley. The play deals with David Hume's beliefs about immortality, morality and religion.

NARRATOR

Men are the morbid sex. In their culture, they endlessly represent both the deaths they would like to die and the deaths which terrify them.

Men have often thought of dying as an art, the equal of the art of living. To themselves, they rehearse their own dying. Sometimes, they get to perform their deaths to an audience. For public figures, dying has sometimes been a public art, the object of lively interest and critical appraisal. Dying well merits applause, even if it is only the spectators who can hear it.

Dying well, men have sought to prove many things: the justness of a cause, the rectitude of a life, the advantages of a philosophy, the truth of a religion.

Summonsing the young Earl of Warwick to his deathbed, the 17th June 1719, the writer Joseph Addision grasped the young man's hand and said in a low voice, "See in what peace a Christian can die". These words uttered, he died shortly thereafter.

Literate culture abounds in such anecdotes and more extended stories.

If I tell you now a story about the death of David Hume, the philosopher, it is not because this story has not been told before. Indeed, it was the object of precise reporting and, for twenty years after the event - which occurred on the 25th August 1776 - the subject of controversy and scandal. I begin with Hume's own narrative, "My Own Life", written the 18th April of that year.

HUME

In Spring 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits; insomuch that were I to name the period of my life which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities....It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.

NARRATOR

Hume's little autobiography was published shortly after his death. Prefaced by an Open Letter from Hume's friend. the economist Adam Smith, to a mutual friend - William Strachan - it testifies to Hume's cheerfulness in his last illness. In it, we can hear Hume's last conversation with Smith.

HOUSEKEEPER

Dr Smith, Sir, asks if you will see him

HUME

Of course, of course. Show him in. [ Enter Smith ]. Ah Smith, my dear friend. Come over here and sit yourself down.

SMITH

Good morning, David, [ Pause ]. I trust I do not interrupt you.

HUME

[ Gesturing ] It is a letter from Edmonstoune. He came to say farewell, and now has written to bid me adieu. See here, he quotes me the lines of the Abbe Chaulieu:

"David, il faut bientot que la Barque cruelle
Vienne rompre des si doux Noeuds
Et malgre nos Cris et nos Voeux
Bientot nous assuirons une absence eternelle
Adieu, Adieu"

SMITH

Perhaps we are all too pessimistic, my dear David. I am sensible that you are weakened and appearances are in many respects very bad. Yet you appear to me so very cheerful, and the spirit of life in you so very strong, that I do entertain some at least faint hopes.

HUME

Your hopes are groundless, my dear Smith. An habitual diarrhoea of more than a year's standing would be a very bad disease at any age; at my age `tis a mortal one. When I lie down in the evening I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning, weaker than when I lay down in the evening. I am sensible, besides, that some of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die.

SMITH

Well, if it must be so, you have at least the satisfaction of leaving all your friends, your brother's family in particular, in great prosperity.

HUME

Yes, I do indeed feel that satisfaction, Smith - and so sensibly that reading - a few days ago - Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead, among all the excuses which are alleged to Charon the Ferryman for not entering readily into his boat and crossing the river of death, I couldna find one which might fit me. I have no house to finish, no daughter to provide for and no enemies upon whom I wish to revenge myself. I couldna well imagine what excuse I might make to Charon in order to obtain a little delay. I have done everything of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am now likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented. [Jocular] . But upon further consideration, I thought of some excuses I might use. "Good Charon" I thought I might say " I have been correcting my works for a new edition. Allow me a little time that I may see how the public receives the alterations" [ Hume laughs ] . But then I thought Charon would answer, "When you have seen the effect of these, you will be for making other alterations. There will be no end of such excuses; so honest friend, please step into the boat" [ Pause ] But I might still urge, "Have a little patience, good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition" But Charon would then lose all temper and decency. "You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue" [ Hume and Smith both laugh ].

NARRATOR

Hume counted Christianity and specifically any belief in personal immortality among the prevailing systems of superstition. Even if there were immortality, it was no concern of ours. In the essay, "On the � Immortality of the Soul", he put it thus, "The soul, therefore, if immortal, existed before our birth; and if the former existence noways concerned us, neither will the latter"

Hume's lack of belief and lack of concern, so at variance with the professed beliefs of most of his contemporaries, was well known. To some it was a scandal. And as death approached, some were curious to discover how the philosopher was facing his own death. Among the curious was James Boswell.

BOSWELL

[ Reading ] On Sunday forenoon, the 7th of July 1776, being too late for Church, I went to see Mr David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just a dying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was drest in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetorick. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think those were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of Immortality introduced. [ Pause ]. And, if I may be so bold as to ask, Mr Hume, Do you retain all of your opinions concerning Religion?

HUME

I have never entertained any belief in Religion, Mr Boswell, since I began to read Locke and Clarke.

BOSWELL

You were religious when you were young, then?

HUME

Oh, yes, yes, I was. I used to read The Whole Duty of Man. [ Cheerfully ]. I made an abstract from the Catalogue of Vices - at the end of it, you know - and I examined myself by this. Of course, I left out Murder and Theft and such other vices as I had no chance of committing having no inclination to commit them. `Twas strange work - to try if, notwithstanding my excelling my school-fellows, I had no pride or vanity. [ Pause; more seriously ]. The morality of every religion is bad, Mr Boswell. They all make up new species of crime and bring unhappiness in their train. When I hear a man is religious, I conclude he is a rascal [ pause ] though I know some instances of very good men being religious.

BOSWELL

But is it not possible that there may be a future state, where we shall all account for our sins?

HUME

`Tis possible that a piece of coal, put upon the fire, will not burn, but to suppose so is not at all reasonable. It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever. If it were at all, immortality must be general; the infant who dies before being possessed of reason; the half-wit; the Porter drunk with gin by ten o'clock - all must be preserved and new Universes must be created to contain such vast numbers.

BOSWELL

I would fain observe that that is an unphilosophical objection. Mr Hume, you know spirit does not take up space. [ Hume laughs. Pause ] Does the thought of Annihilation never give you any uneasiness?

HUME

[ Laughs ] Not at all, Mr Boswell. No more than the thought that I had not been.

BOSWELL

Well, Mr Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this Infidelity

HUME

[ laughing ] No, no. But I shall have been so long there before you, my young friend, that it will be nothing new.

[ Pause ]

BOSWELL

[ Reading ]. In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of My excellent mother's pious instructions, of Dr Johnson's noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my Faith.

[ Pause ]

BOSWELL

[ Speaking ] But I must be serious with you a moment, Mr Hume, and tell you that I believe the Christian Religion as I believe History

HUME

You do not believe it as you believe the Revolution of `88

BOSWELL

{ Concedes ] Yes, but the difference is that I am not much interested in the truth of the Revolution; otherwise I should have anxious doubts concerning it. A man who is in love has doubts of the affection of his Mistress. without cause. [ Pause ]. You must agree, Mr Hume, that the idea of a future state is surely pleasing.

HUME

No, no Mr Boswell, for it is always seen through a gloomy medium; there is always a Hell. [ Pause ]. I do not wish to be immortal. I am very well in this state of being, and the chances are very much against my being so well in another estate. I would rather not be more than be worse.

BOSWELL

But would it not be agreeable to have hopes of seeing your friends again. Think of your lately deceased friends - Ambassadour Keith, Lord Alemoor and Baron Muir.

HUME

`Twould be agreeable, but none of my deceased friends entertained any such foolish notion as that we might meet again.

BOSWELL

Lord Alemoor was a believer

HUME

Yes, HE had some belief

BOSWELL

If I were you I should regret Annihilation. Had I written such an admirable History as you have, I should be sorry to leave it.

HUME

[ Tiring ] I shall leave that History, of which you are pleased to speak so favourably, as perfect as I can. Johnson should be pleased with it.

BOSWELL

I fear he does not allow you much credit. "Sir" he says "The fellow is a Tory by chance" [ Hume laughs but is by now tired. There is a knock at the door ]

HOUSEKEEPER

The surgeon, Mr Lauder, Sir

[ Pause ]

BOSWELL

[ Reading ] I am sorry that I mentioned this at such a time. I was off my guard; for the truth is that Mr Hume's pleasantry was such that there was no solemnity in the scene; and Death for the time did not seem dismal. It surprised me to find him talking of different matters with a tranquillity of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time. I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time

[ Pause ]

NARRATOR

Boswell has left us a narrative of the disturbance Hume created in his life, a narrative which runs over eight years and is contained in a Diary - a Diary only re-discovered in the twentieth century, and which is as remarkable as any for its detail and candour

BOSWELL

[ Reading ] Saturday 10 August 1776. My shock from having been with David Hume was now almost cured. I liked much to hear David Erskine say, while we were drinking, that he was perfectly sure of being immortal. While uneasy from David Hume's conversation I read part of his worst essays in the Advocates' Library, from a kind of curiosity and self-tormenting inclination which we feel on many occasions. I was roused to noble hope again by an accidental conversation in the Library with Lord Monboddo ....

NARRATOR

[ Interrupts ] .... He who believed that orang-utans could speak, but, for fear of being enslaved, would not ....

BOSWELL

[ Reading ] I called this forenoon at David Hume's. His housekeeper, who I have reason to believe was his concubine, appeared to be crying, and told me that he had seen nobody for two days, and had said he would never be downstairs again for meals....

NARRATOR

[ Interrupts ] It is doubtful that she was his concubine. Hume's chief passion was for the Comtesse de Bouffleurs, who he met in France in 1763, at the age of 52. She was then 38, and mistress to the Prince de Conti. Hume loved the Comtesse, but found it hard to accept her continuing relationship with Conti. She loved Hume, but did not wish to give up the Prince. They parted in January 1766, never to meet again. Hume outlived the Prince by three weeks. The last letter written in his own hand is to the Comtesse, offering his condolences. Boswell meanwhile had other things on his mind

BOSWELL

[ Reading ] Wednesday 21 August. I was a good deal intoxicated. After tea my dear wife walked home with me, but I insisted on her going home, and walked to the New Town, called at Mr David Hume's, wishing to converse with him while I was elevated with liquor, but was told he was very ill. I then ranged awhile in the Old Town after strumpets, but luckily met with none that took my fancy

[ Pause ]

Monday 26 August. Balbarton and Bettie Montgomerie dined with us. Balbarton informed us that David Hume died yesterday. [ Pause ] This struck me a good deal. I went and called at his door, and was told by his servant that he died very easily. Betty Montgomerie drank tea with us. In the evening my wife and I played at brag.

Tuesday 27 August. Was indolent and listless and gloomy

Wednesday 28 August. The Honourable Henry Erskine and I drove out to Dreghorn where we had a party at bowls....I drank too much. We had whist after dinner. When I returned to town I was a good deal intoxicated, ranged the streets, and having met with a comely, fresh-looking girl, madly ventured to lie with her on the north brae of the Castle Hill. I told my dear wife immediately...

Thursday 29 August. Was vexed at my rashness last night, but was somehow in a very composed steady frame. It was a very wet day. After breakfast Grange and I went and saw David Hume's burial. We first looked at his grave in the burying ground on the Calton Hill, and then stood concealed behind a wall till we saw the procession of carriages come down from the New Town, and thereafter the procession of the corpse carried to the grave. We then went to the Advocates' Library and read some part of his Essays: of his "Epicurean, his "Stoic" , his "Sceptic"; and "On Natural Religion"

HUME

[ Reading, slowly and deliberately, emphasising the paradoxes ]. Human life is more governed by fortune than by reason; is to be regarded more as a dull pastime than a serious occupation; and is more influenced by particular humour, than by general principles. Shall we engage ourselves in it with passion and anxiety? It is not worthy of so much concern. Shall we be indifferent about what happens? We then lose all the pleasure of the game by our phlegm and carelessness. Yet while we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone; and death, though perhaps they receive him differently, yet treats alike the fool and the philosopher. To reduce life to exact rule and method is commonly a painful, oft a fruitless occupation: and is it not also a proof, that we overvalue the prize for which we contend? Even to reason so carefully concerning it, and to fix with accuracy its just idea, would be overvaluing it, were it not that, to some tempers, this occupation is one of the most amusing in which life could be possibly employed.

[ Pause ]

NARRATOR

Boswell's involvement with the death of Hume continues. Six months after Hume's death, he writes in his Diary:

BOSWELL

[ Reading ] Thursday 27 February 1777. The Miss Duns, Mr Stobie, Grange, Clerk Matthew, and Maclean of Cornaig dined with us. I got into an uncommonly cordial frame, and drank greatly too much. I unhappily went to the street, picked up a big fat whore, and lay with her upon a stone-hewing in a mason's shed just by David Hume's house

WHORE

It was awfu cauld. I had a braw looking young gentleman but he was fou and rough and he taen me tae a mason's shade in the New Toon and gard'd me lie on a grave stane. But he cam quick eneuch and gie'd me a shillin. But it was awfu cauld.

NARRATOR

So Boswell fucked in the shadow of Hume's death, in the shadow of his house. But his intellectual doubts could not be so readily allayed. He had to wait eight years for the resolution of those doubts, and then in a dream:

BOSWELL

[ Reading quietly ] 8th January 1784. Awakened after a very agreeable dream that I had found a Diary kept by David Hume, from which it appeared that though his vanity made him publish treatises of skepticism and infidelity, he was in reality a Christian and a very pious Man. He had, I imagined, quieted his mind by thinking that whatever he might appear to the world to show his talents, his religion was between God and his conscience. (I cannot be sure if this thought was in sleep ). I read some beautiful passages in his Diary (I am not certain whether I had this dream on Thursday or Friday night. But after I awaked, it dwelt so upon my mind that I could not for some time perceive that it was only a fiction).

NARRATOR

Others remained disturbed by the narrative of Hume's death. On the 14th April 1790, fourteen years after it occurred, we find John Wesley preaching at Halifax. He was 82, and just a year away from his own death. His sermon "On the Deceitfulness of the Human Heart" links Hume's name to that of Lord Chesterfield:

WESLEY

[ In a loud voice ] Did that right honourable wretch...know the heart of man - he that so earnestly advised his own son "never to speak the truth, to lie or dissemble as often as he speaks, to wear a mask continually - that earnestly counselled him "not to debauch single women" - because some inconvenience might follow - "but always married women". Would one imagine this grovelling animal ever had a wife or married daughter of his own? O rare Lord Chesterfield! Did ever man so well deserve, though he was a peer of the realm, to die by the side of Newgate?

Did Mr David Hume, lower, if possible, than he, know the heart of man? No more than a worm or beetle does. After `playing so idly with the darts of death', do you now find it a laughing matter? What think you now of Charon? Has he ferried you over Styx? At length he has taught you to know a little of your own heart! At length you know, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

[ Pause ]

HUME

[ Quietly, Scots accent ] Heaven and hell suppose two distinct species of men, the good and the bad; but the greater part of mankind float between vice and virtue. Were one to go round the world with an intention of giving a good supper to the righteous and a sound drubbing to the wicked, he would frequently be embarrassed in his choice, and would find the merits and demerits of most men and women scarcely amount to the value of either. To suppose measures of approbation and blame different from the human confounds everything. Whence do we learn that there is such a thing as moral distinctions, but from our own sentiments? What man who has not met with personal provocation (or what good natured man who has) could inflict on crimes, from the sense of blame alone, even the common punishments? This leniency suits our natural ideas of right even towards the greatest of all criminals, and even though it prevents so inconsiderable a sufferance. Nay, even the most bigoted priest would naturally without reflection approve of it [ Laughs ] provided the crime was not heresy or infidelity; for as these crimes hurt himself in his temporal interest and advantages, perhaps he may not be altogether so indulgent to them. [ Pause ]. The chief source of moral ideas is the reflection on the interests of human society. Ought these interests, so short, so frivolous, to be guarded by punishments eternal and infinite [ Pause ]. The damnation of one man is an infinitely greater evil in the universe than the subversion of a thousand millions of Kingdoms

First (and only) performance on 16 March 1989 as part of the MA programme in Language, The Arts and Education at the University of Sussex, England. The part of the Narrator was taken by Ann Thomas; David Hume - Stuart Hood; Adam Smith - Trevor Pateman; James Boswell - Peter Abbs; John Wesley - Barry Lorimer; the Housekeeper and the Whore - Fiona Collins. For the part of the whore, Stuart Hood kindly translated my English into Scots.

The research on which the dialogue is based was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Independently of this work, and around the same time, Michael Ignatieff wrote a play for BBC television, Dialogue in the Dark, which focusses on the same conversations between Boswell and Hume as are represented here