David Hume

Ever wondered why is it that the Scottish moral philosopher David Hume (1711 – 1776) is usually portrayed wearing what appears to be a tea cozy? Puzzling and funny.

Seriously, though, he was one of the greatest stars of the Scottish Enlightenment. The wiki entry on him is worth a careful read. He was a close friend of another great Scot — Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), also a moral philosopher. Smith is widely recognized as the father of the discipline known as political economy (which we now call economics). His book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) is a masterpiece. Read it when you have a few months of free time.

Back to Hume. His “A Treatise of Human Nature” (Book 1) was published in 1739. The title page explains what the book is about:

“Being An Attempt to Introduce the experimental Method of Reasoning  into MORAL SUBJECTS”

Hume is eminently worth reading. His treatise of human nature is available at Project Gutenberg. Here is the “Advertisement” he writes as the first paragraph of the text:

Hume has been enormously influential in the move toward enlightenment, a project that humanity embarked on a few hundred years ago in various parts of the world, and with no imaginable end point aside from the end of humanity itself. That end could come any time either by self-destruction (thermonuclear war) or some natural catastrophe.

Natural catastrophes have happened in the past. Around 66 million years ago, the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out quite a bit of life on earth. It could happen again and wipe out our species and whatever we have created. Another danger is some close-by star going supernova. That would be the end.

Back to Hume. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Hume:

Although Hume’s more conservative contemporaries denounced his writings as works of scepticism and atheism, his influence is evident in the moral philosophy and economic writings of his close friend Adam Smith. Kant reported that Hume’s work woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers” and Jeremy Bentham remarked that reading Hume “caused the scales to fall” from his eyes. Charles Darwin regarded his work as a central influence on the theory of evolution. The diverse directions in which these writers took what they gleaned from reading him reflect both the richness of their sources and the wide range of his empiricism. Today, philosophers recognize Hume as a thoroughgoing exponent of philosophical naturalism, as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science, and as the inspiration for several of the most significant types of ethical theory developed in contemporary moral philosophy.

So there we get a glimpse of how influential Hume has been — there’s Adam Smith (1723–1790), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), and Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

In a previous post titled “Stop all the clocks” I quoted Hume.  “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”


A friend recently asked me to read a book by a mysterious “Sri M”, titled “Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master: A Yogi’s Autobiography.” Practically on every other page the author reports a miracle. Either he is extremely self-deluded or he is lying through his teeth. It’s hard to believe anyone can be that deluded; so I think he was simply lying. Lying appears to have paid off since “Sri M” does make a good living out of dispensing “wisdom” to the gullible and the credulous.

What is more probable: that “Sri M” is fabricating it all out of whole cloth, or that he’s reporting actual miracles? I think the former. That reminded me of Hume:

… no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.


I am always amazed at the credulity of people. There’s something crooked about humans. Immanuel Kant noted that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”


Here are a few quotes from Hume, for the record:

  • Nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.
  • It is seldom, that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom, that it must steal upon them by degrees, and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes, in order to be received.
  • Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude.
  • No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.
  • Mohammed praises [instances of] tretchery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, and bigotry that are utterly incompatible with civilized society.
  • The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.
  • When I hear that a man is religious, I conclude he is a rascal!
  • The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness.

That last quote makes a lot of sense to me. We value wealth because it is instrumental in promoting human well-being and flourishing. And that, dear, is a stepping stone to bliss or ananda.

Sat, Chit, Ananda.


Author: Atanu Dey


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