‘The Great Infidel’ - David Hume, 1711-1776, Philosopher and Historian
David Hume, the most important philosopher and historian of the day. He was fond of convivial company, discussing ideas, and enjoyed his food and drink. He was one of Alison’s best friends.
David Hume was one of the boldest and most original thinkers of his day. His writing style was elegant and attractive, even if some of his radical ideas were very controversial to his contemporaries, and remain so today. He questioned everything, from what morals are to the existence of cause and effect, physical objects and God. His point was that we take a lot of basic ideas for granted without really examining our evidence for them – when we look for the evidence we sometimes find we can’t prove them at all. His religious arguments earned him the title “the Great Infidel” – the big disbeliever. Although his philosophical books were controversial and sold poorly, his stylishly written books on British history were best-sellers and made him a lot of money.
Like many residents of the Old Town of Edinburgh, David Hume made the decision to move to a house in the more fashionable development taking place to the north of the city. He regularly went to see how it was progressing during the building, having to cross boggy land to get there. According to one story, one day he got stuck! Some passing fishwives, recognising him as the “Great Infidel”, were said to have offered to help him out – but only on the condition that he recited the Lord’s Prayer! He did so, and they pulled him out. Hume’s open atheism was so famous and so unusual for his time that when he was on his deathbed, people came to visit him just to see if the prospect of death would frighten him into prayer and conversion! Much to their amazement and disappointment, it didn’t.
Hume was also a very sociable man and a member of a great many clubs - and he also loved his food and enjoyed cooking meals for his friends.
Why was he important?
- Hume was one of the greatest and most controversial philosophers of his day
- He asked difficult questions and challenged basic assumptions, encouraging debate and fresh thinking
- He was a great “people person” with a great deal of style and charisma
Things to do:
What famous historical characters did Hume write about?
Which other Scots were writing books about history at this time?
How do we know what is right and what is wrong? (Hume thought that it was a matter of feeling rather than a matter of fact)
How do we understand things? (Hume thought all our ideas all come from experience, not from working things out in our heads)
The statue of Hume in the Royal Mile and see his portrait at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Curriculum Links: Expressive Arts, Health and Wellbeing, Languages, Mathematics, Religious and Moral Education, Social Studies, Technologies