The Scotsmen Who Invented Modernity

Statue of Scottish Philosopher David Hume (1711 to 1776) by Alexander Stoddart at one of the prominent landmarks on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Rasmussen scrutinizes not only Hume and Smith’s personal relationship, but also the indispensable part that they played in shaping the Scottish Enlightenment.

September-October 2017

Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 336 pp., $29.95.


IN AUGUST 1776, a large crowd gathered in front of a grand neoclassical mausoleum. It was designed by Scotland’s greatest architect, Robert Adam, and stood on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. One observer sardonically noted that it almost seemed as though the attendees had either “expected the hearse to have been consumed in livid flames, or encircled with a ray of glory.” To prevent the tomb from being desecrated by the devout, guards were stationed around the mausoleum for several days after the burial ceremony. A few years later, Adam Smith told a companion that the tomb was too ostentatious: “I don’t like that monument. It is the greatest piece of vanity I ever saw in my friend Hume.”

But this was an isolated reproach. No one went to greater lengths to defend David Hume’s posthumous reputation than Smith. Always more prudent than Hume—who was known as “the Great Infidel” and deemed unfit for tutoring the young—Smith, a venerated professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, was guarded in conversation about his religious skepticism. But after Hume’s death, Smith shed his habitual caution and composed a highly controversial supplement to Hume’s brief memoir My Own Life. It was called a Letter to Strahan. In it, Smith described Hume’s final months, emphasizing his affability and serenity in the face of illness and impending death. He observed,

Though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require.

Boswell, who visited Hume on his deathbed and wrote a famous account of it, was astounded by Hume’s phlegmatic acceptance of his demise. Dr. Johnson was not. After Boswell described his interview with Hume, Johnson, who was always beset by a profound fear of death and regarded Hume’s irreligiosity with abhorrence, commented that he had “a vanity in being thought easy.” Smith would have none of this. His aim was to counter the conviction that Hume could only be a moral reprobate. He concluded his letter by associating Hume with the greatest philosopher of them all, Socrates, echoing Plato’s epitaph in the Phaedo: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”

In The Infidel and the Professor, Dennis C. Rasmussen explores the bromance between David Hume and Adam Smith. They bolstered each other’s careers, belonged to the Select Society club in Edinburgh and corresponded regularly on a variety of topics, ranging from moral philosophy to history to economics. Both also lived for a time in France, where they were celebrities and where Hume briefly became friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rasmussen, a professor of political science at Tufts University, deftly examines not only Hume and Smith’s personal relationship, but also the indispensable part that they played in shaping the Scottish Enlightenment. The result is a valuable study of the rise of the liberal tradition.

ON THE face of it, Scotland was an unlikely candidate to spawn such intellectual titans. Hume himself said that Scotland had been “the rudest, perhaps, of all European Nations; the most necessitous, the most turbulent, and the most unsettled.” But Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes coincided with a new era of economic prosperity and cultural glories. Edward Gibbon remarked in 1776—the year the first volume of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared, along with Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, not to mention Thomas Paine’s Common Sense—that he had “always looked up with the most sincere respect towards the northern part of our island, whither taste and philosophy seemed to have retired from the smoke and hurry of this immense capital.” Some of the leading luminaries included Adam Ferguson, William Robertson and Dugald Stewart. Most were employed by the university, the law, church or medicine. According to Rasmussen, this helps to explain why their “outlooks generally lacked the subversive edge that was so conspicuous among the Parisian philosophes, causing the more radical side of Smith’s and especially Hume’s thought to stand out in starker relief.”

Hume, who was born in 1711, entered Edinburgh University at the age of ten, where he studied Latin, Greek, logic, metaphysics and the natural sciences. Religious precepts infused his courses. Hume was unimpressed. He instructed a friend in 1735 that “there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books.” Upon graduation, he devoted eight years to private study, then spent three years in France, where he wrote the first two volumes of A Treatise of Human Nature. His early works, however brilliant, fell flat. Hume decided to focus on more accessible essays, deeming himself an “Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation.” Hume’s luminous essays quickly earned him both applause and notoriety, not least his sallies against miracles. “A skeptic to the end,” writes Rasmussen,

Hume never claims that miracles are impossible; to insist on their impossibility would be nearly as dogmatic as to insist on their reality. Rather, he “merely” argues that it is never reasonable to believe a report of a miracle having occurred.