Cancelling “Le Bon David”

Of all the great philosophers, one might suppose, among the last to fall victim to the “cancel culture” would be David Hume. And yet le bon David, as the savants of Paris nicknamed him for his good nature and jovial temperament, has instead become the first. The University of Edinburgh, his alma mater, has decided to rename the David Hume Tower, one of the best-known landmarks on its campus; it will henceforth be known as “40 George Square.” The university justifies the cancellation of its great alumnus by reference to “the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th-century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.”

As yet, there is no suggestion that Edinburgh’s city council intends to follow the university’s example by removing the statue of Hume that stands on its most prominent street, the Royal Mile. But the statue has already attracted hostile attention and it may only be a matter of time before that, too, goes. If so, the posthumous reputation of the philosopher will have come full circle. In 1745, he was denied a chair at Edinburgh by what he called “the cabals of the Principal, the bigotry of the clergy, and the credulity of the mob.”

Hume and Slavery

Hume has always been a controversial figure: in his own day for his suspected atheism, later for his metaphysical and moral scepticism. Yet nothing can diminish his pre-eminence in philosophy; without him, its history would have been quite different. Immanuel Kant admitted that “it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction.”

Hume is considered the greatest of empiricists, but his was a universal mind, more encyclopaedic than the Encyclopédistes, as original in his History of England as in his writings on economics and ethics. His influence extends as far as Einstein’s theory of relativity and modern cognitive psychology. No greater philosopher than he has ever written in English; together with his friend Adam Smith, he represents the pinnacle of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume was a Tory in an age of Whigs, a defender of the nobility but also of Jean Jacques Rousseau, until the Frenchman turned against him. His own subversive radicalism and instinctive infidelity make him an unlikely target for today’s iconoclasts. Now, though, he is alleged to have been implicated in the slave trade and stands accused of the most unforgivable of what Orwell called thoughtcrimes: racism.

Let us consider the charges levelled against Hume. There are two items, one more serious than the other. The lesser charge is that he urged one of his patrons, Lord Hertford, to buy a slave plantation in Grenada. One of his accusers, Dr. Felix Waldmann of Cambridge University, points to a letter of 1766 that he discovered and published in Further Letters of David Hume which documents Hume’s alleged “involvement in the slave trade.” He claims that Hume also lent money to another investor in the plantation. All this, however, merely proves that Hume thought the investment was likely to be profitable for his noble friend. In his capacity as a financial adviser, the philosopher was not entitled, let alone obliged, to impose his own moral views on his patron. Anyone who today holds stocks and shares that include Chinese-owned companies, which might profit from the abuse of human rights, is open to the same charge as Hume. But such investors are not thereby “involved” in the forced labor camps where persecuted minorities or political dissidents are held in China. And there is a great difference between actually owning slaves, as for example Washington or Jefferson did, and advising another on the subject.

It is true that the Hertford letter is difficult to reconcile with Hume’s public position on slavery. In one of his essays, “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations”, which was published in 1748, nearly two decades before the letter to Lord Hertford, he argues with great eloquence against the institution of slavery in Greece and Rome. Hume considers that “domestic slavery is more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever.” He even argues that other cruelties were an indirect consequence of slavery, adding in a footnote: “The inhuman sports exhibited in Rome, may justly be considered too as an effect of the people’s contempt for slaves, and was also a great cause of the general inhumanity of their princes and rulers.” Though he refers only once to contemporary slavery, he sees it as a hangover from the “barbarous manners of ancient times”, and condemns it unequivocally: “The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the American colonies, and among some European nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal.” It should be noted that Hume writes only of domestic slavery; it is unclear whether his critique extends to the modern use of slave labor, for example on plantations. Yet the arguments he adduces against “the ergastula, or dungeons, where slaves in chains were forced to work” surely apply just as well to slaves in the West Indies or the American South.

From such passages, it is clear that Hume took a public and principled stand against slavery at a time when the abolitionist movement was still very much in its infancy. He was writing before William Wilberforce was born. Moreover, it is only fair to the great philosopher, who was also a master of  English prose, to give far greater weight to his published writings than to private correspondence. Even if—and it is an if—in his personal conduct Hume did not always live up to his principles, he was no more of a hypocrite than most people, including many philosophers, of his or any other time. Hume’s dealings with his patrons cannot be compared to the frequently anti-Semitic or racist and occasionally genocidal effusions of Marx and Engels, for example, in their correspondence and journalism.

A Fatal Footnote

The more serious charge against Hume is that in his essay “Of National Characters”, he included what might be called the Fatal Footnote—a brief sentence that to modern eyes seems unambiguously racist. His main argument is directed against Montesquieu’s claim that climate and other physical causes determine what we would call culture. It is all the more perplexing, therefore, that Hume comes out with such a bald statement as this: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites.” These are the words which, literally hung around the neck of his statue, damn Hume forever in the eyes of many. His attempt at justification only makes matters worse: “There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” Nor does it help that he makes an unfavourable comparison of black people with “the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars.”

For Hume the sceptic, the equality of man was an empirical rather than a moral question. And he was ill-informed about the civilisations of Africa.

It gets worse: “Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession.” Hume concludes by adding insult to injury: “In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” Later in the essay he adds another insult, again without a scrap of evidence: “You may obtain any thing of the Negroes by offering them strong drink, and may easily prevail with them to sell, not only their children, but their wives and mistresses, for a cask of brandy.”

What possessed Hume to write such poisonous stuff we can only wonder. He declined to remove the Fatal Footnote in later editions of the Essays, so it must be assumed that his mind was made up. It may be conceded that he was writing long before the abolitionist movement had ensured that educated people were informed about slavery. But his total absence of empathy with or even curiosity about black people stands in contrast with some of his contemporaries. One such was Samuel Johnson, who left his books and papers, plus much of his fortune, to his black manservant Francis Barber. Hume might well have encountered black people like Barber, but if he did so, they evidently left no impression on him.

It may not be irrelevant that Johnson—like his friend Hannah More and later abolitionists such as Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect—was a devout Christian; he was shocked by the unashamed infidelity of Hume. The latter lacked the former’s deep-seated conviction that all human beings, made in the image of God, were equal before Him. In the absence of a belief in natural law or divinely inspired human dignity, racial inequality might seem more plausible. For Hume the sceptic, the equality of man was an empirical rather than a moral question. He was ill-informed about the civilisations of Africa. Nor does he seem to have given due weight to his own national prejudices, which are displayed throughout his essay. Thus the English are presumed to be “the most remarkable of any people that perhaps ever were in the world” in their “wonderful mixture of manners and characters.” “An Englishman will naturally be supposed to have more knowledge than a Dane, though Tycho Brahe was a native of Denmark.” He contrasts Jews, “much noted for fraud,” with the “probity” of Armenians, and compares the modern Greeks unfavourably with the Turks. And Hume’s disdain for his fellow Scots is only exceeded by his contempt for the Irish.

So Hume was a man of strong prejudices. But this does not make him a “racist,” let alone a “white supremacist.” These are ideas that emerged only a century after his death. It is true that in the Fatal Footnote he writes: “Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.” But this is merely to repeat a commonplace of his time, worlds away from the racial ideology later propagated by Count Gobineau.

Was Hume more prejudiced than other thinkers of his day? Hardly: Voltaire and Kant, for example, were vicious anti-Semites. Or was he more complicit in the slave trade? No: Isaac Newton had been a large shareholder in the South Sea Company, which supplied slaves to Latin America. Hume’s compatriot, Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, accepted a post as a slave overseer in Jamaica, though he was unable to take it up. These and many other luminaries of the Enlightenment turned a blind eye to slavery and made no secret of their ethnic or religious antipathies. Yet none of them has been “cancelled”—at least, not yet.

Hume was unusual in only one respect: he confined his most odious prejudice to a single footnote. That footnote is indefensible, but it ought not to be fatal to his reputation. For this one thoughtcrime, the author of A Treatise of Human Nature does not deserve to be expunged from the history of thought. As for his character: of few other philosophers could it be said, as Adam Smith wrote of him: “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.” Those who are without human frailty, let them first cancel David Hume.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on September 24, 2020 at 07:40:20 am

So, if Hume’s “Fatal Footnote” qualifies him for “cancellation,” surely Abraham Lincoln’s statements made at his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas puts The Great Emancipator on the kill list. Lincoln said: “ I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

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Joe Wolverton
on September 26, 2020 at 09:09:40 am

A person can contribute to both well-argued thoughtful ideas in one field of study and vent prejudice and display ignorance in talking about something else. The latter does not detract from the quality of the former, and the quality of the former does not excuse the stupidity of the latter. We shall miss many great ideas if we do not keep that in mind. We shall also mislead ourselves into thinking that being clever in the exploration of certain ideas makes a person also clever in discourse on all other ideas. Further, being a great thinker in one filed or many does not make a person either nice or repulsive.

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on September 24, 2020 at 07:56:32 am

Mr Hume, a necessary read to a balanced understanding of where we are. His skepticism no less than his royalist sympathies marking him as a radical reactionary in religion and politics, but his exercises in empiricism making his contribution to epistemology secure. His take on race, normal for the time, for we, unlike the modern pagans who anachronize a consciousness and a conscience of which they know not the source, understand that slavery, as in servanthood, exists today in a different way, but much the same, and there to obedience to command upon pain of dismissal without cause, or worse, as in the case of human trafficking. It has taken a while for humanity to reach the heights of Christianity in acknowledging the potential of all men, regardless of race or color, to meet the standard of the creed in perfecting liberty from oppression. Mr. Hume made strides along the way, perhaps not understanding that slavery with Christianity was better than the alternative of death from want and starvation, not to mention the destruction of which Christ speaks, a spiritual loss incurable by any scientific method, much less mere natural impression.

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on September 24, 2020 at 06:23:23 am

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