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The Infidel and the Professor

Interview by Richard Marshall.

The Scottish Enlightenment was really one of history’s intellectual golden ages, the rival of Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Italy. Scotland began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe, but Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement, a transformation that was palpable – indeed, startling – to contemporary observers.

All in all, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire exemplify a type of liberalism (taking the word in its broadest sense) that’s more realistic, moderate, flexible, and contextually sensitive than most other branches of this tradition. Some forms of liberalism that emerged during the Enlightenment, like Lockean contractarianism, Kantian deontology, and Benthamite utilitarianism, were highly idealistic in character, grounded in first principles like the immutable dictates of natural law, the rational (and therefore categorical) requirements of human dignity, or the universal imperative to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. In contrast, the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire was far more pragmatic.

Smith provides a kind of historical and comparative cost-benefit analysis and concludes that, despite its very real problems, commercial society’s overall balance sheet remains preferable to those of other societies, for it constitutes a definite improvement over the poverty, insecurity, and dependence that dominated almost all pre-commercial ages. In other words, commercial society is unequivocally preferable, for Smith, even if it is only preferable on balance.

Dennis Rasmussen teaches courses in the history of political philosophy, contemporary political theory, and American political thought. His research interests centre on the Enlightenment and on the virtues and shortcomings of liberal democracy and market capitalism. Here he discusses the friendship between Hume and Smith and why their relationship has been so little discussed, their views on friendship itself, the Scottish Enlightenment, the ‘Pragmatic Enlightenment’, the role of Calvinism in their work, whether Hume was primarily an historian or a philosopher, their political alignments, Smith and Rousseau, Smith and Hume on morality, Hume’s influence on The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s attitude towards Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, and the controversy surrounding Smith’s account of Hume’s death.

3:AM: Your new book centers on the friendship of David Hume and Adam Smith, key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. It’s a subject that hasn’t received a huge amount of sustained analysis – why do you think that is?

Dennis Rasmussen: It does seem pretty remarkable that two thinkers of this stature were best friends for nearly their entire adult lives and yet no book had been written on their personal or intellectual relationship. I can think of a couple of likely explanations for this. The first is simply that their lives – especially Smith’s – aren’t nearly as well documented as one could wish. There are only fifty-six surviving letters between them, and many of these are fairly short and mundane, though others are quite humorous, intellectually substantial, and/or revealing about their characters. I try to provide the fullest possible account of their friendship based on the record that does exist – in these letters, their published works, the testimony and correspondence of others, and the periodicals of the day. I think there’s enough there to tell a compelling story, even without resorting to the kind of speculation that often tempts historians when sources are thin.

Another likely reason why Hume and Smith’s friendship hasn’t received sustained analysis is that friendships are more difficult to bring to life than quarrels: conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie doesn’t. So it’s not surprising that there have been many books written on philosophical clashes – think of David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker and Rousseau’s Dog, Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic, and Robert Zaretsky and John Scott’s The Philosophers’ Quarrel, to name only a few recent titles – but far fewer on philosophical friendships. The relative lack of attention paid to philosophical friendships, while understandable, is unfortunate, especially since friendship was seen as a key component of philosophy and the philosophical life from the very beginning, as even a cursory reading of Plato or Aristotle should remind us.

3:AM: Was friendship important to both these figures – did they hold particular views about friendship?

DR: Friendship was absolutely central to their lives and also important in their writings. Hume and Smith were both lifelong bachelors, so their relationships with each other and with their other friends were the most meaningful ties they had (along with Smith’s close relationship with his mother). And both of them claimed repeatedly, throughout their philosophical works, that friendship is an indispensable component of a good and happy life. Hume declared that “friendship is the chief joy of human life,” for instance, and Smith proclaimed that the esteem and affection of one’s friends constitutes “the chief part of human happiness.”

Friendship – including their own friendship – plays an especially pivotal role in the controversial eulogy that Smith wrote soon after Hume’s death, published in 1777 as Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan, Esq. Smith uses the word “friend” no fewer than seventeen times within the work’s half dozen pages. According to Smith, Hume’s comportment toward his friends and his great capacity for friendship were among the principal proofs of the goodness of his character, and the friendships themselves were in turn among the chief rewards that he derived from this good character.

3:AM: I mentioned the Scottish Enlightenment – perhaps you could sketch for us what this was, as it’s important that eighteenth century Scotland is recognized as being a crucial backdrop to these two thinkers isn’t it?

DR: The Scottish Enlightenment was really one of history’s intellectual golden ages, the rival of Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Italy. Scotland began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe, but Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement, a transformation that was palpable – indeed, startling – to contemporary observers. Dugald Stewart, Smith’s first biographer, marveled at “the sudden burst of genius, which to a foreigner must seem to have sprung up in this country by a sort of enchantment, soon after the [Jacobite] Rebellion of 1745.”

Some of the important men of letters of the period, in addition to Hume and Smith, included Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Francis Hutcheson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Dugald Stewart. This Scottish renaissance also comprised natural scientists like the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, and James Watt of steam engine fame, as well as artists like the painter Allan Ramsay, the playwright John Home, and the architect Robert Adam. Hume and Smith knew all of these figures personally, and they each play a role in the book. I also describe their encounters with some of the luminaries of the age beyond Scotland, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and Voltaire.

3:AM: You discuss the “pragmatic Enlightenment” which takes in thinkers from both France and Scotland – Hume, Smith, Montesquieu and Voltaire. You argue that this is a strand of the Enlightenment that contrasts with more idealistic figures such as Locke, Kant and Bentham. Can you sketch what this “pragmatic Enlightenment” is and why you find it attractive?

DR: Yes, in my second book, The Pragmatic Enlightenment, I draw on not just Hume and Smith but also Montesquieu and Voltaire to highlight a central strand of Enlightenment thought that I argue runs directly counter to the main contemporary criticisms of “the Enlightenment.” Whereas the Enlightenment is often criticized for embracing a hegemonic form of universalism, a blind faith in reason, and an atomizing form of individualism, these four thinkers in fact exhibited the contrary virtues: they recognized the importance of context and flexibility in formulating moral and political standards, they emphasized the limits and fallibility of human understanding, and they sought a healthier and more reliable way to unite people than the traditional bonds of blood, religion, and nationalism, which they found above all in commerce.

All in all, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire exemplify a type of liberalism (taking the word in its broadest sense) that’s more realistic, moderate, flexible, and contextually sensitive than most other branches of this tradition. Some forms of liberalism that emerged during the Enlightenment, like Lockean contractarianism, Kantian deontology, and Benthamite utilitarianism, were highly idealistic in character, grounded in first principles like the immutable dictates of natural law, the rational (and therefore categorical) requirements of human dignity, or the universal imperative to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. In contrast, the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire was far more pragmatic, in many senses of that term: it was grounded in experience and empirical observation instead of transcendent or a priori first principles; it addressed practical human concerns rather than aiming to satisfy abstract standards of right derived from God, Nature, or Reason; it was flexible in its application and attentive to the importance of historical and cultural context; and it favored gradual, piecemeal reform over the pursuit of perfection or the imposition of strict requirements for political legitimacy.

3:AM: Calvinism is an important backdrop to Hume’s and Smith’s work isn’t it – it was a religion that was being reformed by the Moderates at the time but nevertheless was still a potent and repressive force. How did Hume and Smith manage to work with or around or despite of this religious doctrine? Were they both atheists?

DR: One of the running themes of The Infidel and the Professor is that Hume and Smith adopted broadly similar views, but very different public postures, toward religion and the religious. Hume wasn’t quite an atheist, but rather what we might call an agnostic, or what in the eighteenth century was called simply a skeptic (the better term in any case). He never denied outright the existence of a higher power, but he deemed the principal arguments on behalf of one highly implausible, and he considered the effects of religion to be mostly pernicious. This will be somewhat controversial, but I argue that Smith’s views on this score were substantially closer to Hume’s – that is, substantially more skeptical – than is usually assumed. Perhaps his skepticism retained a touch of deism: it’s distinctly possible that Smith believed in a distant, perhaps benevolent, higher power. But he was almost certainly not a believing Christian, and he seems to have been suspicious of most forms of religious devotion.

Whereas Hume was fairly forthright about his lack of faith, though, Smith generally went to great lengths, in both his writings and his personal life, to avoid revealing his religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and to steer clear of confrontations with the pious. Contemporaries frequently noted that Smith was “very guarded in conversation” when the topic of religion came up, and the little that he wrote on the topic is sufficiently ambiguous to leave many readers unsure of his ultimate convictions. These contrary postures led to equally contrary reputations: Hume was christened “the Great Infidel” and was deemed unfit to teach the young – he twice sought professorships, but in both cases the clergy opposed his candidacy decisively – while Smith became a respected professor of moral philosophy. (Hence the contrast implicit in the title of the book.)

3:AM: Do you read Hume primarily as a historian or as a philosopher? I ask because the early caricature was to contrast him as the abstract metaphysician and epistemologist to the hard headed economist Smith, whereas you argue that they overlapped on many issues: Smith pivoting off Hume’s moral sentimentalism, for example, and Hume discussing benefits of free trade in Political Discourses before Smith’s Wealth of Nations did.

DR: I don’t read Hume primarily as a historian or as a philosopher: he was both, or rather an eighteenth-century “man of letters,” as James Harris stresses in his recent biography. Neither Hume nor Smith should be pigeonholed into today’s narrow academic disciplines. It’s true that Hume began his career by investigating metaphysical and epistemological questions, and it’s this part of his corpus that still receives the lion’s share of attention from academic philosophers. But even within the pages of his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature, he transitioned from these fairly abstract issues to more practical discussions relating to psychology and morality. He then went on to write essays on a huge range of subjects, from politics to polygamy and from economics to eloquence, as well as several works on religion and a six-volume History of England.

Similarly, while Smith is often hailed as the founding father of capitalism, he was in fact, as his modern interpreters never tire of pointing out, far more than an economist who theorized the invisible hand and championed free trade. Instead, he was a professor of moral philosophy who included political economy as just one of his many intellectual interests. He taught courses on ethics, jurisprudence, and rhetoric, and he wrote essays on the development of language and the history of astronomy, among other topics. When one moves beyond Book 1 of Hume’s Treatise and the most famous handful of passages from The Wealth of Nations, then, it becomes clear that their interests overlapped a great deal, in part because they were both interested in, well, pretty much everything.

3:AM: Politically, was Hume the conservative and Smith the Whig, or was it more complicated?

DR: Hume’s political thought does have its conservative aspects, and Smith is unquestionably a key member of the liberal tradition, but the reverse is equally true: Hume too is a liberal in the broadest sense of the term, and Smith’s liberalism too has a distinctly conservative bent. More concretely speaking, both of these thinkers embraced the core ideals associated with the liberal tradition, stressing the benefits of the rule of law, limited government, religious toleration, freedom of expression, private property, and commerce. They were thus both generally supportive of the modern, liberal, commercial order of the Britain of their time. On the other hand, they both distrusted large and sudden innovations in politics. Given the fallibility of human reason and the complicated, variable nature of the political world, they held, we should be wary of grand schemes for radically restructuring society. Hence, while they advocated certain reforms to the society of their day – freer trade and greater religious toleration, for instance – they always insisted that these changes should be implemented in a gradual, measured way.

As for terms like “Tory” and “Whig,” neither Hume nor Smith can accurately be described as a partisan in any straightforward sense: neither had much faith in either of the main political parties of eighteenth-century Britain. I argue in The Pragmatic Enlightenment that they could both be described as pragmatic liberals, given that they embraced the core ideals of the liberal tradition but also emphasized the importance of moderation, caution, flexibility, and attentiveness to context in applying these ideals. In any event, in my view the political divergences between the two were relatively minor, matters of detail and emphasis rather than general outlook.

3:AM: Smith is often contrasted with Rousseau in their attitudes to capitalism but you argue that Smith had a great of sympathy with Rousseau’s critique. Is this an example of the pragmatism of Smith’s approach to commercial society?

DR: My first book, The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society, centers on Smith’s response to Rousseau’s critique of commercial society, or what we would now call capitalism. I try to show that Smith actually shared many of Rousseau’s rather severe misgivings about commercial society. For instance, he agreed that commercial society necessarily produces great inequalities; that an extensive division of labor can exact an immense cost in human dignity by rendering people feeble and ignorant; that an emphasis on wealth and material goods can corrupt people’s moral sentiments; that wealthy merchants and manufacturers will often collude against the public interest; and that the desire for wealth often leads people to submit to endless toil and anxiety in the pursuit of frivolous material goods that provide only fleeting satisfaction. Unlike some of today’s self-proclaimed “Smithians,” then, Smith himself was far from a mere apologist for commercial society.

None of this is to say, though, that Smith didn’t ultimately defend commercial society – he absolutely did. Throughout his writings Smith offers a number of counterarguments and countermeasures in response to each element of Rousseau’s critique, but I argue that the key line of reasoning running through Smith’s rejoinders is his conviction that commercial society’s faults, though real and important, are not as numerous or as great as those of other forms of society. Smith provides a kind of historical and comparative cost-benefit analysis and concludes that, despite its very real problems, commercial society’s overall balance sheet remains preferable to those of other societies, for it constitutes a definite improvement over the poverty, insecurity, and dependence that dominated almost all pre-commercial ages. In other words, commercial society is unequivocally preferable, for Smith, even if it is only preferable on balance. So yes, I think Smith’s response to Rousseau is a perfect example of his pragmatic approach to politics, commercial society, and much else.

3:AM: How did Smith and Hume develop their theories about morality – were their views largely the same or did they develop differently nuanced ideas from each other?

DR: As usual, Hume influenced Smith much more than Smith influenced Hume; indeed, Hume had written almost all of his philosophical works before Smith even began to publish his. Virtually the whole of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, shows unmistakable signs of Hume’s influence, down to the very examples that he uses. And the similarities between their moral theories are both broad and deep: both view morality as an eminently practical and human phenomenon, rather than one based on any kind of sacred, mysterious, or otherworldly authority; both hold that morality derives from human sentiments rather than reason; and both posit that right and wrong are established by the sentiments that we feel when we adopt the proper perspective, one that corrects for personal biases and misinformation – Hume’s “common point of view” or “general point of view” and Smith’s “impartial spectator.”

Yet Smith almost never simply adopted Hume’s views wholesale; on the contrary, he modified almost everything he touched. In The Infidel and the Professor I examine four major topics on which Smith deviated from Hume’s moral theory: the nature of sympathy, the role of utility, the foundation of justice, and the effects of religion. In most of these cases, Smith’s views are more nuanced, and arguably more sophisticated, than Hume’s. This is one reason why more philosophers should read Smith than currently do: for much of the twentieth century Smith’s philosophical writings were deemed to be little more than a series of footnotes to Hume’s, but in fact his version of moral sentimentalism incorporates several significant improvements on that of his good friend.

3:AM: How much of Smith’s Wealth of Nations is influenced by Hume, and are there big features on which they do differ?

DR: It’s harder to gauge Smith’s level of engagement with Hume in The Wealth of Nations than in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He cites Hume by name five times in the work, and at another point he transcribes four full paragraphs from The History of England, calling its author “by far the most illustrious philosopher and historian of the present age,” but there are fewer passages in this work in which he’s clearly developing or contesting Hume’s views. My hunch is that Hume’s impact on the book was significant, but that it probably issued more from Hume’s general attitude toward commerce and political economy than from specific passages in his writings.

Just as Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy have been unduly neglected in favor of Hume’s, Hume’s contributions to political economy have been unduly neglected in favor of Smith’s. As an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he’s taken notice of at all, but in fact he argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared. Hume’s essay “Of Luxury” (later retitled “Of Refinement in the Arts”) is one of the most forceful, comprehensive, yet succinct defenses of the modern, liberal, commercial order ever written. Here too, though, Smith diverged from Hume’s views in important respects, above all in his greater readiness to acknowledge potential drawbacks of commercial society (of the kind that I mentioned earlier in connection with Rousseau). My students are always struck by the fact that Smith, the alleged founding father of capitalism, was in fact far less uniformly positive about commercial society than Hume was.

3:AM: What was Smith’s attitude to Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion? Was he less than loyal towards Hume as Hume lay dying?

DR: Smith resolutely refused to posthumously publish Hume’s Dialogues, despite Hume’s request that he do so, and Smith’s behavior in this instance is generally seen as unnecessarily cautious, utterly inexplicable, or even an act of betrayal – a denial of his best friend’s dying wish. I argue, though, that this episode was in fact less acrimonious and philosophically charged than is generally assumed. A surprising number of scholars have assumed that Smith refused to publish the Dialogues because he was disturbed or even scandalized by the contents of the work, but if Smith’s religious views were as close to Hume’s as my book suggests, this explanation seems unlikely. The likeliest explanation, in my view, is also the simplest: as Smith himself indicated in a draft letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan, he was wary of the public “clamor” that the book would provoke and the effects that this clamor would have on his own “quiet” and Hume’s posthumous reputation.

Was this, then, an instance of excessive caution, or even cowardice, as is often suggested? If it was, then it was a failing that wasn’t unique to Smith: every one of Hume’s friends who knew about the Dialogues urged him not to publish it. And if the unanimous counsel of Hume’s friends isn’t enough to exonerate Smith, then Hume’s own words and actions should be. After all, Hume himself had refrained from publishing the work for two and a half decades, for the exact same reason that Smith refused to do so: because (as he explained to Strahan) it would create a “clamor” that would prevent him from living “quietly.” Even the wording of their explanations is nearly identical.

The more perplexing question, in a way, isn’t why Smith refused to publish the Dialogues but rather why Hume was suddenly so adamant about publication after holding the work back for twenty-five years, and even more why he sought to foist this obligation on Smith. Hume may have reckoned that he had little left to lose at that point, with one foot almost in the grave, but obviously Smith wasn’t in the same position. Moreover, Hume knew full well that Smith was always anxious to preserve his privacy and tranquility – his “quiet.” It wouldn’t have taken a great feat of sympathy to realize that Smith would be averse to the public clamor that Hume himself foresaw would be provoked by the Dialogues. All things considered, then, Hume’s part in this exchange is more difficult to account for than Smith’s.

3:AM: Why was Smith’s account of Hume’s death so controversial?

DR: Smith’s Letter to Strahan, which I mentioned earlier, was written and published in a highly charged atmosphere. Few in eighteenth-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and as he lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776 everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? Smith’s Letter was effectively the “authorized version” of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to Hume’s autobiography, My Own Life, in March 1777.

Though Smith does not explicitly call attention to Hume’s impiety in the Letter, he makes clear that Hume died with remarkable good humor and without religion. He chronicles – some would say flaunts – the cheerfulness and equanimity of Hume’s final days, depicting him telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. He also emphasizes the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concludes the Letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” Though relatively little known today, in the eighteenth century this work caused an uproar. Smith later proclaimed that it “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain” – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into your area of interest?

DR: The scholarly literatures on Hume and Smith are both so vast that it would be difficult to narrow a list of “must-read” contemporary commentaries to just five, so I’ll stick with the originals.

I assume that most philosophers will have read Hume’s Treatise and Enquiries, so I’ll start with his Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. The highlights for me are the series of essays on the good life – “The Epicurean,” “The Stoic,” “The Platonist,” and “The Sceptic” – along with “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” which is really one of the underappreciated gems of Hume’s corpus.

Given that my book focuses not just on Hume’s ideas but also his life, I’ll also throw in his brief but delightful autobiography, My Own Life, for those who have not yet read it.

More philosophers read Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments now than was the case a couple of decades ago, but still more should, so that’s number three. Once again, given the topic of my book I absolutely have to include Smith’s moving eulogy for Hume, the Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan, Esq. (Both this work and Hume’s My Own Life are included in the appendix of The Infidel and the Professor.)

Finally, since I’ve also written quite a bit about Rousseau, I’ll recommend his greatest work – the one that Rousseau himself consistently said was his best and most important – namely his treatise on education or child-raising, Emile. Though many philosophers know next to nothing about it, it’s one of the most significant and comprehensive books in the entire Western tradition.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 2nd, 2017.