Just the other day, I was surprised to find myself invited to take part in a forthcoming BBC McRadio documentary about David “le bon” Hume (this year of our Lord being the tercentenary of Hume’s birth). The programme maker confessed to a bewilderment about the content and import of Hume’s principal claim to contemporary fame: his philosophy. A colleague of hers had suggested that I might be a light to lighten the Enlightenment in this regard. This was a recommendation that was only a lustrum or so wide of its best-before date, but never mind. It’s nice to be asked. Flattery is a free bus pass with me, if not exactly a chartered jet: it will get you places, but not too far.
The immediate result was a very pleasant and light-hearted chat with Debbie (the programme’s editrix) which lasted well over an hour, and encompassed such varied territory as Hume, Dundee friaries and West Highland terriers. The intermediate outcome was an equally (almost) painless hour-and-a-bit blether with a certain weel-kent cultural commentator and former senior Pisky churchman of these parts – a gentleman with whom I would not always have relished such a moment of co-operative chuminess, for reasons which needn’t detain us here. The interview took place in a “most learned drawing-room”, close to my own heart and hearth.
It was clear from the get-go, not least because I knew the intellectual partialities of my interviewer, that this programme was intended to be an uncomplicated encomium to Hume, and I was equanimitously resigned to that. No goode Catholick can be expected to be more sanguine than that about helping big-up Big Dave, it seems to me, but nor was I at all grudging when praise was due.
Anyway, I was ostensibly there just to lift the penumbral drape from off some of Hume’s most basic philosophical concepts, and I was equal to that task. I did not entirely disclose an ulterior motive, which was to pour a playful splash of cald, historical watter on some of the censers burning at Davie’s cultic shrine, and to help rescue some of his co-æval critics from some of the less-deserved opprobrium later generations have heaped upon them. Truth and justice, innit? I think I was equal to this task also, but diplomacy and the preeny desire not to have everything I said end up on the virtual cutting-room floor kept me disarmingly gentle and jovial in my subtle swipes.
I was aghast to hear myself introduced, after my name and job title, as: “but more importantly, an expert on David Hume.” This is not a claim I had made nor ever would make of myself, but I was saving all my discordant comments for later so I limited my protest to a hammily hideous grimace. Those erstwhile fellow labourers of mine in the philosophical vineyard who may choke on their biscuits on hearing me thus styled are earnestly entreated to be indulgent.
I managed to squeeze a few ums and ahs in about Hume’s much-vaunted, invariable good-naturedness, and got one or two other comments in under the radar that took some of the gilt off the gingerbread shrine of St David. I larded the discussion with references to Hume as an iconoclast, audacious, a touchy braggadocio, a thinker of genuinely dangerous ideas. At one point, I was asked whom I thought the David Hume de nos jour was. I mischievously suggested that Richard Dawkins probably fancied himself in that niche, but the horror on my interviewer’s face made me relent far enough to agree that Christopher Hitchens was probably closer to the mark.
Perhaps you will have the aural joy of hearing the programme for yourselves in due course, so I’ll leave off there for now. But I’ll finish with a rough note I wrote to myself at Christmas about the Scottish reformation and the Enlightenment, for your immediate gratification. It is, I dare say, both good and original - in the Johnsonian sense, that is.
The Enlightenment was the Reformation writ large and taken to its natural conclusion. In rejecting the authority of the magisterium, the Petrine office, the cultic mysteries and Tradition as a whole, and in substituting personal revelation and judgement, a private unmediated relationship with God (and therefore with truth), and a desacrilised, “rationalist” cultus, the reformers sowed the seeds of the scepticism, iconoclasm and individualism of the Enlightenment. The results were far more radical a rejection of God and religious faith than the reformers could have anticipated (or than most of them could have regarded without horror); but humanist secularism was almost an inevitable working-through of the principles which the reformers first began to enunciate.
Naturally, Lord Hailes, et al., were uncomfortable with the (at best) resultant deism and (at worst) outright atheism which spread with the enlightenment project, but the crop was sown and the harvest was nearly ripe – and plucking the godless tares from the field without also uprooting the wholesome wheat of reason was to prove exceptionally difficult. Once the juggernaut was on the slope, it was all but impossible to stop it careering downhill. The robustness of the presbyterian commitment to the Scriptures helped, of course, but the Moderates were less able to avail themselves of this than the anti-Enlightenment evangelicals whose rigorism moderates were constantly trying to counter with reason.
Discuss. Please show your workings.