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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Adam Smith’s Tribute to David Hume

An engraving of David Hume
Adam Smith, David Hume’s closest friend, wrote a letter to publisher William Strahan, after Hume’s death on August 25, 1776. In the letter, Smith talks about Hume’s last days, death, and character. Smith ends the letter with an interesting paragraph:
Thus died our most excellent, and never-to-be-forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will no doubt judge variously, every one approving or condemning them according as they happen to coincide, or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. [xl] His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. 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 admit.
Smith looked at Hume as an exemplar of wisdom and virtue. Several passages in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations are inspired by Hume’s political and economic thoughts. In Book 3 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith makes the climactic claim that the promotion of liberty and security are the most important effects of commerce, and he acknowledges his debt to Hume. He writes: “Mr. Hume is the only writer who, so far as I know, has hitherto taken notice of it.”

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