In an earlier post I commented
we suffer in life…we are trapped in life…unless you happen to be unspeakably miserable or superhumanly philosophical.
Is anyone superhumanly philosophical? Perhaps the greatest philosophical intellect of the Anglophone world was. In a brief autobiographical sketch David Hume provides the following penultimate paragraph.
In spring, 1775, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities; and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation’s breaking out at last with additional lustre, I knew that I could have but few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.
Hume was cheerful in the face of his own impending death, a fact which left at least one distinguished literary witness. James Boswell visited Hume in his last days, and noted that Hume was apparently able to make use of an argument I find intellectually cogent by not necessarily emotionally forceful. Boswell records the story of their meeting at length in his Edinburgh Journals and apparently recollected at least part of it to Samuel Johnson in his Life of Johnson.
When we were alone, I introduced the subject of death, and endeavoured to maintain that the fear of it might be got over. I told him that David Hume said to me, he was no more uneasy to think he should NOT BE after this life, than that he HAD NOT BEEN before he began to exist.
Johnson was unimpressed.
JOHNSON. Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad: if he does not think so, he lies. He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him? When he dies, he at least gives up all he has.’ BOSWELL. ‘Foote, Sir, told me, that when he was very ill he was not afraid to die.’ JOHNSON. ‘It is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote’s breast, or to Hume’s breast, and threaten to kill them, and you’ll see how they behave.’
It is left as an exercise to decide whether Hume was as superhumanly philosophical as he represented himself, and as Boswell represented him. If Hume was what he claimed to be, then in this respect as in so many others he can but be envied by the rest of us.