The In Our Time Newsletter: David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment
Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the work of the philosopher David Hume, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. As always the programme is available, as is the In Our Time archive, to listen to online or to download and listen to on holiday - PM
Far and away the oddest present I got yesterday was a beer mat.
This was given to me after the programme by the Professor of Philosophy at Oxford. It is a David Hume beer mat with a bust of the philosopher, his name, his dates and underneath the bust the motto "Drink and Think"...
On the back there are a selection of sentences under the heading Hume Thought - for instance, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence", and "Morality is more properly felt than judged", and "Beauty exists merely in the mind", and "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous".
Underneath these and other thoughts is the question "What do you think?"
Presumably, in Oxford and, I hope, in Edinburgh, there are philosophers' pubs where they take their pint and turn over the beer mat and continue their work in circumstances which intellectuals seem to favour. You'll remember that when Crick and Watson thought they had discovered the meaning of life when they completed their work on DNA, they rushed off to The Eagle in Cambridge and sank pints to celebrate.
One thing that we did not talk about in the programme was Hume's History of England, for which he was most famous in his day and which he came to regard as his best work and which was a tremendous commercial success.
By the time we got to that in the structure, I thought that there was still quite a lot more to say about philosophy on which we'd only begun to touch, so I skipped the whole thing. There'll be time, I hope, later on in the decade, to do a programme on The History of England. Perhaps contrasting histories of England from different periods. What did we think we were then, what do we think we are now? Might work.
It seems that the Scottish Enlightenment is not in great favour with the current Scottish government. It's not nationalistic enough and it's too English, or at least too anglicised.
No, the Scottish Enlightenment thrives in Canada where many professors specialise in Hume. I think our guests said there were very few Hume specialists of philosophy in this country. Hume was thought easy and therefore he didn't need to be a specialist subject. Any philosopher could teach Hume.
If that seems a slight on Hume to philosophers, it's one thing that could make a great number of people think it's a compliment to Hume. A fair number have commented of the programme that they could understand philosophy - something that had been hidden from them before. And there is certainly one layer of Hume which invites understanding in a way that many philosophers simply don't. But, as usual, being accessible means being undervalued. I think it was all three who agreed on that. It's quite an interesting observation and seems to hold true across the board.
It's curious, though. In 2009, at the bicentenary celebration of the birth of Burns, Edinburgh was crowded with kilted folk from all over the Scottish diaspora, singing, I'm sure, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose as they marched in the rain to the castle, and Walter Scott can still excite nationalism both in his house and around his monument.
But Hume, considered by some the greatest philosopher in the English language, has a 300th anniversary this year which is passing away without organisation, without comment, and even our own programme just happened to be an accidental coincidence. (Can a coincidence be anything other than accidental?)
After Hume, off to the office and then to Leeds to give the lecture to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the great Brotherton Library at Leeds University, with some of the descendents of Lord Brotherton present to hear about times of enormous philanthropy. Michael Arthur, the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds, said (at dinner) that philanthropy had decreased after the Second World War because of a much heavier reliance on state support and state subsidy.
Okay, one other unusual present. A friend of mine at Leeds University had made a birthday cake (now that's something I haven't had for many years), but... it was an open Bible, with a reproduction of the frontispiece somehow on the white icing and the icing itself moulded to represent leaves. Quite extraordinary.
Of course, I dare not take a knife to it.
Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time