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Hume, the Philosophical Historian

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 08 May 2011

"Mary Queen of Scots was a Strumpet and a murtherer!"

- bellowed the famous philosopher, right into the ear of a snoozing elderly Jacobite reader in the Advocates Library. You might think this more David Starkey than David Hume, and you wouldn't be far off the mark: the 18th-century author of the Treatise on Human Nature was also, like Starkey, a highly bankable writer of Tudor history who profoundly admired Elizabeth I and reached out beyond academia to a popular audience.

History made Hume's fortune. He took sides Elizabeth versus Mary. He sought a female readership for his work. He jettisoned his philosophical works for the witty, readable, sometimes gossipy but always polished style of the History of Great Britain, designed to be read out loud to delight and provoke the tea-table.

But the history had a serious purpose. It meant to explode the very bedrock of political hackery in Hume's day by destroying the myth of England's matchless ancient constitution, and you can follow this powder trail all the way to the American Revolution. Convinced England was in danger of becoming ungovernable due to bitter factional political warfare and falling back into the bloody religious wars of the 16th and 17th century, Hume went on the offensive against fanatical religion. Britain's most famous 'atheist' (he was a sceptic who found the
'A'-word too dogmatic for his liking) set out to write a subversive account of the psychology of religion to show his audience the deep dangers of relying on beliefs for which there was no evidence. His three chief weapons were satire, irony and wit. Nobody expected the Edinburgh inquisition, and, as Hume ruefully recorded, his writings made him no enemies except all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians. That's what you get for writing history!

First broadcast in May 2011.

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