Scottish philosopher David Hume, famous for his Treatise of Human Nature, knew he was dying for several months and faced the inevitability with placid cheerfulness.
Born in Edinburgh April 26, 1711, Hume enrolled at the University of Edinburgh at the age ten or eleven and immersed himself in philosophical studies so wholeheartedly that he suffered a nervous breakdown. In his late teens Hume began to suffer what one physician diagnosed as a “disease of the learned.” It manifested itself with a coldness all over his body and an attack of scurvy causing a rash on his hands. He was treated with bitters and “anti-hysteric” pills, and ordered to drink a pint of claret every day, which seemed to make him feel much better.
With little money, he moved to a small French village in Anjou, where he could live cheaply, and where he took delight in mocking the beliefs of the Jesuits at the college. When he returned to Scotland, he worked as a tutor until he discovered the young man in his charge was insane, then as a secretary, a librarian, and finally as private secretary of the British ambassador in Paris. Eventually he became chargé d’affaires and lived in high style, developing a great fondness for food, wine, and women. By this time he was well-to-do from the sales of s best-selling history of England. Never married, he built a home in Edinburgh and returned there in 1769 to write, study, and lead an active social life.
Known as “The Great Infidel,” Hume is also the author of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and The Natural History of Religion. He was a champion of empirical reasoning and a purely psychological explanation of human nature. Rejecting his early Calvinist training, he became a skeptic and critic of organized religion, although he stopped short of atheism. One biographer called his beliefs “weakly deistic.”
In 1775 Hume was diagnosed with colon cancer and told he had only a few months to live. He accepted the news calmly and with good cheer. The biographer James Boswell visited him a few weeks before his death and reported that Hume had told him that he regarded the possibility of an afterlife as “a most unreasonable fancy.”
Hume’s friend, the economist Adam Smith, gave this account of his final weeks in a long letter to a mutual friend:
He was advised to go to Bath to drink the waters,
which appeared for some time to have so good an effect
upon him, that even he himself began to entertain, what
he was not apt to do, a better opinion of his own health.
His symptoms, however, soon returned with their usual
violence, and from that moment he gave up all thoughts
of recovery, but submitted with the utmost cheerfulness,
and the most perfect complacency and resignation.
Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found
himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated,
and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with
correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading
books of amusement, with the conversation of his
friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his
favorite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so
great, and his conversation and amusements run so
much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad
symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.
Hume invented various scenarios in which he might try to persuade Charon, the boatman who carries dead souls across the River Styx, to let him live a little longer. Invariably these stories would end with Charon’s rough admonition to Hume: “Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue."
On the August 23, 1776, Hume wrote to Smith, “I go very fast to decline, and last night had a small fever, which I hoped might put a quicker period to this tedious illness, but unluckily it has, in a great measure, gone off.”
Two days later Hume was dead at the age of sixty-five. His physician wrote this account to Smith: “Yesterday, about four o'clock, afternoon, Mr. Hume expired. The near approach of his death became evident in the night between Thursday and Friday, when his disease became excessive, and soon weakened him so much that he could no longer rise out of his bed. He continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness. When he became very weak, it cost him an effort to speak, and he died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it."
Hume is buried in the Old Calton Burial Ground, Waterloo Place, Edinburgh beneath a "simple Roman tomb," as he requested in his will. He further stipulated that it be inscribed only with his name and the year of his birth and death, "leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest."