Book Note: The Infidel & the Professor

David Hume and Adam Smith seem like a couple of decent guys. It would be interesting to talk with them, both for the profoundness of their ideas and for their easy-going personalities. Ben Franklin was part of their intellectual set, as was Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, although Johnson was not fond of Hume. That was rare. Evidently almost everybody liked Hume, even if a majority disliked many of his iconoclastic ideas.

Hume was not an atheist. He called himself a skeptic, just not concerned with metaphysics, since he said that there is nothing in this world from which we can infer anything beyond. When faced with the argument for God that the world was made with such perfection, he pointed out the that given the nature of how things work on this earth, one would question the perfection of the workmanship. It is not hard to see why this made his ideas unpopular with the devout.

The book I just finished, “The Infidel and the Professor,” is chocked full of interesting observations and funny stories that illustrate the lives and friendship of Smith and Hume. Adam Smith today is the better known of the pair, but this was the opposite during their lifetimes. Their ideas overlap. Since, Hume was twelve years older than Smith, was an earlier established author and that they were clearly in regular contact, we might postulate that Smith copied from Hume. But we also find some ideas first in Smith. When we think about their intellectual society, however, we may conclude that many of the ideas were widely discussed and that maybe each refined his ideas in that sort of community of knowledge. You recognize similar ideas in Franklin and Burke. Is it really possible for any individual to originate an idea?

From our modern vantage point, it is hard for us to appreciate that what Hume & Smith were advocating was iconoclastic. Good to recall the general truth that all the great thinkers we respect today were breaking with the traditions and people around them. That is why we remember them. What Smith and Hume were saying was not intuitive to people back then.

Smith and Hume postulated that it was the capacity of people to create wealth was the true wealth of a country, not the gold and silver that governments could hoard. Beyond that, they said that it is good to have prosperous and rich neighbors and that everybody gets better off from exchange. This opposed common wisdom of the time, that held that people and individuals got rich by taking from others.

Another idea odd for the time is what we would today call the principle of emergence, that a balanced system (or economy) could emerge from the decisions of many people w/o formal coordination or planning from somebody above. This extended into metaphysical belief systems, hence Hume’s infidel problem, but it also impacted morality.

Both Hume and Smith though commerce could be a positive good. Again, this is something most of us accept today, but the idea was anathema for most of human history. Religion and philosophy tended to disparage and even condemn commerce. Certainly, the higher life involved more selfless pursuits, according to previous religion and philosophy (except maybe Epicurus). Hume said outright that the values of monks and religious asceticism, things like mortification of the flesh, were wasteful and negative. There was nothing intrinsically noble about poverty. You might have to endure it, but you should not impose it on yourself or others just to be good. (I am with Hume on this. I believe strongly that we should be willing to sacrifice and suffer to attain a goal we consider worthy, and comfort alone is not a high-level goal, but I just as strongly believe that suffering for the sake of suffering is pathological. I recall the story of one Simeon Stylites, whose claim to sainthood was that he went out into the desert and sat on top of a pillar for 37 years. While I respect his determination, it is virtue wasted and not to be admired.)

Hume was a skeptic about more than religion. He was also a skeptic about the power of reason. He wrote that we can use reason as a tool to achieve our values, but that our values are based on something other than our reason. This is a good formulation. There are limits to both. G.K. Chesterton, like Hume more famous in his own time than now, wrote “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason.”

An interesting note on Smith. He is famous for “Wealth of Nations,” and so thought of a father of capitalism. But a strictly hands-off system is not what he advocates. He wrote that a strong and efficient government was necessary for prosperity. Government needed to provide security, protect that rule of law, promulgate reasonable regulation and help provide for those who could not provide for themselves. He simply points out through argument and example that governments are simply unable to make detailed plans for the economy or society. Government creates conditions by which people themselves can make decisions for their own prosperity.

Another interesting point is that Smith’s more famous work, and the one he edited until his death, was “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It is a little hard to read the book today because of changes in language and style in the recent centuries, but this is a real advice book on living a good life. It is reasonable and useful. I would recommend this book, maybe in a modernized and abridged form. I also recommend “The Infidel and the Professor.” It is worth the time.

* Note – I acknowledge the contribution of my friend David R. Remer, who provoked me to read “Theory of Moral Sentiments” some many years ago.   The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought