The men of letters who shaped the Scottish Enlightenment


The Infidel and the Professor:  David Hume,  Adam Smith, and the Friendship  That Shaped  Modern Thought by Dennis C. Rasmussen, Princeton University Press, US $29.95, Pp 336, September 2017, ISBN 978-0691177014

We now know the Scottish Enlightenment as an intellectual golden age, which rivals Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and Renaissance Italy. David Hume and Adam Smith were two of the important men of letters of the period. Some of the leading men of letters from the Scottish Enlightenment included Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Francis Hutcheson, John Miller, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Dugald Stewart. Other Scottish Renaissance men of letters included natural scientists such as the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, and James Watt of steam engine fame, as well as artists like the painter Allan Ramssay, the playwright John Home, and the architect Robert Adam. In The Infidel and the Professor, Dennis C. Rasmussen follows Hume and Smith’s friendship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death in 1776. He also discusses their relationships with other contemporary men of letters.

Rasmussen writes, “The context in which Hume and Smith’s friendship took place was just as remarkable as the friendship itself. The Scotland in which they were born… had suffered for untold generations from poverty and disease, ignorance and superstition, incessant religious conflict and occasional military occupation.” Hume himself once remarked that Scotland had long been the “rudest, perhaps, of all European nations.” It was also the most necessitous, the most turbulent, and the most unsettled nation. Yet Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement, a transformation that was palpable and startling to contemporary observers.

Rasmussen says that the Scottish literati were not disaffected intellectuals at war with the establishment and the elite of their society, as their counterparts in France so often were but rather widely admired and deeply engaged members of their communities. With a few exceptions like Hume, they were employed in one of the learned professions: the university, the law, the church, or medicine. As a result, their outlooks generally lacked the subversive edge that was so conscious among the Parisian philosophers, causing the more radical side of Smith’s and especially Hume’s thought to stand out in starker relief.

The idea that the intellectual affinities between Hume and Smith were broad and deep might seem to be belied by a series of common caricatures. According to the contemporary caricatures, Hume was a philosopher interested in primarily in abstract metaphysical and epistemological questions, while Smith was a hardheaded economist focused on more practical matters. Hume was a conservative Tory in his politic, while Smith was a liberal Whig. Hume was a skeptic with regard to religion or perhaps even an atheist, while Smith was a confirmed believer. The first of these three supposed diverges is easily disposed of.

It is true that Hume began his career by investigating metaphysical and epistemological questions, and it is this part of his corpus that still receives the lion’s share of attention from academic philosophers. He, however, transitioned from these fairly abstract issues to more practical discussions relating to psychology and morality. Moreover, he then proceeded to write essays on a huge range of subjects, from politics to polygamy and from economics to eloquence as well as several works on religion and a monumental ‘History of England.’ Indeed, Hume was regarded for much of his lifetime and for many generations thereafter as a historian first and a philosopher second.

Smith is often thought of as the ‘founding father’ of capitalism, he was in fact far more than an economist who theorized the invisible hand and championed free trade. He was a professor of moral philosophy who included political economy as just one of his many intellectual interests, and he recognized — to a greater degree than Hume — a number of potential dangers and drawbacks associated with commercial society. Smith’s private religious views were considerably closer to Hume’s public ones than is usually believed. Rasmussen shows that Hume contributed more to economics―and Smith contributed more to philosophy―that is known.

Hume’s skepticism and Smith’s skeptical deism was far less consequential than the much bigger practical divergence between Hume’s forthrightness and Smith’s studied reticence. These contrary postures led to equally contrary postures led to equally contrary reputations. Hume was christened ‘the Great Infidel’ and was deemed unfit to reach the young while Smith became a respected professor of moral philosophy.

The Infidel and the Professor is the story of an unlikely friendship between two of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century. If David Hume was known as The Great Infidel, Adam Smith was a believer and the father of modern capitalism. Dennis C. Rasmussen shines a light on what brought the two unlikely friends closer. Rasmussen beautifully explains the works of the two friends. The Infidel and the Professor is not only the story of two unlikely friends but also the history of ‘The Scottish Enlightenment.’ It is a very well-researched and -referenced scholarly book everybody interested in the two great men of letters and The Scottish Enlightenment.