Seventeen seventy-six was a momentous year in Great Britain: Edward Gibbon published volume one of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations appeared, the American colonies declared their independence, and David Hume--called the Great Infidel because of his skeptical view of Christianity--died at the age of 65.
The death of Hume may seem a minor event in comparison with the others, but it was far from inconsequential. The circumstances surrounding Hume's tranquil and very pagan death (probably from colon cancer) on August 25, as reported by his close friend Adam Smith, occasioned a controversy that continued for at least a decade and involved many of the leading writers of the age, including Smith and Gibbon, as well as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell.
The controversy touched upon a question we continue to wrestle with today: what role does religion play in promoting morality and political stability? Johnson and Burke, who thought Smith had made too much of Hume's deathbed composure, argued that religion played a major role in encouraging moral behavior, though they did not say that there was a necessary connection between the two. By contrast, Smith and Gibbon, who admired Hume intensely and thought he had died the "death of a philosopher," as Gibbon put it, downplayed religion's role in promoting the moral life. Somewhere in the middle was Boswell, who attacked Hume's infidelity--that is, his skepticism toward traditional religion--yet was haunted by the possibility that Hume was right.
The story of Hume's death properly begins in April 1776, when he composed a short autobiography, declaring that even though he now reckoned upon "a speedy dissolution," he did not fear death. "Notwithstanding the great decline of my person ... [I have] never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits.... I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gayety in company." Hume also claimed that he had achieved a kind of serenity that came from being "detached," as he put it, from life. In mid-August, a week before he died, the philosopher continued to insist that he was cheerful. To his friend the Comtesse de Boufflers, he wrote: "My distemper is a diarrhoea, or disorder in my bowels, which has been gradually undermining me these two years; but, within these six months, has been visibly hastening me to my end. I see death approach gradually, without any anxiety or regret."
In early May, Hume had asked his friend Smith, a dozen years his junior, to see to the publication of the autobiography as well as his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, a previously unpublished book he had written in the 1750s and lately had been busy revising. When Smith offered a noncommittal reply, Hume wrote to him again. Smith readily agreed to publish the autobiography, promising that he would "add a few lines to your account of your own life," but he promised only to preserve the Dialogues. Finally, 10 days before he died, Hume amended his will to make other arrangements for getting his last philosophical work into print.
Hume was right about his fellow Scot's reluctance to be associated with the Dialogues. In a letter to Hume's publisher two weeks after the philosopher's death, Smith wrote: "I must, however, beg that his life and those dialogues may not be published together; as I am resolved, for many reasons, to have no concern in the publication of those dialogues." Smith wished that the book, "tho' finely written ... had remained in Manuscript to be communicated only to a few people."
What explains Smith's reluctance? Perhaps he thought the strongly anti-Christian Dialogues would hurt Hume's reputation. But Hume was already widely regarded as anti-Christian. Perhaps Smith thought it would be impolitic to be associated with such a work. Or perhaps he found Hume's corrosive skepticism unpalatable. Whatever the reasons, Smith's own account of Hume's final days, published as a five-page letter to the publisher in The Life of David Hume, Esq; Written by Himself (1777), reveals that Smith himself did not want to be seen as anti-Christian. …