Rasmussen, Dennis, The Infidel and the Professor, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
As David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, much of the British public, both north and south of the Tweed, waited expectantly for news of his passing. His writings had challenged their views—philosophical, political, and especially religious—for the better part of four decades. He had experienced a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland, but he was now beyond their reach. Everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humor and without religion. The most prominent account of his calm and courageous end was penned by his best friend, a renowned philosopher in his own right who had just published a book that would soon change the world. While The Wealth of Nations was, in Adam Smith’s own words, a “very violent attack . . . upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain,” it was on the whole quite well received.¹ Smith was to suffer far more opprobrium on account of a short public letter that he wrote later that year describing—even flaunting—the cheerfulness and equanimity of Hume’s final days. He concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.”² It was the closest that Smith ever came to openly antagonizing the devout, an act for which he would pay dearly but that he would never regret. It was, moreover, a fitting conclusion to a friendship that had played a central role in the lives of two of history’s most significant thinkers. This book tells the story of that friendship.