This is a recollection written by James Boswell which records his death bed visit with the great philosopher David Hume.
Hume was well known as a “free thinker” which meant that he did not accept any religious dogma and doubted the existence of an afterlife.
Boswell wondered if the approach of death may have changed the great man’s mind.
What do you think he found?
On Sunday forenoon the 7 of July 1776, being too late for church, I went to see Mr David Hume, who was returned from London and Bath, just adying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful.
Boswell was a renowned biographer and this is, no doubt, a well turned description. But what of the substance of the question?
He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke. I asked him if he was not religious when he was young. He said he was, and he used to read The Whole Duty of Man; that he made an abstract from the catalogue of vices at the end of it, and examined himself by this, leaving out murder and theft and such vices as he had no chance of committing, having no inclination to commit them.
A religious youth, he took the matter of faith seriously and that, for him, entailed detailing its faults and gaps. Boswell wanted to know…
..if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever. That immorality, if it were at all, must be general; that a great proportion of the human race has hardly any intellectual qualities; that a great proportion dies in infancy before being possessed of reason; yet all these must be immortal; that a porter who gets drunk by ten o’clock with gin must be immortal; that the trash of every age must be preserved, and that new universes must be created to contain such infinite numbers. This appeared to me an unphilosophical objection, and I said, ‘Mr. Hume, you know spirit does not take up space’.
Boswell gives one last pitch for religion to a dying philosopher.
[Hume] had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state; and he would rather not be more than be worse. I answered that it was reasonable to hope he would be better; that there would be a progressive improvement. I tried him at this interview with that topic, saying that a future state was surely a pleasing idea. He said no, for that it was always seen through a gloomy medium; there was always a Phlegethon or a hell. ‘But,’ said I, ‘would it not be agreeable to have hopes of seeing our friends again?’ and I mentioned three men lately deceased, for whom I knew he had a high value.
Hume passed from this earth soon thereafter and his fate is still unlearned…