Christopher Hitchens’ Portable Atheist contains a delightful little essay by James Boswell, entitled, An Account of My Last Interview with David Hume, Esq. I’ll open this inspirational thought with some excerpts from Boswell’s essay:
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 a-dying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthly appearance…. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching his end…. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke…. He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious. This was just an extravagant reverse of the common remark as to infidels.
I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied 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 forever….
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. “Well,” said I, “Mr. Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.” “No, no,” said he. “But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.” In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation….
He 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 that he would rather not be more than be worse….
… the truth is that Mr. Hume’s pleasantry was such that there was no solemnity in the scene; and death for the time did not seem dismal. It surprised me to find him talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head, which few men possess at any time…. He said he had no pain but was wasting away.
It was amazing to me to find him so keen in such a state…. He said, “If there were a future state, Mr. Boswell, I think I could give as good an account of my life as most people.”
What a fabulous account of David Hume’s attitude when he knew death was near. Hume was an infidel. He had no hope of eternal life, nor did he have a desire for such a life. He also had little or no fear of death and certainly no fear of hell. He faced death squarely and he looked back over his life with a sense of having lived well.
I can’t help contrasting Hume’s outlook with the apparent attitudes of the two Christian ladies I wrote about in a previous post. To be fair, I will note that these ladies are ordinary people who probably haven’t thought much about what they believe and why they believe it. David Hume, on the other hand, was one of the greatest thinkers in history. He certainly thought long, hard and deeply about his beliefs. Unlike some (many?) religious believers who hope and pray that they will hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:21) rather than, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23), Hume had no fear of eternal rejection and damnation. He did not suffer end-of-life pangs of remorse, and he had no need for a dramatic death-bed conversion. When the time came for Hume to deal with death, he confronted it with equanimity and poise. When it’s my turn to come face to face with my mortality, I hope that I will meet it with something akin to David Hume’s grace.
– the chaplain