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Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor. David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that shaped Modern Thought

Andreas Ortmann
p. 131-136
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Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor. David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that shaped Modern Thought, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, 336 pages, ISBN 978-069117701-4

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The Infidel and the ProfessorAfficher l’image
Crédits : Princeton University Press

1David Hume is widely considered one of the—arguably the—outstanding philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment. Born in 1711, four years after the 1707 Act of Union which traded away the Scottish parliament and independence for representation in the English parliament and the Scots’ access to English markets at home and abroad (and which seems to have been instrumental, within decades, in transforming Scotland from the backwater it then was into the economic and cultural showcase of 50-70 years later), he was already a leading philosopher by 1749, when he met Adam Smith, who was at that point lecturing in Edinburgh on belles-lettres, rhetoric, and jurisprudence. In the ensuing near thirty years, a remarkable friendship developed between these two, notwithstanding the fact that Hume, branded by key opponents “the infidel” because of his anti-religious beliefs and writings, never made it into the professoriate, while Smith was elected Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Glasgow University in 1751, only to transfer one year later to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the same university.

2Rasmussen sets out to explore their well-known friendship, which was steeped in mutual admiration and their agreement on many key philosophical points: “We will also see them adopt broadly similar views, but very different public postures, with respect to religion and the religious, indeed, this will be a running theme throughout the book.” (xi). This seems broadly correct as it pertains to their views on human nature and the ways the world works, although Smith is known primarily as economist on the strength of his second published book (The Wealth of Nations) which covers ground that Hume, for the most part, did not cover. As it pertains to Smith’s views on religion and the religious, particularly the implication made here that Smith too was a sceptic of sort (if not from early in his life, then towards the end), this point has previously been persuasively made by Kennedy (2005; 2013) and Phillipson (2010), although this view is not uncontested (e.g., Campbell, 2013; or for that matter Rasmussen, 15). Given that the different public postures towards religion and the religious are a running theme throughout the book, it is puzzling (not to mention questionable) that Kennedy’s work on this issue is given very short shrift indeed (non-indexed and perfunctory footnotes 49, 50 on page 262).

3After an Introduction in which he motivates his study (he is the only who has focused in book length on this relationship, although others have done complementary work), Rasmussen dedicates Chapter 1 to “The Cheerful Skeptic (1711-1749)” and follows his development into the prominent, and controversial, thinker Hume was when he met Smith. In Chapter 2 (“Encountering Hume (1723-1749)”), Rasmussen introduces us to Smith who was born a dozen years after Hume and became familiar with Hume’s writings during his education (most likely at Oxford) before, most likely in 1749, finally getting to know him. In Chapter 3, Rasmussen puts together what we know about “A Budding Friendship (1750-1764)”, duly contextualizing how their lives were embedded in their own, quite different, contexts. This period of course spans the time of Smith’s first university professorships and Hume’s failed attempts to follow suit. There is a lot of conjectural history here (e.g., about how often the two saw each other in person during these years).

4In Chapter 4 (“The Historian and the Kirk (1754-1759)”), Rasmussen focuses on Hume’s contentious relationship with church authorities and doctrines. In Chapter 5, he focuses on how Smith theorized The Moral Sentiments (1759), arguing “Virtually the entire inquiry—the questions Smith takes up, the answers he gives, even the examples he uses—show unmistakable signs of Hume’s influence.” (87). This is correct (e.g., importantly in the question of whether moral sentiments are given by some ultimate author of nature or whether they emerge as the equilibrium outcome of repeatedly interacting, self-regarding agents—see Binmore, 1994; Meardon and Ortmann, 1996; 1996a) and certainly is a point that has been made extensively in Phillipson (2010; 2011), among others. Rasmussen identifies “four major topics on which [Smith] deviates from his friend’s views: sympathy, utility, justice, and religion.” (90). Of particular relevance in the current context are pages 101-103 where Rasmussen (see also his Epilogue) lays out where on religion he sees Smith and Hume at variance. It comes down to him characterizing Hume as seeing religion as “almost entirely pernicious” (101) while Smith “insists that religious faith has important practical benefits. … religion tends to underwrite rather than undermine morality.” (102) (Sneak preview: in the Epilogue, Rasmussen argues (233-234) that changes to the 6th edition of the TMS suggest that Smith was converging finally to Hume’s position concerning life, death, and afterlife).

5Chapter 6 (“Feted in France (1759-1766)”) is dedicated to the reversal of fortunes that befell Hume once—in the Fall, 1763, at the tender age of 52—he decided to move to Paris as private secretary of Britain’s newly appointed Ambassador to France, where his reputation had been soundly established before he even arrived: “The welcome that Hume received in Paris almost beggars belief, even today.” (121). The remainder of the chapter gossips away, based on some fairly well-known sources (e.g., the correspondence between Hume and Smith), and also summarizes what we know about their interaction after Smith himself made his way across the channel. Rasmussen also documents how Hume and Smith tried to coordinate their locational choices as they faced advancing (and in Hume’s case, by the standards of his time, advanced) age: “Let us make short excursions together sometimes to see our friends in France and sometimes to see our friends in Scotland, but let London be the place our ordinary residence.” (Smith to Hume, 30). Quite a bromance, that! Chapter 7 (“Quarrel with a Wild Philosopher (1766-1767)”) recounts the brief friendship-turned-ugly between Hume and Rousseau that Hume apparently felt might threaten his reputation. In the end it did not. It’s another somewhat gossipy chapter that makes for good reading but provides little substantial insight other than Smith never seeming to have wavered in his support for Hume. Chapter 8 (“Mortally Sick at Sea (1767-1775)”) focuses on Hume’s remaining years, after his return to Edinburgh (which was soon to be disrupted by another stay of more than two years in London, in another official function). The title of the chapter makes use of a claim with which Hume tried to entice Smith, who was living across the firth in Kircaldy, to make Edinburgh his place of residence, or at least come more often, arguing that his seasickness would prevent travels in the other direction. Again the chapter is gossipy (but not nearly as juicy as Mossner, 1980 in this respect) and we learn that Hume—already having been a portly dude for decades on account of his savoir-vivre—discovered his “great Talent for Cookery, the Science to which I intend to addict the remaining Years of my Life.” (151). Rasmussen also documents Hume’s growing restlessness about Smith’s seemingly forever forthcoming second book, his continued attempts to get Smith to join him in Edinburgh, and Hume’s sarcastic commentary on his declining health (and increasing girth).

6In Chapter 9, Rasmussen focuses on how Smith inquired into The Wealth of Nations (1776). Rasmussen points out (162) that, in his view, the single most important passage in The Wealth of Nations is the climactic claim of Book 3 that commerce and manufacture gradually introduced order and good government, which in turn begat personal liberty and security domestically and reduced threats from abroad. Rasmussen points out that this claim, “though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects” and by Smith’s own recognizance is owed to Hume (163). In Rasmussen’s opinion, this is a well-deserved attribution because much of Smith’s argument buttressing the claim draws on Hume’s work (163-166). Rasmussen also argues that “the most celebrated aspect of The Wealth of Nations, namely Smith’s case in favour of free trade, too was at least anticipated by Hume, if not inspired by him.” (166). That said, Rasmussen acknowledges that Smith’s case was far more comprehensive and that a case can be made for much of Smith’s thinking on these issues having developed decades earlier (168). He highlights that Smith was more sceptical about the drawbacks of commerce and manufacture, that The Wealth of Nations in language and outlook is “notably secular” (173), and that, contra Hume, Smith made the case for free markets and competition in religious matters (and for a separation of church and state) too, since he saw them as means to combat intolerance and fanaticism. In contrast, in their stand on public debt and the conflict between Britain and its American colonies the two seem to have been very much on the same page, undoubtedly driven by their understanding that gold and silver were not what could possibly justify the wealth of a nation. There is nothing really new in this chapter (in comparison, say to Phillipson’s 2010 book), including Hume’s well-documented enthusiastic reaction to The Wealth of Nations.

7In Chapter 10 (“Dialoguing about Natural Religion (1776)”), Rasmussen recounts the episode towards the end of Hume’s life that left formidable scholars such as Phillipson, Ross, Hanley, and Kennedy (see page 186) wonder: why would Smith not honour Hume’s request to posthumously supervise the publication of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion? While the scholars just mentioned tend to be puzzled or dismissive of Smith’s stance, Rasmussenafter reviewing the history and content of the Dialoguesargues that “Smith’s refusal to publish the Dialogues may have been, at least in part, a matter of simple politeness: his mother, the majority of his friends, and indeed almost everyone he knew [but not Smith himself, as Rasmussen stresses] would have been offended by the work, and by his involvement with it.” (196). He then continues, “The more perplexing question, in a way, is not why Smith refused to publish the Dialogues but rather why Hume was suddenly so adamant about publication after holding the work back for twenty-five years, and even more why he sought to foist this obligation on Smith. Hume may have reckoned that he had little left to lose at that point, with one foot in the grave, but obviously Smith was not in the same position.” (198). A good point, me thinks.

8Chapter 11 (“A Philosopher’s Death (1776)”) sketches Hume’s relatively quick decline, his “funeral oration of myself” called My Own Life, and his cheerful, classy, and outright stylish exit. Chapter 12 (“Ten Times More Abuse (1776-1777)”) sketches the fire that Smith drew when he documented Hume’s stylish exit in a Letter to their publisher Strahan that was meant to be published with Hume’s My Own Life and at the same time document the stylishness of that exit, an exit that a non-believer—bereft of other-worldly comforts and consolations—was not supposed to be able to carry off. It did not help matters that Smith spoke effusively in his letter of Hume, “Upon the whole, I have always considered him [Hume], both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature human frailty will permit.” (251). This statement did not sit well with many, not surprisingly many of whom were part of the religious mob, and the title of the chapter refers to a well-known statement of Smith about the gale of opinion that he faced in response.

9In the Epilogue (“Smith’s Final Years in Edinburgh (1777-1790)”), Rasmussen recounts Smith’s final well-documented years which he spent, starting in 1778, in the city where he grew up (Kirkcaldy) with a job that left him some, but not enough, time for revisions of existing works and slow progress on others. This chapter covers well-documented territory (again, Phillipson, 2010 comes to mind). Rasmussen seems to suggest that some of the tempered claims on behalf of religion in 6th edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments might have been due to the abuse that he copped from the religious fanatics, but there are the obvious confounds, such as his mother’s death in 1784, which removed a key constraint for Smith to speak his mind in those matters.

10The Appendix reproduces both Hume’s My Own Life and Smith’s Letter to Strahan.

11In sum then, Rasmussen is the first to focus in book length on a friendship that undoubtedly shaped modern thought. For cognoscenti, there is nothing surprisingly new here. Rasmussen relies heavily on standard resources (see pages 253-255) and it shows. It is a good and quick read and reminder. In a second edition, an explicit timeline of their interactions and encounters, with some clear-cut assessment of the evidence that we have for each of them, would be welcome. Rasmussen mentions that his book is not just meant for academics (xi), and it may indeed be a good read for “anyone interested in learning more about the lives and ideas of these two giants of the Enlightenment, and about what is arguably the greatest of all philosophical friendships.” (xi).

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Binmore, Kenneth. 1994. Game Theory and the Social Contract. Cambridge, UK: MIT Press.

Campbell, Tom. 2013. Adam Smith: Methods Morals, and Markets. In Christopher J. Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli, Craig Smith (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 559-580.

Kennedy, Gavin. 2005. Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kennedy, Gavin. 2013. Adam Smith on Religion. In Christopher J. Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli, Craig Smith (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 464-484.

Meardon, Stephen J. and Ortmann, Andreas. 1996. Self-Command in Adam Smith’s Theory of Modern Sentiments. A Game-Theoretic Reinterpretation. Rationality and Society, 8(1): 348-352.

Meardon, Stephen J. and Ortmann, Andreas. 1996a. Yes, Adam Smith was an EconomistA Very Modern One Indeed. Reply. Rationality and Society, 8(3): 348-352.

Mossner, Ernest Campbell. 1980. The Life of David Hume. Ann Arbor: Clarendon Press.

Phillipson, Nicolas. 2010. Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life. London: Yale University Press.

Phillipson, Nicolas. 2013. Adam Smith: A Biographer’s Reflections. In Christopher J. Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli, Craig Smith (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 23-35.

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Andreas Ortmann, « Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor. David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that shaped Modern Thought », Œconomia, 8-1 | 2018, 131-136.

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Andreas Ortmann, « Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor. David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that shaped Modern Thought », Œconomia [En ligne], 8-1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 22 mai 2018. URL :

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Andreas Ortmann

UNSW Business School,

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