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The Obituary of a Vain Philosopher: Adam Smith's Reflections on Hume's Life
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Hume Studies Volume 29, Number 2, November 2003, pp. 327-362 The Obituary of a Vain Philosopher: Adam Smith's Reflections on Hume's Life ERIC SCHLIESSER "I was lately reading the Dialogues of Lucian," [Smith reported Hume to have said on his death-bed] "in which he represents one Ghost as pleading for a short delay till he should marry a young daughter, another till he should finish a house he had begun, a third till he had provided a portion for two or three young Children, I began to think of what Excuse I could alledge to Charon in order to precure a short delay, and as I have now done everything that I ever intended to do, I acknowledge that for some time, no tolerable one occurred; at last I thought I might say, Good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of people; have a little patience only till I have the pleasure of seeing the churches shut up, and the Clergy sent about their business; but Charon would reply, O you loitering rogue; that won't happen these two hundred; do you fancy I will give you a lease for so long a time? Get into the boat this instant—Adam Smith to Alexander Wedderburn I. Introduction In this paper, I analyze Adam Smith's written response to David Hume's death, "Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan, ESQ" (hereafter "Letter Eric Schliesser is at the Department of Philosophy, Washington University, One Brookings Drive, G.B. 1073,225 Busch Hall, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA. e-mail: nescio2@yahoo.com 328 Eric Schliesser to Strahan"), published jointly with Hume's brief autobiography, "My Own Life" (hereafter "Life") in 1777.11 argue that these two publications shed light on what the purpose and rewards of doing philosophy in a commercial society are for Hume and Smith. First, I sketch the contents of Hume's "Life" and the context in which it appeared (part II). Hume's autobiography shows that a philosopher can thrive in a commercial society. In parts III-IV, I provide a detailed reading of Smith's "Letter to Strahan." I argue that Smith's account of Hume's last days is designed as a subtle response to Hume's self-portrait, and that it provides insight into Smith's understanding of the aims of philosophy. While implicitly agreeing with the substance of Hume's picture in Hume's "Life," Smith switches emphasis ; he argues that philosophers can enjoy the rewards of friendship in this life and immortality after their death if they were benefactors to humanity. I argue that, for Smith, friendship among equals is the most valuable goal. II. The Commercial Philosopher This part is divided in three sections. I describe the circumstances of the publication of Hume's "Life" and I call special attention to Smith's involvement with its publication while he simultaneously attempted to distance himself from Hume's The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Dialogues). Second I describe the major points of Hume's "Life." In the final section, I discuss the important role that vanity plays in Hume's narrative. A. Historical Background David Hume wrote a brief autobiography: "My Own Life." It ends on April 18, 1776 about four months before his death on August 25. He intended to have it published as the opening essay in the projected posthumous republication of all of his works. Hume also wanted to publish works he had suppressed earlier in his career, including "Of Suicide," "Of the Immortality of the Soul," and, most famously, Dialogues.2 Hume had requested that Adam Smith, his longtime close friend, arrange publication of the Dialogues, but Smith had been unwilling to do so. Even after Smith's initial demurral, Hume wanted Smith to ensure the piece's survival, leaving it to Smith's discretion when to publish it (Correspondence, Letters No. 156 and 157,194-6). Although Smith agreed to take care of the Dialogues, and thought the book was "finely written," he confided to Strahan after Hume's death that he was willing to communicate the manuscript "only to a few people. When you read [the Dialogues ] you...