- The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought by Dennis C. Rasmussen
The philosophical friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith spanned almost thirty years and influenced several of the greatest productions of the Scottish Enlightenment, but it has never before been the subject of a book-length study. Rasmussen’s accessible account of the friendship between Hume and Smith remedies this and tells an engaging story about these two “dearest” friends (4).
Rasmussen’s story unfolds chronologically, with each chapter focusing largely on either Hume or Smith. The major events of their friendship are dutifully covered, including their respective journeys to France, and Hume’s controversial quarrel with Rousseau; but Rasmussen’s focus is on tracing their relationship and how that relationship influenced their work and ideas. As a comparative account of the philosophical views of Hume and Smith, Rasmussen’s book is a welcome contribution to a body of literature that is developing but still quite limited. Two of the most important themes tackled by Rasmussen throughout his book are the respective views of Hume and Smith on religion and the effects of religious belief on human societies, and their views on political economy and commercial society.
As Rasmussen’s title suggests, Hume’s notoriety as an “infidel” is often contrasted with Smith’s relatively more pious, or at least more cautious, approach to religion. Rasmussen offers a careful consideration of the evidence available both for Hume’s alleged atheism as well as for Smith’s alleged piety. As one might expect, Hume and Smith turn out to be much closer than they might appear from a consideration of only their published writings. But, as Rasmussen convincingly shows, Smith does seem to have differed from Hume in holding that certain religious beliefs (such as the belief in a divine creator, and in an afterlife where divine justice will be meted out), “have important practical benefits, above all in providing consolation and buttressing morality” (15).
Rasmussen uses his account of their respective views of religion to help untangle a fraught moment in the friendship between Hume and Smith: Smith’s refusal to carry out Hume’s request that he publish Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion after Hume’s death. As Rasmussen notes, previous scholars have interpreted this moment as spoiling the long and stable years of friendship that preceded it (186). Rasmussen may go a shade too far when he claims that “Hume’s part in this exchange is more difficult to account for than Smith’s” (198), but he offers a compelling consideration of the reasons Smith likely had for refusing Hume’s request, as well as a deflationary reading of just how much of an effect this moment had on their friendship.
Chapter 9 of Rasmussen’s book details the production of Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Hume’s influence on Smith’s ideas in this monumental text. Rasmussen draws from Hume’s earlier essays, Hume’s History of England, and the correspondence between Hume and Smith to show the extent of Hume’s influence on some of Smith’s most central ideas, including Smith’s narrative about the disintegration of feudal power and his argument in favor of free trade. Rasmussen helpfully substantiates some of the affinities often claimed between the views of Hume and Smith on these various topics.
In his epilogue, Rasmussen considers Smith’s life after the death of Hume. One of Smith’s main projects during this time was an extensive revision of his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), including the addition of an entire new part (VI), “Of the Character of Virtue,” which includes a discussion of friendship. Smith describes “the most respectable” friendships as those that are “founded altogether upon esteem and approbation of [an individual’s] good conduct and behaviour, confirmed by much experience and long acquaintance” (TMS VI.ii.1.18). He adds that such friendships can obtain only between “men of virtue,” for...