Robert Zaretsky in today’s Times on the 300th birthday of David Hume:
‘It’s not surprising; Hume was most concerned with the nature of knowledge, morality, causality — not with fashioning a philosophy for everyday life. And yet his life, like his work, does offer insights about how to live. Consider an episode in Hume’s life that reflects his most provocative and misunderstood claim: that reason is and always will be the slave to our passions. Predictably, it happened in Paris.
In 1761, Hippolyte de Saujon, the estranged wife of the Comte de Boufflers and celebrated mistress of the Prince de Conti, sent a fan letter to Hume. His best-selling “History of England,” she wrote, “enlightens the soul and fills the heart with sentiments of humanity and benevolence.” It must have been written by “some celestial being, free from human passions.” From Edinburgh, the rotund and flustered Hume, long resigned to a bachelor’s life, thanked Mme. de Boufflers. “I have rusted amid books and study,” he wrote, and “been little engaged ... in the pleasurable scenes of life.” But he would be pleased to meet her.
And so he did, two years later, when he was posted to the British Embassy in Paris. Boufflers and Hume quickly became intimate friends, visiting and writing to each other often. Hume soon confessed his attachment and his jealousy of Conti. Boufflers encouraged him, though no one knows how far: “Were I to add our deepened friendship to my other sources of happiness ... I cannot conceive how I could ever complain of my destiny.” Yet she was also merciless. Men, she wrote to Hume, have “servile souls”; they “like to be mistreated; they are avid for severity, all the while indifferent to kindness.” Hume seemed different, but she warned him: “If I have been mistaken, my affection and all that supports it will soon be destroyed.”’
I cannot imagine any novelist who would argue that reason is not the slave to our passions.
Yet Mme. de Boufflers might have understood men quite well. Kindness is the enemy of passion.