Saturday, April 30, 2011

Le Bon David

Morgan Meis:

David Hume was — at least on the matter of death and dying — a Socratic man. Even in his most canonical works, A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Hume was largely preoccupied with establishing limits. The way Hume saw it, our brief lives, crowned by unavoidable death, are unlikely to put us in touch with any grand absolutes. On the other hand, the human mind is an indubitably powerful tool and its powers of reasoning have penetrated many an enigma. Hume was as amazed by human knowledge as the next guy. He simply wanted us to be honest about its failings and limitations. Most of the things we know come from observing what happens around us and making the reasonable inference that what happens one day will continue to happen the next. The sun will rise, dropped objects will fall, harsh words will bite, etc. We don't know the greater "why" of such things, suggested Hume, and there is no reason to think we ever will.

Hume always found himself astraddle those two great pleasures, study and society. When he spent too much time studying, the mechanisms of human reason would take flight, leading him into seemingly logical conclusions that defied his actual experience of the world. Thinking hard in his study, Hume would reach the conclusion, for instance, that there is no such thing as causality. Then he would step outside and go about the business of daily life in the full assurance that cause and effect operates just as we've always experienced it. Everyday experience would do its work, grounding him again in reality. That contrast between reason and experience never failed to amuse, trouble, and delight Hume.

I always loved that about Hume, the way he could follow his reason and intellectual conscience to the absolute starkest conclusions, but still know when to shrug and go enjoy a game of backgammon. When one of the most relentlessly reasonable mofos that ever strode the earth tells you that "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions," you might want to sit up and take heed. You don't have to grasp after metaphysical delusions in the absence of rational, philosophical justifications for life, you just have to trust that ordinary life has a rhythm and pattern of its own that will carry you along when you need it to. When you can't figure out why or how to live, just do it anyway, without worrying overmuch about perfect intellectual consistency, and something will likely come along to alter your perspective soon enough.