David Hume died August 25, 1776. Diarist and biographer James Boswell saw Hume a few weeks before his death, which was from some form of abdominal cancer. Hume told him he sincerely believed it a “most unreasonable fancy” that there might be life after death … He also asked that his body be interred in a “simple Roman tomb”. In his will he requests that it be inscribed only with his name and the year of his birth and death, “leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.” … Adam Smith later recounted Hume’s amusing speculation that he might ask Charon to allow him a few more years of life in order to see “the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” The ferryman replied, “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years … Get into the boat this instant”. 1
On November 9, 1776, shortly after Hume’s death, the great economist Adam Smith wrote a letter to Hume’s good friend William Strahan, Esq. Here are some excerpts:
It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour of our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness.
Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favourite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.
Mr. Hume’s magnanimity and firmness were such, that his most affectionate friends knew, that they hazarded nothing in talking or writing to him as to a dying man, and that so far from being hurt by this frankness, he was rather pleased and flattered by it. I happened to come into his room while he was reading this letter, which he had just received, and which he immediately showed me. I told him, that though I was sensible how very much he was weakened, and that appearances were in many respects very bad, yet his cheerfulness was still so great, the spirit of life seemed still to be so very strong in him, that I could not help entertaining some faint hopes. He answered, “Your hopes are groundless. An habitual diarrhoea of more than a year’s standing, would be a very bad disease at any age: at my age it is a mortal one. When I lie down in the evening, I feel myself weaker than when I rose in the morning; and when I rise in the morning, weaker than when I lay down in the evening. I am sensible, besides, that some of my vital parts are affected, so that I must soon die.”
But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great
cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never
mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt
longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require: it was a subject
indeed which occurred pretty frequently, in consequence of the inquiries which his
friends, who came to see him, naturally made concerning the state of his health. The
conversation which I mentioned above, and which passed on Thursday the 8th of August,
was the last, except one, that I ever had with him. He had now become so very weak, that
the company of his most intimate friends fatigued him; for his cheerfulness was still so
great, his complaisance and social disposition were still so entire, that when any friend was with him, he could not help talking more, and with greater exertion, than suited the
weakness of his body. At his own desire, therefore, I agreed to leave Edinburgh …
On the 22d of August, the Doctor wrote me the following letter:
“Since my last, Mr. Hume has passed his time pretty easily, but is much weaker. He
sits up, goes down stairs once a day, and amuses himself with reading, but seldom sees
any body. He finds that even the conversation of his most intimate friends fatigues and
oppresses him; and it is happy that he does not need it, for he is quite free from anxiety,
impatience, or low spirits, and passes his time very well with the assistance of amusing
I received the day after a letter from Mr. Hume himself, of which the following is an extract.
23d August, 1776.
“MY DEAREST FRIEND, I am obliged to make use of my nephew’s hand in writing to you, as I do not rise to-day. . . .
“I go very fast to decline, and last night had a small fever, which I hoped might put a quicker period to this tedious illness, but unluckily it has, in a great measure, gone off. I cannot submit to your coming over here on my account, as it is possible for me to see you so small a part of the day, but Doctor Black can better inform you concerning the degree of strength which may from time to time remain with me. Adieu, &c.”
Three days after I received the following letter from Doctor Black.
Edinburgh, Monday, 26th August, 1776.
“DEAR SIR, Yesterday about four o’clock afternoon, Mr. Hume expired. The near approach of his death became evident in the night between Thursday and Friday, when his disease became excessive, and soon weakened him so much, that he could no longer rise out of his bed. He continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness. I thought it improper to write to bring you over, especially as I heard that he had dictated a letter to you desiring you not to come. When he became very weak, it cost him an effort to speak, and he died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.”
In his own words Smith’s letter concludes:
Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, 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 of human frailty will permit.
I Ever Am, Dear Sir,
Most Affectionately Your’s,
- from Wikipedia