David Hume’s Philosophy, Controversy, Superstition, Atheism — and Lucky Toes

The Scots philosopher’s sometimes divisive words gave him prominence in life, as in death.

Edinburgh, Scotland: David Hume statue and St Giles Cathedral

Edinburgh, Scotland: David Hume statue and St Giles Cathedral

It’s ironic that a statue of the 18th Century Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume, situated at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, has earned a reputation for bestowing good luck.

The toes on the right foot of the statue, which depicts Hume in the flowing robes of a Greek philosopher, gleam from countless touches by passing townsfolk, tourists, philosophy students, and defendants on their way to the nearby courthouse.

How a statue commemorating a colossus of The Enlightenment — a man who detested superstition — should have earned a reputation for bringing good fortune remains a mystery.

His most famous work, A Treatise of Human Nature, is recognised as a cornerstone of modern philosophy. It contains hints about the author’s character — and readers may conclude that he’d find the toe-rubbing tradition amusing.

Hume was a famously jovial character who, in middle age, packed on some weight thanks to his taste for fine food and port. In the company of fellow thinkers and drinkers at Edinburgh’s notorious Poker Club, he would “dine, play a game of backgammon, converse and be merry with my friends”.

Hume was born in an Edinburgh tenement in 1711. His father died two years later, and his mother Catherine raised her three children alone. The young David was a precocious child, admitted to the city’s university at the age of 12, but academia wasn’t for him. “There is nothing to be learned from a professor which is not to be met with in books,” he announced.

He left without graduating and concentrated on the pursuit of philosophical thought, devouring the works of Cicero and Virgil. In 1734, aged 23, he travelled to France to “prosecute my studies in a country retreat”.

He spent the next three years there, working on his three-volume work A Treatise of Human Nature, which was published in 1739 after he returned home. The book is considered to be one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy, and Hume’s most important — but it failed to make an immediate impact. Hume wrote: “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise. It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.”

Later in life, recognising that he’d “gone to press too early”, Hume revisited his tome, reshaping and clarifying various sections. While this book is the one for which he is chiefly celebrated today, Hume had a greater triumph with his History of England, published in the 1750s.

Hume never strayed far from controversy. His atheism led to him be blocked by the Church of Scotland from taking up posts at Glasgow or Edinburgh universities. His writings were also “listed” by the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum — meaning that Roman Catholics were prohibited from reading his books.

In 1776, the year of his death at the age of 65, Hume wrote a short account of his life in which he admitted to a “love of literary fame”. He’d travelled to Paris where he was surprised to be met with great respect and affection. He was earning a salary of £1,000, which in those times made for comfortable living. He never married.

The University of Edinburgh, having apparently forgiven him, named a tower after him. Hume’s status as Scotland’s greatest philosopher at last became apparent.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Hume’s stated belief that white Europeans were superior to black Africans threatened to cast a shadow over his legacy. Protestors looped a placard containing the offending quote around the neck of his statue. The controversy illustrates the complexity of applying modern judgements to historical characters.

Hume, who remained an atheist until death, joked that he might ask the ferryman to Hades to allow him a few more years of life in order to see “the downfall of superstition”. The ferryman, said Hume, would reply: “You loitering rogue! That will not happen these many hundred years… Get into the boat this instant!”

And David Hume’s “lucky foot” is still being rubbed.

By Tony Lennox

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