It's David Hume's 300th birthday today. Perhaps some lucky people are sharing a party with him somewhere – because Hume always tops the lists of characters from history that everyone would like to dine with. Adam Smith wrote of him 'as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit'.
Not that Hume would have any truck with the notion of an afterlife. He was, in a time steeped in religion and tense with religious disputes, the leading skeptic of his age. His philosophy was empiricism, following the evidence of our senses and trying to understand the workings of the world through that evidence, the only access we have to it. Any number of mystical or metaphysical explanations could be concocted, he thought, including religion; but that got us no nearer to an understanding of reality or of our own nature.
There was hardly any subject in philosophy, politics or even economics that Hume did not write on, and write on with a directness and common sense that cuts through any sophistry. Milton Friedman said of Hume's essay Of Money that it could be read today with pleasure and profit and that it contained 'few if any errors of commission'. This man really could turn his mind to any subject.
In an age where academic status seems to hinge on making everything look complicated, how much we need today the commonsense philosophy of David Hume.