By Maria Papagiannopoulou,
A statue of an imposing man resting in a chair is outside the High Court on Lawnmarket on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. He is frequently accompanied by a bagpiper, and if you pause for a while as you pass him, you may find people stroking the statue’s foot.
David Hume, an eighteenth-century philosopher, is seated in the chair. He was born on April 26, 1711, in Edinburgh.
Hume has risen to the top of the world’s prominent personalities list, and is widely regarded as one of the most prominent English-language philosophers in history. In addition to British history and economic theory, he was a prolific writer.
His intellectual views and beliefs about human nature are still influential today, and he is rightfully honored in Edinburgh, his birthplace (and, in 1776, his death).
The people rubbing Hume’s foot on the Royal Mile enact a superstitious ritual, in which the rubber of the toe is somehow magically endowed with either good luck or something of Hume’s own wisdom and insight, as designed by sculptor Alexander Stoddart with the big toe of his right foot dangling seductively over the edge of the plinth on which he sits.
Hume was invested in the natural sciences, the necessity of governance, and empirical observation, and was one of the most prominent figures to emerge from the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume, who was an ardent opponent of superstition, which he said in his six-volume History of England “rouses the foolish fears of miserable humans,” would undoubtedly disapprove of his statue’s ritual significance.
Though Hume is most known for his writings on naturalistic empiricism, raanti-rationalist skepticism, natural religion, and a grand history of England, it is his moral psychology writings that had the greatest influence on his friend and colleague thinker, Adam Smith. Indeed, Smith’s epistolary account of Hume’s final two weeks is canonically published as an epilogue to ‘My Own Life’, Hume’s short autobiography.
One of Hume’s most important contributions to philosophical inquiry is his treatment of the link between cause and effect, which holds that we can never directly connect two occurrences in the sense of “doing this caused that to happen”. As a result, those who rub Hume’s toe for good luck are explicitly contradicting one of his fundamental world assumptions…
Hume lived in a variety of locations throughout the city during his lifetime, including Riddle’s Court, right off the Royal Mile.
But he was best known for having a residence in the east end of the New Town, directly off St Andrew Square. His staunch atheism (widely disputed or ambiguously stated during his lifetime) led to the street where he lived being nicknamed “St David Street”, which it gratefully is until today!
Hume was buried in the Old Calton burial place on the slopes of Calton Hill when he died in 1776. His monument, which is structured as a vast circular mausoleum, was created by Edinburgh’s famous classical architect Robert Adam – a friend of Hume’s during his lifetime – but visitors will notice that there is no magnificent inscription or statement of his prolific and influential life’s work.
The statue has come under fire with the progressive Black Lives Matter movement. Hume has been attacked for his beliefs involving race relations. He has been quoted as saying; “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to whites. There was never a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, or even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”
Hume is said to have requested that his tomb just have his name, date of birth, and date of death. He confidently declared that history and posterity will take care of the rest.