The Scottish philosopher David Hume on the importance of leisure, extracted from Julian Baggini’s new book…
Hume’s most intensive education only began in earnest after he left the university [of Edinburgh], probably in 1726. He first tried to study law, knowing it was a reliable and respectable profession. But in a letter to a physician, he wrote that it “appear’d nauseous to me” and that the only way of “pushing my Fortune in the World” was as a “Scholar & Philosopher”.
So in spring 1729 he abandoned law and set about six months of intensive study. He was already formulating his own, original philosophy. “When I was about eighteen years of age,” he recalled not long after, “there seemed to be opened up to me a new scene of thought.”
“I was infinitely happy in this Course of Life for some months,” he wrote, but after six months, in September 1729, he found that “all my Ardour seem’d in a moment to be extinguisht, & I could no longer raise my Mind to that pitch, which formerly gave me such excessive Pleasure.”
Hume had fallen into a deep depression, what he called the “disease of the learned”. The cure was to study less intensively, to exercise daily, and to make time for relaxation and social intercourse.
He learned a lesson he would share in the An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding years later. “The mind requires some relaxation, and cannot always support its bent to care and industry,” he wrote. “It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments.”
From then on, he always maintained a balance between leisure, exercise, and work. In his last years, he counselled his eighteen-year-old nephew David that “every day, fair or foul, you ought to use some exercise,” which is “absolutely necessary” for health, and bad health “is the greatest interrupter to study in the world.”
He summed up his message in an allegorical anecdote: “A man was riding, with great violence, and running his horse quite out of wind. He stopt a moment to ask when he might reach a particular place. In two hours, replied the countryman, if you will go slower; in four if you be in such a hurry.”
More haste, less speed is a warning for all areas of life, not just practical or urgent tasks.
His brief crisis is of much more than just autobiographical interest. The key lesson Hume learned from his depression became the cornerstone of his entire philosophical project: that philosophy must be rooted in an accurate understanding of human nature. Philosophy succeeds when it addresses human beings as they are and fails when it treats them only as philosophers imagine them to be.
This is the point he leaves the reader with at the end of the Treatise, when he compares the world of a philosopher with the work of both an anatomist and a painter: “We must have an exact knowledge of the parts, their situation and connexion, before we can design with any elegance or correctness.”
Extract from The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us About Being Human And Living Well by Julian Baggini, published by Princeton University Press and reprinted here by permission. Buy a copy here.
Julian Baggini is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 10 June. Register here.
Jullian is the author of over 20 books on philosophy, written for a general audience. To find out more, visit his website julianbaggini.com.