On Edinburgh's Royal Mile, sited outside the High Court on Lawnmarket, sits a statue of an imposing figure reclining in a chair. He often has a bagpiper in his vicinity, and if you linger a moment as you pass him you may notice passers-by rubbing the statue's foot.
The man in the chair is David Hume, an eighteenth-century philosopher born in Edinburgh on 26 April* 1711.
Hume has entered the world rankings of influential figures, and is broadly considered to be one of history's most important philosophers ever to write in the English language. He was also a prolific writer of British history, and economic theory. His philosophical ideas and theories about human nature were a significant contribute to the period known as the Scottish Enlightenment, and still have influence today. He is justly celebrated here in Edinburgh, the city of his birth (and, in 1776, his death).
The people rubbing Hume's foot on the Royal Mile - specifically designed by the sculptor Alexander Stoddart with the big toe of his right foot dangling seductively over the edge of the plinth on which he sits - are enacting a superstitious ritual whereby the rubber of the toe is somehow magically endowed with either good luck or something of Hume's own wisdom and insight.
One of Hume's great contributions to philosophical enquiry describes the relationship between cause and effect, and considers (in essence) that we can never explicitly connect two events in any sense of 'doing this caused that to happen'. As such, those rubbing Hume's toe for luck are directly contravening one of his fundamental assertions about the world...
During his life Hume lived in various places in the city, including at Riddle's Court just off the Royal Mile.
But most famously he had a house just off St Andrew Square in the east end of the New Town. His devout atheism (broadly denied or ambivalently asserted during his lifetime) led to the street on which he lived being informally dubbed 'St David Street', and happily it remains so today!
Until recently one of the University of Edinburgh's campus buildings in the Old Town was named the David Hume Tower. The building was stripped of Hume's name in 2020, on account of some of his comments on issues of race which, as noted by the university itself, "though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today".
When Hume died in 1776, he was buried in a plot in the Old Calton burial ground on the slopes of Calton Hill. His tomb there was designed by Edinburgh's great classical architect Robert Adam - a friend of Hume's during his life - and is styled as a large circular mausoleum.
But visitors will note there is no grand inscription or statement of his prolific and influential life's work. It is reputed that Hume expressly wished for his tomb to bear just his name, his date of birth, and his date of death.
History and posterity, he modestly asserted, would do the rest.
Find out more about Hume and other figures from the Scottish Enlightenment on my private walking tours of the city!
*In 1711 Scotland was still transitioning between the old Julian calendar and the newer Gregorian calendar. As such, there is a discrepancy of 11 days in some dates from this period. In the Old Style date format, Hume's date of birth was 26 April. On the New Style dating it is dated 7 May. #simples
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