James Boswell on the Death of David Hume

James Boswell visited David Hume on July 7, 1776, about seven weeks before Hume died. Boswell later wrote an account of their meeting. Some excerpts:

I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing-room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end….

I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read [John] Locke and [Samuel] Clarke. I asked him if he was not religious when he was young. He said he was….

He then said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and, I really thought, was not jocular when he said that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious. This was just an extravagant reverse of the common remark as to infidels.

I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever….

Mr. Lauder, his surgeon, came in for a little, and Mr. Mure, the Baron’s son, for another small interval. He was, as far as I could judge, quite easy with both. He said he had no pain, but was wasting away. I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time.