On Sunday, July 7, 1776, James Boswell, told that David Hume had stomach cancer, called on the dying philosopher. Despite the great difference in years and worldviews, the two men had become friends. Like so many others, the older Hume was taken by Boswell's youthful impulsiveness and sincerity. Boswell was, Hume confided to a friend, "very good-humoured, very agreeable and very mad." Moreover, he was always "in search of adventures" – a habit that had first brought Boswell to Hume's door nearly two decades before. The young Scot, about to enter university in Edinburgh, was determined to meet the notorious sceptic and atheist, and knocked unannounced at Hume's lodgings off High Street. The philosopher warmly welcomed the impetuous visitor. They chatted about literature and history, genius and the ancients. After the visit, Boswell congratulated himself in his journal: Hume, he wrote, was a "very proper person for a young man to cultivate an acquaintance with."
Yet many contemporaries disagreed, most notably the individual to whom Boswell's name will always be yoked, Samuel Johnson. As Boswell noted, Dr Johnson held Hume "in abhorrence". Not only was he a Scot – a fault that Johnson was able to forgive in Boswell's case – but, even worse, Hume was a sceptic. His attack on the immortality of the soul drove Johnson to frenzy. When Boswell told Johnson that Hume was no more uneasy about what would follow his life than he was by what had preceded it, the great man exploded: Hold a gun to the breast of such boasters, he roared, and threaten to kill them: "you'll see how they behave."
Boswell shared Johnson's unease. On more than one occasion, he "talked with vehemence against David Hume and other infidels who destroyed our principles and put nothing firm in their place." Clearly, friendship alone did not bring Boswell to Hume's door that day. There was also the wish to test Johnson's claim. A child of the Scottish Enlightenment no less than Scottish Calvinism, Boswell was unable to find an abiding home for his greatest fear: the fate of his soul. The reasonable explanations of the soul's ultimate disposition offered by John Locke, much less the barely disguised denial of the soul's very existence by Hume, did not help a man raised in the grim shadow of the Kirk. The era's various metaphors for the soul were all found wanting: "If my mind is a collection of springs, these springs are all unhinged, and the Machine is destroyed; or if my mind is a waxen table, the wax is melted by the furnace of sorrow, and all my ideas and all my principles are dissolved, are run into one dead mass. Good GOD, what horrid chimaeras!" These "horrid chimaeras" hounded Boswell the rest of his life, driving him not only to wine and whores, but to Hume's deathbed. None of the three, in the end, offered much solace.
Ushered into the drawing room, Boswell caught his breath: the once obese Hume was splayed across the couch, a grey suit loosely wrapped around his deflated frame, his gaunt and pale face topped by a small wig. Struck by his host's "placid and even cheerful" demeanour, Boswell pulled up a chair and, after a few pleasantries, baldly asked Hume whether he had changed his ideas about the Christian faith. He had not, replied the great infidel: having lost his religious faith when at university, Hume replied that he would unlikely have a change of heart before his death. Besides, true morality positively forbade such a change. Enjoying Boswell's mixture of fascination and discomfort, Hume announced that all religions, and not just Christianity, were bad for morality. Mischievously echoing Dr Johnson's remark that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Hume laughed: "They all make up new species of crime and bring unhappiness in their train. When I hear a man is religious, I conclude he is a rascal, though I know some instances of very good men being religious."
Hume's remark drove close to Boswell's bone: earlier that year he had contracted his eleventh case of gonorrhoea – an impressive feat even in that mercury-doused age. Boswell asked Hume whether he did not believe in the possibility of a future life in which we would have to answer for our sins. Gesturing at the fireplace, Hume smiled: "'Tis possible that a piece of coal, put upon the fire, will not burn, but to suppose so is not at all reasonable." Boswell, who preferred to see the laws of experience violated before his expectations of salvation, returned to a question he had asked Hume in an earlier meeting: "Does the thought of annihilation never give you any uneasiness?" Hume shrugged: "Not at all, Mr Boswell. No more than the thought that I had not been."