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Publisher's Summary

This is the story of the greatest of all philosophical friendships - and how it influenced modern thought.

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime, he was attacked as "the Great Infidel" for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships.

The Infidel and the Professor is the first audiobook to tell the fascinating story of the friendship of these towering Enlightenment thinkers - and how it influenced their world-changing ideas. The audiobook follows Hume and Smith's relationship from their first meeting in 1749, until Hume's death in 1776. It describes how they commented on each other's writings, supported each other's careers and literary ambitions, and advised each other on personal matters, most notably after Hume's quarrel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Members of a vibrant intellectual scene in Enlightenment Scotland, Hume and Smith made many of the same friends (and enemies), joined the same clubs, and were interested in many of the same subjects well beyond philosophy and economics - from psychology and history to politics and Britain's conflict with the American colonies.

The audiobook reveals that Smith's private religious views were considerably closer to Hume's public ones than is usually believed. It also shows that Hume contributed more to economics - and Smith contributed more to philosophy - than is generally recognized. Vividly written, The Infidel and the Professor is a compelling account of a great friendship that had great consequences for modern thought.

©2017 Princeton University Press (P)2018 Tantor

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  • 10-28-18

Intimate sympathy

The friendship between Adam Smith and David Hume is one of the great Platonic love stories in the history of philosophy. The book unearths an intimate array of correspondences that offers a compelling narrative that works on two levels: 1) The human sympathy between two human beings who happened to share a soul connection. 2) The literary connection between two great iconoclastic Enlightenment thinkers.

There is very much to be learned from these inestimable writers, not least on matters of fact and speculation, but also on how to maintain a friendship across periods of despair and turbulence. On the level of facts, the time period of Scottish Enlightenment, with its own list of characters and places, is appropriately framed as the intellectual backdrop to the human drama. More impressively, the book animates the protagonists' intimate human struggles and passions with a vivacity that only an archival exposé of private letters can muster.

My only criticism is a minor one: the author lets his own anticlericalism and irreligiosity, which he accurately pinpoints in Hume, take the centre stage, which obfuscates some of the finer points of distinction, drama and controversy that would have made for equally compelling storytelling.

But I cannot fault the book much for this focus, since as a narrative lodestar, or a leitmotif, the heresies and infidelities of the happy & plump philosopher are a juicy and logical choice. That said, the modern amplification of Hume's notoriety into a type of hero worship by latter day atheists is certainly a curious phenomenon that is not without its own shortcomings.

Overall, philosophical biographies are a niche market that is not exactly saturated with quality. This book is exceptional in that it combines good scholarship with easy exposition in a way that can be enjoyed by all readers. I rarely cry when reading (good) philosophy, except out of desperation, but here I cried from sympathy with the human struggles of Scotland's best sons.