How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis – The Atlantic


But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

In my shabby room, as I read Buddhist philosophy, I began to notice something that others had noticed before me. Some of the ideas in Buddhist philosophy sounded a lot like what I had read in Hume’s Treatise. But this was crazy. Surely in the 1730s, few people in Europe knew about Buddhist philosophy.

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me—except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he have?

I settled into a new routine. Instead of going to therapy, I haunted the theology sections of used-book stores and spent the solitary evenings reading. I would sit in front of my grand fireplace, where a single sawdust log smoldered, wrapped in several duvets, and learn more about Buddhism.

I discovered that at least one person in Europe in the 1730s not only knew about Buddhism but had studied Buddhist philosophy for years. His name was Ippolito Desideri, and he had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet. In 1728, just before Hume began the Treatise, Desideri finished his book, the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 20th century. The catch was that it wasn’t published. No Catholic missionary could publish anything without the approval of the Vatican—and officials there had declared that Desideri’s book could not be printed. The manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

I still couldn’t think or write about children, but maybe I could write an essay about Hume and Buddhism and include Desideri as a sort of close call—a missed connection.

I consulted Ernest Mossner’s classic biography of Hume. When Hume wrote theTreatise, he was living in a little French town called La Flèche, 160 miles southwest of Paris. Mossner said Hume went to La Flèche to “rusticate,” probably because it was cheap. But he also mentioned that La Flèche was home to the Jesuit Royal College.

So Hume lived near a French Jesuit college when he wrote the Treatise. This was an intriguing coincidence for my essay. But it didn’t really connect him to Desideri, of course, who had lived in Rome and Tibet.

When I searched the library databases at Berkeley, I found hundreds of books and thousands of articles I could read about David Hume, but only two about Ippolito Desideri: one article and a drastically abridged 1932 English translation of his manuscript. The article had appeared in Indica, an obscure journal published in Bombay, in 1986. I had to get it shipped down from the regional storage facility, where millions of books and articles in Berkeley’s collection languish unread. Ever since my love affair had ended, I had gone to bed each night dreading the next day. But now I found myself actually looking forward to tomorrow, when the article would arrive.

It mostly recapitulated what I had read before. But the author, an Italian named Luciano Petech, mentioned that he had edited a 1952 collection of missionary documents, I Missionari Italiani nel Tibet e nel Nepal, and that it included some Desideri manuscripts. And, in passing, he provided me with an interesting new detail. “In January 1727,” Petech wrote, “he left India, once more on a French ship, and arrived in Paris.”

Desideri had come back to Rome through France—one more intriguing coincidence.

The abridged Desideri translation could be read only in the Rare Book Room, so I headed there the next day. It was a beautiful book with red capital letters and romantic tipped-in photographs of majestic Buddhas and tranquil Himalayan valleys. I began to read eagerly.

I had been obsessively, ruminatively, fruitlessly trying to figure out who I was and what I would do without work or love or children to care for. It was like formulating an argument when the premises refuse to yield the conclusion, or analyzing a data set that makes no sense. But if I couldn’t figure myself out, I decided, I could at least try to figure out Desideri, and so I lost myself in his book, and his life. (…)”

Source: How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis – The Atlantic


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