Friday, April 17, 2009

David Hume, Action Hero

Given that one does not usually associate philosophers with wartime military service, and given that one especially does not associate the vita activa with the reclusive and sanguine philosopher David Hume, I was somewhat surprised to come across this passage in the editor's notes to Hume's Essays Moral, Political, and Literary:

"In 1746, Hume accompanied an expeditionary force under General James St. Clair in an attack on the French coast. Hume describes the expedition, for which he received a commission as Judge-Advocate, in a manuscript known as the 'Descent on the Coast of Brittany.' See Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1954), pp. 187-204.]"

The expedition in question was a minor military episode in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), a conflict which was important enough at the time but obscure today. Hume's manuscript describing the landing can be found in the 1889 edition of his Essays (available through Google Books). Seeking to aid Britain's allies in Flanders, General St. Clair took 4500 men from a cancelled expedition against Canada and threw them into a diversionary attack on the French coast. However, the organizers of the campaign were, according to Hume, dithering and clueless - the general didn't even have a map of Brittany. When the soldiers finally landed they made an abortive attempt to attack the fortified city of L'Orient, then withdrew a few weeks later, with the loss of 20 men and nothing at all to show for their pains - except a few sardonic remarks in an unfinished essay by one of Europe's great skeptics. It's the kind of story that Hume's contemporary, Voltaire, would have enjoyed.

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