In July, I spoke at a debate hosted by the Black Ed movement, a group that seeks racial justice at the University of Edinburgh, where I study. The debate concerned a petition created by fellow student Elizabeth Lund to rename a university building called David Hume Tower. David Hume was found to be insufficiently pure because of racist comments he made in the eighteenth century. I spoke against the removal of Hume’s name—without success. The university has since quietly announced that the tower will now be known simply as 40 George Square. This, I assume, is a banal placeholder until the name of someone suitably saintly is found. Though that may take a very long time.
The tower was obviously named not for Hume’s failures, but for his successes; for the ways he transcended his time, not the ways in which he was unable to do so; and removing his name will do nothing to further racial equality. But we live in the age of the woke and must look at everything through the lenses of oppression and power. The tower could not just be a celebration of our university’s most famous alumnus, but had to be a statement of white supremacy and a tool of racial oppression.
This episode is not unique. The disgusting murder of George Floyd has unleashed a new wave of wokery and plenty of other figures have faced the ire of the righteous. Some of this is to the good. It is correct to question our monuments and our heroes. But much of it has been inane. What does the removal of David Hume’s name do exactly? If it is a signal, it must be a pretty weak one, given how quietly the university announced it.
Is there a useful criterion for deciding which monuments should stand and which should not? As Jerry Coyne proposes, we should judge monuments by the reason they were erected. So if a statue of Thomas Jefferson is a monument to his racism, it should be removed, contextualised, or put into a museum. But monuments that honour positive achievements should stand.
There are names and monuments we should remove from the public square. Statues of Confederate generals, for example, venerate men for fighting to retain slavery. They can go. But the David Hume Tower was named for Hume’s philosophical achievements and to honour a man whose brilliance went unrewarded by the university that educated him because pious idiots vetoed his appointment to a chair.
Hume’s racist comments and his slight involvement with the slave trade—which was discovered by historian Felix Waldmann, who supports the renaming—should be condemned. The sincere and well intentioned people at Black Ed are furthering an important conversation. But, in this case, they are misguided. The problem with this wave of monument shaming is that it is both zealous and indiscriminate. No historical figure is pure by modern standards—a century from now, the names we give to monuments may well appear problematic too.
Why does Hume merit celebration? He was a liberator who suffered oppression in his own day. The Scottish Kirk had only recently stopped burning infidels when Hume tried to get a professorship at his old university. Thanks to his moderate Kirk friends, Hume avoided incineration. But because he was a notorious infidel, the dogmatic religionists prevented him from securing a job at Edinburgh and, later, Glasgow Universities. (This didn’t stop him from gaining other employment and continuing his intellectual work.)
On his deathbed, Hume was visited by James Boswell, who was surprised at Hume’s stoicism in the face of annihilation. Rather than being a coward and recanting his atheistical views, Hume mocked the very idea of an afterlife, hence providing an example of integrity to future atheists.
Hume’s attacks on theological orthodoxy mark him as a key figure in humanity’s emancipation from dogma. His championing of Enlightenment ideals like tolerance and free expression helped pave the way for modernity—and without the idea of equal human dignity, which he upheld, many of the world’s most oppressed would still be under the boot. And in addition, of course, he had many brilliant philosophical insights.
It is a shame, then, that Critical Race Theory-inspired wokeness has led to the effacement of his name from our university campus. The university has given in to nonsense, Black Ed have been granted a token concession, and the tower which once bore the name of one of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced is now merely designated by a boring street number. Who benefits from this?
There is one small consolation, though. Since the tower is such an ugly beast of a building, perhaps we should remove Hume’s name from it—and attach it to a grander edifice more appropriate to the celebration of such a great man. Perhaps somebody should start a new petition?
This whole episode might seem paltry—it’s only a name on a tower for goodness’ sake. But this small, sad affair is part of a bigger battle. Wokeness, which is reactionary pouting dressed up as radicalism, is gaining ground all the time. If you see it coming, resist it.
Let us discuss the flaws of celebrated historical figures—but let us do so reasonably. Meanwhile, David Hume’s ideas will still be taught and discussed with or without the approval of the modern inquisitors—and his name, I believe, will long outlive the epoch of the woke.