Rifting on Boswell’s reaction to Hume’s death, Michael Ignatieff writes in The Needs of Strangers [published in 1984]
For Hume, spiritual need of Boswell’s sort was a kind of pride, a yearning for certainties beyond the reach of human capacity. In this sense, these needs were a form of alienation. He said we could face the worst if we simply renounced our yearning for certainty. But who among us is capable of that renunciation?
Again let us recall the date (1984) and understand that the question raised is caught in a moment of time. Earlier in the chapter Ignatieff comments on Boswell’s reaction to Hume’s death:
The death that shocked Boswell is ours now, and yet we still do not understand it. We are still coming to terms with what it means to die outside the fold of religious consolation.
A gay man who came of age in the 1980s and survived the 1990s cannot easily identify with that “we”. It is easy to dismantle the representative “we”. It is no doubt more difficult to leap over its barriers and identify in some sense with the speaking voice.
I am grateful for the small thoughtful book that presents itself as “An essay on privacy, solidarity and the politics of being human”. I am even more grateful for Ignatieff’s descriptions of Boswell being haunted by Hume’s death and furthermore the need to keep the teaching moment alive.
We owe it to Hume’s death to keep alive its capacity for instruction. Yet this is not easy. To the extent that most of us die now without religious consoloation, we may fail to understand Boswell’s terror when he watched a man die in this new way.
Hume would be but one of my teachers. And Boswell too as a conveyor for terror in the face of serenity.
And so for day 787