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Abstract

Every modern philosophy student has experienced by proxy the spiritual crisis which, according to David Hume, had afflicted him during the writing of the Treatise on Human Nature, and to the resolution of which the latter parts of the Treatise were allegedly dedicated. In good measure Hume's spiritual crisis was a felicitous one. Like Descartes and Montaigne's crises before it, it echoed the travails of the ancient philosophers as they struggled to attain the mental peace of true wisdom and freedom from agitation. At the same time, Hume's crisis served - at least in retrospect - to mark a dramatic shift in his conception of the philosophical life, and of the persona of the ancient philosopher in the modern world. Even the skeptical aspect of Hume's crisis was novel, or perhaps antique. John Pocock has recently observed the ambiguous status of modernity in early modern philosophy. On the one hand it is modern because it is informed by that most modern of disciplines, natural philosophy; on the other, because it is post-classical, and implicitly post-medieval, or scholastic. In this sense the mature Hume's evolution was arguably from modern philosopher to antique one.

Whereas Descartes and others had employed the skeptical crisis as a means of questioning the reliability of the data of our senses, Hume used it in the classical manner as a means of suspending judgement over contrary understandings of the world, as a means of attaining philosophical calm. Hence his re-writing of the spiritual crisis, later in his life, as a means of discovering his life's purpose and associated peace of mind. Further, unlike Descartes' crisis, which led him to posit the primacy of metaphysical knowledge over moral knowledge, Hume's crisis led in the end to almost the opposite conclusion. It served to propel him back towards aspects of ancient philosophy that 'modern' philosophers, in their enthusiasm for the presumed sovereignty of metaphysics over moral philosophy, had singularly neglected. For Hume's mature essays marked more than a tactical or pedagogical shift from his earlier treatises and tracts. They were an attempt by a self-consciously antique philosopher to rediscover the ancient arts of moral contingency and uncertainty, in the face of modern philosophical doctrines which disavowed contingency and uncertainty in favour of epistemological rigour and certainty.

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