From time to time I get a phone call in the evening from a charming young lady who is an undergraduate of Edinburgh University. As soon as she asks me if I have fond memories of my own time at the university, I know that she has called me up on behalf of the Alma Mater, to be quite frank, in order to beg. I’m not at all sure that I approve of the university recruiting undergraduates to devote an evening to the acquisition of funds in order to swell her coffers. “Not at all sure” I say? Confound the circumlocution of the litotes tradition. I think it’s meretricious and grotesque.
But I don’t say this to the young lady. At least I haven’t, thus far. After all, why shoot the messenger? In fact I usually cough up. Mind you I baulked last time when she asked me for my credit card details. I said, “Well that’s not going to work, is it? With respect, I don’t actually know that you are who you say you are.” Telephone scams are growing increasingly sophisticated. I asked her to arrange for the university to write to me by Royal Mail, and I promised to send a cheque by return. And that is how the transaction was concluded.
However, next time she phones, I’m going to decline to contribute, and I’m going to ask her to tell her supervisors that when the university decided to change the name of the David Hume Tower to “40 George Square”, I decided to divert my charitable giving to another university of which I am an alumnus, the University of Glasgow.
I couldn’t believe it. I actually went into Edinburgh and to the building in question, and sure enough, the plaque by the door read “40 George Square”. I took a photograph. Le Bon David has been cancelled. He has been “disappeared”. The David Hume Tower is like the character Syme in Orwell’s 1984. The David Hume Tower no longer exists. The David Hume Tower has never existed.
The building itself, it has to be said, is something of a carbuncle. The old George Square must have been beautiful before the high rise monstrosities went up. Bernard Levin writes scathingly about this in Conducted Tour (Jonathan Cape, 1981). The BBC commissioned him to tour the great music festivals of the world and describe them. The Edinburgh Festival is covered in the chapter “The Ghost in George Square”. Levin went to the Edinburgh Festival at least twenty times from its inception in 1947. In that year, when he was a teenager, he stayed in George Square. He writes of this time with great nostalgia. Edinburgh was his favourite city in the world. But he is not uncritical. (There goes that litotes again. He is critical, dammit.)
Three sides of the square have been torn down, their eighteenth-century handsomeness being replaced by huge blocks of such brutal and lifeless architectural nastiness that even London… can scarcely match them… Why are universities such abominable barbarians?
I wonder what Bernard Levin – a journalist never shy to express an opinion with passion – would have made of the cancellation of David Hume?
It’s not the first time David Hume has been snubbed by the university. He was denied the Professorship in Moral Philosophy, chiefly because his scepticism, particularly with respect to religion, was held to be outrageous. No doubt he accepted the rejection with a calm mind. Ever since his Treatise of Human Nature “fell dead-born from the press”, he endured a lifetime of disappointments, but chose to retain a happy disposition and to plough his own intellectual furrow. Nowadays, along with Immanuel Kant, he is regarded as one of the two great philosophers of the eighteenth century. But it just so happens that he passed a remark which in his own time would scarcely have raised an eyebrow, to the effect that he considered one race of men to be intellectually superior to another. Ergo, he is a monster.
We look back on bygone ages and recognise that our ancestors had blind spots. When our descendants look back upon us, what will be ours?
We live in the age of the Pharisee. I recall that Our Lord, who had plenty of time for corrupt tax collectors, prostitutes, and murderers, had no time at all for Pharisees.
It crossed my mind to do a bit of cancellation myself. Whom to disappear? Edinburgh University? Pharisees generally? No. I’m going to take a leaf out of David Hume’s book. I read in today’s newspaper that the hashtag RIPJKRowling is cancelling Ms Rowling, so far as I can see, because she denoted people who menstruate as “women”. Much of this sort of persecution – most of it – takes place on social media. Actually Hume got the same – a barrage of hostile criticism. He simply ignored it. He never replied. That’s what to do. Cancel social media. Just log off.