As many know, Christopher Hitchens (the cheeky British gadfly of God) has esophageal cancer. Although he announced this and took a break to undergo treatment, I noticed last week he had resumed writing some columns. Yesterday, I found this recent video interview over at The Atlantic; it is simultaneously heart-wrenching and moving.
It is heart-wrenching because it appears that Hitchens’ cancer is inoperable (this is my guess) and he obviously is suffering from the chemo treatments. Indeed, Hitchens stoically admits the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes and he “is dying.”
Aside from the obvious question about the believers who have announced they are praying for the arch-atheist (he doesn’t mind, so long as the prayers are for his recovery or comfort rather than suffering and death), he makes an interesting reference to David Hume, who while on his deathbed was visited by fellow Scot James Boswell, the famous diarist, confidante of Samuel Johnson, and compiler of the first English dictionary.
Boswell queried Hume on religion and the afterlife, thinking that the first famous atheist and scourge of religion might have changed his mind in light of his imminent demise. No such thing occurred — here are some excerpts from Boswell’s diary account of his final meeting with the great philosopher:
[David Hume] was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He had before him Dr. Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced. He said he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke.
I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist. I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever. That immorality, if it were at all, must be general; that a great proportion of the human race has hardly any intellectual qualities; that a great proportion dies in infancy before being possessed of reason.
I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘Mr Hume, I hope to triumph over you when I meet you in a future state; and remember you are not to pretend that you was joking with all this infidelity.’ ‘No, no,’ said he. ‘But I shall have been so long there before you come that it will be nothing new.’ In this style of good humour and levity did I conduct the conversation. Perhaps it was wrong on so awful a subject. But as nobody was present, I thought it could have no bad effect. I however felt a degree of horror, mixed with a sort of wild, strange, hurrying recollection of my excellent mother’s pious instructions, of Dr. Johnson’s noble lessons, and of my religious sentiments and affections during the course of my life. I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history. Said he: ‘You do not believe it as you believe the Revolution’.
He had once said to me, on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright, that he did not wish to be immortal. This was a most wonderful thought. The reason he gave was that he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state; and he would rather not be more than be worse. I answered that it was reasonable to hope he would be better; that there would be a progressive improvement. I tried him at this interview with that topic, saying that a future state was surely a pleasing idea. He said no, for that it was always seen through a gloomy medium; there was always a Phlegethon or a hell.
As you can see from Hitchens’ interview, a bit of Hume lives in him and will die with him — their writings, however, will remain and keep us company. This will be his immortality. My thoughts are with Hitchens and I hope him the best.
Postscript — It appears that some people wrote The Atlantic and stated they were praying for Hitchens’ death. Hardly surprising. Jeffrey Goldberg, who conducted the interview, has an appropriate message for these people. Congratulations to The Atlantic staff.