Thursday, September 24, 2015

Buddhism in Europe in the 18th Century, among other things

Alison Gopnik is an important and influential developmental psychologist. FWIW her brother writes for The New Yorker. She has a compelling autobiographical essay in The Atlantic about David Hume, Buddhism, and her mid-life crisis. Here's a paragraph:
settled into a new routine. Instead of going to therapy, I haunted the theology sections of used-book stores and spent the solitary evenings reading. I wI ould sit in front of my grand fireplace, where a single sawdust log smoldered, wrapped in several duvets, and learn more about Buddhism.

I discovered that at least one person in Europe in the 1730s not only knew about Buddhism but had studied Buddhist philosophy for years. His name was Ippolito Desideri, and he had been a Jesuit missionary in Tibet. In 1728, just before Hume began the Treatise, Desideri finished his book, the most complete and accurate European account of Buddhist philosophy to be written until the 20th century. The catch was that it wasn’t published. No Catholic missionary could publish anything without the approval of the Vatican—and officials there had declared that Desideri’s book could not be printed. The manuscript disappeared into the Church’s archives.

I still couldn’t think or write about children, but maybe I could write an essay about Hume and Buddhism and include Desideri as a sort of close call—a missed connection.

I consulted Ernest Mossner’s classic biography of Hume. When Hume wrote the Treatise, he was living in a little French town called La Flèche, 160 miles southwest of Paris. Mossner said Hume went to La Flèche to “rusticate,” probably because it was cheap. But he also mentioned that La Flèche was home to the Jesuit Royal College.

So Hume lived near a French Jesuit college when he wrote the Treatise. This was an intriguing coincidence for my essay. But it didn’t really connect him to Desideri, of course, who had lived in Rome and Tibet.
Trying to figure out whether or not Hume knew about Buddhism:
But Desideri visited in 1727. David Hume arrived at La Flèche eight years later, in 1735. Could anyone there have told Hume about Desideri? I couldn’t find any trace of Père Tolu, the Jesuit who had been especially interested in Desideri.
Maybe Hume’s letters contained a clue? I sat on my narrow sofa bed, listening to the rain fall, and made my way through his voluminous correspondence. To be immersed in Desideri’s world was fascinating but exhausting. To be immersed in Hume’s world was sheer pleasure. Hume writes better than any other great philosopher and, unlike many great philosophers, he is funny, humane, fair, and wise. He charmed the sophisticated Parisian ladies of the grand salons, though he was stout, awkward, and absentminded and spoke French with an execrable Scots accent. They called him “le bon David”—the good David.
And so:
What had I learned?

I’d learned that Hume could indeed have known about Buddhist philosophy. In fact, he had written the Treatise in one of the few places in Europe where that knowledge was available. Dolu himself had had firsthand experience of Siamese Buddhism, and had talked at some length with Desideri, who knew about Tibetan Buddhism. It’s even possible that the Jesuits at the Royal College had a copy of Desideri’s manuscript.

Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what Hume learned at the Royal College, or whether any of it influenced the Treatise. Philosophers like Descartes, Malebranche, and Bayle had already put Hume on the skeptical path. But simply hearing about the Buddhist argument against the self could have nudged him further in that direction. Buddhist ideas might have percolated in his mind and influenced his thoughts, even if he didn’t track their source. After all, contemporary philosophers have been known to borrow ideas without remembering exactly where they came from.

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