THE decision by the University of Edinburgh to strip the David Hume Tower of its name has set the pigeons fluttering in the doocot. Students have celebrated this act, seeing it as a signal that this august institution is aligning itself with their sensitivity to racism, past and present. The university explains that since Hume’s “comments on race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today”, it should not ask students to work in a building that commemorates him. It came to this “temporary” decision after a petition by fewer than 2000 protestors, following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Meanwhile, onlookers are enraged by what they see as the short-sighted and “craven” capitulation of an establishment afraid to offend. The Hume expert, Dr Iain Gordon Brown, is so aghast he suggests that instead of its new designation merely as 40 George Square, it should be called Snowflake Tower in Woke Square. The eminent historian Sir Tom Devine says that, had he still been employed there, he would have “fought tooth and nail” to prevent this: “In history we teach our students not to indulge in the intellectual sin of anachronistic judgement, ie never to impose the values of today on those of the past.”

His comment goes to the heart of the unease many of us often feel, but don’t dare express, about the creeping eradication and blanket denunciation of those from earlier centuries. Few led entirely blameless lives, but their significance and legacy lie in what they did well or, in David Hume’s case, brilliantly.

Hume was recognised as a genius in his own times, and is still revered as the greatest philosopher Scotland and perhaps the planet has ever known. Despite its response to the petition, the University of Edinburgh tacitly acknowledges this, having in the last 18 months appointed three David Hume specialists to its staff. Yet in order to uphold the principle behind the tower’s renaming, surely it is also obliged to axe these posts, and remove Hume from the curriculum. If genuinely concerned about students’ potential distress, it is not enough to say that they can choose other subjects to study. Given its newly simplified worldview – one with which it’s hard to imagine many of its scholarly staff sympathising – the university cannot expect us to fathom why with one hand it relegates a leading figure of the Enlightenment, while with the other it seeks to advance academic endeavour in his name.

If Hume is judged unworthy of the university’s homage in brick and mortar – although the tower is a carbuncle, an eye-sore for which it really should apologise – he cannot also be worthy of academic fervour. I don’t understand the paradox of Shrödinger’s Cat, but suspect that this situation could match it for illogicality. Thanks to the university’s gutlessness and inconsistency Hume, like the cat, hovers in limbo between life and death, between celebration and cancellation. Yet, in its panicky capitulation to the threat of adverse publicity, the university might have leapt from the frying pan into the fire. The tower’s new address glorifies King George III, who was steadfastly opposed to abolition.

The wave of outrage at Hume’s shaming is not the wrath of the middle-aged seeing their world and its old assurances fast evaporating. Rather it is utter bafflement at evaluating historical figures by the standards of today. Hume’s remarks about the innate superiority of whites over blacks make your toes curl. That he encouraged a friend to buy a slave plantation seems morally reprehensible to us, but 250 and more years ago he was, sadly, in step with the majority of society. That he shrugged off criticism later about his attitudes to race by those who were more enlightened is interesting too, and not in a good way.

Back then, most of the country was reluctant to acknowledge the horrors of the slave trade. It was even slower to perceive the engrained racial prejudice that allowed it to flourish among folk who considered themselves Christian. In years to come, the same might be said of those of us who buy throwaway clothes made by slave-labour in far-distant continents, or deny climate change, or snort cocaine, heedless of the atrocities committed by drug cartels.

What is so galling about a shallow cosmetic response to racism and its roots, is that it lacks intellectual rigour and integrity. These are the fundamental values on which a university should be founded. Like many, I shed no tears for the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston when it was pitched into Bristol harbour. Putting people on pedestals is an innately risky venture, since with time their feet of clay are always revealed. But the idea that we can wipe the board clean by removing all mention of someone of whom we do not approve is not only unsettling but wrong.

You cannot rub out the foreign country that is the past. To do so is to ruin any chance of improving the world in light of the countless faults and crimes of our forebears. If women had refused to enter any building named after someone who held reprehensible or unreconstructed views about the opposite sex, emancipation would never have been achieved. This is not to say that these men should be beyond criticism, but that sledgehammer tactics are not the way to open people’s minds or deepen understanding.

We can now see how sickening and destructive attitudes once were towards people of different races and ethnicities, an injustice whose pernicious consequences we’re living with in the 21st century. The question we face now – and it is not easily answered – is how to assess individuals from times and places other than our own without imposing a modern rule-book on them. For that matter, how do we judge contemporaries whose circumstances engender outlooks and beliefs that do not chime with our own?

Above all, at what point does somebody’s cultural or historical context no longer excuse their behaviour? Would that we could have Hume’s thoughts. He might have been thinking of himself when he wrote, “Heaven and Hell suppose two distinct species of men, the Good and the Bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue.” What was true of his day stands also for our own, and we must never forget it.

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