I haven't been to a Burns Supper for years. I don't enjoy mass dinners at the best of times, finding them a peculiar form of social torture. But recently, an unease has crept into my avoidance of the supper: the man himself. He is a great poet from a humble background but his treatment of women and his willingness to work in the slave trade leaves a bad taste. Should it?
Great men of history (and, of course, they are usually men) are now subjected to retrospective judgement by today's 'woke' standards. Churchill got it in the neck last week from MSP Ross Greer. By all accounts, Churchill was a flawed character and politician. Then again, there are many examples of 'great men' who prescribe lofty principles of humanity but whose private beliefs, lives and personal behaviour are morally dubious. As an undergrad, one of my favourite thinkers was Rousseau until I discovered he impregnated his maid five times and each child was dumped in an orphanage where, in those days, a young life was short and brutal life. This is bad enough, but Rousseau is also renowned for his handbook (of sorts), 'Emile', on child-rearing and education.
I also remember one of my lecturers in a state of intellectual shock when he discovered that his great hero, mathematician Frege, was a vicious anti-Semite in private. But at least, I suppose, his work was on the philosophy of logic and mathematics – topics of no direct relevance to moral or political matters. Not so for our own David Hume.
During a Twitter chat with author Edwin Moore last week, I discovered that David Hume was a racist. Whit? Surely not the avuncular, good humoured-Hume of the seminal work on human nature? I asked a Hume scholar and sure enough, Edwin is right. What's more, le bon David appears to have knowingly worked for a slave merchant during a short stay in Bristol before he left for the continent. He did at least denounce slavery; but his racism remains. It was easy to miss since the offending passages do not occur in his seminal 'A Treatise of Human Nature', nor in the later 'An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding'. But in the essay, 'Of National Character', he explicitly and unambiguously states in a notorious footnote that all races are inferior to the white race.
Defenders of these men argue that we cannot judge them by current standards of thought and conduct. But even a cursory knowledge of the history of ideas shows that Plato, who lived 2,000 years before Burns, was a veritable feminist in comparison. And racism (as opposed to ethnocentricism) was unknown in the ancient and medieval worlds. Of course there is a sense in which we are all victims of what passes for knowledge in our own day.
So what to make of Hume? While he did indeed work in epistemology and consigned metaphysics to the flames, much of his influential work was in moral philosophy and psychology. Can these really be separated from his racist views? From his writings, I never once suspected Hume was a racist until Edwin informed me. That must count for something, surely? In truth, I don't know. Human beings are complex, flawed, multi-dimensional beings – that much we can accept – but an uneasiness remains about Burns, and now Hume – despite their genius and their 'time'. As for the likes of Heidegger and Wagner, they're beyond the pale.
Holocaust Memorial Day is intended to help us learn from genocide, challenge prejudice, ensure that the lessons of history are never been forgotten. However sincerely expressed, these calls seem to have lost their rhetorical power and too often do little to incite reflection. Research released last week into the public's understanding of the Holocaust showed a worrying lack of awareness – 5% of UK adults polled don't believe the Holocaust actually happened – despite the events being well-documented, and relatively recent in historical terms. In fact there is an argument, especially given current political upheavals, that the lessons of the second world war have yet to be fully recognised and absorbed.
When I was 14 years old, my dad asked me to watch with him the excellent series of its time, 'The World at War'. I will never forget the episode on the liberation of Auschwitz. I was so traumatised that when I rose to go to bed, my legs had weakened ('turned to jelly, dad'). As an adult, it happened again, but this time during a visit to Auschwitz itself. The horror of that place is unspeakable, and perhaps it has coloured my judgement, but there is something uniquely horrific about the Holocaust. To say this runs the risk of a grotesque comparative politics: but such perspectives on comparative genocide do exist and in truth, there is something unique about the systematic, bureaucratic extermination of six million Jews in the heart of one of the most advanced cultural and political countries in Europe.
As Hugo Rifkind said with brutal clarity in the Spectator, as a descendant of a few survivors: 'it wasn't a failure, the Holocaust. It wasn't curtailed. It was a plan, carried out, which worked very well'. He's right. It worked perfectly, with all the cogs turning harmoniously – words we usually associate with beauty, but employed here in the service of radical evil.
Rifkind's plaintive testimony reminds me of an old Jewish philosopher I met in 1995 – Emil Fackenheim – who survived thanks to the Kindertransport, in Aberdeen. It was his view that the consequences of the Holocaust for philosophy, and for modernity, have not been acknowledged. The Holocaust challenges the religious and secular thinker alike, and yet most secular philosophy has proceeded as though the Holocaust had never happened. It certainly has not been able to explain how radical evil is possible, and in this case flourished, or even how the moral condemnation of radical evil is intellectually justifiable. To that extent, Fackenheim claimed philosophy has been unmasked, and that an assumption underpinning western society – that thinking is worthwhile – is sentimental nonsense. Philosophy, modernity, post-modernity and now post-post-modernity must meet both of these challenges if the lessons of the Holocaust are ever to be learnt.
More worryingly, unless these challenges are bravely and honestly confronted, they remain a serious threat, which means we are still at risk of granting Hilter a grotesque, posthumous victory and worse, that history does indeed replicate. In that event, grotesquely flawed or not, we'd need another Churchill, wouldn't we?