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The Journey to Tibet of Ippolito Desideri: A Missed Connection with David Hume's Philosophy of the Self

At times, the paths of individuals cross unbeknownst to the protagonists themselves, and their ideas converge across time and space. Such is the case of the remarkable, unfulfilled, and even unexplored 18th-century connection between Ippolito Desideri, an Italian Jesuit missionary, and David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher.
detail of Sunset In The Himalayas (1879), Vasily Vereshchagin (Russian, 1842-1904) artvee.com

by Claudio Colaiacomo

At times, the paths of individuals cross unbeknownst to the protagonists themselves, and their ideas converge across time and space. Such is the case of the remarkable, unfulfilled, and even unexplored 18th-century connection between Ippolito Desideri, an Italian Jesuit missionary, and David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher.

Ippolito Desideri, an explorer and Jesuit scholar, ventured into the heart of Tibet in the early 18th century. His meticulous observations on Tibetan culture, Buddhism, and society were encapsulated in his work "Mission to Tibet." Desideri spent much of his life traveling from Rome to India and ultimately arrived in Tibet, where he resided for years, embraced by the community. There, he learned the Tibetan language, visited various monastic universities, and delved into the Madyamaka philosophy of Buddhism, now widely known as the Middle Way. Desideri, from his missionary perspective, aimed to grasp the essence of Tibetan philosophy, identify inconsistencies, and demonstrate the superiority of Christianity. However, Desideri, a scholar of refined virtues, soon understood the Tibetan philosophical approach and became fascinated by it. In his travel account, Desideri praises Tibetan philosophy and, though considering it inferior to Christianity, openly acknowledges the value of its arguments. Unfortunately, upon his return to Rome at the end of his life, his precious account was never published, and his writings remained forgotten in the Vatican archives until recent times.

It is intriguing to contemplate that Desideri's account, though ignored by the church for many years, could have influenced the philosophy of the self that Hume was working on during those years, drawing parallels with the profound insights of Nagarjuna. Ironically, the non-publication of Desideri's accounts during his lifetime failed to intersect and impact Hume's research. A missionary in Tibet and a librarian in Scotland, scholars of the same subject, explored the theory of self from different perspectives without being aware of each other. A perfect starting point for modern researchers to delve deeper into the topic.

If Desideri's account had come to light during his lifetime, the intellectual landscape of the 18th century might have changed under the influence of that exchange of ideas that never occurred. David Hume, the Scottish empiricist philosopher, was a young scholar when Desideri returned home. While Desideri was recording his observations in Tibet, Hume was formulating his revolutionary ideas about the self. Central to Hume's philosophy was the idea that the self is not a substantial and enduring entity but a collection of impressions and ideas. To the modern reader, Hume's writings resonate with Nagarjuna, the influential Buddhist philosopher of the 2nd century, who had expounded the philosophy of the emptiness (shunyata) of the self.
Desideri's account, infused with Buddhist insights, could have echoed through Hume's evolving theories. Nagarjuna's philosophy, emphasizing interdependence and emptiness, resonates through Desideri's observations on Tibetan Buddhism. Desideri's direct encounters with Tibetan philosophy, combined with Hume's receptivity to various philosophical influences, could have sparked a rich intellectual exchange. The common threads of emptiness, impermanence, and the denial of the intrinsic existence of a self in both Nagarjuna and Desideri's accounts might have found fertile ground in Hume's thoughts on personal identity.

The hypothetical scenario of Desideri's account reaching Hume prompts us to reflect on the interconnection of ideas across cultures and disciplines. The hypothetical encounter between Desideri and Hume underscores the importance of preserving and disseminating diverse intellectual perspectives. While we can only speculate on the impact of Desideri's hidden account on Hume's philosophy, the mere possibility that their paths could have crossed highlights the richness of intercultural exchanges in shaping intellectual history. The discovery of Desideri's work today invites us to reassess the interconnection of philosophical ideas and the missed opportunities for dialogue that could have enriched the discourse on the self.

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