VI. DAVID HUME: 1711–76

1. The Young Philosopher

Hutcheson was a modest part of the “Scottish Enlightenment”; Hume was its greatest luminary. In his simple eight-page autobiography he tells us that he was born at Edinburgh April 26, 1711, “of a good family, both by father and mother; my father’s family is a branch of the Earl of Home’s or Hume’s.I … My mother was daughter of Sir David Falconer, President of the College of Justice.” The father died in 1712, leaving the estate to David’s elder brother, John Home, and to David an income of eighty pounds a year—enough for survival on an abstemious regimen. The family, all Presbyterian, gave the boy a strong infusion of Calvinist theology, which remained as determinism in David’s philosophy. Every Sunday morning he attended a church service three hours long, including two hours of preaching; every Sunday afternoon he returned to the kirk for an hour; to which were added morning prayers at home.72 If David had any character in him he was bound to react into heresy.

At the age of twelve he entered the University of Edinburgh. After three years he left without a degree, resolved to give himself completely to literature and philosophy. At sixteen he wrote to a friend reproaching himself because

my peace of mind is not sufficiently confirmed by philosophy to withstand the blows of fortune. This greatness and elevation of soul is to be found only in study and contemplation.… You must allow [me] to talk thus like a philosoper; ’tis a subject I think much on, and could talk all day long of.73

Soon his religious faith faded away:

I found a certain boldness of temper growing on me, which was not inclined to submit to any authority in these subjects [philosophy and literature] … When I was about eighteen years of age there seemed to be opened up a new scene of thought, which transported me beyond measure, and made me, with an ardor natural to young men, throw up every other pleasure or business to apply entirely to it.74

He said later that “he never had entertained any belief in religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke.”75 By the time he was seventeen he had already planned a treatise on philosophy.

His relatives urged upon him that philosophy and eighty pounds a year would give him but a meager existence; he must reconcile himself to making money. Could he not study law? He tried for three painful years (1726–29). His health broke down, and almost his spirit too; for a time he lost his interest in ideas. “The law appeared nauseous to me”;76 he abandoned it, and returned to philosophy, with perhaps one deviation. Toward the end of February, 17 34, he left Edinburgh for London “to make a very feeble trial for entering into a more active scene of life.”77 On March 5 Agnes Galbraith appeared before the Reverend George Home (David’s uncle), and confessed that she was with child. Brought before a session of the kirk, she declared “that Mr. David Home … is the father.” Doubting her veracity, the session remitted her to the next meeting of the local Presbytery; before this, on June 25, she repeated the accusation. According to the minutes of the Presbytery of Chirnside,

the moderator … exhorted her to be ingenuous and confess if any other person was guilty with her.… The Presbytery having considered the affair, and being informed that the said David Home was gone out of the Kingdom, they remitted her to the Session of Chyrn-side, to make satisfaction to the rules of the Church.78

This required that she should appear in sackcloth before the kirk, and be exposed in the pillory on three Sundays. In 1739 Agnes was again convicted of fornication.

After a stop in London Hume proceeded to Bristol, and took a position in a merchant’s office. “In a few months I found that scene totally unsuitable to me.” He crossed over to France, where he could live more cheaply than in England. For a while he stayed at Reims; then he moved to La Fleche (some 150 miles southwest of Paris), for the Jesuit college there had an extensive library. The canny Scot entered into cordial relations with the priests, and was allowed to use their books. One of the fathers described him in later perspective as “too full of himself; … his spirit more lively than solid, his imagination more luminous than profound, his heart too dissipated with material objects and spiritual self-idolatry to pierce into the sacred recesses of divine truths.”79

In the shade of the Jesuits Hume composed the first two books of his skeptical masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature. In September, 1737, he returned to England bursting with manuscript. He had trouble with publishers, for in December he wrote to Henry Home: “I am at present castrating my work, that is, cutting out its noble parts, … endeavoring it shall give as little offense as possible.”80 The chief excisions were “reasonings concerning miracles”; these were stored away for use in safer days. The remainder, guaranteed to be unintelligible to antedeluvians, was published anonymously in two volumes in January, 1739, by John Noon of London. Hume sold the volumes outright for fifty pounds and twelve copies—not so bad a bargain for a book on logic and theory of knowledge by an unknown youth of twenty-seven. However, it was one of the peaks of modern philosophy.

2. Reason Deflated

The introductory “Advertisement” revealed Hume’s confidence in his powers: he proposed to study human nature in understanding and passions, and, in a third volume forthcoming, in morals and politics. He proceeded to analyze “impression” (sensation), perception, memory, imagination, thought, reason, and belief. This investigation of how we come to know is fundamental, for the validity of science, philosophy, religion, and history depends upon the nature, origin, and reliability of knowledge. It is a difficult discipline, for it deals with abstract ideas rather than with concrete objects; and thought is the last thing that thought seeks to understand.

Hume begins by accepting as a starting point the empiricism of Locke: all ideas are ultimately derived from experience through impressions. These are external sensations like light, sound, heat, pressure, odors, taste, or internal sensations like stupor, hunger, pleasure, pain. A perception is a sensation interpreted; “noise” is a sensation, but “a knock at the door” is a perception. (Hume is not always precise or consistent in his use of these terms.) A man born blind or deaf has no idea of light or sound, because he has had no sensation of either. The ideas of space and time are derived from experience: the first is “the idea of visible or tangible points distributed in a certain order”; the second is the perception of sequence in our impressions.81 Ideas differ from impressions only in the lesser “force and liveliness with which they strike upon the mind.”82 Belief “is nothing but a more vivid and intense conception of any idea; … it is something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination.”83

In these definitions Hume seems to think of “the mind” as a real entity or agent experiencing, possessing, remembering, or judging impressións or ideas. As he proceeds, however, he denies the existence of any mind additional to the mental states—to the impression, perception, idea, feeling, or desire occupying consciousness at the moment.

That which we call a mind is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together by different relations, and supposed, though falsely, to be endowed with a perfect simplicity and identity.… For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I aways stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate, after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated; nor do I conceive what is further requisite to make me a perfect nonentity.… Aside from some metaphysicians … I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux.… The successive perceptions … constitute the mind.84

So, at one blow from this brash youth, three philosophies fell: materialism, for (as Berkeley had shown) we never perceive “matter,” and know nothing but our mental world of ideas and feelings; and spiritualism, for we never perceive a “spirit” additional to our particular and passing feelings and ideas; and immortality, for there is no “mind” to survive the transitory mental states. Berkeley had demolished materialism by reducing matter to mind; Hume compounded the destruction by reducing mind to ideas. Neither “matter” nor “mind” exists. Forgivably the wits of the time dismissed both philosophers with “No matter; never mind.”

Freedom of will, in this dissolving view, is impossible: there is no mind to choose between ideas or responses; the succession of mental states is determined by the order of impressions, the association of ideas, and the alternation of desires; “will” is merely an idea flowing into action. Personal identity is the feeling of continuity when one mental state recalls previous mental states and relates them through the idea of cause.

But cause too is only an idea; we cannot show it to be an objective reality. When we perceive that A (e.g., flame) is regularly followed by B (heat), we conclude that A has caused B; but all that we have observed is a sequence of events, not a causal operation; we cannot know that B will always follow A. “All our reasonings concerning cause and effect are derived from nothing but custom.”85 The “laws of nature” that we talk of are merely sequences customary in our experience; they are not invariable and necessary connections in events; there is no guarantee that they will hold tomorrow. Science, therefore, is an accumulation of probabilities subject to change without notice. Metaphysics, if it pretends to be a system of truths about ultimate reality, is impossible, for we can know neither the “causes” behind sequences nor the “matter” behind sensations nor the “mind” allegedly behind the ideas. And so far as we base our belief in God on a chain of causes and effects supposedly leading back to a “Prime Mover Unmoved,” we must abandon that Aristotelian sophistry. All things flow, and certainty is a dream.

After spreading devastation about him with the invincible Excalibur of his intellect, Hume pauses for a moment of modesty. “When I reflect on the natural fallibility of my judgment, I have less confidence in my opinions than when I consider the objects concerning which I reason.”86 He knows as well as we do that certainty is not necessary for life, nor for religion, nor even for science; that a high degree of probability suffices for crossing a street or building a cathedral, or saving our souls. In an appendix he admits that there might be, after all, a self behind ideas, a reality behind sensations, a causal connection behind persistent sequences. Theoretically he stands his ground: “I have not yet been so fortunate as to discover any very considerable mistakes in the reasonings delivered in the preceding volumes.”87 But in practice, he amiably confesses, he abandons his skepticism as soon as he drops his pen.

Should it be asked me whether I sincerely assent to this argument which I have been to such pains to inculcate, and whether I be really one of those skeptics who hold that all is uncertain, … I should reply … that neither I nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion.88 … I dine, I play backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.89 … Thus the skeptic still continues to reason and believe, though he asserts that he cannot defend his reason by reason; and by the same rule he must assent to the principle concerning the existence of body, though he cannot pretend, by any arguments of philosophy, to maintain its veracity.”90

In the end Hume turns his back upon argument as a guide to life, and trusts to animal faith, to the belief, based upon custom, that reality is rational, permeated with causality. And by asserting that “belief is more properly an act of the sensitive than of the cognitive part of our natures,”91 Hume, twenty-seven, holds out his hand to Jean Jacques Rousseau, twenty-six, in youth and theory, as he was destined to do later in friendship and tragedy. The cleverest reasoner in the Age of Reason not only impeached the causal principle of reason, he opened a door to the Romantic reaction that would depose reason and make feeling its god.

The second “book” and volume of the Treatise continues the dethronement of reason. Hume rejects the attempts of philosophers to build an ethic upon the control of passion by reason. By “passion” Hume means emotional desire. “In order to show the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavor to prove, first, that reason alone can never be a motive for any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction [against the force] of the will.”92 “Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion but a contrary impulse” (an echo of Spinoza?). To still further épater les bourgeois, Hume adds: “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions [the illuminating and co-ordinating instrument of desires], and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”93

He proceeds to a subtle analysis of the “passions”—chiefly love, hate, compassion, anger, ambition, envy, and pride. “The relation which produces most commonly the passion of pride is that of property.”94 All passions are based upon pleasure and pain; and ultimately our moral distinctions have the same secret source. “We tend to give the name of virtue to any quality in others that gives us pleasure by making for our advantage, and to give the name of vice to any human quality that gives us pain.”95 Even the concepts of beauty and ugliness are derived from pleasure and pain.

If we consider all the hypotheses which have been formed … to explain the difference betwixt beauty and deformity, we shall find that all of them resolve into this, that beauty is such an order and construction of parts as, either by the primary constitution of our nature [as in the beauty of the human body], by custom [as in admiring slenderness in women], or by caprice [as in the idealizing delusions of impeded desire], is fitted to give pleasure and satisfaction to the soul.… Pleasure and pain, therefore, are not only necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence. … Beauty is nothing but a form which produces pleasure, as deformity is a structure of parts which conveys pain.96

Love between the sexes is compounded of this sense of beauty, plus “the bodily appetite for generation and a generous kindness and good will.”97

In March, 1739, Hume returned to Edinburgh. He eagerly searched the journals for reviews of his two volumes, and suffered the consequences. “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature. It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.”98 But when he wrote this in old age he had forgotten, perhaps through oblivescence of the disagreeable, that several reviews appeared within a year after the publication of his book. Nearly all of them complained that it was hard to understand, and that the author allowed his youth to show by frequent references to himself and to the epochal novelty of his ideas. “What is most offensive,” said a typical censor, “is the confidence with which he delivers his paradoxes. Never has there been a Pyrrhonian more dogmatic.… The Lockes and Clarkes are often, in his eyes, but paltry and superficial reasoners in comparison with himself.”99

Saddened but resolute, Hume prepared for the press the third volume of his Treatise, containing Book III, “Of Morals.” It appeared on November 5, 1740. Its analysis of morality displeased the rationalists as much as the theologians. The rules of morality are not supernatural revelations, but neither are they the conclusions of reason, for “reason,” Hume repeats, “has no influence on our passions or actions.”100 Our moral sense comes not from Heaven but from sympathy—fellow feeling with our fellow men; and this feeling is part of the social instinct by which, fearing isolation, we seek association with others. “Man’s very first state and situation may justly be esteemed social”; a “state of nature” in which men lived without social organization “is to be regarded as a mere fiction”;101society is as old as man. Being members of a group, men soon learned to commend actions advantageous—and to condemn actions injurious—to the community. Furthermore, the principle of sympathy inclined them to receive or imitate the opinions that they heard around them; in this way they acquired their standards and habits of praise and blame, and consciously or not they applied these judgments to their own conduct; this, and not the voice of God (as Rousseau and Kant were to imagine) is the origin of conscience. This law of sympathy, of communal attraction, is, says Hume, as universal and illuminating in the moral world as the law of gravitation in the material cosmos. “Thus, upon the whole,” he concluded, “I am hopeful that nothing is wanting to an accurate proof of this system of ethics.”102

Volume III attracted even less attention than Volumes I and II. As late as 1756 the remnants of the eleven hundred copies that constituted the first edition of the Treatise were still cluttering the publisher’s shelves. Hume did not live to see a second edition.

3. Morals and Miracles

It was clear that he could not subsist by his pen. In 1744 he made an unsuccessful attempt to secure a professorship in the University of Edinburgh. Doubtless with some humiliation he accepted (April, 1745) a position as tutor to the young Marquis of Annandale at a fee of £300 a year. The Marquis went insane; Hume found that he was expected to be the keeper of a lunatic; there were quarrels; he was dismissed (April, 1746), and had to sue for his salary. For a year (1746–47) he served as secretary to General James St. Clair; the salary was good, the food was good, and in July, 1747, Hume returned to Edinburgh owning and weighing many more pounds than when he left. In 1748 the General re-engaged him, as secretary and aide-de-camp, on a mission to Turin; now David encased himself in a flaming scarlet uniform. James Caulfield (future Earl of Charlemont), then a student in Turin, was impressed by Hume’s intellect and character, but dismayed by his flesh.

The powers of physiognomy were baffled by his countenance … to discover the smallest trace of the faculties of his mind in the unmeaning features of his visage. His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility.… The corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than that of a refined philosopher.103

The same Caulfield claims to have seen Hume (aged thirty-seven) on his knees before a married countess (aged twenty-four), professing his devotion and suffering the pangs of despised love; the lady dismissed his passion as “a natural operation of your system.” According to the same reporter Hume fell into a fever and tried to kill himself, but was prevented by the servants. Another Scot relates that in his illness Hume “received Extreme Unction” from a Catholic priest. Hume, we are told, excused both gallantry and unction on the ground that “the organization of my brain was impaired, and I was as mad as any man in Bedlam.”104 In December, 1748, he retired to London and philosophy, having now raised his fortune to a thousand pounds.

Resolved to get another hearing for the ideas of the Treatise, he published in 1748 An Enquiry concerning the Human Understanding, and in 1751 An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. In an “Advertisement” prefixed to a posthumous edition (1777) of these Enquiries he disclaimed the Treatise as a “juvenile work,” and asked that “the following pieces may-alone be regarded as containing his philosophical sentiments and principles.”105 Students of Hume have in general found more meat in the earlier than the later works; these cover the same ground in perhaps a less belligerent and incisive style, but they reach the same conclusions.

After repeating his skeptical analysis of reason, Hume offered, as Section X of the first Enquiry, that essay “Of Miracles” which the publisher had refused to print in the Treatise. He began with his usual self-assurance: “I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument … which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures.” And then he let loose his most famous paragraphs:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.… When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority which I discover I … reject the greater miracle. There is not to be found in all history any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicions of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time attesting facts performed in such a public manner, and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men. …

The maxim by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings is that the objects of which we have no experience resemble those of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations.… It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations.… It is strange … that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange … that men should lie in all ages.106

Hume went on to allege other obstacles to Christian belief: the calm neutrality of nature as between man and his rivals on the earth; the prolific variety of evils in life and history; the apparent responsibility of God for Adam’s sin, and for all sins, in a world where by Christian hypothesis nothing can happen without God’s consent. To avoid the charge of atheism, Hume put into the mouth of “a friend who loves skeptical paradoxes,” and whose principles “I can by no means approve,” a defense of Epicurus’ fancy that the gods exist, but pay no attention to mankind. The friend wonders why there cannot be an agreement between religion and philosophy not to molest each other, as he supposes there was in Hellenistic civilization:

After the first alarm was over, which arose from the new paradoxes and principles of the philosophers, these teachers seem ever after, during the ages of antiquity, to have lived in great harmony with the established superstition, and to have made a fair partition of mankind between them: the former claiming all the learned and wise, the latter possessing all the vulgar and illiterate.107

What a way to offer a truce!

In 1749 Hume returned to Scotland to live with his brother and sister on their estate at Ninewells. Two years later John Home took a wife, and David moved to Edinburgh. Now he sent to the press the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals which he hoped would replace the third volume of the Treatise. He reaffirmed the derivation of the moral sense from sympathy or social feelings; he rejected the Socratic identification of virtue with intelligence, and emphatically repudiated La Rochefoucauld’s notion that “altruistic” actions are egoistically motivated by the hope of pleasure from the social esteem they are expected to earn. The pleasure that we feel in such actions, said Hume, is not their cause but their accompaniment and result; the actions themselves are the operation of our social instincts.108

But the most noticeable feature of this second Enquiry is its elaboration of a utilitarian ethic. Twenty-three years after Hutcheson, thirty-eight years before Bentham, Hume defined virtue as “every quality of the mind which is useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others.”109 On this basis he justified the healthy pleasures of life as useful to the individual, and the double standard of morality as useful to society.

The long and helpless infancy of men requires the combination of parents for the subsistence of their young; and that combination requires the virtue of chastity or fidelity to the marriage bed.… An infidelity of this nature is much more pernicious in women than in men. Hence the laws of chastity are much stricter over the one sex than over the other.110

Of this Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals the fond author wrote: “In my own opinion (who ought not to judge on that subject), it is, of all my writings, … incomparably the best.” He added: “It came unnoticed and unobserved into the world.”111

4. Darwinism and Christianity

In 1751 he composed Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Of all the productions of his Mephistophelean mood this is the most devastating and irreverent. Three persons converse: Demea, who defends orthodoxy, Cleanthes the deist, and Philo, who is transparently Hume. Demea argues that unless we posit some Supreme Intelligence behind phenomena, the world becomes unbearably unintelligible; but he admits that his God is quite incomprehensible to human reason.112 Cleanthes reproaches Demea for trying to explain one unintelligibility with another; he prefers to prove God’s existence by the evidences of design in nature. Philo laughs at both arguments. Reason, he claims, can never explain the world or prove God. “What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain called thought, that we must make it the model of the whole universe?”113 As for design, the adaptation of organs to purposes may have resulted not from divine guidance but from nature’s slow and bungling experiments through thousands of years.114(Here is “natural selection” 1,800 years after Lucretius, 108 years before Darwin.) And even if we admit supernatural design, the imperfection of the adaptations and the myriad sufferings in the human and animal world reveal at best a god of limited powers and intelligence, or one quite indifferent to mankind. “Ultimately the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster.”115

One would imagine that this grand production has not received the last hand of the maker, so little finished is every part, and so coarse are the strokes with which it is executed. Thus the winds … assist men in navigation; but how oft, rising up to tempests and hurricanes, do they become pernicious! Rains are necessary to nourish all the plants and animals of the earth; but how often are they defective! how often excessive! … There is nothing so advantageous in the universe but what frequently becomes pernicious by its excess or defeat; nor has nature guarded with the requisite accuracy against all disorders or confusion.116

Worse yet, there is not only disorder amid the order (if you view the world as designed), there is, amid the abounding life, an always futile struggle against death.

A perpetual war is kindled amongst all living creatures. Necessity, hunger, want, stimulate the strong and courageous; fear, anxiety, terror agitate the weak and infirm. The first entrance into life gives anguish to the newborn infant and to its wretched parent; weakness, impotence, distress attend every stage of that life, and it is at last finished in agony and horror.… Observe, too, … the curious artifices of nature, in order to embitter the life of every living being.… Consider that innumerable race of insects, which either are bred on the body of each animal, or flying about, infix their stings in him.… Every animal is surrounded with enemies, which incessantly seek his misery and destruction.… Man is the greatest enemy of man. Oppression, injustice, contempt, contumely, violence, sedition, war, calumny, treachery, fraud; by these they mutually torment each other.117

Look around this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences.… How hostile and destructive to each other! … The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.118

The conflicting evidences of good and evil in the world suggest to Philo a duality or multiplicity of competing gods, some of them “good,” some “bad,” and perhaps of diverse sex. He maliciously suggests that the world

was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; … or it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity, and, ever since his death, has run on at adventure, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.119

As like as not the world, as the Brahmins asserted, “arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels.… Why may not an orderly system be spun from the belly as well as the brain?”120 So creation would be generation. Or conceivably “the world is an animal and the deity is the soul of the world, actuating it and actuated by it.”121

After all this badinage Philo comes back to design, and admits that “the pause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some analogy to human intelligence.”122 And he apologizes for his scandalous cosmologies:

I must confess that I am less cautious on the subject of natural religion than on any other.… You in particular, Cleanthes, with whom I live in unreserved intimacy, you are sensible that notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed upon his mind, or pays more profund adoration to the divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of nature. A purpose, an intention, or design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems as at all times to reject it.123

Despite this peace offering, Hume’s friends pleaded with him not to publish the Dialogues. He yielded, and locked the manuscript in his desk; it did not see print till 1779, three years after his death. But his fascination with religion lured him back to the subject, and in 1757 he published Four Dissertations, of which one attempted a “Natural History of Religion.” At his publisher’s insistence he withdrew two other essays, which were printed when he was beyond fear and reproach: one on immortality, the other a justification of suicide when a person has become a burden to his fellow men.

The Natural History combines Hume’s old interest in religion with his new interest in history. He has passed beyond attacking old beliefs to inquiring how mankind came to adopt them. But he is not inclined to patient research, even among the scanty materials then available on social origins; he prefers to approach the problem by psychological analysis and deductive reasoning. The mind of primitive man interpreted all causation on the analogy of his own volition and action: behind the works and forms of nature—rivers, oceans, mountains, storms, pestilences, prodigies, etc.—he imagined acts of will by hidden persons of supernatural power; hence polytheism was the first form of religious belief. Since many forces or events were harmful to man, fear had a large share in his myths and rituals; he personified and sought to propitiate these evil forces or demons. Perhaps (Hume slyly suggests) Calvin’s God was a demon, cruel, malicious, arbitrary, and difficult to appease.124 Since the good gods were conceived as like human beings except in power and permanence, they were supposed to give aid and comfort in return for gifts and flattery; hence the rituals of offerings, sacrifices, adoration, and solicitous prayer. As social organization increased in size and reach, and local rulers submitted to greater kings, the world of divinities underwent a like transformation; an order of hierarchy and obedience was ascribed in imagination to the gods; monotheism grew out of polytheism, and while the populace still knelt to local deities or saints, cultured men worshiped Zeus, Jupiter, God.

Unfortunately religion became more intolerant as it became more unified. Polytheism had allowed many varieties of religious belief; monotheism demanded uniformity. Persecution spread, and the cry for orthodoxy became “the most furious and implacable of all human passions.”125 Philosophy, which among the ancients had been left relatively free as the religion of the elite, was compelled to become the servant and apologist of the faith of the masses. In these monotheistic creeds—Judaism, Christianity, Mohammedanism—merit and “salvation” were more and more divorced from virtue and attached to ritual observance and unquestioning belief. In consequence educated persons became either martyrs or hypocrites; and as they rarely chose martyrdom, the life of man was tarnished with lip service and insincerity.

In less combative moods Hume condoned a measure of hypocrisy. When he was consulted as to whether a young clergyman who had lost his faith should remain in the Church and accept its preferments, David answered, Remain.

Civil employments for men of letters can scarcely be found.… It is putting too great a respect on the vulgar and their superstition to pique oneself on sincerity with regard to them. Did ever one make it a point of honor to speak the truth to children or madmen? … The ecclesiastical profession only adds a little more to our innocent dissimulation, or rather simulation, without which it is impossible to pass through the world.126

5. Communism and Democracy

Tiring at last of debate on issues that on his own view were determined by feeling rather than by reason, Hume in his later years turned more and more to politics and history. In 1752 he published Political Discourses. He was surprised by its favorable reception. Britain was glad to forget the destructiveness of his theology in the conservatism of his politics.

He had some sympathy with aspirations toward a communistic equality:

It must indeed be confessed that nature is so liberal to mankind that, were all her presents equally divided among the species, and improved by art and industry, every individual would enjoy all the necessaries, and even most of the comforts, of life.… It must also be confessed that wherever we depart from this equality we rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity in one individual frequently costs more than bread to many families and even provinces.

But he felt that human nature makes an egalitarian utopia impossible.

Historians, and even common sense, may inform us that however precious these ideas of perfect equality may seem, they are really at bottom impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society. Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues … the most rigorous inquisition is requisite to watch every inequality on its first appearance, and the most severe jurisdiction to punish and redress it.… So much authority must soon degenerate into tyranny.127

Democracy, like communism, received Hume’s sympathetic rejection. It is, he thought, “a principle … noble in itself, … but belied by all experience, that the people are the origin of all just government.”128 He dismissed as childish the theory (soon to be revived by Rousseau) that government had originated in a “social contract” among the people or between people and ruler:

Almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in history, have been founded originally either on usurpation or conquest or both, without any pretense of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people.… It is probable that the first ascendant of man over multitudes began in a state of war.… The long continuance of that state, … common among savage tribes, inured the people to submission.129

In this way monarchy became the almost universal, the most lasting, and therefore presumably the most practical, form of government. “An hereditary prince, a nobility without vassals, a people voting by their representatives, form the best monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.”130

Besides disposing in advance of Rousseau, Hume used his lucid Addisonian style to discard in advance Montesquieu’s theory of climate as a determinant of national character. In Essays, Moral and Political, whose second edition appeared almost simultaneously (1748) with The Spirit of Laws, Hume wrote: “As to physical causes I am inclined to doubt of their operation in this particular; nor do I think that men owe anything of their temper or genius to the air, food, or climate.”131 National character follows national boundaries rather than climatic zones; it is determined principally by laws, government, the structure of society, the occupations of the people, and the imitation of neighbors or superiors.

Under these local varieties human nature is basically the same in all times and climes; the same motives and instincts, made necessary by the demands of survival, produce in all ages and places essentially the same actions and results.

Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the action and enterprises which have been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English; you cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same in all times and places that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishes us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behavior. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions are so many collections of experiments, by which the political or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science.132

In the Political Discourses, and in Essays and Treatises on Various Subjects (1753) Hume made substantial contributions to economic thought. He rejected the view of the French physiocrats that all taxes fall ultimately upon land; they fall at last, he believed, upon labor, for (here he echoes Locke) “everything in the world is purchased by labor.”133 Even before the Industrial Revolution had taken form he foresaw that the workers would “heighten their wages” by combination. He condemned the financing of governmental expenditures and enterprises by high taxes and frequent bond issues, and predicted that such fiscal measures would bring “free governments” to “the same state of servitude with all the nations that surround us.”134 Money is not wealth; to mint more of it than is needed for the convenience of commerce is to raise prices and hamper foreign trade. The false mercantile theory that still led European states to stress exports, block imports, and accumulate gold would deprive Europe of the international benefits derivable from the ability of each nation, through soil and climate and special skills, to produce specific goods at minimal cost and of optimal quality. He dared to pray,

not only as a man but as a British subject, … for the flourishing commerce of Germany, Spain, Italy, and even France itself. I am at least certain that Great Britain and all those nations would flourish more did their sovereigns and ministers adopt such enlarged and benevolent sentiments towards each other.… The increase of riches and commerce in any one nation, instead of hurting, commonly promotes the riches and commerce of all its neighbors.135

These ideas, perhaps influenced by the laissez-faire physiocrats, influenced their turn Hume’s friend Adam Smith, played a part in developing a British policy of free trade, and are finding fulfillment in Western Europe today.

6. History

In 1752, after a campaign of the orthodox party against him as an insolent infidel, Hume was elected keeper of the library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. Despite the modest salary of forty pounds a year, the appointment meant much to him, for it made him master of thirty thousand volumes. It was through access to this library that he was able to write his History of England. In 1748 he had confessed to a friend: “I have long had an intention, in my riper years, of composing some history.”136 He called history “the great mistress of wisdom”;137 he hoped to discover in it the causes of the rise and fall of nations; besides,

to see all the human race pass as it were in review before us, appearing in their true colors, without any of those disguises which, during their lifetime, so much perplexed the judgment of beholders—what spectacle can be imagined so magnificent, so various, so interesting? What amusement, either of the senses or of the imagination, can be compared with it?138

It is one of the glories of the eighteenth century that it produced within a generation three of the world’s greatest historians: Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon, all grounded in philosophy, seeking to reinterpret history in non-theological terms, and in the broadest perspective of the knowledge accumulated by their time. Gibbon never tired of praising Hume and acknowledging his influence; he valued Hume’s praise of the initial volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) above any other commendation. Did Hume in turn owe much to Voltaire? He had reached and formulated his own philosophy as debtor to the English deists rather than to the French skeptics; the Treatise of Human Nature antedated all the major works of Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu. But Hume’s History of England (1754–62) may have owed something to Voltaire’s Age of Louis XIV (1751), even to the Essai sur les moeurs, parts of which were printed in 1745 and 1755. All three of these historians agreed in exposing superstition, rejecting supernatural explanations, and identifying progress with the development of knowledge, manners, and arts.

Hume wrote his History backward. Its first volume (1754) covered the reigns of James I and Charles I—the years 1603–49; the second (1756) ran from 1649 to 1688; the third and fourth (1759), from 1485 to 1603; the fifth and sixth (1761), from the invasion of England by Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry VII in 1485.

The furor of criticism that fell upon the first volume surprised him. He believed that the domination of England by the Whigs since their importation of William III in 1688, and their fear of the Jacobite revolts of and 1745, had discolored English historiography with anti-Stuart passion; and he supposed that he was free from contrary predilections. “I thought that I was the only historian that had at once neglected present power, interest, and authority, and the cry of popular prejudice.”139 He forgot that he was a Scot, that Scotland was still secretly mourning her Bonnie Prince Charlie, and that the Scots, probably including Hume, had never forgiven England for killing the half-Scot Charles I and bringing in first a Dutchman and then a German to rule England, Scotland, and Wales. So, while admitting that Charles had overstretched the royal prerogative and deserved to be dethroned, he pictured Parliament as likewise overreaching its privilege and equally guilty of the Civil War. He admitted the right of the nation to depose a bad king, but he wished that no one had ever pushed that right to extremes; he feared the “fury and injustice of the people,” and felt that the execution of the “mild and benign” Charles had dangerously loosened popular habits of respect for government. He scorned the Puritans as “sanctified hypocrites,” who “polluted” their language with “mysterious jargon” and “interlaced their iniquities with prayers.”140 He dismissed the Commonwealth as a period of murderous piety, military tyranny, and social disorder, cured only by the Stuart Restoration. Voltaire, reviewing the History, thought Hume quite impartial:

Mr. Hume … is neither pro-Parliament nor royalist, neither Anglican nor Presbyterian; he is simply judicial.… The fury of parties has for a long time deprived England of a good historian as well as of a good government. What a Tory wrote was disowned by the Whigs, who in their turn were given the lie by the Tories.… But in the new historian we find a mind superior to his materials; he speaks of weaknesses, blunders, cruelties as a physician speaks of epidemic diseases.141

British critics did not agree with Voltaire. They did not complain that Hume had seldom consulted original sources, but (he recalled) he

was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation: English, Scotch, and Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, freethinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united in their rage against the man who had presumed to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I and the Earl of Strafford; and after the first ebullitions of their fury were over, what was still more mortifying, the book seemed to sink into oblivion. Mr. Millar told me that in a twelvemonth he sold only forty-five copies of it.142

He was so discouraged that for a time he thought of moving, as in his youth, to some provincial town in France, where he could live under an assumed name. However, France and England were at war, and Volume II was nearly finished; he resolved to persevere. His prejudice grew from being opposed; in revising Volume I he made “above a hundred alterations,” but, he tells us with all the puckish delight of a mountainous imp, “I have made all of them invariably to the Tory side.”143 Nevertheless the succeeding volumes had a good sale; the Tories now hailed him as their stout defender, and some Whigs admitted the charm of a style simple, clear, incisive, and direct, sometimes anticipating Gibbon’s judicial dignity. The account of the dramatic conflict between Henry II and Thomas à Becket rivals Gibbon’s narrative of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. The cumulative impression made by the six volumes raised Hume’s fame to its peak. In 1762 Boswell rated him as “the greatest writer in Britain”144—but Boswell was a Scot. In 1764 Voltaire modestly pronounced the book “perhaps the best history ever written in any language.”145 Gibbon and Macaulay have thrown it into the shade, and Macaulay has balanced its prejudice. We are not advised to read Hume’s History of England today; its record of the facts has long since been improved upon; but one reader, who began it as a task, found it an illumination and a delight.

7. The Old Philosopher

In 1755 a movement was begun by some Scottish divines to indict Hume before the General Assembly of the Kirk on a charge of infidelity. Meanwhile the “Scottish Enlightenment” had generated a liberal movement among the young ministers, and they were able to prevent any open condemnation of the philosopher-historian; but ecclesiastical attacks upon him continued, stinging him again into meditating flight. His opportunity came when (1763) the Earl of Hertford invited him as deputy secretary on an embassy to France, and secured for him a pension of £200 a year for life.

He had long since admired French intellect, had been influenced by the earlier writers of the French Illumination, and had corresponded with Montesquieu and Voltaire. His works had received far more praise in France than in England. The Comtesse de Boufflers fell in love with him through print, wrote ingratiatingly to him, came to London to see him; he escaped her. But when he reached Paris she took him in tow, made him the lion of her salon, and struggled to arouse a manly passion in his breast; she found him too stabilized for amours. He was feted in one gathering after another; “no feast is complete without him,” said Mme. d’Épinay. The aristocracy opened its arms to him; great ladies—even the ailing Pompadour—fluttered about him. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that Louis XIV never, in any three weeks of his life, suffered so much flattery.” He met Turgot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach, and Diderot; and Voltaire, from his distant throne at Ferney, called him “my St. David.” The Earl of Hertford was astonished to find that his secretary was far more sought after and bowed to than himself. Horace Walpole resented all this, and some of the philosophes, growing jealous, made fun of Hume’s corpulence. At one party, when Hume entered, d’Alembert, quoting the Fourth Gospel, remarked,“Et verbum caro factum est” (And the word was made flesh); whereupon a lady admirer is reported to have retorted, with incredible wit, “Et verbum caro factum est” (And the word was made lovable).146 No wonder Hume, harassed in Edinburgh, unpopular in London, wrote: “There is a real satisfaction in living at Paris, from the great number of sensible, knowing, and polite company with which that city abounds.”147

In November, 1765, a new British ambassador came, and Hume’s appointment ended. He returned to Edinburgh, but in 1767 he accepted the post of undersecretary at the Foreign Office in London. It was in this period that he brought Rousseau into England, and had famous trouble with him there; this story must wait. In August, 1769, aged fifty-eight, he retired finally to Edinburgh, being now “very opulent (for I possessed a revenue of £ 1,000 a year), healthy, and though somewhat stricken in years, with the prospect of enjoying long my ease, and of seeing the increase of my reputation.”148

His home on St. David Street became a salon, with Adam Smith, William Robertson, and other Scottish celebrities gathering about him as their acknowledged sovereign. They liked him not only for his mind. They saw that despite his iconoclastic reasoning he was amiable in discourse, cheerful of mood, moderate in controversy, tolerant of contrary views, not letting diversity of ideas abate the cordiality of his friendships. He seems (like Montaigne and Voltaire) to have valued friendship above love; “friendship is the chief joy of human life.”149 Yet he was popular with women, perhaps because he had no wife. He was a favorite guest in many homes; if his corpulence ruined the chairs,150 his wit atoned for his weight. He suggested a tax on obesity, but expected that some “divines might pretend that the Church was in danger”; he blessed the memory of Julius Caesar for having preferred fat men. “Upon the whole,” said Adam Smith, “I have always considered him … as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.”151

If one must seek flaws in so amiable a character, or blind spots in so brilliant a mind, the hardest to forgive are the references to the “hideous hypothesis” of the “atheist” Spinoza,152 which must have aimed at protective discoloration. Hume’s psychology was the most penetrating of his time, but it did not quite account for the sense of personal identity; one mental state does not merely recall another, it may recall it as mine. The replacement of “cause” with “regular sequence” has required only a change of phrase; “regular sequence” is enough for science and philosophy; and the History of England still seeks to explain events by causes.153 A skepticism that confessedly is abandoned in actual life must be wrong in theory, for practice is the final test of theory. And it is strange that while reducing cause to custom, and morality to sympathetic feeling, Hume gave so little weight to custom and feeling in his interpretation of religion, and showed such lack of sympathy for the persistent functions of religion in history. He was quite insensitive to the consolations of faith, the comfort it brought to souls shivering in the immensity of mystery, or the loneliness of grief, or the harsh fatality of defeat. The success of Wesley was history’s answer to Hume.

Despite these cavils, we acknowledge again the cutting edge of Hume’s catalytic mind. He was in himself the Enlightenment for the British Isles; there, except in political vision, he was essentially all that a dozen philosophes were for France. While feeling French influence deeply, he came to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and struck some of its most telling blows, before the philosophes—even before Voltaire—had bared their fangs against l’infâme; they owed as much to him as he to them. “I salute you,” wrote Diderot, “I love you, I revere you.”154 In England he ended deism by challenging the capacity of reason to defend even the simplest fundamentals of religious faith; he carried the war not merely to the walls but to the citadel of the ancient creed. Gibbon was the offspring of Hume in philosophy, and his transcending disciple in history. In Germany the Enquiry concerning the Human Understanding woke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” by apparently undermining all science, metaphysics, and theology through questioning the objectivity of cause. After reading the manuscript of Ha-mann’s translation of the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, Kant incorporated in the final preparation of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Hume’s criticisms of the argument from design, and accounted them unanswerable.155

“May it be my fate, for my own sake and for that of all my friends,” Hume wrote, “to stop short at the threshold of old age, and not to enter too far into that dismal region.”156 Fate took him at his word. Says his autobiography:

In the spring of 1775 I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits; insomuch that were I to name the period of my life which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardor as ever in my study, and the same gaiety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities.157

Diarrhea, the favorite vengeance of the gods upon the human great, conspired with internal hemorrhages to reduce him seventy pounds in that one year 1775. To the Comtesse de Boufflers he wrote: “I see death approaching gradually, without anxiety or regret. I salute you, with- great affection and regard, for the last time.”158 He went to take the waters at Bath, but they proved useless against chronic ulcerated colitis. His mind remained calm and clear.

He returned to Edinburgh July 4, 1776, prepared to die “as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.”159 When he read, in Lucan’s Dialogues of the Dead, the various excuses that the dying gave to Charon for not promptly boarding his boat to cross the Styx into eternity, he remarked that he could not find any excuse fit to his own case, except perhaps to plead: “Have a little patience, good Charon.… I have been endeavoring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.” But Charon answered: “You loitering rogue, that will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy that I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant!”160

Boswell, importunate and impertinent, insisted on putting the dying man to the question—did he not now believe in another life? Hume replied, “It is a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever.” But, persisted Boswell, surely the thought of a future state is pleasing? “Not at all,” answered Hume; “it is a very gloomy thought.” Women came and begged him to believe; he diverted them with humor.161

He died quietly, “free from much pain” (said his doctor), on August 25, 1776. Despite a heavy rain a large crowd attended his burial. A voice was heard to remark, “He was an atheist.” Another answered, “No matter, he was an honest man.”162


I. A descendant of that earl was in 1964 prime minister of Great Britain. “Home” was and is pronounced “Hume.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!