Hume Dissertation Sur Les Passions Text Edit
1. Issues from Hume's Predecessors
Hume inherits from his predecessors several controversies about ethics and political philosophy.
One is a question of moral epistemology: how do human beings become aware of, or acquire knowledge or belief about, moral good and evil, right and wrong, duty and obligation? Ethical theorists and theologians of the day held, variously, that moral good and evil are discovered: (a) by reason in some of its uses (Hobbes, Locke, Clarke), (b) by divine revelation (Filmer), (c) by conscience or reflection on one's (other) impulses (Butler), or (d) by a moral sense: an emotional responsiveness manifesting itself in approval or disapproval (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson). Hume sides with the moral sense theorists: we gain awareness of moral good and evil by experiencing the pleasure of approval and the uneasiness of disapproval when we contemplate a character trait or action from an imaginatively sensitive and unbiased point of view. Hume maintains against the rationalists that, although reason is needed to discover the facts of any concrete situation and the general social impact of a trait of character or a practice over time, reason alone is insufficient to yield a judgment that something is virtuous or vicious. In the last analysis, the facts as known must trigger a response by sentiment or “taste.”
A related but more metaphysical controversy would be stated thus today: what is the source or foundation of moral norms? In Hume's day this is the question what is the ground of moral obligation (as distinct from what is the faculty for acquiring moral knowledge or belief). Moral rationalists of the period such as Clarke (and in some moods, Hobbes and Locke) argue that moral standards or principles are requirements of reason — that is, that the very rationality of right actions is the ground of our obligation to perform them. Divine voluntarists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as Samuel Pufendorf claim that moral obligation or requirement, if not every sort of moral standard, is the product of God's will. The moral sense theorists (Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) and Butler see all requirements to pursue goodness and avoid evil as consequent upon human nature, which is so structured that a particular feature of our consciousness (whether moral sense or conscience) evaluates the rest. Hume sides with the moral sense theorists on this question: it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.
Closely connected with the issue of the foundations of moral norms is the question whether moral requirements are natural or conventional. Hobbes and Mandeville see them as conventional, and Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Locke, and others see them as natural. Hume mocks Mandeville's contention that the very concepts of vice and virtue are foisted on us by scheming politicians who plan thereby to manage us more easily. If there were nothing in our experience and no sentiments in our minds to give rise to the concept of virtue, Hume says, no lavish praise of heroes could generate such a concept. Nonetheless, Hume thinks natural impulses of humanity and dispositions to approve cannot entirely account for our virtue of justice; a correct analysis of that virtue reveals that mankind, an “inventive species,” has cooperatively constructed rules of property and promise. Thus he takes an intermediate position: some virtues are natural, and some are the products of convention.
Linked with these meta-ethical controversies is the dilemma of understanding the ethical life either as the “ancients” do, in terms of virtues and vices of character, or as the “moderns” do, primarily in terms of principles of duty or natural law. While even so law-oriented a thinker as Hobbes has a good deal to say about virtue, the ethical writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries predominantly favor a rule- or law-governed understanding of morals, giving priority to laws of nature or principles of duty. The chief exception here is the moral sense school, which advocates an analysis of the moral life more like that of the Greek and Hellenistic thinkers, in terms of settled traits of character — although they too find a place for principles in their ethics. Hume explicitly favors an ethic of character along “ancient” lines. Yet he insists on a role for rules of duty within the domain of what he calls the artificial virtues.
Hume's predecessors famously took opposing positions on whether human nature was essentially selfish or benevolent, some arguing that man was so dominated by self-interested motives that for moral requirements to govern us at all they must serve our interests in some way, and others arguing that uncorrupted human beings naturally care about the weal and woe of others and here morality gets its hold. Hume roundly criticizes Hobbes for his insistence on psychological egoism or something close to it, and for his dismal, violent picture of a state of nature. Yet Hume resists the view of Hutcheson that all moral principles can be reduced to our benevolence, in part because he doubts that benevolence can sufficiently overcome our perfectly normal acquisitiveness. According to Hume's observation, we are both selfish and humane. We possess greed, and also “limited generosity” — dispositions to kindness and liberality which are more powerfully directed toward kin and friends and less aroused by strangers. While for Hume the condition of humankind in the absence of organized society is not a war of all against all, neither is it the law-governed and highly cooperative domain imagined by Locke. It is a hypothetical condition in which we would care for our friends and cooperate with them, but in which self-interest and preference for friends over strangers would make any wider cooperation impossible. Hume's empirically-based thesis that we are fundamentally loving, parochial, and also selfish creatures underlies his political philosophy.
In the realm of politics, Hume again takes up an intermediate position. He objects both to the doctrine that a subject must passively obey his government no matter how tyrannical it is and to the Lockean thesis that citizens have a natural right to revolution whenever their rulers violate their contractual commitments to the people. He famously criticizes the notion that all political duties arise from an implicit contract that binds later generations who were not party to the original explicit agreement. Hume maintains that the duty to obey one's government has an independent origin that parallels that of promissory obligation: both are invented to enable people to live together successfully. On his view, human beings can create a society without government, ordered by conventional rules of ownership, transfer of property by consent, and promise-keeping. We superimpose government on such a pre-civil society when it grows large and prosperous; only then do we need to use political power to enforce these rules of justice in order to preserve social cooperation. So the duty of allegiance to government, far from depending on the duty to fulfill promises, provides needed assurance that promises of all sorts will be kept. The duty to submit to our rulers comes into being because reliable submission is necessary to preserve order. Particular governments are legitimate because of their usefulness in preserving society, not because those who wield power were chosen by God or received promises of obedience from the people. In a long-established civil society, whatever ruler or type of government happens to be in place and successfully maintaining order and justice is legitimate, and is owed allegiance. However, there is some legitimate recourse for victims of tyranny: the people may rightly overthrow any government that is so oppressive as not to provide the benefits (peace and security from injustice) for which governments are formed. In his political essays Hume certainly advocates the sort of constitution that protects the people's liberties, but the justification he offers is not individual natural rights or contractual obligations but the greater long-range good of society.
2. The Passions and the Will
According to Hume's theory of the mind, the passions (what we today would call emotions, feelings, and desires) are impressions rather than ideas (original, vivid and lively perceptions that are not copied from other perceptions). The direct passions, which include desire, aversion, hope, fear, grief, and joy, are those that “arise immediately from good or evil, from pain or pleasure” that we experience or think about in prospect (T 220.127.116.11, T 18.104.22.168); however he also groups with them some instincts of unknown origin, such as the bodily appetites and the desires that good come to those we love and harm to those we hate, which do not proceed from pain and pleasure but produce them (T 22.214.171.124). The indirect passions, primarily pride, humility (shame), love and hatred, are generated in a more complex way, but still one involving either the thought or experience of pain or pleasure. Intentional actions are caused by the direct passions (including the instincts). Of the indirect passions Hume says that pride, humility, love and hatred do not directly cause action; it is not clear whether he thinks this true of all the indirect passions.
Hume is traditionally regarded as a compatibilist about freedom and determinism, because of his discussion in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, where he argues that if we understand the doctrines of liberty and necessity properly, all mankind consistently believe both that human actions are the products of causal necessity and that they are free. In the Treatise, however, he explicitly repudiates the doctrine of liberty as “absurd... in one sense, and unintelligible in any other” (T 126.96.36.199). The two treatments, however, are entirely consistent. Hume construes necessity to mean the same as causal connection (or rather, intelligible causal connection), as he himself analyzes this notion in his own theory of causation: either the “constant union and conjunction of like objects,” or that together with “the inference of the mind from the one to the other” (ibid.). In both works he argues that just as we discover necessity (in this sense) to hold between the movements of material bodies, we discover just as much necessity to hold between human motives, character traits, and circumstances of action, on the one hand, and human behavior on the other. He says in the Treatise that the liberty of indifference is the negation of necessity in this sense; this is the notion of liberty that he there labels absurd, and identifies with chance or randomness (which can be no real power in nature) both in the Treatise and the first (epistemological) Enquiry. Human actions are not free in this sense. However, Hume allows in the Treatise that they are sometimes free in the sense of ‘liberty’ which is opposed to violence or constraint. This is the sense on which Hume focuses in EcHU: “a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will;” which everyone has “who is not a prisoner and in chains” (EcHU 8.1.23, Hume's emphasis). It is this that is entirely compatible with necessity in Hume's sense. So the positions in the two works are the same, although the polemical emphasis is so different — iconoclastic toward the libertarian view in the Treatise, and conciliatory toward “all mankind” in the first Enquiry.
Hume argues, as well, that the causal necessity of human actions is not only compatible with moral responsibility but requisite to it. To hold an agent morally responsible for a bad action, it is not enough that the action be morally reprehensible; we must impute the badness of the fleeting act to the enduring agent. Not all harmful or forbidden actions incur blame for the agent; those done by accident, for example, do not. It is only when, and because, the action's cause is some enduring passion or trait of character in the agent that she is to blame for it.
3. The Influencing Motives of the Will
According to Hume, intentional actions are the immediate product of passions, in particular the direct passions, including the instincts. He does not appear to allow that any other sort of mental state could, on its own, give rise to an intentional action except by producing a passion, though he does not argue for this. The motivating passions, in their turn, are produced in the mind by specific causes, as we see early in the Treatise where he first explains the distinction between impressions of sensation and impressions of reflection:
An impression first strikes upon the senses, and makes us perceive heat or cold, thirst or hunger, pleasure or pain, of some kind or other. Of this impression there is a copy taken by the mind, which remains after the impression ceases; and this we call an idea. This idea of pleasure or pain, when it returns upon the soul, produces the new impressions of desire and aversion, hope and fear, which may properly be called impressions of reflection, because derived from it. (T 188.8.131.52)
Thus ideas of pleasure or pain are the causes of these motivating passions. Not just any ideas of pleasure or pain give rise to motivating passions, however, but only ideas of those pleasures or pains we believe exist or will exist (T 184.108.40.206). More generally, the motivating passions of desire and aversion, hope and fear, joy and grief, and a few others are impressions produced by the occurrence in the mind either of a feeling of pleasure or pain, whether physical or psychological, or of a believed idea of pleasure or pain to come (T 220.127.116.11, T 18.104.22.168). These passions, together with the instincts (hunger, lust, and so on), are all the motivating passions that Hume discusses.
The will, Hume claims, is an immediate effect of pain or pleasure (T 22.214.171.124) and “exerts itself” when either pleasure or the absence of pain can be attained by any action of the mind or body (T 126.96.36.199). The will, however, is merely that impression we feel when we knowingly give rise to an action (T 188.8.131.52); so while Hume is not explicit (and perhaps not consistent) on this matter, it seems that he does not regard the will as itself a (separate) cause of action. The causes of action he describes are those he has already identified: the instincts and the other direct passions.
Hume famously sets himself in opposition to most moral philosophers, ancient and modern, who talk of the combat of passion and reason, and who urge human beings to regulate their actions by reason and to grant it dominion over their contrary passions. He claims to prove that “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will,” and that reason alone “can never oppose passion in the direction of the will” (T 413). His view is not, of course, that reason plays no role in the generation of action; he grants that reason provides information, in particular about means to our ends, which makes a difference to the direction of the will. His thesis is that reason alone cannot move us to action; the impulse to act itself must come from passion. The doctrine that reason alone is merely the “slave of the passions,” i.e., that reason pursues knowledge of abstract and causal relations solely in order to achieve passions' goals and provides no impulse of its own, is defended in the Treatise, but not in the second Enquiry, although in the latter he briefly asserts the doctrine without support. Hume gives three arguments in the Treatise for the motivational “inertia” of reason alone.
The first is a largely empirical argument based on the two rational functions of the understanding. The understanding discovers the abstract relations of ideas by demonstration (a process of comparing ideas and finding congruencies and incongruencies); and it also discovers the causal (and other probabilistic) relations of objects that are revealed in experience. Demonstrative reasoning is never the cause of any action by itself: it deals in ideas rather than realities, and we only find it useful in action when we have some purpose in view and intend to use its discoveries to inform our inferences about (and so enable us to manipulate) causes and effects. Probable or cause-and-effect reasoning does play a role in deciding what to do, but we see that it only functions as an auxiliary, and not on its own. When we anticipate pain or pleasure from some source, we feel aversion or propensity to that object and “are carry'd to avoid or embrace what will give us” the pain or pleasure (T 184.108.40.206). Our aversion or propensity makes us seek the causes of the expected source of pain or pleasure, and we use causal reasoning to discover what they are. Once we do, our impulse naturally extends itself to those causes, and we act to avoid or embrace them. Plainly the impulse to act does not arise from the reasoning but is only directed by it. “'Tis from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises...” (ibid.). Probable reasoning is merely the discovering of causal connections, and knowledge that A causes B never concerns us if we are indifferent to A and to B. Thus, neither demonstrative nor probable reasoning alone causes action.
The second argument is a corollary of the first. It concludes that reason alone cannot prevent action or resist passion in controlling the will. It takes as a premise the conclusion of the previous argument, that reason alone cannot produce any impulse to act. What is requisite to arrest a volition or retard the impulse of an existing passion is a contrary impulse. If reason alone were to resist a passion, it would need to give rise to such a contrary impulse. But could it do that, it would have an original influence on the will (a capacity to cause intentional action, when unopposed); which, according to the previous argument, it does not have. Therefore reason alone cannot resist any impulse to act. Therefore, whatever it may be in the mind that offers resistance to our passions, it cannot be reason of itself. Hume later proposes that when we restrain our imprudent or immoral impulses, the contrary impulse comes also from passion, but often from a passion so “calm” that we confuse it with reason.
The third or Representation argument is different in kind. Hume offers it initially only to show that a passion cannot be opposed by or be contradictory to “truth and reason”; later (T 220.127.116.11), he repeats and expands it to argue that volitions and actions as well cannot be so. It looks as if Hume is about to give another argument to show that reason alone cannot provide a force to resist passion or volition. Yet the Representation Argument is not empirical, and does not talk of forces or impulses. Passions (and volitions and actions), Hume says, do not refer to other entities; they are “original existence[s],” (T 18.104.22.168), “original facts and realities” (T22.214.171.124), not mental representations of other things. Since Hume here understands representation in terms of copying, he says a passion has no “representative quality, which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification” (T 126.96.36.199). Contradiction to truth and reason, however, consists in “the disagreement of ideas, consider'd as copies, with those objects, which they represent” (ibid.). Therefore, a passion (or volition or action), not having this feature, cannot be opposed by truth and reason. Hume says the argument, as applied to actions, proves two points. First, it shows that actions cannot be reasonable or unreasonable. Secondly, it shows that “reason cannot immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it” (T188.8.131.52). The point here is not merely the earlier, empirical observation that the rational activity of the understanding does not generate an impulse in the absence of an expectation of pain or pleasure. It is a conclusion about the relevance of ratiocination alone to action. Because passions, volitions, and actions have no content suitable for assessment by reason, reason cannot assess prospective motives or actions as rational or irrational, and therefore reason cannot, by so assessing them, create or obstruct them. By contrast, reason can assess a potential opinion as rational or irrational; and by endorsing the opinion, reason will (that is, we will) adopt it, while by contradicting the opinion, reason will destroy our credence in it. The Representation Argument, then, makes a point a priori about the relevance of the functions of the understanding to the generation of actions. Interpreters disagree about exactly how to parse this argument, whether it is sound, and its importance to Hume's project.
Hume allows that, speaking imprecisely, we often say a passion is unreasonable because it arises in response to a mistaken judgment or opinion, either that something (a source of pleasure or uneasiness) exists, or that it may be obtained or avoided by a certain means. In just these two cases a passion may be called unreasonable, but strictly speaking even here it is not the passion but the judgment that is so. Once we correct the mistaken judgment, “our passions yield to our reason without any opposition,” so there is still no combat of passion and reason (T 184.108.40.206). And there is no other instance of passion contrary to reason. Hume famously declaims, “'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledg'd lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than for the latter.” (220.127.116.11)
Interpreters disagree as to whether Hume is an instrumentalist or a skeptic about practical reason. Either way, Hume denies that reason can evaluate the ends people set themselves; only passions can select ends, and reason cannot evaluate passions. Instrumentalists understand the claim that reason is the slave of the passions to allow that reason not only discovers the causally efficacious means to our ends (a task of theoretical causal reasoning) but also requires us to take them. If Hume regards the failure to take the known means to one's end as contrary to reason, then on Hume's view reason has a genuinely practical aspect; it can indeed classify some actions as unreasonable. Skeptical interpreters read Hume, instead, as denying that reason imposes any requirements on action, even the requirement to take the known, available means to one's end. They point to the list of extreme actions that are not contrary to reason (such as preferring one's own lesser good to one's greater), and to the Representation Argument, which denies that any passions, volitions, or actions are of such a nature as to be contrary to reason. Hume never says explicitly that failing to take the known means to one's end is either contrary to reason or not contrary to reason (it is not one of the extreme cases in his list). The classificatory point in the Representation Argument favors the reading of Hume as a skeptic about practical reason; but that argument is absent from the moral Enquiry.
4. Ethical Anti-rationalism
Hume claims that moral distinctions are not derived from reason but rather from sentiment. His rejection of ethical rationalism is at least two-fold. Moral rationalists tend to say, first, that moral properties are discovered by reason, and also that what is morally good is in accord with reason (even that goodness consists in reasonableness) and what is morally evil is unreasonable. Hume rejects both theses. Some of his arguments are directed to one and some to the other thesis, but ambiguities in the text make it unclear which he means to attack in certain places.
In the Treatise he argues against the epistemic thesis (that we discover good and evil by reasoning) by showing that neither demonstrative nor probable/causal reasoning has vice and virtue as its proper objects. Demonstrative reasoning discovers relations of ideas, and vice and virtue are not identical with any of the four philosophical relations (resemblance, contrariety, degrees in quality, or proportions in quantity and number) whose presence can be demonstrated. Nor could they be identical with any other abstract relation; for such relations can also obtain between items such as trees that are incapable of moral good or evil. Furthermore, were moral vice and virtue discerned by demonstrative reasoning, such reasoning would have to reveal their inherent power to produce motives in all who discern them; but no causal connections can be discovered a priori. Causal reasoning, by contrast, does infer matters of fact pertaining to actions, in particular their causes and effects; but the vice of an action (its wickedness) is not found in its causes or effects, but is only apparent when we consult the sentiments of the observer. Therefore moral good and evil are not discovered by reason alone.
Hume also attempts in the Treatise to establish the other anti-rationalist thesis, that virtue is not the same as reasonableness and vice is not contrary to reason. He gives two arguments to this end. The first he says follows directly from the Representation Argument, whose conclusion was that passions, volitions, and actions can be neither reasonable nor unreasonable. This direct argument is quite short. Actions, he observes, can be laudable or blamable. Since actions cannot be reasonable or against reason, it follows that “[l]audable and blameable are not the same with reasonable or unreasonable” (T 458). The properties are not identical.
The second and more famous argument makes use of the conclusion defended earlier that reason alone cannot move us to act. As we have seen, reason alone “can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it” (T 458). Morality — this argument goes on — influences our passions and actions: we are often impelled to or deterred from action by our opinions of obligation or injustice. Therefore morals cannot be derived from reason alone. This argument is first introduced as showing it impossible “from reason alone... to distinguish betwixt moral good and evil” (T 457) — that is, it is billed as establishing the epistemic thesis. But Hume also says that, like the little direct argument above, it proves that “actions do not derive their merit from a conformity to reason, nor their blame from a contrariety to it” (T458): it is not the reasonableness of an action that makes it good, or its unreasonableness that makes it evil.
This argument about motives concludes that moral judgments or evaluations are not the products of reason alone. From this many draw the sweeping conclusion that for Hume moral evaluations are not beliefs or opinions of any kind, but lack all cognitive content. That is, they take the argument to show that Hume holds a non-propositional view of moral evaluations — and indeed, given his sentimentalism, that he is an emotivist: one who holds that moral judgments are meaningless ventings of emotion that can be neither true nor false. Such a reading should be met with caution, however. For Hume, to say that something is not a product of reason alone is not equivalent to saying it is not a truth-evaluable judgment or belief. Hume does not consider all our (propositional) beliefs and opinions to be products of reason; some arise directly from sense perception, for example, and some from sympathy. Also, perhaps there are (propositional) beliefs we acquire via probable reasoning but not by such reasoning alone. One possible example is the belief that some object is a cause of pleasure, a belief that depends upon prior impressions as well as probable reasoning.
Another concern about the famous argument about motives is how it could be sound. In order for it to yield its conclusion, it seems that its premise that morality (or a moral judgment) influences the will must be construed to say that moral evaluations alone move us to action, without the help of some (further) passion. This is a controversial claim and not one of which Hume offers any defense. The premise that reason alone cannot influence action is also difficult to interpret. It would seem, given his prior arguments for this claim (e.g. that the mere discovery of a causal relation does not produce an impulse to act), that Hume means by it not only that the faculty of reason or the activity of reasoning alone cannot move us, but also that the conclusions of such activity alone (such as recognition of a relation of ideas or belief in a causal connection) cannot produce a motive. Yet it is hard to see how Hume, given his theory of causation, can argue that no mental item of a certain type (such as a causal belief) can possibly cause motivating passion or action. Such a claim could not be supported a priori. And in Treatise 1.3.10, “Of the influence of belief,” he seems to assert very plainly that some causal beliefs do cause motivating passions, specifically beliefs about pleasure and pain in prospect. It is possible that Hume only means to say, in the premise that reason alone cannot influence action, that reasoning processes cannot generate actions as their logical conclusions; but that would introduce an equivocation, since he surely does not mean to say, in the other premise, that moral evaluations generate actions as their logical conclusions. The transition from premises to conclusion also seems to rely on a principle of transitivity (If A alone cannot produce X and B produces X, then A alone cannot produce B), which is doubtful but receives no defense.
Commentators have proposed various interpretations to avoid these difficulties. One approach is to construe ‘reason’ as the name of a process or activity, the comparing of ideas (reasoning), and to construe ‘morals’ as Hume uses it in this argument to mean the activity of moral discrimination (making a moral distinction). If we understand the terms this way, the argument can be read not as showing that the faculty of reason (or the beliefs it generates) cannot cause us to make moral judgments, but rather as showing that the reasoning process (comparing ideas) is distinct from the process of moral discrimination. This interpretation does not rely on an assumption about the transitivity of causation and is consistent with Hume's theory of causation.
5. Is and ought
Hume famously closes the section of the Treatise that argues against moral rationalism by observing that other systems of moral philosophy, proceeding in the ordinary way of reasoning, at some point make an unremarked transition from premises whose parts are linked only by “is” to conclusions whose parts are linked by “ought” (expressing a new relation) — a deduction that seems to Hume “altogether inconceivable” (T18.104.22.168). Attention to this transition would “subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason” (ibid.).
Few passages in Hume's work have generated more interpretive controversy.
According to the dominant twentieth-century interpretation, Hume says here that no ought-judgment may be correctly inferred from a set of premises expressed only in terms of ‘is,’ and the vulgar systems of morality commit this logical fallacy. This is usually thought to mean something much more general: that no ethical or indeed evaluative conclusion whatsoever may be validly inferred from any set of purely factual premises. A number of present-day philosophers, including R. M. Hare, endorse this putative thesis of logic, calling it “Hume's Law.” (As Francis Snare observes, on this reading Hume must simply assume that no purely factual propositions are themselves evaluative, as he does not argue for this.) Some interpreters think Hume commits himself here to a non-propositional or noncognitivist view of moral judgment — the view that moral judgments do not state facts and are not truth-evaluable. (If Hume has already used the famous argument about the motivational influence of morals to establish noncognitivism, then the is/ought paragraph may merely draw out a trivial consequence of it. If moral evaluations are merely expressions of feeling without propositional content, then of course they cannot be inferred from any propositional premises.) Some see the paragraph as denying ethical realism, excluding values from the domain of facts.
Other interpreters — the more cognitivist ones — see the paragraph about ‘is' and ‘ought’ as doing none of the above. Some read it as simply providing further support for Hume's extensive argument that moral properties are not discernible by demonstrative reason, leaving open whether ethical evaluations may be conclusions of cogent probable arguments. Others interpret it as making a point about the original discovery of virtue and vice, which must involve the use of sentiment. On this view, one cannot make the initial discovery of moral properties by inference from nonmoral premises using reason alone; rather, one requires some input from sentiment. It is not simply by reasoning from the abstract and causal relations one has discovered that one comes to have the ideas of virtue and vice; one must respond to such information with feelings of approval and disapproval. Note that on this reading it is compatible with the is/ought paragraph that once a person has the moral concepts as the result of prior experience of the moral sentiments, he or she may reach some particular moral conclusions by inference from causal, factual premises (stated in terms of ‘is’) about the effects of character traits on the sentiments of observers. They point out that Hume himself makes such inferences frequently in his writings.
6. The Nature of Moral Judgment
On Hume's view, what is a moral evaluation? Four main interpretations have significant textual support. First, as we have seen, the nonpropositional view says that for Hume a moral evaluation does not express any proposition or state any fact; either it gives vent to a feeling, or it is itself a feeling (Flew, Blackburn, Snare, Bricke). (A more refined form of this interpretation allows that moral evaluations have some propositional content, but claims that for Hume their essential feature, as evaluations, is non-propositional.) The subjective description view, by contrast, says that for Hume moral evaluations describe the feelings of the spectator, or the feelings a spectator would have were she to contemplate the trait or action from the common point of view. Often grouped with the latter view is the third, dispositional interpretation, which understands moral evaluations as factual judgments to the effect that the evaluated trait or action is so constituted as to cause feelings of approval or disapproval in a (suitably characterized) spectator (Mackie, in one of his proposals). On the dispositional view, in saying some trait is good we attribute to the trait the dispositional property of being such as to elicit approval. A fourth interpretation distinguishes two psychological states that might be called a moral evaluation: an occurrent feeling of approval or disapproval (which is not truth-apt), and a moral belief or judgment that is propositional. Versions of this fourth interpretation differ in what they take to be the content of that latter mental state. One version says that the moral judgments, as distinct from the moral feelings, are factual judgments about the moral sentiments (Capaldi). A distinct version, the moral sensing view, treats the moral beliefs as ideas copied from the impressions of approval or disapproval that represent a trait of character or an action as having whatever quality it is that one experiences in feeling the moral sentiment (Cohon). This last view emphasizes Hume's claim that moral good and evil are like heat, cold, and colors as understood in “modern philosophy,” which are experienced directly by sensation, but about which we form beliefs.
7. Sympathy, and the Nature and Origin of the Moral Sentiments
Our moral evaluations of persons and their character traits, on Hume's positive view, arise from our sentiments. The virtues and vices are those traits the disinterested contemplation of which produces approval and disapproval, respectively, in whoever contemplates the trait, whether the trait's possessor or another. These moral sentiments are emotions (in the present-day sense of that term) with a unique phenomenological quality, and also with a special set of causes. They are caused by contemplating the person or action to be evaluated without regard to our self-interest, and from a common or general perspective that compensates for certain likely distortions in the observer's sympathies, as explained in Section 8. Approval (approbation) is a pleasure, and disapproval (disapprobation) a pain or uneasiness. The moral sentiments are typically calm rather than violent, although they can be intensified as a result of our awareness of the moral responses of others. They are types of pleasure and uneasiness that are associated with the passions of pride and humility, love and hatred: when we feel moral approval for another we tend to love or esteem her, and when we approve a trait of our own we are proud of it. Some interpreters analyze the moral sentiments as themselves forms of these four passions; others argue that Hume's moral sentiments are pleasures and pains that tend to cause the latter passions. We distinguish which traits are virtuous and which are vicious by means of our feelings of approval and disapproval toward the traits; our approval of actions is derived from approval of the traits we suppose to have given rise to them. We can determine, by observing the various sorts of traits toward which we feel approval, that every such trait — every virtue — has at least one of the following four characteristics: it is either immediately agreeable to the person who has it or to others, or it is useful (advantageous over the longer term) to its possessor or to others. Vices prove to have the parallel features: they are either immediately disagreeable or disadvantageous either to the person who has them or to others. These are not definitions of ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’ but empirical generalizations about the traits as first identified by their effects on the moral sentiments.
In the Treatise Hume details the causes of the moral sentiments, in doing so explaining why agreeable and advantageous traits prove to be the ones that generate approval. He claims that the sentiments of moral approval and disapproval are caused by some of the operations of sympathy, which is not a feeling but rather a psychological mechanism that enables one person to receive by communication the sentiments of another (more or less what we would call empathy today).
Sympathy in general operates as follows. First, observation of the effects of another person's “affection” and its outward expressions in his “countenance and conversation” conveys the idea of his passion into my mind. So does observing the typical cause of a passion: if we contemplate the instruments laid out for another's surgery, even someone unknown to us, they evoke ideas in us of fear and pain. Now, we at all times possess a maximally vivid and forceful impression of ourselves. According to Hume's associationism, vivacity of one perception is automatically transferred to those others that are related to it by resemblance, contiguity, and cause and effect. The relations relevant here are primarily resemblance and contiguity. All human beings, regardless of their differences, are similar in bodily structure and in the types of passions they possess and their causes. The person I observe or consider may further resemble me in more specific shared features such as character or nationality. Because of the resemblance and my contiguity to the observed person, the idea of his passion is associated in my mind with my impression of myself, and acquires great vivacity from it. The sole difference between an idea and an impression is the degree of liveliness or vivacity each possesses. So great is this acquired vivacity that the idea of his passion in my mind becomes an impression, and I actually experience the passion. When I come to share in the affections of strangers, and feel pleasure because they are pleased, as I do when I experience an aesthetic enjoyment of a well-designed ship or fertile field that is not my own, that pleasure of mine can only be caused by sympathy (T 2.2.2–8, 22.214.171.124–8). Similarly, Hume observes, when we reflect upon a character or mental quality knowing its tendency either to the benefit or enjoyment of strangers or to their harm or uneasiness, we come to feel enjoyment when the trait is beneficial or agreeable to those strangers, and uneasiness when the trait is harmful or disagreeable to them. This reaction of ours to the tendency of a character trait to affect the sentiments of those with whom we have no special affectionate ties can only be explained by sympathy.
We greatly approve the artificial virtues (justice with respect to property, allegiance to government, and dispositions to obey the laws of nations and the rules of modesty and good manners), which (Hume argues) are inventions contrived solely for the interest of society. We approve them in all times and places, even where our own interest is not at stake, solely for their tendency to benefit the whole society of that time or place. This instance confirms that “the reflecting on the tendency of characters and mental qualities, is sufficient to give us the sentiments of approbation and blame” (T 126.96.36.199). The sympathy-generated pleasure, then, is the moral approbation we feel toward these traits of character. We find the character traits — the causes — agreeable because they are the means to ends we find agreeable as a result of sympathy. Hume extends this analysis to the approval of most of the natural virtues. Those traits of which we approve naturally (without any social contrivance), such as beneficence, clemency, and moderation, also tend to the good of individuals or all of society. So our approval of those can be explained in precisely the same way, via sympathy with the pleasure of those who receive benefit. And since the imagination is more struck by what is particular than by what is general, manifestations of the natural virtues, which directly benefit any individual to whom they are directed, are even more apt to give pleasure via sympathy than are the manifestations of justice, which may harm identifiable individuals in some cases though they contribute to a pattern of action beneficial to society as a whole (T 188.8.131.52).
8. The Common Point of View
As we saw, the moral sentiments are produced by sympathy with those affected by a trait or action. Such sympathetically-acquired feelings are distinct from our self-interested responses, and an individual of discernment learns to distinguish her moral sentiments (which are triggered by contemplating another's character trait “in general”) from the pleasure or uneasiness she may feel when responding to a trait with reference to her “particular interest,” for example when another's strength of character makes him a formidable opponent (T 184.108.40.206).
However, the sympathetic transmission of sentiments can vary in effectiveness depending upon the degree of resemblance and contiguity between the observer and the person with whom he sympathizes. I receive the sentiments of someone very much like me or very close to me in time or place far more strongly than I do those of someone unlike me or more remote from me in location or in history. Yet the moral assessments we make do not vary depending upon whether the person we evaluate resembles us in language, sex, or temperament, or is near or far. Indeed, our moral assessments of people remain stable even though our position with respect to them changes over time. Furthermore, sympathy only brings us people's actual sentiments or what we believe to be their actual sentiments; yet we feel moral approval of character traits that we know produce no real happiness for anyone, because, for example, their possessor is isolated in a prison. To handle these objections to the sympathy theory, and to explain more generally how, on a sentiment-based ethical theory, moral evaluations made by one individual at different times and many individuals in a community tend to be fairly uniform, Hume claims that people do not make their moral judgments from their own individual points of view, but instead select “some common point of view, from which they might survey their object, and which might cause it to appear the same to all of them” (T 220.127.116.11). At least with respect to natural virtues and vices, this common point of view is composed of the intimate perspectives of the various individuals who have direct interactions with the person being evaluated. To make a moral evaluation I must sympathize with each of these persons in their dealings with the subject of my evaluation; the blame or praise I give as a result of this imaginative exercise is my genuine moral assessment of the subject's character. In that assessment I also overlook the small external accidents of fortune that might render an individual's trait ineffectual, and respond to traits that render a character typically “fitted to be beneficial to society,” even if circumstances do not permit it to cause that benefit (T 18.104.22.168). Thus I acquire by sympathy the pleasure or uneasiness that I imagine people would feel were the trait able to operate as it ordinarily does. “Experience soon teaches us this method of correcting our sentiments, or at least, of correcting our language, where the sentiments are more stubborn and inalterable” (T 22.214.171.124).
9. Artificial and Natural Virtues
The standard object of moral evaluation is a “quality of mind,” a character trait. (As we have seen, for Hume evaluation of an action is derived from evaluation of the inner quality we suppose to have given rise to it.) The typical moral judgment is that some trait, such as a particular person's benevolence or laziness, is a virtue or a vice. A character trait, for Hume, is a psychological disposition consisting of a tendency to feel a certain sentiment or combination of sentiments, ones that often move their possessor to action. We reach a moral judgment by feeling approval or disapproval upon contemplating someone's trait in a disinterested way from the common point of view. So moral approval is a favorable sentiment in the observer elicited by the observed person's disposition to have certain motivating sentiments. Thus moral approval is a sentiment that is directed toward sentiments, or the dispositions to have them.
In the Treatise Hume emphasizes that “our sense of every kind of virtue is not natural; but … there are some virtues, that produce pleasure and approbation by means of an artifice or contrivance, which arises from the circumstances and necessities of mankind” (T 126.96.36.199). He divides the virtues into those that are natural — in that our approval of them does not depend upon any cultural inventions or jointly-made social rules — and those that are artificial (dependent both for their existence as character traits and for their ethical merit on the presence of conventional rules for the common good), and he gives separate accounts of the two kinds. The traits he calls natural virtues are more refined and completed forms of those human sentiments we could expect to find even in people who belonged to no society but cooperated only within small familial groups. The traits he calls artificial virtues are the ones we need for successful impersonal cooperation; our natural sentiments are too partial to give rise to these without intervention. In the Treatise Hume includes among the artificial virtues honesty with respect to property (which he often calls equity or “justice,” though it is a strangely narrow use of the term), fidelity to promises (sometimes also listed under “justice”), allegiance to one's government, conformity to the laws of nations (for princes), chastity (refraining from non-marital sex) and modesty (both primarily for women and girls), and good manners. A great number of individual character traits are listed as natural virtues, but the main types discussed in detail are greatness of mind (“a hearty pride, or self-esteem, if well-concealed and well-founded,” T 188.8.131.52), goodness or benevolence (an umbrella category covering generosity, gratitude, friendship, and more), and such natural abilities as prudence and wit, which, Hume argues, have a reasonably good claim to be included under the title moral virtue, though traditionally they are not. Hume does not explicitly draw a distinction between artificial and natural virtues in the moral Enquiry.
In the Treatise Hume argues in turn that the virtues of material honesty and of faithfulness to promises and contracts are artificial, not natural virtues. Both arguments fall into at least two stages: one to show that if we suppose the given character trait to exist and to win our approval without help from any cooperative social arrangement, paradoxes arise; and another, longer stage to explain how the relevant convention might have come into being and to refute those with a different genetic story. He also explains the social construction of the other artificial virtues and what social good they serve.
10. Honesty with respect to Property
10.1 The Circle
Hume offers a rather cryptic argument to show that our approval of material honesty must be the product of collaborative human effort (convention). When we approve an action, he says, we regard it merely as the sign of the motivating passion in the agent's “mind and temper” that produced it; our evaluation of the action is derived from our assessment of this inner motive. Therefore all actions deemed virtuous derive their goodness only from virtuous motives — motives we approve. It follows from this that the motive that originally “bestows a merit on any action” can never be moral approval of that action (awareness of its virtue), but must be a non-moral, motivating psychological state — that is, a state distinct from the “regard to the virtue” of an action (moral approval or disapproval) (T 184.108.40.206). For if the virtue-bestowing motive of the action were the agent's sense that the act would be virtuous to do — if that were why he did it, and why we approved it — then we would be reasoning in a vicious circle: we would approve of the action derivatively, because we approve of the agent's motive, and this motive would consist of approval of the action, which can only be based on approval of a motive... The basis of our approval could not be specified. For every virtue, therefore, there must be some non-moral motive that characteristically motivates actions expressive of that virtue, which motive, by eliciting our approval, makes the actions so motivated virtuous. The virtue of an action of this species would be established by its being done from this non-moral motive, and only then could an agent also or alternatively be moved so to act by her derivative regard to the virtue of the act. However, Hume observes that there is no morally approved (and so virtue-bestowing), non-moral motive of honest action. The only approved, reliable motive that we can find for acts of “equity” is a moral one, the sense of virtue or “regard to the honesty” of the actions. The honest individual repays a loan not (merely) out of self-interest or concern for the well-being of the lender (who may be a “profligate debauchee” who will reap only harm from his possessions), but from a “regard to justice, and abhorrence of villainy and knavery” (T 220.127.116.11, 13). This, however, is “evident sophistry and reasoning in a circle…” Now nature cannot have “establish'd a sophistry, and render'd it necessary and unavoidable…”; therefore, “the sense of justice and injustice is not deriv'd from nature, but arises artificially… from education, and human conventions” (T 18.104.22.168). Whatever, exactly, the logic of this argument is supposed to be, Hume's intent is to show that if we imagine equity to be a natural virtue we commit ourselves to a sophistry, and therefore honesty is instead man-made.
Hume offers an account of the genesis of the social convention that on his view creates honesty with respect to property, and this is meant to cope in some way with the circularity he identifies. How it does so is a matter of interpretive controversy, as we will see.
10.2 The Origin of Material Honesty
Hume next poses two questions about the rules of ownership of property and the associated virtue of material honesty: what is the artifice by which human beings create them, and why do we attribute moral goodness and evil to the observance and neglect of these rules?
By nature human beings have many desires but are individually ill-equipped with strength, natural weapons, or natural skills to satisfy them. We can remedy these natural defects by means of social cooperation: combination of strength, division of labor, and mutual aid in times of individual weakness. It occurs to people to form a society as a consequence of their experience with the small family groups into which they are born, groups united initially by sexual attraction and familial love, but in time demonstrating the many practical advantages of working together with others. However, in the conditions of moderate scarcity in which we find ourselves, and given the portable nature of the goods we desire, our untrammeled greed and naturally “confined generosity” (generosity to those dear to us in preference to others) tends to create conflict or undermine cooperation, destroying collaborative arrangements among people who are not united by ties of affection, and leaving us all materially poor. No remedy for this natural partiality is to be found in “our natural uncultivated ideas of morality” (T 22.214.171.124); an invention is needed.
Hume argues that we create the rules of ownership of property originally in order to satisfy our avidity for possessions for ourselves and our loved ones, by linking material goods more securely to particular individuals so as to avoid conflict. Within small groups of cooperators, individuals signal to one another a willingness to conform to a simple rule: to refrain from the material goods others come to possess by labor or good fortune, provided those others will observe the same restraint toward them. (This rule will in time require more detail: specific rules determining who may enjoy which goods initially and how goods may be transferred.) This signalling is not a promise (which cannot occur without another, similar convention), but an expression of conditional intention. The usefulness of such a custom is so obvious that others will soon catch on and express a similar intention, and the rest will fall in line. The convention develops tacitly, as do conventions of language and money. When an individual within such a small society violates this rule, the others are aware of it and exclude the offender from their cooperative activities. Once the convention is in place, justice (of this sort) is defined as conformity with the convention, injustice as violation of it; indeed, the convention defines property rights, ownership, financial obligation, theft, and related concepts, which had no application before the convention was introduced. So useful and obvious is this invention that human beings would not live for long in isolated family groups or in fluctuating larger groups with unstable possession of goods; their ingenuity would quickly enable them to invent property, so as to reap the substantial economic benefits of cooperation in larger groups in which there would be reliable possession of the product, and they would thus better satisfy their powerful natural greed by regulating it with rules of justice.
Greed, and more broadly, self-interest, is the motive for inventing property; but we need a further explanation why we think of justice (adherence to the rules of ownership) as virtuous, and injustice (their violation) as vicious. Hume accounts for the moralization of property as follows. As our society grows larger, we may cease to see our own property violations as a threat to the continued existence of a stable economic community, and this reduces our incentive to conform. But when we consider violations by others, we partake by sympathy in the uneasiness these violations cause to their victims and all of society. Such disinterested uneasiness, and the concomitant pleasure we feel on contemplating the public benefits of adherence, are instances of moral disapproval and approval. We extend these feelings to our own behavior as a result of general rules. This process is “forwarded by the artifice of politicians” (T 126.96.36.199), who assist nature by cultivating widespread esteem for justice and abhorrence of injustice in order to govern more easily. Private education assists in this further artifice. Thus material honesty becomes a virtue.
10.3 The Motive of Honest Actions
Does this account resolve the circularity problem? Is there any non-moral motive of honest action? Some interpreters say yes, it is greed redirected, which removes the circle. But this presents two difficulties: first, our greed is not in fact best satisfied by just action in every case, and second, Hume denies that this motive is approved. Some interpret Hume as coping with the first difficulty by supposing that politicians and parents deceive us into thinking, falsely, that every individual just act advances the interests of the agent; or they claim that Hume himself mistakenly thought so, at least in the Treatise (see Baron, Haakonssen, and Gauthier). Others claim that Hume identifies a non-moral motive of honest action (albeit an artificial one) other than redirected greed, such as a disposition to treat the rules of justice as themselves reason-giving (Darwall) or having a policy of conforming to the rules of justice as a system (Garrett). Still others say there is no non-moral motive of honest action, and Hume escapes from the circle by relaxing this ostensibly universal requirement on virtuous types of behavior, limiting it to the naturally virtuous kinds. These interpreters either claim that there is no particular motive needed to evoke approval for conformity to the rules of property — mere behavior is enough (Mackie) — or that we approve of a motivating form of the moral sentiment itself, the sense of duty (Cohon).
Hume's genetic account of property is striking for its lack of patriarchal assumptions about the family, its explicit denial that the creation of ownership does or can depend on any promise or contract, and its concept of convention as an informal practice of mutual compromise for mutual advantage that arises incrementally and entirely informally, without the use of central authority or force.
11. Fidelity to Promises
Fidelity is the virtue of being disposed to keep promises and contracts. Hume has in mind promises made “at arm's length” that parties undertake to promote their own interest, not affectionate exchanges of favors between friends. While he identifies the same circularity puzzle about the approved motive of fidelity that he tackles at length in connection with honesty, in the case of fidelity he concentrates on a different conundrum that arises with the misguided attempt to analyze fidelity as a non-conventional (natural) virtue. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, who help themselves to the concept of a promise or contract in their imagined state of nature, Hume argues that the performative utterance “I promise” would be unintelligible in the absence of background social conventions, and that the moral obligation of a promise is dependent upon such conventions as well.
Suppose the practice of giving and receiving promises did not depend on a socially-defined convention. In that case, what could we mean by the utterances we use to make them, and what would be the origin of our obligation to fulfill them? Where the words are used (uncharacteristically) in a way that does not purport to reveal the agent's will, we do not understand a promise as really being made; we only take a speaker to have promised, and so to be bound to perform, if he understands the words he uses, in particular as purporting to obligate him. Thus for effective use there must be some act of the speaker's mind expressed by the special phrase “I promise” and its synonyms, and our moral obligation results from this act of the mind. (This seems to be Hobbes's assumption in Leviathan, where the implicit signs of covenant — as distinct from the explicit ones — are clear signs of the person's will.) The requisite mental act or mental state, though, could not be one of mere desire or resolution to act, since it does not follow from our desiring or resolving to act that we are morally obligated to do so; nor could it be the volition to act, since that does not come into being ahead of time when we promise, but only when the time comes to act. And of course, one can promise successfully (incur obligation by promising) even though one has no intention to perform; so the mental act requisite to obligation is not the intention to perform. The only likely act of mind that might be expressed in a promise is a mental act of willing to be obligated to perform the promised action, as this conforms to our common view that we bind ourselves by choosing to be bound.
But, Hume argues, it is absurd to think that one can actually bring an obligation into existence by willing to be obligated. What makes an action obligatory is that its omission is disapproved by unbiased observers. But no act of will within an agent can cause a previously neutral act to become one that engenders moral disapproval in observers (even in the agent herself). Sentiments are not subject to such voluntary control. Even on a moral rationalist view the thesis would be absurd: to create a new obligation would be to change the abstract relations in which actions and persons stand to one another, and one cannot do this by performing in one's own mind an act of willing such a relation to exist. Thus, there is no such act of the mind. Even if people in their natural (pre-conventional) condition “cou'd perceive each other's thoughts by intuition,” they could not understand one another to bind themselves by any act of promising, and could not be obligated thereby. Since the necessary condition for a natural obligation of promises cannot be fulfilled, we may conclude that this obligation is instead the product of group invention to serve the interests of society.
Promises are invented in order to build upon the advantages afforded by property. Although the invention of mere ownership suffices to make possession stable and to introduce transfer by consent, as described so far it only permits simultaneous swapping of visible commodities. Great advantages could be gained by all if people could be counted on to provide goods or services later for benefits given now, or exchange goods that are distant or described generically. But for people without the capacity to obligate themselves to future action, such exchanges would depend upon one party performing first (presumably from self-interest) and the second performing in his turn out of gratitude alone; and since that motive cannot generally be relied on in self-interested transactions, people would rarely provide one another benefits of these kinds. However, we can devise better ways to satisfy our appetites “in an oblique and artificial manner...” (T 188.8.131.52). First, people can easily recognize that additional kinds of mutual exchanges would serve their interests. They need only express this interest to one another in order to encourage everyone to invent and to keep such agreements. They devise a form of words to mark these new sorts of exchanges (and distinguish them from the generous reciprocal acts of friendship and gratitude). When someone utters this form of words, he is understood to express a resolution to do the action in question, and he “subjects himself to the penalty of never being trusted again in case of failure” (T 184.108.40.206), a penalty made possible by the practice of the group, who enforce the requirement to keep promises by the simple expedient of refusing to contract with those whose word cannot be trusted . This “concert or convention” (ibid.) alters human motives to act. One is moved by self-interest to give the promising sign (in order to obtain the other party's cooperation), and once one has given it, self-interest demands that one do what one promised to do so as to insure that people will exchange promises with one in the future. Some interpreters say that this enlightened self-interest remains the only motive for keeping one's promise, once the practice of promising has been created. But Hume says the sentiment of morals comes to play the same role in promise-keeping that it does in the development of honesty with respect to property (T 220.127.116.11); so there is evidence he thinks the moral sentiment not only becomes “annex'd” to promise-keeping but further motivates it. In larger, more anonymous communities, a further incentive is needed besides the fear of exclusion; and a sentiment of moral approval of promise-keeping arises as the result of sympathy with all who benefit from the practice, aided by a “second artifice,” the well-meaning psychological manipulation of the people by parents and politicians, which yields a near-universal admiration of fidelity and shame at breaking one's word (T 18.104.22.168). This may provide a moral motive for promise-keeping even in anonymous transactions.
12. Allegiance to Government
A small society can maintain a subsistence-level economy without any dominion of some people over others, relying entirely on voluntary compliance with conventions of ownership, transfer of goods, and keeping of agreements, and relying on exclusion as the sole means of enforcement. But an increase in population and/or material productivity, Hume thinks, tends to stimulate a destabilizing rate of defection from the rules: more luxury goods greatly increase the temptation to act unjustly, and more anonymous transactions make it seem likely that one will get away with it. Though people are aware that injustice is destructive of social cooperation and so ultimately detrimental to their own interests, this knowledge will not enable them to resist such strong temptation, because of an inherent human weakness: we are more powerfully drawn to a near-term good even when we know we will pay for it with the loss of a greater long-term good. This creates the need for government to enforce the rules of property and promise (the “laws of nature,” as Hume sometimes rather ironically calls them, since on his view they are not natural). This is the reason for the invention of government. Once in power, rulers can also make legitimate use of their authority to resolve disputes over just what the rules of justice require in particular cases, and to carry out projects for the common good such as building roads and dredging harbors.
Hume thinks it unnecessary to prove that allegiance to government is the product of convention and not mere nature, since governments are obviously social creations. But he does need to explain the creation of governments and how they solve the problem he describes. He speculates that people who are unaccustomed to subordination in daily life might draw the idea for government from their experience of wars with other societies, when they must appoint a temporary commander. To overcome the preference for immediate gain over long-term security, the people will need to arrange social circumstances so that the conformity to justice is in people's immediate interest. This cannot be done with respect to all the people, but it can be done for a few. So the people select magistrates (judges, kings, and the like) and so position them (presumably with respect to rank and wealth) that it will be in those magistrates' immediate interest not only to obey but to enforce the rules of justice throughout society. Hume is vague about the incentives of the magistrates, but apparently they are so pleased with their own share of wealth and status that they are not tempted by the possessions of others; and since they are “indifferent… to the greatest part of the state,” they have no incentive to assist anyone in any crimes (T22.214.171.124). Thus the magistrates' most immediate interest lies in preserving their own status and wealth by protecting society. (Perhaps more directly, they stand to lose their favored status if they are found by the people not to enforce the rules of justice.)
It is possible for the people to agree to appoint magistrates in spite of the incurable human attraction to the proximal good even when smaller than a remote good, because this predilection only takes effect when the lesser good is immediately at hand. When considering two future goods, people always prefer the greater, and make decisions accordingly. So looking to the future, people can decide now to empower magistrates to force them to conform to the rules of justice in the time to come so as to preserve society. When the time comes to obey and individuals are tempted to violate the rules, the long-range threat this poses to society will not move them to desist, but the immediate efforts of the magistrates will.
We initially obey our magistrates from self-interest. But once government is instituted, we come to have a moral obligation to obey our governors; this is another artificial duty that needs to be explained. On Hume's view it is independent of the obligation of promises. We are bound to our promises and to obey the magistrates' commands on parallel grounds: because both kinds of conformity are so manifestly beneficial for all. Governors merely insure that the rules of justice are generally obeyed in the sort of society where purely voluntary conventions would otherwise break down. As in the case of fidelity to promises, the character trait of allegiance to our governors generates sympathy with its beneficiaries throughout society, making us approve the trait as a virtue.
The duty of allegiance to our present governors does not depend upon their or their ancestors' divine right to govern, Hume says, nor on any promise we have made to them or any contract that transfers rights to them, but rather on the general social value of having a government. Rulers thus need not be chosen by the people in order to be legitimate. Consequently, who is the ruler will often be a matter of salience and imaginative association; and it will be no ground for legitimate rebellion that a ruler was selected arbitrarily. Rulers identified by long possession of authority, present possession, conquest, succession, or positive law will be suitably salient and so legitimate, provided their rule tends to the common good. Although governments exist to serve the interests of their people, changing magistrates and forms of government for the sake of small advantages to the public would yield disorder and upheaval, defeating the purpose of government; so our duty of allegiance forbids this. A government that maintains conditions preferable to what they would be without it retains its legitimacy and may not rightly be overthrown. But rebellion against a cruel tyranny is no violation of our duty of allegiance, and may rightly be undertaken.
Hume does advocate some forms of government as being preferable to others, particularly in his Essays. Governments structured by laws are superior to those controlled by the edicts of rulers or ruling bodies (“That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science”). Representative democracy is superior to direct democracy, and “free” (popular) governments are more hospitable to trade than “absolute” governments (ibid.). Hume speculates that a perfect government would be a representative democracy of property-holders with division of powers and some features of federalism (“Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”). He defends his preferences by arguing that certain forms of government are less prone to corruption, faction (with the concomitant threat of civil war), and oppressive treatment of the people than others; that is, they are more likely to enforce the rules of justice, adjudicate fairly, and encourage peace and prosperity.
Hume famously criticizes the social contract theory of political obligation. According to his own theory, our duty to obey our governors is not reducible to an instance of our duty to fulfill promises, but arises separately though in a way parallel to the genesis of that duty. Hume denies that any native citizen or subject in his own day has made even a tacit promise to obey the government, given that citizens do not think they did any such thing, but rather think they are born to obey it. Even a tacit contract requires that the will be engaged, and we have no memory of this; nor do governments refrain from punishing disloyalty in citizens who have given no tacit promise.
13. The Natural Virtues
In the Treatise Hume's principle interest in the natural virtues lies in explaining the causes that make us approve them. The mechanism of sympathy ultimately accounts for this approval and the corresponding disapproval of the natural vices. Sympathy also explains our approval of the artificial virtues; the difference is that we approve of those as a result of sympathy with the cumulative effects produced by the general practice of the artificial virtues on the whole of society (individual acts of justice not always producing pleasure for anyone); whereas we approve each individual exercise of such natural virtues as gratitude and friendship because we sympathize with those who are affected by each such action when we consider it from the common point of view. As we saw, he argues that the traits of which we approve fall into four groups: traits immediately agreeable to their possessor or to others, and traits advantageous to their possessor or to others. In these four groups of approved traits, our approval arises as the result of sympathy bringing into our minds the pleasure that the trait produces for its possessor or for others (with one minor exception). This is especially clear with such self-regarding virtues as prudence and industry, which we approve even when they occur in individuals who provide no benefit to us observers; this can only be explained by our sympathy with the benefits that prudence and industry bring to their possessors.
According to Hume, different levels and manifestations of the passions of pride and humility make for virtue or for vice. An obvious and “over-weaning conceit” is disapproved by any observer (is a vice) (T 126.96.36.199); while a well-founded but concealed self-esteem is approved (is a virtue). Hume explains these opposite reactions to such closely related character traits by means of the interplay of the observer's sympathy with a distinct psychological mechanism he calls comparison. The mechanism of comparison juxtaposes a sympathetically-communicated sentiment with the observer's own inherent feeling, causing the observer to feel a sentiment opposite to the one she observes in another (pleasure if the other is suffering, pain if the other is pleased) when the sympathetically-communicated sentiment is not too strong. A person who displays excessive pride irritates others because, while others come to feel this person's pleasant sentiment of pride (to some degree) via sympathy, they also feel a greater uneasiness as a result of comparing that great pride (in whose objects they do not believe) with their own lesser pride in themselves; this is why conceit is a vice. Self-esteem founded on an accurate assessment of one's strengths and politely concealed from others, though, is both agreeable and advantageous to its possessor without being distressing to others, and so is generally approved. (Thus the professed preference of Christians for humility over self-esteem does not accord with the judgments of most observers.) Although excessive pride is a natural vice and self-esteem a natural virtue, human beings in society create the artificial virtue of good breeding (adherence to customs of slightly exaggerated mutual deference in accordance with social rank) to enable us each to conceal our own pride easily so that it does not shock the pride of others.
Courage and military heroism are also forms of pride. Though the student of history can see that military ambition has mostly been disadvantageous to human society, when we contemplate the “dazling” character of the hero, immediate sympathy irresistibly leads us to approve it (T 188.8.131.52).
Our approval of those traits that may be grouped together under the heading of goodness and benevolence, such as generosity, humanity, compassion, and gratitude, arises from sympathy with people in the individual's “narrow circle” of friends and associates, since, given natural human selfishness, we cannot expect people's concerns to extend farther (T 184.108.40.206). By adopting the common point of view we correct for the distortions of sympathy by entering into the feelings of those close to the person being evaluated even if they are remote from us. The vice of cruelty is most loathed because the suffering of the person's victims that reaches us via sympathy readily becomes hatred of the perpetrator.
Although natural abilities of the mind are not traditionally classified as moral virtues and vices, the difference between these types of traits is unimportant, Hume argues. Intelligence, good judgment, application, eloquence, and wit are also mental qualities that bring individuals the approbation of others, and their absence is disapproved. As is the case with many of the traditionally-recognized virtues, the various natural abilities are approved either because they are useful to their possessor or because they are immediately agreeable to others. It is sometimes argued that moral virtues are unlike natural abilities in that the latter are involuntary, but Hume argues that many traditional moral virtues are involuntary as well. The sole difference is that the prospect of reward or punishment can induce people to act as the morally virtuous would (as justice requires, for example), but cannot induce them to act as if they had the natural abilities.
14. Differences between the Treatise and the Moral Enquiry
Late in his life Hume deemed the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals his best work, and in style it is a model of elegance and subtlety. His method in that work differs from that of the Treatise: instead of explicating the nature of virtue and vice and our knowledge of them in terms of underlying features of the human mind, he proposes to collect all the traits we know from common sense to be virtues and vices, observe what those in each group have in common, and from that observation discover the “foundation of ethics” (EPM 1.10). The conclusions largely coincide with those of the Treatise. Some topics in the Treatise are handled more fully in the moral Enquiry; for example Hume's account of the motive to just action is enriched by his discussion of a challenge from a “sensible knave.” However, without the detailed background theories of the mind, the passions, motivation to action, and social convention presented in the Treatise, and without any substitute for them, some of the conclusions of the moral Enquiry stand unsupported.
In the latter work, Hume's main argument that reason alone is not adequate to yield moral evaluations (in Appendix 1) depends on his having demonstrated throughout the book that at least one foundation of moral praise lies in the usefulness to society of the praised character trait. We use reason extensively to learn the effects of various traits and to identify the useful and pernicious ones. But utility and disutility are merely means; were we indifferent to the weal and woe of mankind, we would feel equally indifferent to the traits that promote those ends. Therefore there must be some sentiment that makes us favor the one over the other. This could only be humanity, “a feeling for the happiness of mankind, and resentment of their misery” (EPM App. 1.3). This argument presupposes that the moral evaluations we make are themselves the expression of sentiment rather than reason alone. (The alternative position would be that while of course we do feel approval and disapproval for vice and virtue, the judgment as to which is which is itself the deliverance of reason.) So Hume appends some arguments directed against the hypothesis of moral rationalism. One of these is an enriched version of the argument of Treatise 3.1.1 that neither demonstrative nor causal reasoning has moral distinctions as its proper object, since moral vice and virtue cannot plausibly be analyzed as either facts or relations. He adds that while in our reasonings we start from the knowledge of relations or facts and infer some previously-unknown relation or fact, moral evaluation cannot proceed until all the relevant facts and relations are already known. At that point, there is nothing further for reason to do; therefore moral evaluation is not the work of reason alone but of another faculty. He bolsters this line of argument by expanding his Treatise analogy between moral and aesthetic judgment, arguing that just as our appreciation of beauty awaits full information about the object but requires the further contribution of taste, so in moral evaluation our assessment of merit or villainy awaits full knowledge of the person and situation but requires the further contribution of approbation or disapprobation. He also offers the argument that since the chain of reasons why one acts must finally stop at something that is “desirable on its own account… because of its immediate accord or agreement with sentiment…” (EPM App.1.19), sentiment is needed to account for ultimate human ends; and since virtue is an end, sentiment and not reason alone must distinguish moral good and evil.
In the moral Enquiry Hume omits all arguments to show that reason alone does not move us to act, including the Representation Argument about the irrelevance of reason to passions and actions. Without the Representation Argument he has no support for his direct argument that moral goodness and evil are not identical with reasonableness and unreasonableness, which relies on it for its key premise; and that too is absent from EPM. On the whole in EPM Hume does not appeal to the thesis that reason cannot produce motives in order to show that morals are not derived from reason alone, but limits himself to the epistemic and descriptive arguments showing that reason alone cannot discern virtue and vice in order to reject ethical rationalism in favor of sentimentalism. However, at Appendix I.21 he does assert (without support) that “Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action,” and perhaps this is intended to be a premise in a revised version of the famous argument that reason cannot produce motives but morals can, though what he writes here is tantalizingly different from that argument as it appears repeatedly in the Treatise.
Why did Hume omit the more fundamental arguments for the motivational inertia of reason? He may have reconsidered and rejected them. For example, he may have given up his undefended claim that passions have no representative character, a premise of the Representation Argument on which, as we saw, some of his fundamental anti-rationalist arguments depend. Or he may have retained these views but opted not to appeal to anything so arcane in a work aimed at a broader audience and intended to be as accessible as possible. The moral Enquiry makes no use of ideas and impressions, and so no arguments that depend on that distinction can be offered there, including the Representation Argument. Apparently Hume thought he could show that reason and sentiment rule different domains without using those arguments.
Thus, not surprisingly, the causal analysis of sympathy as a mechanism of vivacity-transferal from the impression of the self to the ideas of the sentiments of others is entirely omitted from the moral Enquiry. Hume still appeals to sympathy there to explain the origin of all moral approval and disapproval, but he explains our sympathy with others simply as a manifestation of the sentiment of humanity. Since on Hume's view any sentiment-based theory of ethical evaluation is vulnerable to the same objections that concerned him in the Treatise (that sentiments vary with spatial and temporal distance from the object of evaluation, yet moral assessments are not altered by these differences alone), he addresses them in the moral Enquiry as well, and resolves them by appealing once again to the common point of view. In the Enquiry he places more emphasis on the phenomenon of sympathy with the whole of society, which is in part achieved by conversation, as the means to correcting our initial sentiments.
The distinction between artificial and natural virtues that dominates the virtue ethics of the Treatise is almost entirely absent from the moral Enquiry; the term ‘artificial’ occurs in the latter only once in a footnote. Gone are the paradoxes of property and promises intended to prove that particular virtues are devised on purpose; also missing is what some commentators think Hume's most original contribution to the theory of justice, his account of convention. Yet Hume briefly sketches part of the same quasi-historical account of the origin of justice that he gives in the Treatise; and while the emphasis has shifted, Hume not only tries to show that justice has merit only because of its beneficial consequences, but that “public utility is the sole origin of justice” — were we not to find it useful (and in some conditions we might not) we would not even have such a thing (EPM 3.1.1). While any explanation of this shift and these omissions is merely speculative, here it seems that Hume does not change his mind about the arguments of the Treatise but chooses to lead the reader to the same conclusions by more subtle and indirect means while avoiding provocative claims.
In the moral Enquiry Hume is more explicit about what he takes to be the errors of Christian (or, more cautiously, Roman Catholic) moralists. Not only have they elevated craven humility to the status of a virtue, which he hints in the Treatise is a mistake, but they also favor penance, fasting, and other “monkish virtues” that are in fact disapproved by all reasonable folk for their uselessness and disagreeableness, and so are in fact vices.
Primary Sources: Works by Hume
- A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition, David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (eds.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2007. (References to this work start with T and are followed by Book, Part, Section and paragraph number, in parentheses in the text.)
- A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford Philosophical Texts), David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (eds.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000.
- A Treatise of Human Nature, L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), 2nd ed. revised by P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
- An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Tom L. Beauchamp (ed.) (The Claredon Edition of the Works of David Hume), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998. (References to this work start with EPM and are followed by Part, Section (if any), and paragraph number, in parentheses within the text.)
- Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, in Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals, L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed.), 3rd ed revised by P. H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975
- Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, Eugene Miller (ed.), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985.
- Árdal, Páll, 1977a, “Another Look at Hume's Account of Moral Evaluation,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 15: 405–421.
- Árdal, Páll, 1977b, “Convention and Value,” in David Hume: Bicentenary Papers, G.P. Morice (ed.), Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 51–68.
- Árdal, Páll, 1966, Passion and Value in Hume's Treatise, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 2nd edition, revised, 1989.
- Baier, Annette C., 1991, A Progress of Sentiments, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Baier, Annette. 1988, “Hume's Account of Social Artifice — Its Origins and Originality,” Ethics, 98: 757–778.
- Baron, Marcia, 1982, “Hume's Noble Lie: An Account of His Artificial Virtues,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 12: 539–55.
- Blackburn, Simon, 1993, “Hume on the Mezzanine Level,” Hume Studies, 19 (2): 273–288.
- Botros, Sophie, 2006, Hume, Reason and Morality: A legacy of contradiction, London and New York: Routledge.
- Bricke, John, 1996, Mind and Morality, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Brown, Charlotte, 1988, “Is Hume an Internalist?” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 26: 69–87.
- Capaldi, N., 1975, David Hume: The Newtonian Philosopher, Boston: Twayne Publishing.
- Capaldi, Nicholas, 1989, Hume's Place in Moral Philosophy, New York: Peter Lang.
- Chappell, V.C. (ed.), 1996, Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays, Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.
- Cohon, Rachel, 2008, Hume's Morality: Feeling and Fabrication, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cohon, Rachel, 2001a, “The Shackles of Virtue: Hume on Allegiance to Government,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 18 (4): 393–413.
- Cohon, Rachel (ed.), 2001b, Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy, Aldershot, England and Burlington, Vermont: Dartmouth/Ashgate.
- Cohon, Rachel, 1997a, “The Common Point of View in Hume's Ethics,”
The Reverend Mr. Hume,
Author of Douglas, a Tragedy.
My Dear Sir
It was the practice of the antients to address their compositions only to friends and equals, and to render their dedications monuments of regard and affection, not of servility and flattery. In those days of ingenious and candid liberty, a dedication did honour to the person to whom it was addressed, without degrading the author. If any particular appeared towards the patron, it was at least the partiality of friendship and affection.
Another instance of true liberty, of which antient times can alone afford us an example, is the liberty of thought, which engaged men of letters, however different in their abstract opinions, to maintain a mutual friendship and regard; and never to quarrel about principles, while they agreed in inclinations and manners. Science was often the subject of disputation, never of animosity. Cicero, an academic, addressed his philosophical treatises, sometimes to Brutus, a stoic; sometimes to Atticus, an epicurean.
I have been seized with a strong desire of renewing these laudable practices of antiquity, by addressing the following dissertations to you, my good friend: For such I will ever call and esteem you, notwithstanding the opposition, which prevails between us, with regard to many of our speculative tenets. These differences of opinion I have only found to enliven our conversation; while our common passion for science and letters served as a cement to our friendship. I still admired your genius, even when I imagined, that you lay under the influence of prejudice; and you sometimes told me, that you excused my errors, on account of the candor and sincerity, which, you thought, accompanied them.
But to tell truth, it is less my admiration of your fine genius, which has engaged me to make this address to you, than my esteem of your character and my affection to your person. That generosity of mind which ever accompanies you; that cordiality of friendship, that spirited honour and integrity, have long interested me strongly in your behalf, and have made me desirous, that a monument of our mutual amity should be publicly erected, and, if possible, be preserved to posterity.
I own too, that I have the ambition to be the first who shall in public express his admiration of your noble tragedy of Douglas; one of the most interesting and pathetic pieces, that was ever exhibited on any theatre. Should I give it preference to the Merope of Maffei, and to that of Voltaire, which it resembles in its subject; should I affirm, that it contained more fire and spirit than the former, more tenderness and simplicity than the latter; I might be accused of partiality: And how could I entirely acquit myself, after the professions of friendship, which I have made you? But the unfeigned tears which flowed from every eye, in the numerous representations which were made of it on this theatre; the unparalleled command, which you appeared to have over every affection of the human breast: These are incontestible proofs, that you possess the true theatric genius of Shakespear and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one, and licentiousness of the other.
My enemies, you know, and, I own, even sometimes my friends, have reproached me with the love of paradoxes and singular opinions; and I expect to be exposed to the same imputation, on account of the character, which I have here given of your Douglas. I shall be told, no doubt, that I had artfully chosen the only time, when this high esteem of that piece could be regarded as a paradox, to wit, before its publication; and that not being able to contradict in this particular the sentiments of the public, I have, at least, resolved to go before them. But I shall be amply compensated for all these pleasantries, if you accept this testimony of my regard, and believe me to be, with the greatest sincerity,
Your most affectionate Friend,
and humble servant,
As every enquiry, which regards religion, is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular, which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion. But the other question, concerning the origin of religion in human nature, is exposed to some more difficulty. The belief of invisible, intelligent power has been very generally diffused over the human race, in all places and in all ages; but it has neither perhaps been so universal as to admit of no exception, nor has it been, in any degree, uniform in the ideas, which it has suggested. Some nations have been discovered, who entertained no sentiments of Religion, if travellers and historians may be credited; and no two nations, and scarce any two men, have ever agreed precisely in the same sentiments. It would appear, therefore, that this preconception springs not from an original instinct or primary impression of nature, such as gives rise to self-love, affection between the sexes, love of progeny, gratitude, resentment; since every instinct of this kind has been found absolutely universal in all nations and ages, and has always a precise determinate object, which it inflexibly pursues. The first religious principles must be secondary; such as may easily be perverted by various accidents and causes, and whose operation too, in some cases, may, by an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances, be altogether prevented. What those principles are, which give rise to the original belief, and what those accidents and causes are, which direct its operation, is the subject of our present enquiry.
Sect. I.That Polytheism was the primary Religion of Men.
It appears to me, that, if we consider the improvement of human society, from rude beginnings to a state of greater perfection, polytheism or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind. This opinion I shall endeavour to confirm by the following arguments.
It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1700 years ago all mankind were polytheists. The doubtful and sceptical principles of a few philosophers, or the theism, and that too not entirely pure, of one or two nations, form no objection worth regarding. Behold then the clear testimony of history. The farther we mount up into antiquity, the more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism. No marks, no symptoms of any more perfect religion. The most ancient records of human race still present us with that system as the popular and established creed. The north, the south, the east, the west, give their unanimous testimony to the same fact. What can be opposed to so full an evidence?
As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that, in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth: But fell into error, as soon as they acquired learning and politeness.
But in this assertion you not only contradict all appearance of probability, but also our present experience concerning the principles and opinions of barbarous nations. The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia are all idolaters. Not a single exception to this rule. Insomuch, that, were a traveller to transport himself into any unknown region; if he found inhabitants cultivated with arts and science, though even upon that supposition there are odds against their being theists, yet could he not safely, till farther inquiry, pronounce any thing on that head: But if he found them ignorant and barbarous, he might beforehand declare them idolaters; and there scarcely is a possibility of his being mistaken.
It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some groveling and
familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being, who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grosser, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refined, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural progress of thought, but some obvious and invincible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the pure principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument; yet I can never think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.
The causes of such objects, as are quite familiar to us, never strike our attention or curiosity; and however extraordinary or surprising these objects in themselves, they are passed over, by the raw and ignorant multitude, without much examination or enquiry. Adam, rising at once, in paradise, and in the full perfection of his faculties, would naturally, as represented by Milton, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose. But a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as a man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make enquiries concerning the cause of those objects, to which from his infancy he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect nature appears, the more is he familiarized to it, and the less inclined to scrutinize and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty; and immediately sets him a trembling, and sacrificing, and praying. But an animal, compleat in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religious opinion or affection. Ask him, whence that animal arose; he will tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them. Imagine not, that he will so much as start the
question, whence the first animal; much less, whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose. Or, if you start such a question to him, expect not, that he will employ his mind with any anxiety about a subject, so remote, so uninteresting, and which so much exceeds the bounds of his capacity.
But farther, if men were at first led into the belief of one Supreme Being, by reasoning from the frame of nature, they could never possibly leave that belief, in order to embrace polytheism; but the same principles of reason, which at first produced and diffused over mankind, so magnificent an opinion, must be able, with greater facility, to preserve it. The first invention and proof of any doctrine is much more difficult than the supporting and retaining of it.
There is a great difference between historical facts and speculative opinions; nor is the knowledge of the one propagated in the same manner with that of the other. An historical fact, while it passes by oral tradition from eye-witnesses and contemporaries, is disguised in every successive narration, and may at last retain but very small, if any, resemblance of the original truth, on which it was founded. The frail memories of men, their love of exaggeration, their supine carelessness; these principles, if not corrected by books and writing, soon pervert the account of historical events; where argument or reasoning has little or no place, nor can ever recal the truth, which has once escaped those narrations. It is thus the fables of Hercules, Theseus, Bacchus are supposed to have been originally founded in true history, corrupted by tradition. But with regard to speculative opinions, the case is far otherwise. If these opinions be founded on arguments so clear and obvious as to carry conviction with the generality of mankind, the same arguments, which at first diffused the opinions, will still preserve them in their original purity. If the arguments be more abstruse, and more remote from vulgar apprehension, the opinions will always be confined to a few persons; and as soon as men leave the contemplation of the arguments, the opinions will immediately be lost and be buried in oblivion. Whichever side of this dilemma we take, it must appear impossible, that theism could, from reasoning, have been the primary religion of human race, and have afterwards, by its corruption, given birth to polytheism and to all the various superstitions of the heathen world. Reason, when obvious, prevents these corruptions: When abstruse, it keeps the principles entirely from the knowledge of the vulgar, who are alone liable to corrupt any principle or opinion.
Sect. II.Origin of Polytheism.
If we would, therefore, indulge our curiosity, in enquiring concerning the origin of religion, we must turn our thoughts towards polytheism, the primitive religion of uninstructed mankind.
Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system. For though, to persons of a certain turn of mind, it may not appear altogether absurd, that several independent beings, endowed with superior wisdom, might conspire in the contrivance and execution of one regular plan; yet is this a merely arbitrary supposition, which, even if allowed possible, must be confessed neither to be supported by probability nor necessity. All things in the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author; because the conception of different authors, without any distinction of attributes or operations, serves only to give perplexity to the imagination, without bestowing any satisfaction on the understanding. The statue of Laocoon, as we learn from Pliny, was the work of three artists: But it is certain, that, were we not told so, we should never have imagined, that a groupe of figures, cut from one stone, and united in one plan, was not the work and contrivance of one statuary. To ascribe any single effect to the combination of several causes, is not surely a natural and obvious supposition.
On the other hand, if, leaving the works of nature, we trace the footsteps of invisible power in the various and contrary events of human life, we are necessarily led into polytheism and to the acknowledgment of several limited and imperfect deities. Storms and tempests ruin what is nourished by the sun. The sun destroys what is fostered by the moisture of dews and rains. War may be favourable to a nation, whom the inclemency of the seasons afflicts with famine. Sickness and pestilence may depopulate a kingdom, amidst the most profuse plenty. The same nation is not, at the same time, equally successful by sea and by land. And a nation, which now triumphs over its enemies, may anon submit to their more prosperous arms. In short,
the conduct of events, or what we call the plan of a particular providence, is so full of variety and uncertainty, that, if we suppose it immediately ordered by any intelligent beings, we must acknowledge a contrariety in their designs and intentions, a constant combat of opposite powers, and a repentance or change of intention in the same power, from impotence or levity. Each nation has its tutelar deity. Each element is subjected to its invisible power or agent. The province of each god is separate from that of another. Nor are the operations of the same god always certain and invariable. To-day he protects: To-morrow he abandons us. Prayers and sacrifices, rites and ceremonies, well or ill performed, are the sources of his favour or enmity, and produce all the good or ill fortune, which are to be found amongst mankind.
We may conclude, therefore, that, in all nations, which have embraced polytheism, the first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears, which actuate the human mind. Accordingly, we find, that all idolaters, having separated the provinces of their deities, have recourse to that invisible agent, to whose authority they are immediately subjected, and whose province it is to superintend that course of actions, in which they are, at any time, engaged. Juno is invoked at marriages; Lucina at births. Neptune receives the prayers of seamen; and Mars of warriors. The husbandman cultivates his field under the protection of Ceres; and the merchant acknowledges the authority of Mercury. Each natural event is supposed to be governed by some intelligent agent; and nothing prosperous or adverse can happen in life, which may not be the subject of peculiar prayers or thanksgivings01*.
It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that, in order to carry men’s attention beyond the present course of things, or lead them into any inference concerning invisible intelligent power, they must be actuated by some passion, which prompts their thought and reflection; some motive, which urges their first enquiry. But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into enquiries concerning
the frame of nature, a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians, but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nature, especially the latter, men scrutinize, with a trembling curiosity, the course of future causes, and examine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and astonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity.
Sect. III.The same subject continued.
We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspence between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependance. Could men anatomize nature, according to the most probable, at least the most intelligible philosophy, they would find, that these causes are nothing but the particular fabric and structure of the minute parts of their own bodies and of external objects; and that, by a regular and constant machinery, all the events are produced, about which they are so much concerned. But this philosophy exceeds the comprehension of the ignorant multitude, who can only conceive the unknown causes in a general and confused manner; though their imagination, perpetually employed on the same subject, must labour to form some particular and distinct idea of them. The more they consider these causes themselves, and the uncertainty of their operation, the less satisfaction do they meet with in their researches; and, however unwilling, they must at last have abandoned so arduous an attempt, were it not for a propensity in human nature, which leads into a system, that gives them some satisfaction.
There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us. Hence the frequency and beauty of the prosopopœoeia in poetry; where trees, mountains and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. And though these poetical figures and expressions gain not on
the belief, they may serve, at least, to prove a certain tendency in the imagination, without which they could neither be beautiful nor natural. Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for a mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it. Nay, philosophers cannot entirely exempt themselves from this natural frailty; but have oft ascribed to inanimate matter the horror of a vacuum, sympathies, antipathies, and other affections of human nature. The absurdity is not less, while we cast our eyes upwards; and transferring, as is too usual, human passions and infirmities to the deity, represent him as jealous and revengeful, capricious and partial, and, in short, a wicked and foolish man, in every respect but his superior power and authority. No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence. The unknown causes, which continually employ their thought, appearing always in the same aspect, are all apprehended to be of the same kind or species. Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves.
In proportion as any man’s course of life is governed by accident, we always find, that he encreases in superstition; as may particularly be observed of gamesters and sailors, who, though, of all mankind, the least capable of serious reflection, abound most in frivolous and superstitious apprehensions. The gods, says Coriolanus in Dionysius02*, have an influence in every affair; but above all, in war; where the event is so uncertain. All human life, especially before the institution of order and good government, being subject to fortuitous accidents; it is natural, that superstition should prevail every where in barbarous ages, and put men on the most earnest enquiry concerning those invisible powers, who dispose of their happiness or misery. Ignorant of astronomy and the anatomy of plants and animals, and too little curious to observe the admirable adjustment of final causes; they remain still unacquainted with a first and supreme creator, and with that infinitely perfect spirit, who alone, by his almighty will, bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. Such a magnificent idea is too big for their narrow conceptions, which can neither observe the beauty of the work, nor comprehend the grandeur of its author. They suppose their deities,
however potent and invisible, to be nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites, together with corporeal limbs and organs. Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being, each of them, incapable of extending his influence every where, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer that variety of events, which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed, and still prevails, among the greatest part of uninstructed mankind03*.
Any of the human affections may lead us into the notion of invisible, intelligent power; hope as well as fear, gratitude as well as affliction: But if we examine our own hearts, or observe what passes around us, we shall find, that men are much oftener thrown on their knees by the melancholy than by the agreeable passions. Prosperity is easily received as our due, and few questions are asked concerning its cause or author. It begets cheerfulness and activity and alacrity and a lively enjoyment of every social and sensual pleasure: And during this state of mind, men have little leisure or inclination to think of the unknown invisible regions. On the other hand, every disastrous accident alarms us, and sets us on enquiries concerning the principles whence it arose: Apprehensions spring up with regard to futurity: And the mind, sunk into diffidence, terror, and melancholy, has recourse to every method of appeasing those secret intelligent powers, on whom our fortune is supposed entirely to depend.
No topic is more usual with all popular divines than to display the advantages of affliction, in bringing men to a due sense of religion; by subduing their confidence and sensuality, which, in times of prosperity, make them forgetful of a divine providence. Nor is this topic confined merely to modern religions. The ancients have also employed it. Fortune has never liberally, without envy, says a Greek historian04*, bestowed an
unmixed happiness on mankind; but with all her gifts has ever conjoined some disastrous circumstance, in order to chastize men into a reverence for the gods, whom, in a continued course of prosperity, they are apt to neglect and forget.
What age or period of life is the most addicted to superstition? The weakest and most timid. What sex? The same answer must be given. The leaders and examples of every kind of superstition, says Strabo05†, are the women. These excite the men to devotion and supplications, and the observance of religious days. It is rare to meet with one that lives apart from the females, and yet is addicted to such practices. And nothing can, for this reason, be more improbable, than the account given of an order of men among the Getes, who practised celibacy, and were notwithstanding the most religious fanatics. A method of reasoning, which would lead us to entertain a bad idea of the devotion of monks; did we not know by an experience, not so common, perhaps, in Strabo’s days, that one may practise celibacy, and profess chastity; and yet maintain the closest connexions and most entire sympathy with that timorous and pious sex.
Sect. IV.Deities not considered as creators or formers of the world.
The only point of theology, in which we shall find a consent of mankind almost universal, is, that there is invisible, intelligent power in the world: But whether this power be supreme or subordinate, whether confined to one being, or distributed among several, what attributes, qualities, connexions, or principles of action ought to be ascribed to those beings; concerning all these points, there is the widest difference in the popular systems of theology. Our ancestors in Europe, before the revival of letters, believed, as we do at present, that there was one supreme God, the author of nature, whose power, though in itself uncontroulable, was yet often exerted by the interposition of his angels and subordinate ministers, who executed his sacred purposes. But they also believed, that all nature was full of other invisible powers; fairies, goblins, elves, sprights; beings, stronger and mightier than men, but much inferior to the celestial natures, who surround the throne of God. Now, suppose, that any one, in those ages, had denied the existence of God and of his angels; would not his impiety justly have deserved the appellation of atheism, even though he had still allowed, by some odd capricious reasoning, that the popular stories of elves and fairies were just and well-grounded? The difference, on the one hand, between such a person and a genuine theist is infinitely greater than that, on the other, between him and one that absolutely excludes all invisible intelligent power. And it is a fallacy, merely from the casual resemblance of names, without any conformity of meaning, to rank such opposite opinions under the same denomination.
To any one, who considers justly of the matter, it will appear, that the gods of all polytheists are no better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors, and merit as little any pious worship or veneration. These pretended religionists are really a kind of superstitious atheists, and acknowledge no being, that corresponds to our idea of a deity. No first principle of mind or thought: No supreme government and administration: No divine contrivance or intention in the fabric of the world.
The Chinese, when06* their prayers are not answered, beat their idols. The deities of the Laplanders are any large stone which they meet with of an extraordinary shape07†. The Egyptian mythologists, in order to account for animal worship, said, that the gods, pursued by the violence of earth-born men, who were their enemies, had formerly been obliged to disguise themselves under the semblance of beasts08‡. The Caunii, a nation in the Lesser Asia, resolving to admit no strange gods among them, regularly, at certain seasons, assembled themselves compleatly armed, beat the air with their lances, and proceeded in that manner to their frontiers; in order, as they said, to expel the foreign deities09ǁ. Not even the immortal gods, said some German nations to Cæaesar, are a match for the Suevi010§.
Many ills, says Dione in Homer to Venus wounded by Diomede, many ills, my daughter, have the gods inflicted on men: And many ills, in return, have men inflicted on the gods011*. We need but open any classic author to meet with these gross representations of the deities; and Longinus012† with reason observes, that such ideas of the divine nature, if literally taken, contain a true atheism.
Some writers013‡ have been surprized, that the impieties of Aristophanes should have been tolerated, nay publicly acted and applauded by the Athenians; a people so superstitious and so jealous of the public religion, that, at that very time, they put Socrates to death for his imagined incredulity. But these writers do not consider, that the ludicrous, familiar images, under which the gods are represented by that comic poet, instead of appearing impious, were the genuine lights in which the ancients conceived their divinities. What conduct can be more criminal or mean, than that of Jupiter in the Amphitrion? Yet that play, which represented his gallante exploits, was supposed so agreeable to him, that it was always acted in Rome by public authority, when the state was threatened with pestilence, famine, or any general calamity014ǁ. The Romans supposed, that, like all old letchers, he would be highly pleased with the recital of his former feats of prowess and vigour, and that no topic was so proper, upon which to flatter his vanity.
The Lacedemonians, says Xenophon015§, always, during war, put up their petitions very early in the morning, in order to be beforehand with their enemies, and, by being the first solicitors, pre-engage the gods in their
favour. We may gather from Seneca016*, that it was usual, for the votaries in the temples, to make interest with the beadle or sexton, that they might have a seat near the image of the deity, in order to be the best heard in their prayers and applications to him. The Tyrians, when besieged by Alexander, threw chains on the statue of Hercules, to prevent that deity from deserting to the enemy017†. Augustus, having twice lost his fleet by storms, forbad Neptune to be carried in procession along with the other gods; and fancied, that he had sufficiently revenged himself by that expedient018‡. After Germanicus’s death, the people were so enraged at their gods, that they stoned them in their temples; and openly renounced all allegiance to them019ǁ.
To ascribe the origin and fabric of the universe to these imperfect beings never enters into the imagination of any polytheist or idolater. Hesiod, whose writings, with those of Homer, contained the canonical system of the heathens020§; Hesiod, I say, supposes gods and men to have sprung equally from the unknown powers of nature021†. And throughout the whole theogony of that author, Pandora is the only instance of creation or a voluntary production; and she too was formed by the gods merely from despight to Prometheus, who had furnished men with stolen fire from the celestial regions022††. The ancient mythologists, indeed, seem throughout to have rather embraced the idea of generation than that of creation or formation; and to have thence accounted for the origin of this universe.
Ovid, who lived in a learned age, and had been instructed by philosophers in the principles of a divine creation or formation of the world; finding, that such an idea would not agree with the popular mythology, which he delivers, leaves it, in a manner, loose and detached from his system. Quisquis fuit ille Deorum023*? Whichever of the gods it was, says he, that dissipated the chaos, and introduced order into the universe. It could neither be Saturn, he knew, nor Jupiter, nor Neptune, nor any of the received deities of paganism. His theological system had taught him nothing upon that head; and he leaves the matter equally undetermined.
Diodorus Siculus024†, beginning his work with an enumeration of the most reasonable opinions concerning the origin of the world, makes no mention of a deity or intelligent mind; though it is evident from his history, that he was much more prone to superstition than to irreligion.
And in another passage025‡, talking of the Ichthyophagi, a nation in India, he says, that, there being so great difficulty in accounting for their descent, we must conclude them to be aborigines, without any beginning of their generation, propagating their race from all eternity; as some of the physiologers, in treating of the origin of nature, have justly observed. “But in such subjects as these,” adds the historian, “which exceed all human capacity, it may well happen, that those, who discourse the most, know the least; reaching a specious appearance of truth in their reasonings, while extremely wide of the real truth and matter of fact.”
A strange sentiment in our eyes, to be embraced by a professed and zealous religionist026*! But it was merely by accident, that the question concerning the origin of the world did ever in ancient times enter into religious systems, or was treated of by theologers. The philosophers alone made profession of delivering systems of this kind; and it was pretty late too before these bethought themselves of having recourse to a mind or supreme intelligence, as the first cause of all. So far was it from being esteemed profane in those days to account for the origin of things without a deity, that Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and others, who embraced that system of cosmogony, past unquestioned; while Anaxagoras, the first undoubted theist among the philosophers, was perhaps the first that ever was accused of atheism027†.
We are told by Sextus Empiricus028‡, that Epicurus, when a boy, reading with his preceptor these verses of Hesiod,
Eldest of beings, chaos first arose;
Next earth, wide-stretch’d, the seat of all:
the young scholar first betrayed his inquisitive genius, by asking, And chaos whence? But was told by his preceptor, that he must have recourse to the philosophers for a solution of such questions. And from this hint Epicurus left philology and all other studies, in order to betake himself to that science, whence alone he expected satisfaction with regard to these sublime subjects.
The common people were never likely to push their researches so far, or derive from reasoning their systems of religion; when philologers and mythologists, we see, scarcely ever discovered so much penetration. And even the philosophers, who discoursed of such topics, readily assented to the grossest theory, and admitted the joint origin of gods and men from night and chaos; from fire, water, air, or whatever they established to be the ruling element.
Nor was it only on their first origin, that the gods were supposed dependent on the powers of nature. Throughout the whole period of their existence they were subjected to the dominion of fate or destiny. Think of the force of necessity, says Agrippa to the Roman people, that force, to which even the gods must submit029*. And the Younger Pliny030†, agreeably to this way of thinking, tells us, that amidst the darkness, horror, and confusion, which ensued upon the first eruption of Vesuvius, several concluded, that all nature was going to wrack, and that gods and men were perishing in one common ruin.
It is great complaisance, indeed, if we dignify with the name of religion such an imperfect system of theology, and put it on a level with later systems, which are founded on principles more just and more sublime. For my part, I can scarcely allow the principles even of Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, and some other Stoics and Academics, though much more refined than the pagan superstition, to be worthy of the honourable appellation of theism. For if the mythology of the heathens resemble the ancient European system of spiritual beings, excluding God and angels, and leaving only fairies and sprights; the creed of these philosophers may justly be said to exclude a deity, and to leave only angels and fairies.
Sect. V.Various Forms of Polytheism: Allegory, Hero-Worship.
But it is chiefly our present business to consider the gross polytheism of the vulgar, and to trace all its various appearances, in the principles of human nature, whence they are derived.
Whoever learns by argument, the existence of invisible intelligent power, must reason from the admirable contrivance of natural objects, and must suppose the world to be the workmanship of that divine being, the original cause of all things. But the vulgar polytheist, so far from admitting that idea, deifies every part of the universe, and conceives all the conspicuous productions of nature, to be themselves so many real divinities. The sun, moon, and stars, are all gods according to his system: Fountains are inhabited by nymphs, and trees by hamadryads: Even monkies, dogs, cats, and other animals often become sacred in his eyes, and strike him with a religious veneration. And thus, however strong men’s propensity to believe invisible, intelligent power in nature, their propensity is equally strong to rest their attention on sensible, visible objects; and in order to reconcile these opposite inclinations, they are led to unite the invisible power with some visible object.
The distribution also of distinct provinces to the several deities is apt to cause some allegory, both physical and moral, to enter into the vulgar systems of polytheism. The god of war will naturally be represented as furious, cruel, and impetuous: The god of poetry as elegant, polite, and amiable: The god of merchandise, especially in early times, as thievish and deceitful. The allegories, supposed in Homer and other mythologists, I allow, have often been so strained, that men of sense are apt entirely to reject them, and to consider them as the production merely of the fancy and conceit of critics and commentators. But that allegory really has place in the heathen mythology is undeniable even on the least reflection. Cupid the son of Venus; the Muses the daughters of Memory; Prometheus, the wise brother, and Epimetheus the foolish; Hygieia or the goddess of health descended from ÆAEsculapius or the god of physic: Who sees not, in these, and in many other instances, the plain traces of allegory? When a god is supposed to preside over any passion, event, or system of actions, it is almost
unavoidable to give him a genealogy, attributes, and adventures, suitable to his supposed powers and influence; and to carry on that similitude and comparison, which is naturally so agreeable to the mind of man.
Allegories, indeed, entirely perfect, we ought not to expect as the productions of ignorance and superstition; there being no work of genius that requires a nicer hand, or has been more rarely executed with success. That Fear and Terror are the sons of Mars is just; but why by Venus031*? That Harmony is the daughter of Venus is regular; but why by Mars032†? That Sleep is the brother of Death is suitable; but why describe him as enamoured of one of the Graces033‡? And since the ancient mythologists fall into mistakes so gross and palpable, we have no reason surely to expect such refined and long-spun allegories, as some have endeavoured to deduce from their fictions.
Lucretius was plainly seduced by the strong appearance of allegory, which is observable in the pagan fictions. He first addresses himself to Venus as to that generating power, which animates, renews, and beautifies the universe: But is soon betrayed by the mythology into incoherencies, while he prays to that allegorical personage to appease the furies of her lover Mars: An idea not drawn from allegory, but from the popular religion, and which Lucretius, as an Epicurean, could not consistently admit of.
The deities of the vulgar are so little superior to human creatures, that, where men are affected with strong sentiments of veneration or gratitude for any hero or public benefactor, nothing can be more natural than to convert him into a god, and fill the heavens, after this manner, with continual recruits from among mankind. Most of the divinities of the ancient world are supposed to have once been men, and to have been beholden for their apotheosis to the admiration and affection of the people. The real history of their adventures, corrupted by tradition, and elevated by the marvellous, become a plentiful source of fable; especially in passing through the hands of poets, allegorists, and priests, who successively improved upon the wonder and astonishment of the ignorant multitude.
Painters too and sculptors came in for their share of profit in the sacred mysteries; and furnishing men with sensible representations of their divinities, whom they cloathed in human figures, gave great encrease to the public devotion, and determined its object. It was probably for want of these arts in rude and barbarous ages, that men deified plants, animals, and even brute, unorganized matter; and rather than be without a sensible object of worship, affixed divinity to such ungainly forms.
Could any statuary of Syria, in early times, have formed a just figure of Apollo, the conic stone, Heliogabalus, had never become the object of such profound adoration, and been received as a representation of the solar deity034*.
Stilpo was banished by the council of Areopagus, for affirming that the Minerva in the citadel was no divinity; but the workmanship of Phidias, the sculptor035†. What degree of reason must we expect in the religious belief of the vulgar in other nations; when Athenians and Areopagites could entertain such gross conceptions?
These then are the general principles of polytheism, founded in human nature, and little or nothing dependent on caprice and accident. As the causes, which bestow happiness or misery, are, in general, very little known and very uncertain, our anxious concern endeavours to attain a determinate idea of them; and finds no better expedient than to represent them as intelligent voluntary agents, like ourselves; only somewhat superior in power and wisdom. The limited influence of these agents, and their great proximity to human weakness, introduce the various distribution and division of their authority; and thereby give rise to allegory. The same principles naturally deify mortals, superior in power, courage, or understanding, and produce hero-worship; together with fabulous history and mythological tradition, in all its wild and unaccountable forms. And as an invisible spiritual intelligence is an object too refined for vulgar apprehension, men naturally affix it to some sensible representation; such as either the more conspicuous parts of nature, or the statues, images, and pictures, which a more refined age forms of its divinities.
Almost all idolaters, of whatever age or country, concur in these general principles and conceptions; and even the particular characters and provinces, which they assign to their deities, are not extremely different036*. The Greek and Roman travellers and conquerors, without much difficulty, found their own deities every where; and said, This is Mercury, that Venus; this Mars, that Neptune; by whatever title the strange gods might be denominated. The goddess Hertha of our Saxon ancestors seems to be no other, according to Tacitus037†, than the Mater Tellus of the Romans; and his conjecture was evidently just.
Sect. VI.Origin of Theism from Polytheism.
The doctrine of one supreme deity, the author of nature, is very ancient, has spread itself over great and populous nations, and among them has been embraced by all ranks and conditions of men: But whoever thinks that it has owed its success to the prevalent force of those invincible reasons, on which it is undoubtedly founded, would show himself little acquainted with the ignorance and stupidity of the people, and their incurable prejudices in favour of their particular superstitions. Even at this day, and in Europe, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds them with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another. These he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it.
Many theists, even the most zealous and refined, have denied a particular providence, and have asserted, that the Sovereign mind or first principle of all things, having fixed general laws, by which nature is governed, gives free and uninterrupted course to these laws, and disturbs not, at every turn, the settled order of events by particular volitions. From the beautiful connexion, say they, and rigid observance of established rules, we draw the chief argument for theism; and from the same principles are enabled to answer the principal objections against it. But so little is this understood by the generality of mankind, that, wherever they observe any one to ascribe all events to natural causes, and to remove the particular interposition of a deity, they are apt to suspect him of the grossest infidelity. A little philosophy, says lord Bacon, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to
religion. For men, being taught, by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation.
Convulsions in nature, disorders, prodigies, miracles, though the most opposite to the plan of a wise superintendent, impress mankind with the strongest sentiments of religion; the causes of events seeming then the most unknown and unaccountable. Madness, fury, rage, and an inflamed imagination, though they sink men nearest to the level of beasts, are, for a like reason, often supposed to be the only dispositions, in which we can have any immediate communication with the Deity.
We may conclude, therefore, upon the whole, that, since the vulgar, in nations, which have embraced the doctrine of theism, still build it upon irrational and superstitious principles, they are never led into that opinion by any process of argument, but by a certain train of thinking, more suitable to their genius and capacity.
It may readily happen, in an idolatrous nation, that though men admit the existence of several limited deities, yet is there some one God, whom, in a particular manner, they make the object of their worship and adoration. They may either suppose, that, in the distribution of power and territory among the gods, their nation was subjected to the jurisdiction of that particular deity; or reducing heavenly objects to the model of things below, they may represent one god as the prince or supreme magistrate of the rest, who, though of the same nature, rules them with an authority, like that which an earthly sovereign exercises over his subjects and vassals. Whether this god, therefore, be considered as their peculiar patron, or as the general sovereign of heaven, his votaries will endeavour, by every art, to insinuate themselves into his favour; and supposing him to be pleased, like themselves, with praise and flattery, there is no eulogy or exaggeration, which will be spared in their addresses to him. In proportion as men’s fears or distresses become more urgent, they still invent new strains of adulation; and even he who outdoes his predecessor in swelling up the titles of his divinity, is sure to be outdone by his successor in newer and more pompous epithets of praise. Thus they proceed; till at last they arrive at infinity itself, beyond which there is no farther progress: And it is well, if, in striving to get farther, and to represent a magnificent simplicity, they run not into inexplicable mystery, and destroy the intelligent nature of their deity, on
which alone any rational worship or adoration can be founded. While they confine themselves to the notion of a perfect being, the creator of the world, they coincide, by chance, with the principles of reason and true philosophy; though they are guided to that notion, not by reason, of which they are in a great measure incapable, but by the adulation and fears of the most vulgar superstition.
We often find, amongst barbarous nations, and even sometimes amongst civilized, that, when every strain of flattery has been exhausted towards arbitrary princes, when every human quality has been applauded to the utmost; their servile courtiers represent them, at last, as real divinities, and point them out to the people as objects of adoration. How much more natural, therefore, is it, that a limited deity, who at first is supposed only the immediate author of the particular goods and ills in life, should in the end be represented as sovereign maker and modifier of the universe?
Even where this notion of a supreme deity is already established; though it ought naturally to lessen every other worship, and abase every object of reverence, yet if a nation has entertained the opinion of a subordinate tutelar divinity, saint, or angel; their addresses to that being gradually rise upon them, and encroach on the adoration due to their supreme deity. The Virgin Mary, ere checked by the reformation, had proceeded, from being merely a good woman, to usurp many attributes of the Almighty: God and St. Nicholas go hand in hand, in all the prayers and petitions of the Muscovites.
Thus the deity, who, from love, converted himself into a bull, in order to carry off Europa; and who, from ambition, dethroned his father, Saturn, became the Optimus Maximus of the heathens. Thus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, became the supreme deity or Jehovah of the Jews.
The Jacobins, who denied the immaculate conception, have ever been very unhappy in their doctrine, even though political reasons have kept the Romish church from condemning it. The Cordeliers have run away with all the popularity. But in the fifteenth century, as we learn from Boulainvilliers038*, an ItalianCordelier maintained, that, during the three days, when Christ was interred, the hypostatic union was dissolved, and that his human nature was not a proper object of adoration, during that period. Without the art of divination, one might foretel, that so gross and impious a blasphemy would not fail to be anathematized by the people. It was the occasion of great insults on the part of the Jacobins; who now got some recompence for their misfortunes in the war about the immaculate conception.
Rather than relinquish this propensity to adulation, religionists, in all ages, have involved themselves in the greatest absurdities and contradictions.
Homer, in one passage, calls Oceanus and Tethys the original parents of all things, conformably to the established mythology and tradition of the Greeks: Yet, in other passages, he could not forbear complimenting Jupiter, the reigning deity, with that magnificent appellation; and accordingly denominates him the father of gods and men. He forgets, that every temple, every street was full of the ancestors, uncles, brothers, and sisters of this Jupiter; who was in reality nothing but an upstart parricide and usurper. A like contradiction is observable in Hesiod; and is so much the less excusable, as his professed intention was to deliver a true genealogy of the gods.
Were there a religion (and we may suspect Mahometanism of this inconsistence) which sometimes painted the Deity in the most sublime colours, as the creator of heaven and earth; sometimes degraded him nearly to a level with human creatures in his powers and faculties; while at the same time it ascribed to him suitable infirmities, passions, and partialities, of the moral kind: That religion, after it was extinct, would also be cited as an instance of those contradictions, which arise from the gross, vulgar, natural conceptions of mankind, opposed to their continual propensity towards flattery and exaggeration. Nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion, than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human nature.
Sect.VII.Confirmation of this Doctrine.
It appears certain, that, though the original notions of the vulgar represent the Divinity as a limited being, and consider him only as the particular cause of health or sickness; plenty or want; prosperity or adversity; yet when more magnificent ideas are urged upon them, they esteem it dangerous to refuse their assent. Will you say, that your deity is finite and bounded in his perfections; may be overcome by a greater force; is subject to human passions, pains, and infirmities; has a beginning, and may have an end? This they dare not affirm; but thinking it safest to comply with the higher encomiums, they endeavour, by an affected ravishment and devotion, to ingratiate themselves with him. As a confirmation of this, we may observe, that the assent of the vulgar is, in this case, merely verbal, and that they are incapable of conceiving those sublime qualities, which they seemingly attribute to the Deity. Their real idea of him, notwithstanding their pompous language, is still as poor and frivolous as ever.
That original intelligence, say the Magians, who is the first principle of all things, discovers himself immediately to the mind and understanding alone; but has placed the sun as his image in the visible universe; and when that bright luminary diffuses its beams over the earth and the firmament, it is a faint copy of the glory, which resides in the higher heavens. If you would escape the displeasure of this divine being, you must be careful never to set your bare foot upon the ground, nor spit into a fire, nor throw any water upon it, even though it were consuming a whole city039*. Who can express the perfections of the Almighty? say the Mahometans. Even the noblest of his works, if compared to him, are but dust and rubbish. How much more must human conception fall short of his infinite perfections? His smile and favour renders men for ever happy; and to obtain it for your children, the best method is to cut off from them, while infants, a little bit of skin, about half the breadth of a farthing. Take two bits of cloth040†, say the Roman catholics, about an inch or an inch and a half square, join them by the corners with two strings or pieces of tape about sixteen inches long, throw this over your head, and make one of the bits of cloth lie upon your
breast, and the other upon your back, keeping them next your skin: There is not a better secret for recommending yourself to that infinite Being, who exists from eternity to eternity.
The Getes, commonly called immortal, from their steady belief of the soul’s immortality, were genuine theists and unitarians. They affirmed Zamolxis, their deity, to be the only true god; and asserted the worship of all other nations to be addressed to mere fictions and chimeras. But were their religious principles any more refined, on account of these magnificent pretensions? Every fifth year they sacrificed a human victim, whom they sent as a messenger to their deity, in order to inform him of their wants and necessities. And when it thundered, they were so provoked, that, in order to return the defiance, they let fly arrows at him, and declined not the combat as unequal. Such at least is the account, which Herodotus gives of the theism of the immortal Getes041‡.
Sect. VIII.Flux and reflux of polytheism and theism.
It is remarkable, that the principles of religion have a kind of flux and reflux in the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism into idolatry. The vulgar, that is, indeed, all mankind, a few excepted, being ignorant and uninstructed, never elevate their contemplation to the heavens, or penetrate by their disquisitions into the secret structure of vegetable or animal bodies; so far as to discover a supreme mind or original providence, which bestowed order on every part of nature. They consider these admirable works in a more confined and selfish view; and finding their own happiness and misery to depend on the secret influence and unforeseen concurrence of external objects, they regard, with perpetual attention, the unknown causes, which govern all these natural events, and distribute pleasure and pain, good and ill, by their powerful, but silent, operation. The unknown causes are still appealed to on every emergence; and in this general appearance or confused image, are the perpetual objects of human hopes and fears, wishes and apprehensions. By degrees, the active imagination of men, uneasy in this abstract conception of objects, about which it is incessantly employed, begins to render them more particular, and to clothe them in shapes more suitable to its natural comprehension. It represents them to be sensible, intelligent beings, like mankind; actuated by love and hatred, and flexible by gifts and entreaties, by prayers and sacrifices. Hence the origin of religion: And hence the origin of idolatry or polytheism.
But the same anxious concern for happiness, which begets the idea of these invisible, intelligent powers, allows not mankind to remain long in the first simple conception of them; as powerful, but limited beings; masters of human fate, but slaves to destiny and the course of nature. Men’s exaggerated praises and compliments still swell their idea upon them; and elevating their deities to the utmost bounds of perfection, at last beget the attributes of unity and infinity, simplicity and spirituality. Such refined ideas, being somewhat disproportioned to vulgar comprehension, remain not long in their original purity; but require to be supported by the notion of inferior mediators or subordinate agents, which interpose between mankind and their supreme deity. These demi-gods or middle beings,
partaking more of human nature, and being more familiar to us, become the chief objects of devotion, and gradually recal that idolatry, which had been formerly banished by the ardent prayers and panegyrics of timorous and indigent mortals. But as these idolatrous religions fall every day into grosser and more vulgar conceptions, they at last destroy themselves, and, by the vile representations, which they form of their deities, make the tide turn again towards theism. But so great is the propensity, in this alternate revolution of human sentiments, to return back to idolatry, that the utmost precaution is not able effectually to prevent it. And of this, some theists, particularly the Jews and Mahometans, have been sensible; as appears by their banishing all the arts of statuary and painting, and not allowing the representations, even of human figures, to be taken by marble or colours; lest the common infirmity of mankind should thence produce idolatry. The feeble apprehensions of men cannot be satisfied with conceiving their deity as a pure spirit and perfect intelligence; and yet their natural terrors keep them from imputing to him the least shadow of limitation and imperfection. They fluctuate between these opposite sentiments. The same infirmity still drags them downwards, from an omnipotent and spiritual deity, to a limited and corporeal one, and from a corporeal and limited deity to a statue or visible representation. The same endeavour at elevation still pushes them upwards, from the statue or material image to the invisible power; and from the invisible power to an infinitely perfect deity, the creator and sovereign of the universe.
Sect. IX.Comparison of these Religions, with regard to Persecution and Toleration.
Polytheism or idolatrous worship, being founded entirely in vulgar traditions, is liable to this great inconvenience, that any practice or opinion, however barbarous or corrupted, may be authorized by it; and full scope is given, for knavery to impose on credulity, till morals and humanity be expelled from the religious systems of mankind. At the same time, idolatry is attended with this evident advantage, that, by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, it naturally admits the gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other042*. Theism is opposite both in its advantages and disadvantages. As that system supposes one sole deity, the perfection of reason and goodness, it should, if justly prosecuted, banish every thing frivolous, unreasonable, or inhuman from religious worship, and set before men the most illustrious example, as well as the most commanding motives, of justice and benevolence. These mighty advantages are not indeed over-balanced (for that is not possible), but somewhat diminished, by inconveniencies, which arise from the vices and prejudices of mankind. While one sole object of devotion is acknowledged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious. Nay, this unity of object seems naturally to require the unity of faith and ceremonies, and furnishes designing men with a pretence for representing their adversaries as profane, and the objects of divine as well as human vengeance. For as each sect is positive that its own faith and worship are entirely acceptable to the deity, and as no one can conceive, that the same being should be pleased with different and opposite rites and principles; the several sects fall naturally
into animosity, and mutually discharge on each other that sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious and implacable of all human passions.
The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to any one, who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the gods? Those which are legally established in each city, replied the oracle043*. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities, in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves044*. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus045†, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.
The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.
The disciples of Zoroaster shut the doors of heaven against all but the Magians046‡. Nothing could more obstruct the progress of the Persian conquests, than the furious zeal of that nation against the temples and images of the Greeks. And after the overthrow of that empire we find Alexander, as a polytheist, immediately re-establishing the worship of the Babylonians, which their former princes, as monotheists, had carefully abolished047ǁ. Even the blind and devoted attachment of that conqueror to the Greek superstition hindered not but he himself sacrificed according to the Babylonish rites and ceremonies048§.
|I.||THE NATURAL HISTORY OF RELIGION.|
|II.||OF THE PASSIONS.|
|IV.||OF THE STANDARD OF TASTE.|
DAVID HUME, Esq.
Printed for A. Millar, in the Strand.
N.B. The copytext for the following works is the 1777 edition of the Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. The dissertations first appeared together in this 1757 collection, and in this order, but the actual text (and in some cases the titles) changed over time, and we follow the later edition here. For more details, see the Read Me page, especially section 6.