David Hume is known in our day as a philosopher, famous for his scepticism. He is taught in university courses for his ideas about knowledge, his theory of causality, and his argument against miracles and natural theology. Those who know of him at all most likely known him as one of the hugely influential tradition of British Empiricists, whose work is still an essential part of a philosophical education.
There was much more to Hume than his philosophical writings—indeed, in his own lifetime his philosophy was largely unappreciated. As a man of letters and statesman, however, he was one of the best-known figures in Europe. He was the first writer in English to be able to support himself—and indeed he did more than that, he amassed a respectable fortune—just by writing. This Scotsman was the author of a best-selling history of England, and celebrated and acclaimed in the fashionable salons of France. He was also a government diplomat, political writer, and military secretary. He was the jovial buffoon who loved entertaining; he was also the passionate lover who formed part of the court of a French countess (the mistress of a Prince), and almost threw over his public career to follow her.
In his own lifetime, too, Hume was known as the anti-Christian sceptic, and was not popular for it. Losing his own faith early in life, he proceeded through a long career of writing to mount various attacks against religion, or “the religious hypothesis” (a term very provocative in itself at the time). Hume explicitly denied being an atheist, and maintained various socially accepted forms of religion. He never renounced his membership in the Church of Scotland, and applied for two different university positions (which would have required signing the Westminster Confession) and was supported by some clergy; but nonetheless he continued to produce carefully crafted attacks on various religious arguments. This culminated after his death in the posthumous publication of his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Hume firmly rejected Christianity, and his arguments still stand and are taught as attacks upon the Christian religion.
David Hume was a man of the Enlightenment, that period of western history that self-consciously saw itself as freeing human society from outdated and unsupported superstitions. Political and ideological turmoil were intertwined. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Britain had just come out of a century of civil War in which a king was beheaded and Parliamentarian rule set up; a reaction in which the Protectorate was overthrown and the monarchy reestablished; religious extremes which led groups of people to leave the country altogether to set up new colonies in the ‘New World’. Hume’s Scotland was in the coming years to experience more turmoil, as the Jacobites, supporters of James II who had been deposed, raised an army in Scotland and challenged the throne. In the year Hume was born, Louis the Sun King was still reigning in France, holding lavish court at Versailles. The French aristocracy was to become even more lavish and decadent as the century wore on, until coming to a sudden halt with the French Revolution of 1789. During this time Voltaire and the other freethinking philosophes of France would reject church and religion, and welcomed Hume’s scepticism warmly. The year of Hume’s death, 1776, saw the American colonies declaring independence from Britain.
Hume regarded himself as a revolutionary, but of a much quieter kind. He saw himself as the champion of civil rationality and common sense, freeing human thought from irrational extremes in all directions. He was also certain that change had to take place, not with some intellectual or cultural elite, but through the general public (or at least the general reading public). He set himself up as a man of letters—not a specialist, and particularly not a university scholar, but one who prized writing accessibly just as much as writing intelligently. He wrote in philosophy proper, government, economics, ethics, religion, social sciences, and national history—and the last open to just about anyone who could read.
This put Hume in a growing group of literary scholars who reacted against what they saw as the pedantry of the universities. They wrote for educated gentlemen in order to reach an audience outside the universities, an audience that was more intellectually adventurous than that they would find within the universities at the time. In many ways, the new philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was laid directly before the literate public. Naturally this required a certain loss of technical precision, and depth of discussion; on the other hand, this new audience gave a freedom to discussion and willingness to explore new ideas that gave a great boost to philosophy. As one commentator has noticed, “Most philosophers today would regard it as impossible to present their works to the untrained; but philosophers of the Enlightenment not only made do in the face of these problems, they produced works that transformed Western civilization.” (Box, 1990, p. 17).
Hume must be understood as a philosopher who had a particular self-imposed mission to reform philosophy from what he saw as its stagnation in the universities. In particular, he wished to be rid of theology which he saw as mostly consisting of useless, or worse than useless, speculation. His philosophy was to be useful, and as such he attempted to establish firm boundaries beyond which philosophical discussion must not go. The realm of theology was firmly placed in the restricted zone.
To a large extent, this was an extension of arguments already put forward by theists frustrated with the abstruse rationalism of theological argument within the universities. Instead of returning to a biblical basis for knowledge of God, however, theists of the time frequently turned to natural theology to provide the grounds for their faith. Alexander Pope, whose writing Hume admired and strove to imitate, argued that the most pious way to discuss God was to regard his works in creation. Pope claimed that to attempt to deduce from first principles ‘down’ to God is to put human reason above God. Newton and Locke appeared to have demonstrated that the best way to affirm providence was through observation of nature. In this way, Pope wished to stop useless waste of argument. It was thought that what could be observed in nature was enough to reach the fundamental Christian doctrines—eternity, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience and providence.
As well as wishing to limit what he saw as useless speculation, Hume disliked emotional ‘enthusiasm’ of all kinds. He disdained the excessive zeal of the Puritans which had led to political turmoil; equally as much he disliked the licentious reaction of the Restoration.
“The reign of Charles II, which some preposterously represent as our Augustan age, retarded the progress of polite literature in this island, and it was then found that the immensurable licentiousness, indulged or rather applauded at court, was more destructive to the refined arts, than even the cant, nonsense, and enthusiasm of the preceding period” (Hume, History of England, v.6, quoted in Box, 1990, p. 23).
He and Johnson concurred with Addison that morality was consistent and had an affinity with elegance. The judgement of individuals should not overthrow the judgement of the many.
Hume took on, then, the task of establishing the limits of human knowledge. He insisted many times that philosophy was going astray when it probed the unprobeable. He hopes to settle vain disputes by showing them to be undecidable. It had been theists who had resisted useless theological quibbles by insisting that there are some things that cannot be known and should not be argued about; Hume, however, took this argument and used it to exclude anything beyond a most basic theistic agnosticism. He thereby used the arguments of Christian humanists against theism itself. Quite aware of what he was doing, Hume was subtly ironic, playing up this twist to the full.
Hume’s boyhood home had a tradition of wild ancestors, rakes and rattles, and learning. David Hume’s grandfather had fought for William and Mary, and was on the jury which condemned James Renwick, last of the covenanters, to death (Mossner, 1954, p. 13). He was also famed for several forays in kidnapping, and was stabbed once in a brawl over cards. David Hume’s father had trained in law, and even went abroad to study with the Dutch jurists who were acknowledged as providing the best courses; before he left, he had already been charged with fathering a child on one of his uncle’s servants. David Hume himself was to follow his father’s footsteps in this regard—he was charged with a patrimony case at the age of 22. Like his father, he was never declared guilty, and left the country. David’s elder brother succeeded to the family title, as a prosperous landowner. In religion the family was Presbyterian, and members of the Church of Scotland. In politics they were Whigs, strongly approving the Revolution of 1688, and the accession of the House of Hanover in 1714, and strongly disapproved of Jacobitism.
Hume later made the distinction that his family were political Whigs rather than religious Whigs, and so unreceptive to the religious enthusiasms of the covenanters and the evangelicals. They were known as a religious and god-fearing family and David’s mother Katherine is reported to have been sincerely and deeply religious. What this meant in early eighteenth-century Scotland, however, is open to discussion. Scotland was known for rigorous observance of strict Sabbath laws, with long services and family prayers. David reports he was religious when he was young, and subjected himself to soul-searching, testing his character against The Whole Duty of Man. One (possibly biased) description of this work reports:
“Its author’s name was never known, but it sprang at once into a semi-official position. It was chained in churches for the people to read. It was made the basis of instruction in the charity schools. It was accepted as the recognised statement of sound and sober Church teaching. If we want to grasp the type of Churchmanship that prevailed in the eighteenth century, we can see it in all its strength and weakness in this rather unattractive little volume. It was written at the height of the reaction against the Puritan theology, and its author tries to reduce religion to its most prosaic elements. Everything emotional, everything speculative, all passionate yearnings after holiness and communion with the Unseen are relentlessly excluded as delusions. Every sensible person ought to take care of his soul, for it is the most durable part of him, but to do so he must ‘act by the same rules of common reason, whereby he proceeds in his worldly business.’ He must go to church, pay his tithes, keep the fasts, avoid drunkenness, and seek to do his duty as a neighbour, a master, and a son. Whitefield may be pardoned his exaggeration when he said that its author knew no more about Christianity than Mahommed.” (Balleine, 1933, pp. 58–59).
Hume attended Edinburgh University from the age of twelve. After a general literary education, he took up law in the tradition of his family, thought evidently not of his own inclination. In Hume’s own later recollection, he was already devoted to philosophy, and spent his time reading philosophical works—although he evidently picked up enough legal knowledge to be appointed later in life as Judge-Advocate to a military expedition, and draw up various legal documents. It was apparently during this time of self-reading he lost his religious beliefs. “Religion he gave up slowly and reluctantly, even against his will, as it were, in the face of what he regarded as ineluctable logic. For to him, as previously to Butler, Hutcheson, and Home, the a priori argument of Clarke held no validity … And it is also clear that those religious beliefs were relinquished under philosophical pressure—that Hume reasoned himself out of religion” (Mossner, 1954, p. 64).
Mossner also points out that ethics played a big part in Hume’s philosophical progress. “An interesting feature of this reverse-conversion, and one that had evidently played no small part in bringing it about, was Hume’s change in ethical standards. As a boy, it will be recalled, he had tested his moral fibre against the stern catalogue of vices in the pietistic Whole Duty of Man. Still intensely earnest concerning personal morals, he now progressed—or retrogressed—to the more human evaluations of the pagan philosophers, Cicero in particular. As he later observed to Frances Hutcheson, ‘I desire to take my Catalogue of Virtues from Cicero’s Offices, not from the Whole Duty of Man.’ Smitten with the “beautiful Representations of Virtue and Philosophy” that he found in Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, the earnest young student “undertook the Improvement of my Temper and Will, along with my Reason and Understanding. I was continually fortifying myself with Reflections against Death, and Poverty, and Shame, and Pain, and all the other Calamities of Life” (Mossner, 1954, p. 65).
Hume abandoned law in 1729, at the age of 18, and devoted himself to study, wearing himself to the bone in the process. His moral introspection apparently inclined him to depression. At the same time he was investigating “a new Scene of Thought’, a “new Medium, by which Truth might be established.” (quoted in Mossner, 1954, p. 70). Mossner says
Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature was projected before he left college, aged fourteen or fifteen, planned before he was twenty-one, and composed before he was twenty-five (according to Hume later). In an effort to cure himself of his melancholy, Hume had gone to England and was in trade for two months, thinking that a more active life was the answer. He left in distaste, apparently cured, he then went to France to write the Treatise.
Hume was introduced to several philosophers in Paris, then moved to Rheims as a less expensive but still literary town. He visited good families there. Their identities are unknown but authors conjecture Jean Godinot, who would have given “added confirmation of his own notion of the essential dignity of human nature.” (Mossner, 1954, p. 97). However Rheims was also too expensive, so Hume left after a year to go to La Fleche in Anjou, and completed the major part of the Treatise.
In 1737 Hume returned to London, the Treatise completed. The Treatise was published anonymously, and Hume left out the section against miracles. Even so it was not well received. Hume set his failure down to style; he had failed in his own aim of making philosophy accessible for a general audience. He set about then writing popular essays that were published as Essays moral and political, still anonymous. In these, Hume attempted to recast his ideas in a more popular form, maybe to more success. Hume wanted to see philosophy spread from the schools to the world and into the church; modern moral philosophy, that is. (Mossner, 1954, p. 148).
Hume needed a job to support his career as man of letters, so applied for tutoring and then a professorship of philosophy at Edinburgh. He was apparently not appointed, after a long and drawn-out debate over several months. It would be useful to know more about this debate. This failure Hume put down to accusations of heresy, deism, scepticism, atheism—however it was evidently not simply a matter of religious intolerance, but tortured political manouevres (see Emerson, 1994).
Hume was then appointed privately as tutor to the Marquess of Annandale, who unfortunately became insane soon after. Hume was with him for about a year, humouring him and looking after him. Hume was not displeased; he was extremely well-paid, and had leisure time for reading, though not for writing. However the Marquess became more violent and needed physical attendance; also the Marquess’ agent was unscrupulous and trying to fleece the poor man. Hume opposed his treatment of the Marquess, and the agent tried to sack him. Hume eventually left, bitter but considerably richer.
In the final Jacobite uprising Hume was a political Whig though moderate. That is, he was against James. Once more, he rejected political enthusiasm, and was absolutely scathing of religious enthusiasm.
“The Idea I form of a political Whig is, that of a Man of Sense and Moderation, a Lover of Laws and Liberty, whose chief Regard to particular princes and Families, is founded on a Regard to the publick Good…the religious Whigs are a very different Set of Mortals, and in my Opinion, are much worse than the religious Tories; as the political Tories are inferious to the political Whigs. I know not how it happens, but it seems to me, that a Zeal for Bishops, and for the Book of Common-Prayer, tho’ equally groundless, has never been able, when mixt up with Party Notions, to form so virulent and exalted a Poison in human breasts, as the opposite Principles. Dissimulation, Hypocrisy, Violence, Calumny, Selfishness are, generally speaking, the true and legitimate Offspring of this kind of Zeal” (quoted in Mossner, 1954,. p. 186).
It would appear from this that Hume was against the religious of both sides; but considered the non-conformists much worse than the Church of England people. During the 1730s, when the Treatise was published, London was in a ferment of religious-philosophical controversy. Matthew Tindal had published Christianity as old as the Creation: Or, the Gospel, a Repudiation of the Religion of Nature, known as ‘the Deist’s Bible’. The multiple responses were led by Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature (1736). Pope’s Essay on Man also answered it. In 1739 the strongest effort was published; the Boyle Lectures A Defence of Natural and Revealed Religion. Hume decided not to plunge his ‘Of Miracles’ into this.
During 1746 Hume received a totally unexpected invitation to go a projected military expedition to America as a secretary to Lieut-General James St Clair. The trip to America never eventuated, but Hume saw military action in France, and diplomatic work in various European capitals. In 1749, therefore, Hume returned to England considerably wealthier, and finally able to indulge his desire to devote himself to literature. By 1757 he would be acknowledged as a leading man of letters, and in 1762 Boswell would write of Hume as “the greatest Writer in Brittain” (Mossner, 1954, p. 223). It was during this period that he wrote political essays, moral philosophy, and his immensely popular six-volume History of England. During this time Hume also moved back to Edinburgh, forming part of a rising literary community there. He failed to achieve the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, again apparently for political reasons, in spite of the fact that Hume attributed it to the opposition of the clergy, (see Emerson, 1994, and Hume’s letter to Clephane). Hume instead obtained employment as Keeper of the Advocates’ library in Edinburgh, giving him access to its 30,000 or so books.
It was also in Edinburgh that Hume became friends with the group of young, liberal-minded and moderate Presbyterian clergymen (Mossner, 1954, p. 274). These included Robert Wallace, Alexander Carlyle, Hugh Blair, John Home, John Jardine, William Robertson (leader of the party of young Moderates). Hume became involved in an internal controversy within the Scottish church in which his excommunication was threatened; in the end, his moderate friends won and indeed gained the balance of power within the church.
It was in 1763 that Hume took up public office again, this time as secretary to the English Ambassador to France. Hume had already received invitations to visit France, where his works were immensely popular. Particularly fervent invitations had come from one Mme de Boufflers, wife of the Comte de Boufflers and the principal mistress of the Prince de Conti, who had professedly a passion for David Hume, and had even travelled to London to attempt to meet him. During his stay in Paris Hume was to become devoted to the Comtesse, both in her brilliant salon and in private life. Even years later one of his last letters, written virtually from his deathbed, was to the “Divine Comtessse”.
Hume was venerated by Parisian society and met a friendly reception from the philosphes, especially D’Alembert and Diderot. Voltaire professed a high regard for Hume, although the two never met. They welcomed his criticisms of Christianity and his efforts on behalf of free thought. Hume, on the other hand, was apparently somewhat repelled by the dogmatic atheism of the philosophes, preferring to reexamine the rational agnostic. The most peculiar episodes in Hume’s connections with French philosophers came from his relationship with Rousseau. Hume greatly admired Rousseau’s writings, and was very pleased to meet him. When Hume returned to England in 1766 he brought Rousseau with him, and set him up in a country house with a government pension. Rousseau however, apparently never the most balanced of individuals, suspected an international conspiracy against him headed by Hume. He published a letter accusing Hume of this conspiracy; after various private exchanges Hume, considerably embarrassed and rather annoyed, eventually published a reply. Rousseau in the end never gave up his suspicion of an international conspiracy; Hume with some relief extricated himself from the relationship altogether. When Rousseau left England in 1767, evidently under the impression he was escaping severe persecution, Hume could only express pity: “This poor Man is absolutely lunatic and consequently cannot be the Object of any Laws or civil Punishment.” (Mossner, 1954, p. 536).
Hume’s final government position was as an Under-Secretary of State; but he became increasingly frustrated with political life, and in 1769 retired to Edinburgh. By this stage Hume was established as a great writer, still regarded as an infidel by some and the champion of freedom of speech by others. His retirement was occasionally marred by particular controversies over his writings, but Hume continued to revise his works and keep up a wide correspondence. From 1772 onwards his health gradually declined, and Hume began preparing for his own death. Part of this was to arrange for the posthumous publication of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which had been written back in the 1750s but which he had refrained from publishing. The approaching death of such a famous religious sceptic promoted some public interest, and he was frequently encouraged to reconsider; but Hume remained apparently unworried. An account by his friend Adam Smith reported that Hume joked that he might plead with Charon for a longer life on the grounds that “if I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition”; but that even so it might still take a few hundred years (Mossner, 1954, p. 601). Hume died a very successful writer and determined agnostic.
Hume was in his own lifetime, and remains so now, the champion of many against Christianity. However I would like to put forward the challenge to other researchers: did he really attack biblical Christianity, or was it merely British natural theology, and perhaps a non-biblical notion of the supernatural? There is not much evidence in his history that Hume really understood biblical Christianity. The opponents who so angered Hume, and the opinions whose illogic frustrated him, came from a tradition that was several steps removed from the Bible.
It may also be that what Hume reasoned himself out of was not Christianity but natural theology. He rejected the stern moralism of the Whole Duty of Man; and he rejected the rationalism of ontological arguments, and the argument from design. But to what extent was this Christianity? Why did Hume think that the truth of Christianity depended on a priori arguments? Furthermore, to what extent did Hume’s disgust of the political actions of religious people affect him — and how Christian were the ideas behind the political disputes?
These questions await another researcher who is in a position to delve into the writings of the time. I look forward to the answer.
Box, M. A., 1990. The Suasive Art of David Hume, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Balleine, G. R., 1933. A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, Church Book Room Press, Ltd, London.
Blaug, Mark (ed), 1991. David Hume (1711-1776) and James Stewart (1712-1780), Edward Elgar Publishing LImited, Aldershot.
Bongie, Laurence L., 1965. David Hume: Prophet of the Counter-revolution, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Clarke, Samuel, 1964. A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. 1705; A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion. 1706. Facsimile publication, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt.
Emerson, Roger L., 1994. ‘The “affair” at Edinburgh and the “project” at Glasgow: the politics of Hume’s attempts to become a professor’, in M. A. Stewart and John P. Wright (eds), Hume and Hume’s Connexions, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 1–22.
Flew, Antony. 1961. Hume’s Philosophy of Belief: A Study of his First Inquiry, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Kemp Smith, Norman, 1964. The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of its Origins and Central Doctrines, MacMillan and Co Ltd, London.
Livingston, David W. and King, James T. (eds), 1976. Hume: A Re-evaluation, Fordham University Press, New York.
Mossner, Ernest Campbell, 1954. The Life of David Hume, Nelson, Edinburgh.
— 1990. ‘The Religion of David Hume’, in John W. Yolton (ed) Philosophy, Religion and Science in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, University of Rochester Press, New York, pp. 111–663.
Smith, Norman Kemp, 1964. The Philosophy of David Hume: A Critical Study of its Origins and Central Doctrines, MacMillan and Co Ltd, London.
Strawson, Galen, 1989. The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David Hume, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
The Whole Duty of Man, author uncertain, modern English edition 1980, Griffith, Farran, Odeken and Welsh, London.
Wollheim, Richard (ed.), 1963. Hume on Religion, Collins, London.
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