Essays and Treatises on several Subjects. By David Hume.
Of Dr. Arnold's sayings, few are entitled to more attention than that which described the eighteenth century as the 'great misused seed-time of modern Europe.' The word 'misused' was perhaps one which Dr. Arnold's acquirements scarcely justified him in using, and it has about it an air of clerical disapprobation, which jars upon the mind in reading a criticism on a period so important in the history of mankind.
A good deal more of that history must pass away before we shall be able to say whether the eighteenth century did or did not misuse its opportunities; and, at all events, a man ought to be profoundly acquainted with a considerable number of difficult subjects before he is in a position to say precisely how, in point of fact, those opportunities were used.
Voltaire may perhaps be taken as the best representative of the feelings of one section of one of the most important of European nations during this period, and Hume is hardly less fit to stand as the type of the corresponding school of thought in another. The position of Hume in Scotland had many points of resemblance to that of Voltaire in France, though it had also points of contrast at least as important and characteristic. Each was the severest critic of the existing state of belief, especially of religious belief, in his time and country. Each had a strong practical turn of mind, of which he never lost sight, even in the most abstract speculations. Each was a sincere Deist in his own way, though each had rejected Christianity on the same ground.
On the other hand, Hume was as Scotch as Voltaire was French. He had none of the personal brilliancy, and general passion and aptitude for excelling in every conceivable subject, which enabled Voltaire to pass a great part of his life in the midst of a perpetual flourish of trumpets. He did not feel—at all events, he did not express—for the bulk of the human race, that savage and pitiless contempt which forms so prominent a feature in some of the writings of Voltaire. He had a far thicker skin, and had far less to irritate it. In reading Voltaire, the traces of a fierce indignation, like that which Swift commemorated on his tombstone, are everywhere apparent. He looked, and not without considerable reason, on the society in which he lived, as corrupt and abominable in a thousand ways; but this does not seem to have been the case with Hume. On the whole, Hume would appear not to have been dissatisfied with the arrangements of the world in which he found himself, and to have felt not only that he was well enough off, all things considered, but that the same might be affirmed of most of those whom he addressed.
Few things can set in a clearer light the difference between France and England in the eighteenth century than the difference between the assumptions which pervade the writings of Hume and of Voltaire as to the state of their readers' minds. In every page may be seen proofs of the fact that Hume expects to be understood and appreciated by a much better satisfied, and a less exclusive class of readers than Voltaire.
Hume's Essays are far more characteristic than his History of England, and give his readers much more insight into his mind. They are of very various degrees of merit; and those which constitute, in the common editions, the first part, which were originally published by themselves when their author was quite a young man, are greatly inferior to those which belong to the second part, published ten years afterwards. Some have about them a sort of debating-society air, and all convey the impression that the author is feeling his way and learning his business, and that he has not yet discovered, either the true direction of his powers, or the real bearing of his views.
With the Essays in the second part it is quite different. They are open to many and very serious objections, but when they are considered either in an artistic or an intellectual point of view, they are entitled to the very highest praise. They are perfect models of quiet, vigorous, and yet graceful composition, as full of thought as any writings need to be, yet never so much compressed as to impose needless labour on the reader. As to their intellectual merits, it is almost superfluous to praise them. They are the most complete, the most powerful, and, in essentials, though not always in language, the most accurate pieces of mental workmanship which the last century produced in Scotland. They contain the germ of all the most active and fruitful speculations of our own day; and it is curious, in reading them over, to see how very little subsequent speculation has added to a great part of what Hume wrote.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature about the Essays is the substantial identity of the vein of thought which runs through a variety of subjects that are apparently, and at first sight, unconnected with each other. The subjects of the Essays, in the order in which they stand, are—political economy, politics, metaphysics, morals, and theology. In short, Hume handles successively, and in the inverse order of their interest, most of the subjects which possess what, in these days, is sometimes described as a 'human' interest—the subjects, that is, which relate directly to the concerns, the thoughts, the duties, and the prospects of mankind. Some of these topics are widely remote from each other. For instance, there is little apparent relation between an inquiry into the populousness of ancient nations, and an inquiry into the nature of benevolence or justice; but, if they are read continuously, it will be found that a certain unity of thought and method pervades the whole, and that the subjects in question were by no means chosen at random, or without a more or less distinct conception of the common method in which all were to be considered.
The great characteristic of this common vein of thought has sometimes been called scepticism. Hume himself often employs the word, and, apparently, was not altogether averse to it. The somewhat sluggish good nature of his temperament led him to enjoy the formal and avowed repudiation of responsibility for the world and its prospects. He liked to push it all on one side, and to say, in the concluding words of his Essay on the Natural History of Religion, 'The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny concerning this subject.'
It is with such expressions as these, and with the habit of mind from which they spring, that Hume's name is generally associated. In popular denunciations Hume the Sceptic is always made to balance Voltaire the Scoffer. He himself would very probably have accepted the name and been flattered by it, but it may be said with considerable confidence that, if he had really deserved it, he would never have enjoyed anything approaching to the reputation which, in fact, has belonged to him.
Mere scepticism — the bare power of collecting doubts and difficulties from all quarters upon all subjects—can never, from the nature of the case, exercise much permanent influence on mankind. A mere cloud-compeller is, as a rule, no more than an intellectual juggler, whose feats rapidly pall upon the spectators, especially when they get to see how they are done. Hume was much more than this. Under his scepticism and indifference lay a set of doctrines which are open to serious objection, and which are certainly incomplete, but which are as far from scepticism as light from darkness.
He was in truth what we should now call a Positivist, and the real gist of his scepticism is not to throw contempt on all human knowledge, but to throw contempt on particular sets of popular opinions which in his days were even more influential than they are in our own. Whatever may be the subject on which Hume is inquiring, he always propounds some distinct opinion, and that opinion is always founded on facts. His scepticism ends not in universal doubt, but in an attempt, and in many cases a very successful attempt, to show what are the foundations, and, in part at least, what are the limits of real knowledge, and what phrases, professing to convey information, are in reality darkening counsel by words without understanding.
It appears to have been his greatest delight to show the ambiguities and contradictions latent in common words and modes of thought, and carefully and accurately to limit the degree of information which they do really afford. His analysis of the word 'power,' his inquiries into the nature of money, of interest, of causation, of justice, and many other subjects, are all conducted on the same principles. By applying all sorts of tests and putting every imaginable case, he ultimately arrives, not, as he sometimes affected to do, at mere doubt and difficulty, but at some result, involved, it may be, and implied in the common views of the subject, but generally supposed to form but a small and perhaps an unimportant part of the teaching contained in the established phraseology.
Hume, in fact, deserves to be regarded by no means as a sceptic, but as the founder, at least in this country, of the least sceptical and most positive of all schools of thought. A few words on each of the principal subjects of his investigations will set this in a clear light.
The arrangement of the subjects of his Essays is well worthy of notice. The order of subjects is, as we have said, political economy, politics, metaphysics, morals, theology— as if he had tried his strength and proved the justice of his method on the easier subjects, and reserved for his most mature experience and reflection those of the deepest and most permanent interest. It is as if he had said to himself, 'Before going into such topics as morals and theology, where there is so much risk of being lost in clouds of words, I will give proof of the solidity of my principles and modes of thought by trying them on subjects like money and trade, where they may more readily be tested by the results.'
The first division of the second part of the Essays— for the first part is but a sort of prelude—refers to political economy, and includes, amongst others, the famous essays on money, interest, and the balance of trade. The general drift of these essays is too well known to require notice, but in order to show the identity of the method which they follow, and of the sort of results which they obtain, with those which are characteristic of the other inquiries of the author, a few words upon them may be necessary.
It is obvious that Hume had been irritated and baffled by the language which he was in the habit of hearing on common occasions about money, interest, and the balance of trade, and that he had set himself down solemnly to seek out and set in order what was really solid in the matter. He communicates to his readers, not the process, but the result of his reflections; and he throws that result into a highly dogmatic shape.
The whole Essay is an amplification and illustration of the following sentences: 'Money is not, properly speaking, one of the subjects of commerce, but only the instrument which men have agreed upon to facilitate the exchange of one commodity for another.' The absolute quantity of the precious metals is a matter of great indifference. There are only two circumstances of any importance, viz. their gradual increase, and their thorough recognition and circulation through the State.'
In the same way, the essay on Interest is summed up in three lines: 'High interest arises from three circumstances—a great demand for borrowing, little riches to supply that demand, and great profits arising from commerce.' So his doctrine on the balance of trade falls into the following phrase: 'In short, a government has great reason to preserve with care its people and manufactures. Its money it may safely trust to the course of human affairs without fear and jealousy.' A great deal of scepticism, much rejecting of uncertain shifting phraseology, prepares the way for this dogmatism; but it all comes to dogmatism at last, and these dogmas, at all events, are usually accepted as true, and are acted on as such without hesitation.
The political essays are, on the whole, of the same character as those on political economy, though the subject was, for obvious reasons, less congenial to the author, being more mixed up with matters of fact. There is one essay on the idea of a perfect commonwealth which would seem to have been a mere amusement, unlike everything else that its author ever wrote, and of little or no value. Others, however, carry on the main vein of thought.
The essays on the Original Contract, on Passive Obedience, and on the Coalition of Parties, are all pervaded by constant repetitions of one keynote. Hume denies all a priori rights or maxims, and founds all his theories on the consideration of what exists as a fact.
'The true rule of government is the present established practice of the age. . . . Though an appeal to general opinion may justly, in the speculative sciences of metaphysics, natural philosophy, or astronomy, be esteemed unfair and inconclusive, yet in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard by which any controversy can ever be decided.'The way in which these principles were applied to metaphysics is well known, though its connection with Hume's other opinions is perhaps hardly so well understood. The connection in this instance, however, was not merely real, but express and conscious. In his essay on the different species of philosophy, Hume says:
'Astronomers had long contented themselves with proving from the phenomena the true motions, order, and magnitude of the heavenly bodies; but a philosopher at last arose who seems, from the happiest reasoning, to have also determined the laws and forces by which the revolutions of the planets are governed and directed. The like has to be performed with regard to other parts of nature. And there is no reason to despair of equal success in our inquiries concerning the mental powers and economy, if prosecuted with equal capacity and caution.'It was this caution which specially distinguished Hume. His metaphysics, which have been described as so sceptical, are in truth little more than an attempt, by extreme simplicity in thinking and in the use of terms, to lay the foundation of a fruitful and really scientific treatment of the subject. We start, he says, with sensible impressions. Our reflections on these impressions are our ideas. You might suppose that these ideas or thoughts followed each other at random, but as a fact they do not. They suggest each other, or are associated, and this association falls into certain shapes—namely, resemblance, contiguity, and causation; which last is afterwards explained in the most celebrated essays of the whole volume to be a form of contiguity—namely, constant, and, as Mr. Mill afterwards added, unconditional sequence. The general result is, that metaphysics, in so far as they are sound, are based, not on reasoning, but on observed facts; or, to quote one of the pregnant sentences which are so characteristic of Hume—'All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not reasoning.'
From these preliminary principles Hume advances to the consideration of facts which are rather psychological than metaphysical — Volition, Liberty and Necessity, and Belief. His account of Belief, which he considers under the head of Probability, is, perhaps, the least satisfactory of these inquiries, and his account of Liberty and Necessity the most satisfactory. It is a new application of the old principle. He throws aside all phrases, taking a half-malicious pleasure in exposing their weakness, and goes straight to the facts by a road on which all the most intelligent subsequent inquirers have followed him. No one, he says, denies the general uniformity of human motives and conduct, nor does any one deny that we have 'a power of acting or not, according to the determinations of the will.' Though these determinations may, in his sense of the word, be caused—that is, uniformly preceded —by something else, they are the determinations of the person himself, and call forth either praise or blame. An omniscient observer might be able to foretell that a certain man will, under certain circumstances, do wrong, but this is what is meant by being a bad or weak man. A doctor can foretell that if a person with an aneurism in his arm lifted a weight of twenty pounds the artery would burst, and this is what is meant by having a bad artery.
This illustration naturally introduces an observation on Hume's Essays on Morals. He treats morality entirely as a matter of fact. As a fact, moral distinctions are established amongst us. On what are they ultimately founded? To this Hume replies, that we have, as a fact, certain passions, amongst which are love and hatred, goodwill, or the wish to please, ill-will, or the wish to hurt, etc.; and, given the fact that men are living together in some sort of society, these passions will raise in those who observe them a variety of sentiments. And when the whole matter is considered, we observe, as a fact, 'that everything which contributes to the happiness of society recommends itself directly to our approbation and goodwill;' and thus he defines virtue as the aggregate of qualities either useful or agreeable to ourselves or others.
But what is the obligation to virtue? Here, it must be owned, Hume is at a considerable loss. After putting the usual case of moderate and successful villainy, he is reduced to saying:
'I must confess that, if a man thinks that this reasoning much requires an answer, it will be a little difficult to find any which will appear to him satisfactory and convincing. If his heart rebels not against such pernicious maxims, if he feels no reluctance at the thoughts of villainy and baseness, he has, indeed, lost a considerable motive to virtue, and we may expect that his practice will be answerable to his speculation.'More follows to the same purpose, but the gist of it is that, if a man will be a rogue, he must be a rogue; he has nothing to fear but his own conscience, if he happens to have one—if not, so much the worse for his neighbours.
Hume's theological views are closely, and most consistently, connected with his views on other subjects. He regards the whole matter as a question of fact, and the care with which he separates between fact and speculation is extremely characteristic. If his statements are to be taken as entirely sincere, he was himself a Deist, and was convinced of the existence of a God by that very argument from design which at present is so often treated with neglect and something like contempt. He says:
‘Though the stupidity of men barbarous and uninstructed be so great that they may not see a Sovereign Author in the more obvious works of nature to which they are so much familiarised, yet it scarce seems possible that any one of good understanding should reject that idea when once it is suggested to him. A purpose, an intention, a design, is evident in everything, and when our comprehension is so far enlarged as to contemplate the first rise of this visible system, we must adopt with the strongest conviction the idea of some intelligent cause or author.'Though this was his own view of the subject, he maintained at great length, and with surprising acuteness, that the genesis of popular religions was altogether another matter, and ought to be viewed as a question of fact. A great part of the most audacious speculation of our own day is anticipated in his Essay on the Natural History of Religion, and, in particular, the main outlines of Comte's famous theory of the three stages of belief are to be found there. Here, for instance, is the 'fetichist' stage:
'There is a universal tendency amongst 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.'Here is the metaphysical stage:
'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 final or positive stage he does not describe, but his own essays are an admirable illustration of that which Comte understood by the expression. It may be observed, by the way, that his examination of the meaning of the word 'power,' in the Essay on the Idea of Necessary Connection, is a complete anticipation of one of Comte's favourite theories.
Such is a slight and imperfect sketch of one of the most memorable philosophical works of the last century—a work which has had a vast influence on the thoughts, and consequently on the opinions and conduct, of the most eminent writers of this and other countries. To attempt, on the present occasion, to criticise it in anything like an adequate manner, would be presumptuous and absurd, but it may be interesting to refer to one or two of the more obvious of the considerations which it suggests.
No philosophy is worth having except in so far as it has reference to human life, and tends to make it better, happier, or wiser; and this is the only reason —a sufficient and conclusive one, no doubt—why true philosophy is better than false. There is also a great deal to be said for the proposition that the method of inquiry adopted by Hume is the true one—that philosophy ought to be thrown into the form of a careful mapping out of the facts amongst which we live, without regard to our preconceived notions, by which means we may ultimately arrive at clear notions about the world in which we live, and the resources of which we can dispose.
This method can unquestionably point to considerable results. Both in political economy, and, to some extent, in law, or rather in jurisprudence, principles have been established which have produced, and will no doubt continue to produce, at an increasing rate, highly beneficial effects on mankind. What results will follow when history, morality, and the management of the institutions founded on morality, such as politics and theology, have been fully explored by the same mode of inquiry, it would be presumptuous even to conjecture. We may learn a great deal, or we may learn very little, and may discover that, after all, there is not much to be known.
The fault, not of Hume's inquiries, but of inquirers like Hume, usually is that they treat with contempt a collateral question which is of great importance to the world at large, and especially, though they may not see it, to themselves and their own speculations. That question is, what is to become of the world in the meanwhile? One of the great difficulties of navigation is to get a fixed point from which to take your observations. If you could only persuade the ship to stand perfectly still for a given time, it would save a vast deal of trouble. It is just the same with respect to all those branches of philosophy which have special immediate reference to human life and interests.
Work out your philosophical politics and religion by all means, but the world cannot in the meantime wipe out its Churches, its Parliaments, and its Courts of Law.
Nor is this all. The philosopher himself is a man, connected by the closest possible ties with the world on which he speculates. He is a citizen, he is a friend, he is very probably a husband and a father, he may exercise some profession; if he does not, he is cut off from the most valuable sources of experience upon all subjects relating to human life. How is he to proceed in all these matters? Ought he, or not, to teach his children to say their prayers and go to church? How ought he, in respect of the same matters, to regulate his own conduct? The more fully the sceptical point of view is adopted, the greater the practical difficulty becomes.
Before coming to a final and conclusive determination on the subject, you have no more right to assume the falsehood than to assume the truth of a common opinion. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the opinion is true, and that you act upon the assumption that it is false pending inquiry into its truth, you obviously prejudice yourself against the truth, and diminish your chance of discovering it. A man who never prays assumes that it is not desirable to pray, and that assumption is as sure to bias his mind in a negative direction in an inquiry into the matter as the opposite assumption would be to bias him in the other.
Hence the first step towards true conclusions in inquiries of this kind is to settle our own position and allow for it. To do this is an infinitely complicated problem for any man; but it is a problem independent of, and separate from, the ultimate philosophical problem, and it is one of which ordinary men and philosophers each require the solution.
The two questions are, What is the truth on this subject? and what is it desirable for me, A. B. of Oxford Street in the parish of Marylebone, to act upon as true on Saturday, the 18th of July 1863? Few men really get beyond the second question. Very few of those who try to grapple with the first ever apprehend the existence, or attempt to provide for the solution, of the second. Hardly anything is more essential than that the importance, the distinctness, and the relation of the two questions should be fully and generally understood. If that were the case, ordinary people would cease to consider philosophers wicked, and philosophers would, perhaps, be sometimes reminded that the rest of the world are not altogether fools.
It should also be observed that Hume and other inquirers of the same class ought always to recollect, that they are only laying the foundations on which others must build. They are anatomists, and not physicians, and the consequence is that practical questions are apt to be their weak point. Hume, for instance, explains with admirable clearness what is meant by virtue and vice, good and evil, and what is the appropriate method of determining whether particular acts deserve the one or the other epithet; but he breaks down altogether in attempting to show why men should be good, and he does not even attempt to show whether there are any means by which a bad man may become good. The practical importance of these questions is at least as great as that of the questions which he solves, and men are quite right in not waiting for a complete theoretical solution of them, before trying to find some way of proximately answering them in practice. Without tentative bungling practice, no theory would ever be possible, and the two ought to go as much hand in hand, and to show the same sort of mutual respect, in morals and theology as they actually do in politics and medicine.
Saturday Review, July 18, 1863.