Saturday, 14 February 2015

DAVID HUME (1711-1776) PHILOSOPHER AND HISTORIAN.

 (By "I.S.O.")
 The bi-centenary of David Hume which occurred on the 26th ult., is a fitting time to recall the main incidents in the career and the principal achievements of one of Scotland's most illustrious sons. In spite of his great and acknowledged abilities and of his many undoubted services to his own nation and to the intellectual world in general, his name has, in the past, evoked to a remarkable degree the suspicion and dislike of the majority of his fellow-countrymen; on account of his openly expressed scepticism, concerning opinions and views held by a large section of professing Christians. However, after a lapse of two hundred years, with that clearer recognition of their real value which time, and distance lend to a life and a life's work; we may now survey his writings with that freedom from prejudice for which Hume himself pleads. In these days of widely entertained and pronounced views as to liberty of thought and speech, many are apt to regard with increased and increasing indifference those influences which disturbed the opinions so characteristic of his day.
  When Hume reached manhood, Scotland seemed to offer no opportunity for the use or cultivation of such peculiar talents as he possessed. He accordingly journeyed to France, where, stimulated by the scholarship around him, he wrote his first work—a "Treatise on Human Nature," published in parts between 1737 and 1740. The book met with little public favour, but learned men hailed its author as a distinguished thinker and an adept in abstract reasoning. His "Essays" followed, and in these—the essay on miracles in particular—Hume first antagonised the religious feelings and practice of his time. Amongst the evangelical section Hume came to be both hated and feared, and he was unreservedly denounced as an evil influence. At this period religious belief in Scotland permitted of little or no latitude. Between the hard and fast creed of the professor of an ironclad Calvinism and the contempt for all creeds of the absolute unbeliever no middle way was recognised. Hume's books were resented as tending to undermine religious earnestness, and, in the eyes of the popular party, their author was an arch-infidel. Hume learned to his cost the strength and value of the opposition he had aroused. To it was due his failure to carry the appointment to the chair of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh and also that of Logic in Glasgow. But to-day his "Enquiry concerning Human Understanding," and his "Treatise" are text-books in the very class-rooms to which he was refused admission as a teacher in his life-time. In building up with unswerving resolution and conspicuous ability his system of philosophy he erected a barrier in his progress to university distinction. His ability, his attainments, his teaching power were admitted, but sufficed not to stem the tide of adverse public opinion.

 But if Hume was at variance with the religious feeling of his countrymen, he was equally beyond them in his political and social philosophy. In his "Essays Moral and Philosophical," he proceeds to point out the evils which inevitably flow from universal suffrage, from aristocratic privilege, and from absolute monarchy and concludes, "that an hereditary prince, a nobility without vassals and a people voting by their representatives form an ideal government." To speak of a king as ruling by divine right and as God's vicegerent on earth is, in his opinion, only calculated to excite laughter. Here is a profound political truth from his "First Principles of Government," which evidences how far Hume was before his times:—"As force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion; it is, therefore, on opinion only that government is formed, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to the most free." On the whole, Hume's political opinions are tinged by his sceptical cast of mind. He sees but little good in existing institutions. Nevertheless, he now and again exhibits a clear vision of the future. Writing shortly before his death he expresses regret that the two most civilised nations of Europe, Britain and France, should be on the decline, and that barbarians like the Goths of Germany and Russia should be rising in power and renown. He favoured the extension of the suffrage and predicted from it the very results which are happening in our own day. He looks for a time when the electors will exact definite pledges from candidates, when, in short, members of Parliament will become in truth delegates of their constituents.

 Hume's maturer ideas on the nature of religion are contained in his "Natural History of Religion" and in his "Dialogues on Religion." In the second of these more especially, he elaborates his ideas. He was firstly and chiefly an inductive and speculative thinker intensely interested in the difficulties attending all research, and the best efforts of his life were directed to enquire in to the conditions of certainty in knowledge. As a thinker he lived apart, reserving to the printed page the public presentation of his speculations. Huxley, one of his biographers, and a frank and occasionally a severe critic, admits that Hume anticipated the results of modern investigation in declaring fetishism and polytheism to be the form in which savage and ignorant men naturally clothe their ideas of the unknown influences which govern their destiny, and they are polytheistic rather than monotheistic, because the first ideas of religion arose, not from a contemplation of the works of Nature but from the hopes and fears which actuate the human mind. All of Hume's biographers, including Calderwood, agree that a careful study of his works gives direct contradiction to the old idea that Hume was an "atheist." In philosophy he was certainly a sceptic in regard to everything that transcends individual experience, but nowhere in his writings can be found proof that his views on religion deserve the traditional and erroneous condemnation. This rested partly on and arose from the intolerance of ignorance, and was partly due to the difficulty of distinguishing between a man's theory and his faith. His philosophic scepticism necessarily reacted to some extent on faith and feeling, but it never eclipsed them. "He started," as Professor Calderwood remarks, "with the assumption that certainty depends altogether on the senses, and, as the knowledge of God cannot come in this way, religion was for him exclusively a matter of faith. No life of Hume can be accurate which describes him as an atheist." The prominence given to the sceptical element in his philosophy is largely responsible for the prevalence of the idea, but, in our day, a deliberate and critical examination of his writings enables us to form a truer and more favourable judgment.

 Hume's sceptical spirit attended him in all his enterprises. In spite of his earnest endeavours in his "History of England" to be dispassionate and fair to all parties, this spirit tinges the narrative. So much was this felt at the time that the History gave in some quarters more offence than all his philosophical writings. He has also been wildly attacked for his alleged gross perversion of facts. But many of his shortcomings in this respect are clearly traceable to his want of of knowledge of the common law of England and his too great reliance on ancient and unsupported chronicles. Notwithstanding all this, his book possesses and deserves popularity for the grace of its style and the easy flow of its narrative.

It is difficult for us in these days to realise the conditions existing in Hume's time in Scotland in the matter of religious belief. Intolerance was its strongest feature, an intolerance differing only in degree from that which included the stake and the rack among its instruments of regeneration. The God of the time was scarcely ever a God of love and pity, but was always conceived as a Deity ever on the outlook for transgression and ever ready with abundant punishment, both in this world and the next. As a natural corollary to this, the power of evil was invested with a personality which to us touches on the ridiculous and the pathetic. There was no parish in Scotland unacquainted with him, and the aged man or woman who could not recite instances of personal encounters with Satan or his agents was regarded as one who had neglected his or her opportunities in life. Scotsmen of all classes had indeed created God and Devil in their own image. In such a community as this it is no matter for wonder that Hume's writings aroused an intense feeling of repugnance and hostility. The educated were mostly with him and were his friends, but even they feared to incur the odium which open and avowed championship would excite. When asked by Hume, shortly before his death, to edit and superintend the publishing of the "Dialogues," Adam Smith declined the task, and when the book did appear, it bore no imprint and no publisher's name. To-day the "Dialogues" attract attention, not by their heterodoxy, but solely on account of their close reasoning, liberal views, and somewhat pitiless logic.

 To Hume Scotland and progress owe much. His writings, whatever their faults, and how ever much his conclusions may be traversed, gave an impetus to philosophical study and inquiry which has not yet been exhausted, and in his own domain he still holds a foremost place. The two centuries which have passed since his birth have been productive of what in his own words he describes as "a sensible change in the opinions of men by the progress of learning and of liberty," and to this end he has largely helped. He dealt mainly with the perennial aspects of the problems he discusses, and hence the abiding value of his treatment of them.

 The West Australian 6 May 1911,

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