David Hume (1711-1776)
David Hume, a Scot from Edinburgh, lived in a day when witches were burned at the stake, along with those who questioned their preachers in public. It was literally life-threatening to be a skeptic, but Hume was unabashedly candid and bravely so and was condemned and discredited all of his life by the leaders of all faiths and was repeatedly blocked from receiving professorships in philosophy that he deserved much more than his peers. (Bertrand Russell received similar treatment some 200 years later.) Immanuel Kant, Germany’s greatest philosopher, who espoused a belief in God (if for no other reason than to avoid disrepute), publicly praised Hume’s works. Today, Hume and Kant stand as the two greatest philosophers of the 18th Century, despite the endless disparagement of religious leaders. Adam Smith (the revered author of Wealth of Nations, a devotee of resolute individualism and the father of capitalism and specialization and division of labor) may have said it best,
“I have always considered him [Hume], both in his lifetime and since, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.”
What better epitaph could anyone receive? Hume is best known for his three-volume masterpiece, Treatise of Human Nature, various Essays, and his scholarly History of England. His Enquiry on Human Understanding analyses the human mind, belief systems, superstitions and the like. Although he never admitted to atheism but, rather, only to skepticism of dogma (akin to Voltaire’s “detesting superstition”), all of his works were viewed as a threat to established religious beliefs. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (“DNR”) were published posthumously, as they would only have subjected Hume to more ridicule as an “unbeliever”. All of his writings were lauded for their clarity, elegance of style and erudition.
In DNR, he presents a conversation between three characters, modeling his work after Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods (also reminiscent of the Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita, which depicts a conversation between god, Vishnu, and everyman, Arjuna). Much of the discourse centers on the pros and cons of deism and theism – the former holding that there is a Creator who abandoned the world, and the latter asserting that the Creator continues to oversee the universe, our world and the lives of individuals. Hume primary assault is upon superstition and the devotion to ceremonies, sacrifices and practices which established religions require of their followers.
One can read between his lines his sensitivity to ubiquitous and unforgiving censors and judges who might relish imprisoning him on most any false pretense. His concepts, then, must be circumlocutive, strained, and euphuistic. He creates verbal structures to support propositions that science long ago proved to be the case. Then, too, he salts his weightier logic with profundities. Like Francis Bacon, he holds that “[in the long run] there be no such thing as Chance in the world…there is certainly a probability.” He asserts that “[O]ur ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions…things that we have antecedently felt…” He believes that “our Creator” must suffer “the same guilt” as man for man’s moral turpitude, as our Creator is “the ultimate cause and author” of man and, hence, man’s actions, including the “free will” or “free thought” of which man is capable. He views biblical miracles as devoid of any evidence that would even “amount to a probability, much less a proof.” Human testimony is hardly proof. Religion, in the final analysis, is predicated on blind faith, and reason has nothing to do with it. He believes that the Creator gave man the power to reason, and reason man must.
We must remember that he wrote almost 300 years ago, and to an audience that had often read little more than the Bible. Today, the brilliant Hume is a hard and understandably circumlocutive read. His short essays on various topics are infinitely more pleasurable.