Review of Phillipson’s Hume

Review of Nicholas Phillipson, Hume (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).

HumeMany people know of David Hume the great empiricist, the skeptic of causality, and the architect of a moral system based on natural sentiments. But in his own day, Hume was most famous as an historian and political analyst. This book helps us by providing an overview of those works of Hume which made him famous and fairly wealthy in his lifetime.

Hume’s youthful masterpiece, The Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), created only a modest ripple in reading society. A series of follow-up essays on matters moral, political, and literary (published over 1741-7) did not fare much better. Even his two Enquiries (1748-51), which offered brilliantly condensed and improved accounts of his philosophical ideas, met with little readership. But his Political Discourses (1752) were something of a hit, and they helped to provide a warm reception to his History of England, published in six volumes over 1754-62. After the last volume of this history was published, people asked him to continue the series with further volumes, but Hume offered four decisive reasons against doing so – “Because I’m too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich” (137).

Phillipson reminds us that the Britain of Hume’s day was arguing fiercely over the right frame to put around its own history, especially the tumultuous 17th century. Traditionalist Tories gave credit to royalists and placed blame on the rebellious mob, while forward-thinking Whigs did just the opposite. It was a political fight over who would get to appropriate history to which cause. In this contentious spectrum, Hume found himself somewhere in the middle as a skeptical Whig, reading history as demonstrating that while there must be some check on royal power, society also requires leadership by a firm hand. If any cultural segment deserved blame for the violent upheavals, it was the religious enthusiasts, who poured the gasoline upon any heated dissent. Religious extremism made governing nearly impossible, and mob action thoroughly irrational.

Hume delivered his history backward, starting with the 17th-century, and moving then to the earlier Tudors, and finally to the long earlier period beginning with the Roman invasion. His overall objective, according to Phillipson, was to demonstrate to his readers how one might provide judicious appraisals of political figures. A stunning example is Hume’s appraisal of Sir Robert Walpole, who served as something akin to a prime minister over the first half of the 18th century:

The private character of the man is better than the public : his virtues more than his vices : his fortune greater than his fame. With many good qualities, he has incurred the public hatred : with good capacity, he has not escaped ridicule. He would have been esteemed more worthy of his high station, had he never possessed it ; and is better qualified for the second than for the first place in any government ; …. During his time trade has flourished, liberty declined, and learning gone to ruin. As I am a man, I love him ; as I am a scholar, I hate him ; as I am a Briton, I calmly wish his fall.

In reading such a profile, we see the difficulty of reducing any real political figure to any simple role. There are always qualities which are at once strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, a careful assessment of circumstances usually reveals why figures act as they do, so that no one can be radically demonized as either evil or stupid. Hume demonstrates by example how to take the proper measure of historical events in such a way that, after reading any of his elegant accounts, one feels that of course that must be how things were, as they ring true of what we know from our own experience about humans and their difficulties.

But not everything is rationalized and forgiven, of course. Hume argues through his history that leaders fail when they, by their own neglect, fail to head off extremism and enthusiasm of any kind, but particularly religious. The artful politician knows how to balance opposing sides against one another so that neither manages to gain any real power. Only then, in something of a public bubble insulated from superstitions, can the members of a society find freedom, security, and the possibility of profitable commerce. Hume praises Elizabeth’s brilliance at doing this. Subsequent leaders did not manage the art as capably.

In the end, according to Phillipson, Hume’s aim was as much “to liberate human beings from the priestcraft of historians as it was to liberate them from clerics” (141). The historians of his own day twisted history to their own ends, just as clerics twisted philosophy to their own ends. Hume sought instead to provide his readers “with a model of themselves as historical agents whose understanding of themselves, their interests, and their happiness was shaped in the time-bound, historical world of common life” (141). He was, in short, an Enlightenment secularist. And whether his own ends twisted the particular history he offered is exactly the sort of question he would encourage his readers to raise.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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