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David Hume: Spokesman for the Comfortable Class

David Hume: Spokesman For The Comfortable Class

While the new order [the secular settlements following the religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries] appeared roseate in the “Myth of Reason and Nature” to Hugo Grotius and John Locke, their greater contemporaries were not happy. . . . [Unfortunately the great] work of Giambattista Vico did not become effective in England and France; the resistance had to develop independently out of the forces of those societies. While the results are modest compared with the work of Vico, the change of sentiment that makes them possible merits our attention, at least in some outstanding examples.

In England the decisive break came through David Hume (1711-1776). The Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740)1 brings the at­tack on Reason with the purpose of revealing the true foundation of morals and politics in the sphere of sentiment. It is a curiously hesitant approach, not particularly clear either about the principles of critique or about the results achieved. Hume is not a revolution­ary thinker, as far as the political order is concerned.

He accepts the settlement of 1688, considers as desirable a balance of power between king, Lords, and Commons, and defends Walpole’s regime because the ascendancy of Parliament, tempered by corruption, will provide the delightful Polybian mixed form of government that is most conducive to liberty for all. He is a conservative, swimming along in a settled society; he has no principles except the desire of maintaining the pleasant state of things without disturbance. He is a conservative, but he is intelligent and acknowledges that his sympathy for, and enjoyment of, the existing order is equivalent to an absence of principles; this absence of principles is what he calls his skepticism.

Society as it exists is agreeable, at least for him, and he analyzes the motives that determine his agreement with the property order as well as the constitutional order of his society. The motives reveal themselves as a complicated set of sentiments, customs, beliefs and conventions, but not as a reasoned consent to a contract.

The Useful But Limited Theory of Sentiment

It is the chief merit of Hume to have shown that a political society that corresponds to Locke’s ideals can be constructed theoretically out of sentiments. His theory of sentiments may not stand up too well if it is meant as an exhaustive analysis of political society, but it still has its qualities as a type description of the political attitude of the considerable mass of men whose only relation to politics is the desire to be left alone and to pursue their private affairs with as little disturbance from the political sphere as possible.

While this result cannot be called a great contribution to the science of politics, it was rather consequential through its negative as well as its positive implications. Negatively, Hume has taken great pains to demon­strate the absurdity of the contract theory as a theory of the origin of society. His critique of reason, which was merely preparatory to his philosophy of politics, has overshadowed what he considered his principal work.

When today the name of Hume is mentioned, we think of him not primarily as a political philosopher but as the epistemologist who asserted that the category of causality was a belief. This was an important step in the theory of natural science and determined Kant’s counter-theory of the aprioristic structure of understanding, but it was only of incidental importance for the the­ory of politics.

As far as the science of politics is concerned, Hume did not do much more than reestablish the position of Grotius. Reason is the function of formal ratiocination that has its place in mathematics, in the drawing of conclusions, and in the correct coordination of means to an end; but the subject matter to which reasoning is applied has to come from elsewhere, in the field of pol­itics from the human “propensities.” Nevertheless, the sweeping character of the critique of reason, eliminating reason relentlessly as a source of material knowledge from natural science as well as from religion, morals, and politics, left a profound impression and may be said to have dealt the deathblow to contract theory in political science.

Positively, his theory of sentiments had the consequence of showing that the principles of government could be found elsewhere than in reason; the way was opened again for an analysis of human personality as the center of political theory, though Hume’s own contribution to this end remained somewhat restricted.

Limiting the Damage Done by Philosophy

The restrictions are self-imposed; they are determined by Hume’s political attitude and his idea of the function of philosophy in English society. Hume’s philosophy is not rooted in mysticism like Bodin’s or Spinoza’s, but in the “propensities” of an English gentle­man of the eighteenth century. He describes admirably the dilemma of his position in the last section of book I of the Treatise (pt. IV, sec. 7; 1:249 ff.).

The search for ultimate principles, which would permit an orientation of life, has for its result the insight that there are no such objective principles. The answers to such questions as “Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread?” etc. (1:253), appear upon reflection as subjective determinants of the mind, acquired by custom. The endeavor defeats itself.

The further reflection penetrates, the more disquieting and unanswerable the questions become, until “I am environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty” (1:254). Reason cannot dispel these clouds, but Nature fortunately offers a remedy against this philo­sophical melancholy and delirium by relaxing the bent of mind:

“I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further. In this mood he still feels such remains of the former disposition that he is ready to throw all his books and notes into the fire and resolves “never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy.”

The sentiment of “spleen and indolence,” however, is not final. Philosophy cannot combat it, but Nature takes its course, and when he is tired of company and has taken a walk, his mind is again collected in itself; curiosity reawakens and if he would resist the philosophical sentiment “I feel I should be a loser in point of pleasure; and this is the origin of my philosophy” (1:255).

The nonchalant change between the philosophic and the social mood is, however, not entirely a matter of propensity. Human weakness would have to lead to speculative inquiries, because with­out reflection man would be given to popular fancies and super­stitions that might become dangerous to social peace.

Philosophy Preferred to Religion

Since it is impossible for the mind of man “to rest . . . in that narrow circle of objects, which are the subject of daily conversation and action” (1:256), there is only the choice between superstitious beliefs and philosophy. In that situation, philosophy is preferable. For supersti­tions seize more strongly on the mind and disturb conduct and ac­tions, while philosophy, “if just, can present us only with mild and moderate sentiments.”

Rarely does it occur that philosophers run into extravagances of conduct like the Cynics. “Generally speak­ing, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” The last remark gives the key to Hume’s philosophical attitude. Religion is still a public danger and should be banished; philosophy, a cooler form of occupation with the position of man in the uni­verse, is safer, though sometimes it may get too hot.

The “careless manner” of philosophy is the most desirable; reflection should go to the point where current beliefs in an objectively true structure of the universe, of man and society, are destroyed and the dangers aris­ing from faith (which is a synonym for superstition) are neutralized. The ensuing melancholy will be relieved by the employment with “domestic affairs” and the amusement in “common recreations.” It is a very hygienic philosophy, balancing a diet of speculative melancholy with more earthy pleasures, so that on the whole a settled society will run its course smoothly.

Sympathy, Convention, and the Naked Public Square

That society can run smoothly when by a little skeptical reflection the disturbing bubbles of superstition are pricked is due to the structure of human nature. The element in man that makes for coherence of society is sympathy.

“No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however differ­ent from, or even contrary to our own” (bk. II, sec. XI; 2:40).

It is difficult for men to follow their own inclination or judgment in opposition to their social environment; the psychological pressure is strong enough to operate, through empathy, in the direction of general uniformity. The effect of sympathy is all the more assured because human nature on the whole is uniform, and what gives pleasure to one gives pleasure to the other. If a man follows merely his self-interest he will soon find that he is safer in the possession of his life and property if he refrains from attacking others, and the others will see the same.

A mutual understanding that self-restriction is the better course in the long run will establish rules of social conduct based not on contracts but on what Hume calls conventions. A convention is a rule of conduct that is observed not for moral reasons, or because a promise has been given, but because by mutual understanding its observance is in the interest of everybody concerned.

It is not necessary to go deeper into the details: self-interest, a limited generosity, and sympathy are the forces that permit the construction of political society. The merit of the construction lies, as I have said earlier, in the fact that it describes empirically fairly correctly the attitude of large masses of people who are integrated into society by social pressure, self-interest, a vague sympathy, and unwillingness to oppose the settled order as long as the property and comfort sphere of life is tolerably secure; in brief, the ahistoric stratum of society.

The attitude and theory of Hume are in essence a confirmation of Locke. The peripheral sections of human personality are given the monopoly of constituting political society. Spirit is deprived of public status, and philosophy is added as a safeguard against unrest emanating from enthusiasms of any kind.

The “freezing” of history has reached its climax. On the other hand, a decisive change has taken place. The ahistoric society is no longer constructed by means of legal hieroglyphs but is presented realistically as a structure of sentiments, however defective the analysis may be in the details. Hume writes occasionally a sentence that recalls the atmosphere of Vico: “Human Nature is the only science of man; and yet has been hitherto the most neglected” (bk. I, sec. VII; 1:257).2

He certainly did not intend to open the way for the later anthropological philosophy of Kant and Hegel, but his critique of reason and his realistic analysis of at least the periphery of personality actually had this effect.



1. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Everyman’s Library Edition, 2 vols. (London: J. M. Dent; Toronto: E. P. Dutton, 1911, 1920); citations by page number in the text will be to this edition.

2. One should not overrate such affinities, however; I am giving Hume the benefit of the doubt. Actually, the quoted sentence may be no more than a conversational platitude current at the time; cf. the lines in Pope’s Essay on Man (London, 1734), 23 (Epistle II, lines 1-2).

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
the proper study of mankind is Man.

It would also be good for the better understanding of Hume’s previous shifting be­tween speculation to compare Richard Steele’s The Club at the Trumpet (Tatler, no. 132 [February 11, 1709-1710)), where the pleasures of dull company as a transition between thought and sleep are described delightfully in almost the terms of Hume.


This excerpt is from History of Political Ideas (Volume VII): The New Order and Last Orientation (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 25) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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