Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment
Thomas W. Merrill joins us to talk about the philosophy and political thought of David Hume.
What is it about British philosopher David Hume that makes him so popular? What was Hume’s attitude towards politics?
Thomas W. Merrill joins us this week to talk about Hume’s thought and his skeptical, empirical attitude.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Merrill’s book, David Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment (2015) is available from Cambridge University Press.
The Philosophy Bites podcast asked philosophers who their favorite philosopher was. Many of their guests chose David Hume.
The Amazon Kindle edition of Hume’s Essays is available for free.
Many of David Hume’s other works are available for free at davidhume.org.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Matthew Feeney: And I’m Matthew Feeney.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Thomas Merrill. He’s associate Professor of Government and Associate Director of the Political Theory Institute at American University. He’s also authored the new book, Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment from Cambridge University Press. A couple of years back, the philosophy podcast, Philosophy Bites, did an episode where they had a bunch of their guests—I’m guessing 50, 60, 70 of them just briefly say who their favorite philosopher was and these were all academic philosophers. And the two frontrunners by an enormous margin—I tried to look up the tally this morning but couldn’t find one, so I’m relying on recollection. But the two frontrunners were Aristotle and then David Hume, and I think Hume probably edged out Aristotle. So maybe we start with and we’re going to get into the specifics of Hume’s thought in his biography and all that, but what is it about him that makes him this popular?
Thomas Merrill: Well, I think Hume exemplifies a certain kind of skeptical spirit that speaks to a lot of people who get interested in philosophy and I think that’s probably the most important thing for the fact that you mentioned. I mean I think in terms of, you know, politics, I mean, you know, he’s a gigantically influential person on things that, you know, people Cato care about, right? I mean he’s a big influence on the American founding. He’s—you know, when James Madison sits down to write “Federalist 10,” he has Hume’s essays by his hand and there’s a pretty close connection that you can draw between Hume and Madison and, therefore, the rest of the American founding, Hamilton in particular.
Also, he’s—you know, he’s Adam Smith’s best friend, right? So he’s right there at the origins of what we like to think of as classical liberalism or commercial republicanism. So, I think those two things are the reason why people think Hume is important.
Matthew Feeney: And who was he exactly? I mean very influential in the American founding, but he was a Scottish originally?
Thomas Merrill: Yes. Right. So, he was a Scottish philosopher. I’m not sure that anybody ever has philosopher as a job title. He actually has a bunch of different jobs including being—he took care of a crazy guy for a while. He was a librarian. He was—and eventually he’s an author who publishes lots of books and he’s able to hold off his royalties. But he’s born in 1711. He dies in 1776. He writes one book, A Treatise of Human Nature, which is a gigantic failure and then tries again. It was a good lesson for all of these authors. And eventually becomes an extremely popular writing The History of England. It’s one of the major bestsellers in the 18th century and, you know, a very important work of political theory.
Matthew Feeney: And what was his, I suppose, philosophical project? Why are philosophers interested in him? What’s his—
Thomas Merrill: Well, I would say in the 20th century, philosophers were interested in him because they like the empiricism and the skepticism. I would say in his time, he’s not known for that so much as he is known for really, well, I think is the first generation of classical liberalism or what scholars sometimes called commercial republicanism. And so I think it’s in that mode as kind of a political educator or as a person who’s talking about ideas and trying to justify what really is in the mid-18th century, a radical new regime, that’s why he is important from a sort of political-moral point of view. We could talk about, you know, the 20th century on why philosophers like him if you want, but I think just from the political point of view, that’s the main thing.
Aaron Powell: So what do we mean by—I mean he’s known as a skeptic.
Thomas Merrill: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: So what do we mean by that? What was he responding to? And what did the skepticism look like?
Thomas Merrill: Well, so the skepticism—this is the way that the most complicated topic in Hume. He gives us—in his Treatise, he gives us kind of autobiographical description of the—you know, he understands himself to be a philosopher who wants to know what’s the truth about why some things cause other things and he gets to a point when he realizes in order to answer that question or explain why science explains the world, he’s got to have some answer to the question of what the ultimate cause is. Science doesn’t have that and Hume doesn’t have that. I’m not sure that anybody else really does either. And he presented almost as though he has an existential crisis, right? That there’s this kind of, you know, like “Oh, my goodness, I don’t know why does the sun rise tomorrow. How do I know that?”
And I think a lot—you know, many, many philosophers have had that kind of experience and recognized that as, you know, perhaps not inspiring but more honest than, you know, this kind of story that you might get from Aristotle. But one of the things that I argue in the book is that that’s not just a personal thing for Hume, that he sees this—he’s sort of telling the story as it were. It’s kind of a political parable. He sees that in European history that it’s not just him that has been interested in these questions about the ultimate cause, but that, you know, in medieval times this is what he call superstition that people come up with these accounts of what the ultimate cause is and then they try to rule in politics on the basis of that. But if that seems to be the case, nobody has kind of a settle answer to that. The political consequence of trying to make your philosophy in the grandest sense the basis for politics means religious warfare, non-stop religious warfare which is really the political story of Europe between 1500 and 1700.
So, his skepticism is I think an attempt to try to recognize first of all that that’s insanity, right? This is horrible and, you know, many, many people die. Without I think giving up on the idea that somehow these questions are questions that we can’t stop asking, right? That there’s some part of the human spirit that, you know, in Plato’s image wants to be outside of the cave and that Hume knows very well. And so I think his skepticism when he talks about it in the Treatise and in the essays is really an attempt to somehow do justice to both of those truths. That’s, you know, we are beings that want to know the truth about the world, but we’re also beings that need a certain amount of political sanity and want to be down-to-earth and, you know, not go off on crazy religious crusades or something like that.
Aaron Powell: So is this related to probably his most famous idea is that the problem of induction, right? Is that related to the skepticism?
Thomas Merrill: Absolutely.
Aaron Powell: What is that?
Thomas Merrill: So the problem of induction is how do you know that causes produce effects? And so when we start reasoning inductively about the world, we say, you know, well, what causes tuberculosis or something and you try to figure out what the cause is as a good empirical scientist. And that makes a lot of sense and tremendously powerful and, you know, there’s no doubt that our entire world has been transformed by it. But when you start asking why do we think that causes actually produce effects and if you turn the inductive process onto itself, then you sort of have to look for what’s the evidence that, you know, the world is a rational place and there is no evidence is Hume’s most basic point. And so that’s kind of a problem, right? Yeah. So that’s—
Matthew Feeney: It’s like a rather large one.
Thomas Merrill: It’s a rather large one, yup, that’s right. Yeah. And I think Hume would say you have to sort of face up to that, you can’t just try to like push that into a corner and forget about it, but you also don’t want to keep you from trying to figure out more sort of a piecemeal way that you can about the world that we live in.
Matthew Feeney: So that’s his I suppose epistemology and sitting here in Washington in the Cato Institute, we spent a bit more time worrying about politics which we’ve just written a book about. So what—given Hume’s conception of how we know things and how people—what was he thinking about politically especially given that Hobbes before him had written a very influential book, the Leviathan. So what was Hobbes’—sorry, excuse me. What was Hume’s politics and his attitude towards that?
Thomas Merrill: So, I think the scholarly term for him in politics is commercial republicanism. What that means in the first-hand sense is the political good for Hume is individual liberty under law. It’s not just individual liberty because, you know, that would be anarchy and, you know, strong people beating up weak people. But on the other hand, it is having a kind of protected space for individuals to live their lives in the way that they see fit. So, I think of Hume and really Hume and Montesquieu would almost exactly the same time I think from different points of view arrive at the same basic position that what you want out of a government is protection from violence but also protection from arbitrary power. And that means you want a regime that has rule of law as the most important thing and you want a regime that is able to back that up. So, when he thinks about individual liberty I think today, we often think about it as democracy that you get to have your say in politics and Hume’s view is more “I want to have a government that’s strong enough to protect me, but that is not going to come and do bad things to me basically.
Matthew Feeney: So how does he fit into the group of philosophers that we might call the social contract theorists who were also operating in I suppose similar sort of time period?
Thomas Merrill: So—yes.
Matthew Feeney: Or around then.
Thomas Merrill: So, Hume is in some ways very close to someone like Locke, but I would say there is sort of a family quarrel between the two. Hume has got famous criticisms the whole idea of the social contract, the idea that somehow there is this moment when everyone comes together and agrees. And Hume thinks that historically that’s false and if you say that the only legitimate regimes are ones in which everyone gave explicit consent, then that’s very difficult to actually have happened and that undermines the regimes that we actually have without sort of a clear better alternative. And so Hume is quite harsh on the idea of the original contract, but I think you have to—you know, so that sometimes people say Locke is the liberal, Hume is the conservative.
But I think it’s more complicated than that because Hume also—he says, “Look, the contractarians, the effective truth of contractarianism is if the government is screwing you, you have a right to repel and Hume definitely agrees with that that he thinks maybe we shouldn’t talk about it as much as Locke or Jefferson or something like that. It’s politically dangerous but it’s also pretty clearly a truth for Hume that when the government is oppressing people, people are going to push back. So it’s kind of a mixed bag. It’s wrong in the theory but right on the practice, I guess would be one way of saying it.
Aaron Powell: But he was a bit more reserved in his willingness to embrace revolution than say Locke. Like Locke, you know, as soon as the government is here to do these things, the moment the government stops doing these things, you need to overthrow it and make a better one.
Thomas Merrill: Right.
Aaron Powell: But Hume seems to think like, no, as long as the government is largely working or isn’t too awful, then you have an obligation to support it. Is that a fair or—
Thomas Merrill: Obligation is a tricky word. Yeah, I think the differences that Locke thinks, you know, if you’re going to have a revolution, you have to—you know, the people are naturally conservative and so you have to really talk them up into it, so you have to go way on the other end of, you know, let’s—you know, go get your guns. Hume thinks it’s much more fragile that political order can be destroyed pretty easily and he’s thinking of, you know, the English Civil War and things like that. So here’s an example of the difference between—of how Hume treats the right of rebellion.
In The History of England, he tells a story about Charles I who is executed by the parliamentarians. And in general, Hume is pretty clearly on the side of the parliamentarians and he thinks this is sort of the way that the right regime should be represented of democracy that protects property. Charles I gets executed and Hume tells this very, you know, sort of tragic story of this guy who couldn’t somehow figure out how to live with the new world that he was in. And then Hume—after telling the story, he says “Oh, and by the way, if there was ever a truth that you should hide from the people, it’s the idea that you can ever legitimately oppose your monarch and maybe even kill him. Never ever talk about this in public, okay?” And which is sort of funny. I mean like History of England is like the most read history in British, right? And so—and then he goes on for 3 pages to talk about all the cases in which you might do exactly that, right? And so it’s a very weird kind of dance that he does that on the one hand “don’t talk about this, but I am talking about this,” right? This is kind of a form of contradiction.
My own sense is that he’s playing with us that it’s kind of a joke, right? That he knows that you’re going to see through that he doesn’t really keep it a secret. But then he’s trying to give you kind of a lesson like exemplify how to handle it that this is a very sensitive thing that you shouldn’t just, you know, tell people go have a rebellion over every single thing, but you want to sort of preserve it as a possibility over the long run.
Aaron Powell: This saying—like I guess not saying what he’s really saying or what he wants to say seems to be a theme throughout his life though. I mean so we get with the Treatise there, many chapters were cut from the original, right?
Thomas Merrill: Yes, that’s right.
Aaron Powell: And he’s—
Thomas Merrill: Castrated of its noblest parts.
Aaron Powell: His work on—I mean he was an atheist, right?
Thomas Merrill: Yes.
Aaron Powell: And he kind of hid that. His work on religion was published after his death. Was this—I mean how much did this kind of play into the obviously his work on—religion and atheism, we had to cut out because it would have been bad for him, but these other ideas, how much did that sense of like people don’t like what I’m going to say play into maybe how he colored?
Thomas Merrill: I think he is—I mean I think a lot of the great philosophers are very self-conscious about how they say things in public and I think that’s an important theme that you have to keep in mind. It should also be said—so this thing that we just talked about, induction. I mean that is in a way the religious question without talking about religion because it is—that’s the thing behind it, what’s the ultimate cause or, you know, what is God, I guess would be the one way of saying it.
Yeah, I mean Hume, you know, hides certain things. He says he’s castrated of its noblest parts but many, many people were not fooled. I mean Hume tried to get a job as a professor at the University of Edinburgh and fails because everyone says he’s an atheist. So, you know, in some ways he’s not so good at that, right? And if you really want to keep a secret, you would just not say anything but I think Hume both wants to be discreet but also to say what he really thinks. So I think it’s—yeah, I’m not sure if that answered your question.
Matthew Feeney: So, you mentioning Edinburg remind me of another Scott that played a big role in Hume’s life, Adam Smith—
Thomas Merrill: Right.
Matthew Feeney: —who we think a lot about here at the Cato Institute.
Thomas Merrill: Sure, yeah.
Matthew Feeney: So, what was their relationship? They were friends, but then also perhaps more importantly, what was the influence on one another?
Thomas Merrill: Okay. So, Hume and Smith are best friends and they have a lot in common. Hume is the elder by I think 11 years. I guess from an intellectual point of view, Hume writes in the essays right around late 1740s or early 1750. He writes a whole series of essays about commerce that you might think of as kind of sketch for the kind of arguments that you’re going to see in Wealth of Nations. Wealth of Nations did not publish until 1776, so you’re really talking about 25 years later and Wealth of Nations is the much more sophisticated, fully worked out version of those arguments. But I would say that, yeah, what we think of as the arguments for commerce really come out of that milieu. I mean I would say it’s really Montesquieu in France in The Spirit of the Laws gives some version of this. Hume gives a version of this and then Adam Smith gives you the great Wealth of Nations.
Matthew Feeney: But they did agree—I mean correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember that Hume likes Smith’s thoughts. Commerce was a good thing, that it helped perfected or helped the people improve their life.
Thomas Merrill: Yes.
Matthew Feeney: And depressingly, I think—I mean—so Hume dies in 1776 which is the year of the Wealth of Nations is published.
Thomas Merrill: That’s correct, yes.
Matthew Feeney: And he did read it I think, but the—I know that there was a letter where he brings up some issue with I think the pricing system, although he’s a fan of the book. He says he has some qualms with it. It’s a shame I think we don’t know his in-depth criticisms. But does this attitude towards commerce come from some sort of deeper philosophical foundation? Where does that come from?
Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So I would say—so Hume thinks government’s job is to basically let you live your life and for that you need a regime that supports rule of law. But it’s not enough just to have like a constitution that says we’re going to have rule of law, right? You know, what Madison would call parchment barriers that it has to be—the regime has to be rooted in a group of people who are actually willing to support and stand up for the rule of law. So, when Hume looks at the history of England between 1500 and his time, the big sociological change is what we now call rise of the middle class. And Hume is really the guy who first kind of puts this on a map as an intellectual matter, and he says commerce is good because it allows people who are previously served to basically get off the plantation and to become artisans and manufacturers and live in cities and that they start to see themselves differently. And so from his point of view, they’re really the sociologic—the middle class is the sociological basis for regime that’s going to protect individual liberty. So, it’s good politically. It’s better for them because they are no longer under some, you know, feudal lord’s thumb and they can live their own lives, which might not be lives like Hume’s. They’re not going to be philosophers, right? But I think the most important reason is really just the support of regime that supports rule of law. That’s the thing that he thinks is ultimately the good thing.
Aaron Powell: Behind all of this is Hume’s moral theory, which he also—I mean—So, Adam Smith has this theory of moral sentiments and Hume is—often he’s also a moral sentiments guy and also gets—I mean today in kind of the modern virtue ethics tradition, he is seen as part of that as well. So, what does his underlying moral theory look like and how does it play into this—you know, we need to base our morals in something but this problem of induction makes it awfully hard to find the floor and figure out where to start.
Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So that’s a good question. I mean Hume is a skeptic and I think, you know, people—scholars today want to go back and find in moral sentiment theory kind of a new foundation for morality. I’m not so sure that that’s what Hume understands himself to be. I think he thinks—Hume beings are moralizing animals, so they can’t stop having moral opinions of praise or blame like this is right or wrong. That’s quite a different thing than saying that they always act morally, right?
And, you know, Hume is—there’s a lot of irony. He says, you know, the best regimes, the freest regimes, so republics, are often the worst for the provinces because people in the regime, it’s really good for them but when they conquer another regime, they’re perfectly willing to do all kinds of awful things. And so, I think for him the question is less can we establish the one true morality than it is thinking sort of prudently about what our actual interests. So he’s less on the sort of moralizing, telling people how to live kind of side of things than he is on what we see things in a very clear-minded empirical point of view will realize that it’s actually in our interest to have a regime that protects people’s property rights no matter who they are. And, you know, I can’t expect that my rights are going to be protected unless we have a regime that’s protecting everyone’s rights. And so it’s that kind of self-interest rightly understood I think would be a better description of Hume’s moral stance than some hifalutin here’s the, you know, universal principle that solves everything.
Aaron Powell: So this then depends on the people’s intution? Like is it kind of the state and the rules of justice and what the state ought to be doing have a conventional direction to them? Because if—so you’re depending on this group of people saying “Look, I have a set of interests and these interests are going to be furthered by political liberty of this kind and having a state that protects these things, but we can see broad differences in, say, cultures between what they value and so the ideal political system or would Hume’s system look different or fall apart in, say, places that weren’t 18th century England?
Thomas Merrill: Okay. So that’s a tough question. Hume thinks if you take an unvarnished look at what the human condition is, that’s we want better conditions and he thinks that that is kind of an elemental truth that can be hidden by all kinds of crazy cultural things. But that is, you know, part of just what it means to be a human being. He definitely doesn’t think that England should go around trying to tell everyone else that they should be just like England or trying to conquer them into being liberal democracy or anything like that. But I think he thinks if you—once you break the spell of religion as the sort of glue that holds society together and people start thinking honestly about what their interests are, they will more or less come around to seeing that something like a regime of rule of laws is really the way to go. But his arguments are always more on “here’s what your interest is and this is why it leads to this kind of regime.” I guess one way that I think about this, when he presents his political science—he presents himself as a political scientist more than as a moral philosopher.
Aaron Powell: Okay.
Thomas Merrill: I think that’s an important thing to say. And his main source if you read the essays when he explains his political science like what’s the source, well, it’s all Machiavelli like explicitly it’s Machiavelli. And I think that’s an important truth that he thinks realism is a better basis for a solid regime and for people’s commitment to the regime than it is talking about moral sentiments.
Matthew Feeney: Well, your question Aaron made me think. I mean the fact that, yeah, maybe Hume applicable to 18th century England but we started the discussion by talking about the American founding. And what was it exactly that made him so attractive to figures like Madison, Hamilton or Jefferson? Is it the rule of government exactly?
Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So it’s not Jefferson. Jefferson hates Hume. But, yeah, in Hume’s political science is a political science that starts from the proposition that you can’t expect people—you can’t expect rulers to do the right thing just because they’re nice guys that you need to set up institutions that are somehow going to—I think he says make it the interest even of bad men to preserve the constitution and preserve the rule of law. So, yeah, I mean you could think of Hume as the place where Machiavellian insights enter the constitutional tradition that you want to design institutions that ambition is going to check the ambition in the phrase of Federalist 51. Everything that you see I would say in Federalist 10 and Federalist 51 are—it’s not just Hume. There are lots of other people, but that’s the general spirit of Hume constitutionalism. We want to design institutions that are going to be build competition into the institution so that people are sort of more likely to do the things that we want them to do rather than the things that, you know, just tyrannizing everybody else as they’re likely to do.
Matthew Feeney: Why did Jefferson hate Hume?
Thomas Merrill: So, well, it’s a complicated story. So the American founders split as you know after the federal’s papers and there was a big fight between Hamilton on the one side and Jefferson and Madison on the other. And I think—so after 1800, Jefferson writes many, many letters, maybe a dozen letters saying that Hume is a really awful person. I think there’s one letter in which he says something like Hume has done more to undermine the rights of men in Europe than all the troops of Napoleon’s armies. And I think the easy answer is that he sees Hume as—he sets a team with Hamilton and there’s this residual bitterness over this titanic battle over what the constitution means in the 1790s. But I think there’s—I think Jefferson—in my own sense, Jefferson is kind of an enthusiast that he thinks if you’re morally correct, then everything you do is going to be the right thing. And Hume is much more of a skeptic that Hume doesn’t think that at the end of the day, if you have majority rule, that majority is going to do the right thing. And so I think there’s just a different kind of disposition that, you know, Jefferson—I think Hume would say Jefferson is more of an ideologue and that Hume is more of a disillusioned realist or something like that.
Aaron Powell: Is that willingness to—or that embrace of kind of the messiness like that we can’t have these perfect systems that we apply but that we cannot work with them. Is that part of the distinction between like you mentioned he thought himself more as a political scientist than a political philosopher. Is that part of that difference? Or I guess what does it mean to say he’s more of a political scientist than a political philosopher?
Thomas Merrill: So when you say—I want to make the contrast between political science and political philosophy, I would say political science versus moral philosophy.
Aaron Powell: Okay.
Thomas Merrill: And I think that it goes back to kind of the insight that you can’t—your preaching is not going to get you anywhere, getting people to do what you think is the right thing, that you need somehow to speak to their interest rather than to—because morality is what we all say in public, right? But oftentimes, when we get the chance, we don’t do that. And this is—I think when he makes that line about republics being the worst for their provinces, right when there’s no check on your power, you are going to act like a tyrant and he thinks that’s true about everyone including maybe himself. So, I think he always thinks—you know, you have to somehow start by speaking to where people are rather than where you want them to be. I’ll give you an example that goes back to the commerce thing. When he makes his case for commerce, he starts by asking by taking the point of view of the sovereign, right? The sovereign is the guy who’s going to make the choice, let’s say the King of England. And he says to the King of England, he says “Okay, you want to increase your power. What’s the best way that you can do that?” Well, maybe you would want to do that by going back to ancient Sparta and making sure that everyone is devoted to the cause, right? And having everyone on the same team and then you can—you know, have this army that you’re going to send out and beat your enemies.
But if you think about that, that’s actually not the right way to increase your power because it’s going to be much better if you say to the people, “Okay, you can go out and benefit yourself by engaging in commerce. You’re going to become richer.” And Hume says sort of like this sneaky advice to the sovereign. So they were going to get richer and richer and then when you need them, when you need an army, you can always come and take their stuff and force them into the army. You’re going to have a much stronger army because they’re—basically they’re going to think that they’re working for themselves when they’re actually working for you, right?
And so, it’s a very Machiavellian kind of real politic. If you want to have a strong country, you should allow commerce—you should allow the freedom of commerce because the country is going to be richer and then you’re going to have a stronger army. I think Hume is basically right about that. Okay? So that sounds very Machiavellian like there’s no morality. It’s just all real politic. But then the thing that I think is really striking and this is the other side of the story that people sometimes fail to note, right? Is that as Hume’s essays go on, it becomes clear what happens when the sovereign allows commerce to proceed. Well, you’re going to get this rising middle class. The middle class is going to become stronger and stronger and more and more people are going to be part of it. And then they’re going to start to see themselves as political actors and they’re going to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re like a big part of the society. We want representation in parliament.” And this is basically the story of England between 1500 and 1700, right? Is that the sovereigns, the tutor kings basically allow commerce to go and even while they’re killing off all the aristocrats.
But what’s the ultimate outcome? Well, eventually the middle class rises up and kills the king, right? So—and I think Hume knows that and his audience knows that and this advice that he gives to the sovereign that looks very real politic. It’s sort of like a poisoned apple, right? The sovereign has to do it. It’s in his interest to allow commerce to proceed, but over time, over generations, it’s also going to lead to the undermining of his own regime and eventually, right? So Charles I is going to have his head cut off, right? So, I think that’s an example.
So, if you think about it, Hume’s advice to the sovereign allow people to think they’re working in their own self-interest and it’s going to go down to your benefit. Actually, it describes the advice that he gives to the sovereign himself. He says to the sovereign “Do what you think is in your self-interest” and it’s going to have this long-term effect that supports free government and is actually opposed to absolute monarchy. That’s an example of what I would think of is the Hume sort of MO in trying to, you know, support political freedom and rule of law and that kind of stuff.
Aaron Powell: So then what did the political classes think of Hume at the time? I mean was he expressing in the zeitgeist or was he going against the grain? Did they have—do we know what sort of opinion they had of his political philosophy?
Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So that’s a good question. I mean lots of people think that Hume is dangerous, right? Like he’s—you know, I mean he has his reputation as an atheist and or as a “Hobbesist” or something like that. I’m not sure, you know, what the ruling classes of Great Britain in 1765 thought about this. I mean I would just say, you know, in a way, I mean Hume’s legacy are the Americans, right? And the whole discussion about, you know, the battle between Jefferson and Madison on the one side and Hamilton on the other, right? That’s the place where Hume’s influence really shows itself. And I would say Hamilton in a way says “We need more commerce. We need less agriculture” and that’s one interpretation of what Hume’s message is, right? So I would see Hume on sort of on both sides of the American struggle. That’s where I would see the main influence.
Matthew Feeney: So I want to ask a question about the English Civil War. So, it seems interesting to me that—so we have Charles I who seems to be a monarch who didn’t follow Hume’s I guess advice and—but then what was Hume’s attitude then on republicanism? Because it seems hard to square Hume’s attitude if—I mean am I wrong in thinking that he was skeptical of republics and, you know, okay with monarchy under certain circumstances? Because unless I’m wrong, he seemed to think that half-reluctantly that the execution of Charles I was—or the outcome of the English Civil War was the right one. Or am I wrong about that? I’m trying to—It’s been a while since I thought about this.
Thomas Merrill: So—yeah, it’s a complicated question. Hume is on the side of the parliament, so it’s a long battle between parliament and the Stuart Kings, right? Not just Charles but also his dad. And Charles’ father, James I, was, you know, representative of the divine right of kings theory and Hume thinks that that’s crazy and that that is, you know, in the long run a really bad thing. And so he’s on the side of the parliament I would say through the 1620s all the way up to the beginning of the English Civil War. But, you know, there are—final analysis, there are no good guys in the conversation, right? So, once the parliament overthrows the king, they kind of go crazy, right? They can’t restrain themselves. And I would say that, you know, for Hume, Charles I, the person may be not so important but somehow the institution represents some sense of constitutionalism, right? That we’re all in the same team and we’re going to allow ourselves to be bound by whatever the rules of the game are right now. And once that’s undermined, the parliament can’t get anyone to obey its orders, right?
So, the rest of the story is the important part, right? That parliament kills the king and them parliament is immediately overthrown by the army which is a bunch of religious fanatics. And then you have 10 years of dictatorship and Hume says, “Look, you know, in the grand scheme of things, it will be much better to have a republic with rule of law rather than to have a dictator.” But, under the circumstances in which you’ve undermined any sense of common belonging, dictatorship may have been the only regime that was possible in the England in 1650. That doesn’t mean that we like it, but that’s just kind of the way that it is. So, I think Hume thinks, you know, it’s better to have a regime where parliament is the main thing and you’ve got a king that somehow represents the nation as a whole. But once you’ve done away with the king, you have this long period between 1650 and really 1688. That’s one long sort of the Civil War as a cold war, right? With some hot moments. But it takes a long time to build up that sense of trust that you really need in order to have a regime that can rule by rule of law.
Aaron Powell: How well—so Hume has obviously in philosophy has had an enormous influence.
Thomas Merrill: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: But, in political science, I mean one of the risks of being super-empirical in your work is that as we learn more over time your conclusions can look wrong because it turns out we have better data. So how well has Hume as a political scientist held up over the years?
Thomas Merrill: How well is Hume as a political scientist? Well, I would say pretty well. I mean I would say maybe the most important point is that Hume doesn’t say “my empirical results are the only thing or the most important thing,” right? The most important thing is a certain kind of skeptical empirical spirit, attitude towards politics like the stance. And so even if the particular results are wrong, that you’re still exemplifying a certain kind of stance, okay? So that part I think is still strong.
But, you know, look, I mean was he so wrong that regimes that are devoted to allowing individuals to live their lives where they see fit are, you know, better on the whole than other kinds of regimes. That doesn’t seem wrong. Is he wrong that we need to have separation of powers in a certain kind of competition between different branches of government in order to keep any one government, any one part from becoming tyrannical. That doesn’t seem wrong. Is he wrong that in order to have these kinds of regimes, you need to have a kind of middle class that is dependent on—it can’t be that the government just gives everyone stuff, right? Because sooner or later the government is going to run out of places to get the stuff, that you need to have a vibrant economy. That doesn’t seem to be wrong either, right? So, those I think are the most important sort of empirical conversations, right? Or conclusions that he would draw. So, yeah, that’s what I would say.
Aaron Powell: So let me ask about—this is maybe jumping backwards in the order of how we ought to have been discussing things, but it’s okay. For listeners who are new to Hume or haven’t read him, the one line that lots of people know from Hume is this “reason is the slave of the passion” line. What does that mean?
Thomas Merrill: So, the classical model was—so if you replay this republic, right? Inside the soul, there are 3 parts, right? And they’re—on the bottom is desire like you want all these stuff, you know, sex and money and all that kind of stuff. In the middle is spiritedness, the part that gets—you get angry and you want to stand up and fight with people. And then on the top should be reason, right? And reason as calculative reason but also reason as somehow comprehending the whole of the universe. That seems, you know, whether that’s accurate. I mean there’s clearly something to that. We all sort of recognize those 3 parts. But that’s a very hierarchical picture of what the self is.
Hume’s view is much more the Machiavellian view that passion is the core of what human beings are, that the core of what human beings are is a sort of infinite desire for more and more stuff and that way he’s like Hobbes. And that reason is in many cases is an instrument of those passions rather than the thing that is somehow dominating or ruling the passions, that it’s not a separate faculty in the way that Plato seems to say. And—I mean I think that he thinks that’s an empirical question. He’s also—he has a different conception of reason I think than Plato does. I mean he’s thinking of something like calculative reason or Cartesian reason in which you’re just sort of saying, you know, what are the pros and cons or what are the benefits of the advices of this course of action.
So, and lots of people—especially Kantians find that to be a really disturbing thing to say that somehow we’re just these animals that don’t really have—because I think Kantians want to say there’s this part of us that’s pure reason that can somehow stand above our passionate selves and put it on to order. And that’s—I don’t have any great answer for that question. But I would say that Hume also has this sense that there is a sense of reason itself as a passion, that there is this part of us that wants to know the truth about things. And so when he says that in the Treatise of Human Nature, he says at the end of Book 2 and in several chapters later, he’s got a chapter on the love of truth and sort of like the culminating passion of the entire discussion. So he seems to think that there’s some part of the human being that wants to know what the actual truth is no matter how ugly or disturbing that might be. And that from a certain point of view, in Hume’s accounts of himself, that looks like that’s the ruling passion, right? That’s the passion that dominates his own understanding of who he is.
So, in that way, that’s not so far from the Plutonic notion that we’re not—I mean passion isn’t simply the same thing as I want a lot of stuff and I want, you know, more food and I want more sex or whatever. The philosophy itself for Hume is a passion and that’s an important fact. There’s another dimension to that question if you want me to—
Aaron Powell: Sure, yeah.
Thomas Merrill: Which is that—I mean the passion is also learned for Hume. The passion gets smarter and they get smarter and more efficient about fulfilling themselves and that his political science is in a way an attempt to educate the passions to being more sensible about, you know, what does it mean to try to seek satisfaction, right? So Hume’s political science is an attempt to bring reason to bear on passion. So, that also has to be part of that conversation.
Aaron Powell: I guess one of the things—I mean there’s real sense in reading Hume that you get less of in, say, Kant or many other philosophers of like a humanity that I think is a big part of his appeal that even if you’re disagreeing with what he says there’s a sense of like a—that passion for basically everything is there throughout it. In fact, I mean I was trying to think of this like is there anyone, any major figure in the Western canon outside of maybe Socrates that it would be more fun to go to a pub with than David Hume?
Thomas Merrill: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean I don’t know [Indiscernible] maybe or somebody like that. No, I think that’s right. I think that that’s part of the attraction of Hume, is that when he—I mean he understands himself as a philosopher that in order to understand all these hifalutin philosophy things, you have to start by understanding human beings and that means you have to understand them sort of as they understand themselves. There’s this great line from a Roman playwright, “nothing human is alien to me” that I think really captured something of the spirit of Hume’s political science that it’s not “we’re going to solve all these problems or create a rational order in human beings,” but that—somehow that’s part of the, you know, the joy of the things to somehow see human beings in all of their greatness and all of their ugliness, right? That Hume has a vivid sense of just what crazy, weird, wonderful, awful maybe things that human beings are. So I think that does go very much to your question about humanity. Yeah.
Matthew Feeney: Well, when I was first introduced or first read Hume in undergrad, I mean something that really comes out is that he is a joy to read of all philosophers. He clearly has a style that still resonates today that is still engaging and interesting. And I think some of our listeners who are perhaps not familiar with Hume might want to know where to start. If someone has listened to this and is convinced that he’s worth reading, where would you recommend that people new to Hume dig their feet in first?
Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So I think the core of the political teaching if you want to understand classical liberalism for me are really the essays, right? And both—so there are political essays at the beginning when he lays out his political science. That’s the stuff that leads into Madison. There’s also a really brilliant series of essays on philosophers that I think is also political in a strange kind of way. And then in the second part of the essays, there’s all these essays about commerce and there’s essays about how to think about politics, think about political controversies. So I think—and he means those essays to be accessible to the middling rank of men, right? To normal human beings, not to philosophers sitting in their offices somewhere, definitely not to professional philosophers, but to human beings who are just trying to figure out what’s this messy world. So that’s one place I would start.
I would also—I mean the text that’s closest to my heart is the text at the end of Book 1 of the Treatise of Human Nature in which he describes his what you might call his existential crisis about philosophy and his turn to moral and political things. To me, that’s a very short text. It’s harrowing, right? I mean he goes off the rails and it seems like he’s going to commit suicide or something. But that’s a text—you know, I teach a lot of undergraduates and I think that, you know, they often sort of when they really start thinking about the world, they also have that kind of skeptical crisis. There’s something that’s very vivid and very honest about that. But in some ways, all of Hume is contained within that one—you know, it’s like a 10-page chapter. So I would say those two things are the things that I would start with.
Aaron Powell: So for those of us today listening to this, I mean obviously Hume is of terrific historical interest. He’s of just plain literary interest. But what is his—does his thought have significance for where we find ourselves and the issues we face today?
Thomas Merrill: Right. So, I would say—I mean I think classical liberalism is still, you know, it’s not a force to be reckoned with and a serious contender in the marketplace of ideas. But I would say—I mean from Hume’s point of view, we human beings are always falling into ideological, like we want to have answers to the world that are going to put everything to a box and then just solve it. And he would say part of the danger of democratic politics is that we’re working out our own psychodramas on the—we want to solve the problem of the world and so we look for some savior who’s going to come along. And Hume is just very skeptical that there is any such person who’s going to save us from ourselves.
But there’s a passage that I think—it’s not so much the specific conclusions that I think are important for us today as a certain kind of ethos or certain kind of stance towards politics. And so if it’s okay with you, I’d like to just read this. This is from Hume’s essays, the very end of the book and he’s been discussing political controversies in English history and basically saying there’s something to be said on both sides of the question. So, this is from the essay Of The Protestant Succession. He says, “It appears to me, that these advantages and disadvantages” in the positions he’s just been talking about “are allowed on both sides; at least, by every one who is at all susceptible of argument or reasoning.” And so this is a [Indiscernible] and we just have to work through.
And then he goes on, “It belongs, therefore, to a philosopher alone, who is of neither party, to put all the circumstances in the scale, and assign to each of them its proper poise and influence. Such a one will readily, at first, acknowledge that all political questions are infinitely complicated, and that there scarcely ever occurs, in any deliberation, a choice, which is either purely good, or purely ill. Consequences, mixed and varied, may be foreseen to flow from every measure: And many consequences, unforeseen, do always, in fact, result from every one. Hesitation, and reserve, and suspense, are, therefore, the only sentiments that he brings to this essay or trial. Or if he indulges any passion, it is that of derision against the ignorant multitude, who are always clamorous and dogmatical, even in the nicest questions, of which, from want of temper, perhaps still more than of understanding, they are altogether unfit judges.”
I think it’s that temperament that kind of ethos that is Hume is trying to give us an education in. And one thing that’s really striking, right, so obviously there’s nothing that’s purely good or purely bad and so you just have to work through what are the pros and cons even of a commercial republicanism, right? There are some things that are good and some things that are bad. And there are going to be unforeseen consequences that are going to mess all of your expectations up. You just need to be ready for them. But I think the thing that’s really interesting is he says hesitation and reserve are the only sentiments he brings to this essay or trial that the attitude of the philosopher from his point of view and what a skeptical philosopher in politics will see himself as doing is doing essays, right? The original meaning of essay is you try something out.
Well, if you put this together with the fact that the title of the book is Essays, right? Moral, Political and Literary, I think he’s kind of clueing you in to what the meaning of the book as a whole is, that if you translate it, what a book of essays is practiced in being a philosopher, right? It’s not giving you the answer. It’s more like taking you to the gym and saying, “I need to work out. I need to exercise every day for, you know, 3 months before I run a marathon or something.” And that’s what all—you sort of have to take all these things in the right spirit that you’re sort of being forced to habituate yourself to trying things out to see what the pros and cons are. I think that’s really the spirit that—I mean, not to make any contemporary political statements, but that we need in American politics more than anything else. It’s so easy to become ideological and to me, you know, that’s the spirit of classical liberalism at its heart. That’s the thing that’s really still living about it.
Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.