David Hume
David Hume

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2 From enlightenment to romanticism

2.1 Working through the section

This section examines Hume's reasons for being complacent in the face of death, as these are laid out in his suppressed essay of 1755, ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’. More generally, they examine some of the shifts in attitude concerning death and religious belief that were taking place in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, through examination of this and other short essays.

These changes were wide ranging and driven by many factors. Religion touched every aspect of cultural life, as you will witness. The focus for the present course will be on debates surrounding the existence of God and an afterlife and the moral permissibility of suicide. These discussions are as fascinating today as they were then, but beyond this they shed light on the altering shape of the commitment to reason. Commitment to a particular conception of reason came under increasing strain as the century progressed, and this strain shows up well in the present context.

You will be looking at two short texts by David Hume (1711–76) Unlike the letters seen in the prelude, these pieces do not address one another explicitly. That said, many of the notions, arguments and assertions discussed were in the air at the time, and at a number of points they offer what are in effect replies to one another. Such disagreements will be highlighted in my commentary.

Opinions and disputes are as much a part of the cultural life of a society as paintings, music and literature. Just as portraits, operas and novels can be interpreted and evaluated, so can contributions to a debate. This was especially true during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the culmination of the Age of Reason. At no time in European history has the importance of reasoned opinion been given greater recognition than it was then, save perhaps in classical antiquity, a period looked back on at the time with such admiration precisely because of this fact.

It was in the written medium that the precision required for these particular debates could be most readily achieved, so written texts will be our primary focus. But the images accompanying this course indicate the extent to which intellectual debates were given vivid expression in media other than the written word. If nothing else, they served to carry certain messages home. That is one way in which they will be used here, and you should not treat the images and the associated comments as mere decoration. These comments will occasionally offer interpretations of the images that are tentative or that do not necessarily capture what was central to the painter's intentions; their main purpose will be to supplement my commentary.

One of the few commitments the writers of this time had in common was the need to persuade their reader, not merely through the use of elegant turns of phrase but through transparent and effective reasoning. In view of this, any proper engagement with these texts must involve a suitable response to these attempts at reasoned persuasion. In several of the exercises I encourage you to enter the fray and develop your own opinion of the matter under discussion. By the end of your work on these sections you ought to be in a better position to understand, compare and assess the views presented and defended in the readings. In other words, you should have become a participant in the discussion.

The readings have not been selected as typical for their time and context. On the contrary, each departs from the prevalent norms in unpredictable and often surprising ways, and always at personal cost to the author. Hume's deviation from religious norms cost him dearly in his professional life in Scotland, which was heavily Calvinist.

Their atypicality does not prevent the readings from being used as vehicles for the appreciation of tendencies in that period. Studying cultural history would be a dull process if it consisted of being given a checklist of themes to mark off against a series of typical cultural artefacts. The pieces you will be reading have been chosen because of their enduring value as contributions to a discussion; their service in the illustration and explanation of cultural trends would have been a happy by-product from the author's’ perspectives.

Because our authors were writing more than 200 years ago, their style is likely to be unfamiliar. Eighteenth-century prose had different punctuation, spelling and grammatical rules, and sentences could be long, complex and mannered. Punctuation and spelling have been modernised in the anthology, but there is no getting around the other factors.

Exercise 1

You have been exposed to eighteenth-century English already in the letters in the prelude. Reread the letter from George Horne to Adam Smith. Aim to appreciate the prose itself and not merely to pick up the general drift of his remarks. A good test of your having done this is if you can read it out aloud as if saying it yourself, putting the stress in the appropriate places.

Hopefully you will come to enjoy this elegantly expressed diatribe (without necessarily agreeing with its claims). You would not be alone if you found it takes time to come to terms with stylistic conventions of the eighteenth century. You will have further practice.

You should eventually expect to become practised at confronting and interpreting historical documents without the crutch provided by a running commentary, but at this stage the strategy will be to ask you to read the original documents only after you have been told what to expect to find contained within them. This strategy may give rise to a temptation to rely on the commentary and read the primary material less thoroughly than you otherwise would. If you ever feel the force of such a temptation, do not succumb! It is your engagement with the texts themselves that matters; the commentary matters only to the extent that it helps you to do this in a rewarding way. The exercises are designed with this in mind, and can normally be tackled only after the relevant portion of text has been read.

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