David Hume
David Hume

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David Hume

5.2 Philosophy, religion and everyday life

Perhaps because he is aware he will be stirring up trouble by publishing his views on this topic, Hume warms to his theme by talking in paragraphs 1–4 about how he conceives of the relation between philosophy, religious ‘superstition’ and ordinary life. The rest of the essay can be read independently of this opening, but these early ruminations are worth pausing over. They reveal subtleties in Hume's sceptical outlook that are drowned out in the more polemical parts of the two essays.

Hume is concerned with which of these three elements – philosophy, superstition, ordinary life – is most effective at dominating the other two. He is especially vocal about how philosophical reason is an ‘antidote’ to superstition, where this is clearly meant to include religious belief. But he also discusses the relation of both religion and philosophy to the views and emotions (‘passions’) that serve us so well in ordinary life -what he describes as ‘plain good sense and the practice of the world’.

He notes with regret that religious superstition can and does distort our ordinary outlook, and in a ‘pernicious’ way. He gives one or two examples, including the example of superstition surrounding death and suicide. A clear statement of what he sees as the negative effects of religious beliefs on human happiness is found later in the essay (paragraph 12):

It is impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course, or invade the prerogatives of nature. It is impious says the French superstition, to inoculate for the smallpox, or usurp the business of providence by voluntarily producing distempers and maladies. It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life and thereby rebel against our Creator.

The result of this pernicious influence of superstition on common sense is that dams don't get built, smallpox doesn't get eradicated, and those for whom it is rational to do so do not commit suicide. (Women in particular, he remarks, are particularly susceptible to superstition. It is not clear whether he is recommending they study philosophy, given that, as we saw earlier, he thought women have relatively poor powers of reasoning.)

Hume's position can be summarised as: religious superstition can triumph over our ordinary views and emotions. And since philosophy is a ‘sovereign antidote’ to religion, philosophy can triumph over religious superstition. We might therefore expect Hume to think that philosophy triumphs over the views and emotions that ordinarily serve us so well in life, as and when these fall short. But Hume surprises us here. Our emotions are curiously immune to the influence of reason, he says; and in other writings he insists that our ordinary views and expectations, the habits or customs of our minds, will not bend to accommodate philosophical reasoning (A Treatise of Human Nature, I.IV.1). The relationship between the three elements – philosophy, religious superstition, ordinary views and emotions – is not hierarchical after all. None of them dominates the other two. The situation is closer to the children's game in which each participant simultaneously brings a hand out from behind her or his back in the shape of either scissors, paper or stone. Scissors shred paper; paper smothers stone; and stone blunts scissors. Hume's view is that philosophy cuts through religion; religion distorts ordinary views and emotions; and ordinary views and emotions are immune to revision through the application of reason.

Hume does not offer any lengthy reasons here for supposing that ordinary life is impermeable to philosophy. It is, however, a salient feature of his other work. Far from being a straightforward supporter of Enlightenment rationality, he was notoriously sceptical of the power of reason. For example, although you would never be able to guess it from the previous essay, he did not think the rule of analogy could be defended using reason. He thought this rule was simply something we blindly follow out of ‘habit'; the philosophical indefensibility of the rule can never alter this habit. So his appeal to this rule is actually an appeal to our common sense, which he thinks incapable of being grounded in reason. Hume is a celebrator of ordinary life, which is perhaps why he is so keen to defend it against the perceived threat of religion.

Evidence of this fondness for ordinary life was reflected in his personality. Famously, he enjoyed recovering from philosophical reflection by playing cards or board games. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume describes how playing games allows him to ‘dispel the clouds’ of scepticism, cure himself of ‘philosophical melancholy and delirium’, and ‘obliterate the chimeras’ that abstract reflection has led him to conjure up (I.IV.7; Hume, 1978, p. 269):

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 [it] in my heart to enter into them any farther.

This aspect of his personality divided those commenting on his death in the letters you read earlier. Adam Smith described the dying Hume as ‘continu[ing] to divert himself, as usual, with … a party at his favourite game of whist’ (quoted in section 1 above). The Bishop of Norwich lamented how low the age has fallen that we are to admire someone because he ‘knew how to manage his cards’ (also quoted above). The symbolism of backgammon and whist is that just as philosophy is an antidote to religion, ordinary life is an antidote to philosophy, and to sceptical paralysis in particular.

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Exercise 12

Read paragraphs 1–2 of the essay on suicide. Identify sentences that express Hume's view that (1) philosophy cuts through religion, (2) religious superstition distorts ordinary views, and (3) ordinary emotional reactions are immune to philosophical reason.

Discussion

There are several alternatives, but the following get his message across:

  1. ‘One considerable advantage that arises from philosophy consists in the sovereign antidote which it affords to superstition and false religion.’

  2. ‘History as well as daily experience afford instances of men endowed with the strongest capacity for business and affairs, who have all their lives crouched under slavery to the grossest superstition.’

  3. ‘Love or anger, ambition or avarice, have their root in the temper and affection, which the soundest reason is scarce ever able fully to correct.’

Paragraph 5 is where the essay really gets underway. In it Hume indicates the aim and structure of his argument and of the essay as a whole. Hume's stated aim is to persuade his reader that suicide is not ‘criminal’, i.e. is not morally objectionable. If suicide is morally objectionable, he insists, it must violate (‘transgress’) some duty we owe, either to God, to other people, or to ourselves. So the essay considers in turn our duties to (i) God, (ii) to others, and (iii) to ourselves, finding in each case that the act of suicide violates no such duty. Most of his energy is directed towards considering our duties to God. Duties to others and to ourselves receive relatively short shrift near the end.

Exercise 13

Find and read the brief fifth paragraph. Although they are not numbered as such, there are three further subsections. Duties to God are discussed in paragraphs 6–14, duties to others in paragraphs 15–17, and duties to ourselves in paragraphs 18–19. Find and make a note of these boundaries.

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