It would be an exaggeration to say that when David Hume, at the age of 26, came back to London after his retreat at La Flèche, he had already thought all the thoughts he was going to think. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the famous Hume, who lived among the learned and judicious in Edinburgh so comfortably and, one might say, so smugly in his 18th-century way, was a superfluity. True, he had still to write the Enquiries, the Essays and the History of England, but his crucial thoughts were contained in the Treatise of Human Nature, which fell still-born from the press and was not resuscitated in his lifetime, and that work had been completed at La Flèche. The rest was a gloss, an attempt, at least as successful as such things usually are, to get his novel ideas into the thick heads of his contemporaries. Our heads also being somewhat thick, that is not to say that we can afford to neglect the later works and the many explanations, illustrations and applications they offer. But Hume shared that characteristic which is perhaps even more marked in philosophers and scientists than in the rest of the world, of concentrating his inventions in the early part of his life.
One might think of this pattern of development as being less applicable to Hume’s political thought than to his more radical principles. In a manner this is so, for the development of his political thought required more knowledge of the world than a studious young man could have time for, but the third book of the Treatise, entitled ‘Of Morals’, contains the core of his politics and, as David Miller is careful to demonstrate, the epistemology and the politics are all of a piece. ‘Bertrand Russell,’ as Miller says, ‘used [Hume] to illustrate the absence of any necessary connection between epistemological and political views, claiming to agree very largely with Hume in abstract matters while disagreeing totally with his politics.’ Russell himself would be a better illustration of there sometimes being a wide disconnection between the two kinds of thinking, his own liberal fantasies being promulgated with the prestige rather than the reasonings of a philosopher. What Russell and Hume had in common, apart from the radical acuteness which was their genius, was a deficiency of interior life, as manifested in their works, which gives those works a certain imaginative poverty. One has only to compare Hume with his contemporary Johnson or his predecessor Berkeley to see his deficiency in this respect. If Hume was a somewhat comic, not to say stuffy figure, it was on account of these limitations. He became a Scotch gentleman of a very self-satisfied Edinburgh, having been a ruthlessly self-critical young man with scurvy spots on his fingers and wind in his stomach.
David Miller has lucidly separated ‘the philosophical and ideological elements in Hume’s political thought’. He follows the philosophical clues to the point at which they establish ‘the terms on which Hume’s thinking about politics’ is conducted. He is able to show how limits are set to ‘the kind of argument that can be produced in politics’ – limits which people who have argued about politics since Hume have none the less continued to exceed. In our own scientific days, politicians and publicists, to say nothing of the intellectually, if not morally docile masses, never tire of assumptions and assertions which have no foundation either in reason or in experience. For Hume, ‘if political arrangements were not wholly arbitrary, the reason was that men as a matter of fact imagined and felt in similar ways.’ No doubt it could be asserted that that is a sort of empirical basis, though a shaky one. It is not, however, the basis on which utilitarianism, in its various manifestations, rests. Hume’s account of moral judgment recognises, as any realistic account must surely do, personal qualities which make no contribution to the general welfare, in any ordinary understanding of that term. This is the more impressive because he stands right outside the religious element in the Western tradition, which allows a continual interplay between worldly and otherworldly considerations: for Hume, religion is little but superstition and enthusiasm – an inadequate account, on any showing, but his rigour in this respect helps to give definition, if not definitiveness to his thinking.
The ideological components in Hume’s political thought may be taken – as Miller takes them – to start with ‘his conception of human nature, about which he held a view mid-way between the pessimism of, say, Hobbes and the optimism of, say, Rousseau or Godwin’. In Miller’s excellent phrase, the postulate is the ‘limited or partial benevolence’ of mankind – a phrase which surely corresponds to what most of us think we have observed in ourselves and in others. As it is filled out, the conception is seen to contain more local traits. An interesting point, in relation to our present discontents, is Hume’s observation that ‘commerce is apt to decay in absolute governments not because it is there less secure, but because it is less honourable’ – desire for social standing counting more with people than love of gain; it may well be that egalitarianism could produce the same results. In general, Hume’s outlook on society is very much that of a man well content with the position of the upper classes in his day and with the degree of progress which recommended itself to them.
With this ideology, and what Miller calls the ‘mitigated scepticism’ of his less desperate philosophical positions, Hume’s practical stance in politics did not differ in essentials from that of Burke or Adam Smith, although the situations and preoccupations of each of the three made for slightly different emphases. A significant point is that Hume died in 1776, and so before the enlightened talk of the Encyclopédistes had turned to blood. The less noticeable homicides of Hume’s world consisted mainly in the hanging of a large number of criminals among whom there was perhaps more than a fair proportion of what he referred to as ‘the meanest slaving poor’. The French Revolution certainly marked the end of the blandness in political reasoning which characterised the 18th century and of which Hume had his share.
The central question of political order is the question of allegiance, which, it is true, comes in many disguises – never more so than in our own day, which has a rich supply of cant words to confuse and indeed conceal the issue. One does not have to be an adherent of Mr Paisley to know that he is right to make an absolute distinction between those who accept the duty of obedience to the magistrate and those who do not – if wrong in the theological excuses he offers for something less than complete obedience on his own part. The problem of tenderness towards people manifestly disloyal raises its head also on the mainland of the United Kingdom, though happily not sharply as yet. There has been trouble with some who have taken great care that their disloyalty should not become manifest, or who have taken cover under a more or less open ambiguity. Of course those countries are happiest where such questions can be kept in the background, because more or less everybody is content with the constitutional arrangements and the dispute is only about policies, as has largely been the case here for the last three hundred years. It is possible to become too sleepy, however, as some notorious events uncovered in recent years have shown. There is the even more disquieting possibility that, in a society in which nothing is sacred except individual opinion, the very notion of the overriding claims of government may be lost. One need go no further than the Conservative Party itself, which has slid so far away from historic Toryism that many of its members think any intervention of the state is the work of the devil. Beyond that, and ultimately more menacing, is the growth of the superstition which attributes a reckless infallibility to the result of a vote, which is an intelligent device but only within an appropriate constitutional framework. There is also the assumption, encouraged all the time by thousands of persons who now make a living out of exploitation of opinion, that any group or any individual has a right to its interests while government has no rights at all. The unanimity here of free-enterprise Conservatives and the numerous more emphatically disruptive groups should cause a little reflection.
Hume’s arguments about the nature of allegiance demonstrate the uncertainty of this as of every other political conception, but only for the reason that the world is a highly uncertain place. His sentiment is that ‘liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinate to a reverence for established government.’ And so it ought. As with the physical world, there is a continuing reality which we ought to believe in, as a matter of common sense, wherever our fine ideas may take us in moments of speculation. ‘Custom, then, is the great guide of human life.’ It is in fact our guide through all the changes, whether we like it or not. That is Hume’s cold and sober equivalent of la carita del natio loco, which was Dante’s attachment in politics in the first instance, and for several instances after that, even though it did not prevent him from conceiving wider references for government or from subsuming all his affections finally in a universal scheme. The tepid philosopher refused to raise his eyes so high, or rather, by nature thinking first in general terms, he none the less saw the practical need to bring his thoughts down to the specific. So there was nothing irrational in praising actions ‘more highly when their beneficial results fell on those connected to us by ties of kinship or acquaintance’: that was ‘a feature of moral judgment which reason could not alter’. If ‘our interest is always engaged on the side of obedience to the magistracy,’ it is our present magistracy, our present constitution, that he has in mind, because it is established. Better the devil you know than the one some enthusiast proposes to you. Hume distrusted all absolutes, and what he regarded as the excessive attachments of the Tories as much as excessive claims for liberty. Yet in practice and by temperament he was probably more against change than Berkeley, whose more lively interior life allowed him to hold in mind simultaneously a belief in passive obedience and imaginings of freedom Hume did not dream of. No wonder he thought of tar-water while Hume thought of backgammon. David Miller does not wander so far from his subject. But, by following Hume so closely, he demonstrates both the need for using our wits as far as we can and the impossibility of any rational or scientific politics.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.