Hume's Use of the Rhetoric of Calvinism
Hume's Use of the Rhetoric of Calvinism
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter provides a new way of understanding the places in Hume's Enquiry concerning Human Understanding where use is made of the language of Calvinist fideism: most notably, in Sections 8, 10, and 12. Hume's deployment of such language, it is argued, needs to be seen in the context of the conflict within the Church of Scotland between the ‘orthodox’ and the ‘modernizers’. It was the modernizers such as Francis Hutcheson and William Leechman who had been instrumental in denying Hume the Edinburgh moral philosophy chair in 1745, and, as M. A. Stewart has argued, the first Enquiry is best seen as a response to that episode. In various ways it attacks the modernizers' way of combining natural religion with neo-Stoic ethics: Hume's use of the language of the ‘orthodox’ opponents of that strategy is one of those ways. It is pointed out that later on in the eighteenth century, some of the orthodox quote Hume's attacks on rational religion with approval. The chapter does not claim that Hume had any sympathy with the orthodox agenda. Rather, it is concerned with the complex rhetorical strategies used by Hume in his writings on religion.
Close to the end of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume claims that the ‘best and most solid foundation’ of ‘Divinity or Theology’ is ‘faith and divine revelation’.1 The remark is made as Hume sums up the consequences of the limits of the understanding. Pure reason is unable to establish anything with regard to matters of fact. When it comes to proving the existence of things, we are dependent entirely upon experience; and thus belief in God ‘has a foundation in reason, so far as it is supported by experience’ (Enquiry, 165), but, Hume appears to be intimating, such belief is not well supported by experience, and so has no solid foundation in reason. Nevertheless, it has another basis, in what is revealed to men in Scripture. We must assume that Hume is drawing some kind of distinction between, on the one hand, ‘Divinity or Theology’, which ‘proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of the soul’, and, on the other, the volumes of writings on religion that he foresees will be committed to the flames when they are subjected to the test of whether they contain either ‘abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number’ or ‘any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence’ (ibid.). Systematic doctrinal theology may be destined for combustion, but there is a set of core beliefs which some seek to ground in experience, and which Hume thinks are better regarded as having their foundation in the fact that the Bible affirms them to be true. It is not the case, needless to say, that every sceptic who recommends that religious people rid themselves of the illusion that their belief is rational is properly regarded as a sceptic about religion: we know that Montaigne, for example, is sincere in his fideism in the ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, as is Pascal in the Pensées (p.142) and (in all likelihood) Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary. Such writers clearly do not regard belief in God or the immortality of the soul as in any sense weakened or endangered by demonstrations of its rational untenability. On the contrary, they see their attacks on the pretensions of reason as a means of clearing an obstacle in the way of seeing that, in Montaigne's words, ‘the Christian faith … is, purely and simply, a gift depending on the generosity of Another’ (that is, on the generosity of God himself).2 But what are Hume's intentions here at the end of First Enquiry? Why does he use the language of fideism?
Before we consider possible answers to this question, we should note that there are several other places where Hume writes as one who believes that religious belief cannot be arrived at by reasoning, and who seeks to ground religious belief in a more direct encounter with the divine. In Section 8 of the same work, Hume concludes his treatment of the question of liberty and necessity with a declaration that ‘mere natural and unassisted reason’ is unable ‘to explain distinctly, how the Deity can be the mediate cause of all the actions of men, without being the author of sin and moral turpitude’: for ‘whatever system she embraces, she must find herself involved in inextricable difficulties, and even contradictions, at every step which she takes with regard to such subjects’ (Enquiry, 103). Section 10, ‘Of Miracles’, begins by insinuating that it is only ‘by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit’ that belief is possible in what is revealed in Scripture (ibid. 109). So long as one regards the New Testament as a document that merely provides evidence about the life of a historical figure, Hume goes on to argue, one is bound not to be persuaded by its claims, for there are never good reasons to take reports of miracles as reliable. But this, he reiterates in the conclusion of the section, should not be taken as an attack on Revelation itself. The point is only to remind us that ‘mere reason’ is insufficient to convince us of ‘[o]ur most holy religion’: ‘[W]hoever is moved by Faith to assent to it’, Hume writes, ‘is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience’ (ibid. 131). The essay ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’ begins and ends in a similar spirit: ‘it is the gospel, and the gospel alone, that has brought life and immortality to light,’ Hume says in the opening paragraph; ‘[n]othing could set in a fuller light the infinite obligations which mankind have to divine revelation,’ he says in the aftermath of his attack on metaphysical, moral, and physical arguments for immortality, ‘since we find, that no other medium could ascertain this great and important truth’.3 At the end, too, of the (p.143) Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, Philo contrasts the person ‘seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural reason’, who ‘will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity’, with ‘the haughty dogmatist, persuaded that he can erect a complete system of theology by the mere help of philosophy’, who ‘disdains any further aid, and rejects this adventitious instructor’: ‘To be a philosophical sceptic is, in a man of letters,’ he concludes, ‘the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.’4
It will be observed that Hume tends to restrict his fideistic pronouncements to opening and concluding paragraphs. David Berman has drawn attention to this as a characteristic feature of deistical texts. Berman shows that it is fairly common for a writer attacking the rationality of belief in a particular item of Christian doctrine to begin and end with an affirmation that the real basis of belief is to be found in revelation alone. Examining deist treatments of the immortality of the soul in particular, Berman distinguishes between irony and what he terms ‘theological lying’.5 One indulges in irony when one is sure that one's real meaning is easily understandable. One lies, by contrast, when one wishes to conceal one's real beliefs. Deists such as Collins, Tindal, Toland, and Blount, according to Berman, are not simply being ironic when they affirm the primacy of revelation. They are playing a rather more complicated game than that. There are three components to theological lying, on Berman's account. First, there is the literal meaning of the affirmation of revelation, employed to deceive the vulgar reader, so as to protect the writer from prosecution, and also protect those too tender-minded to be able to do without the doctrine in question. Secondly, there is the ‘esoteric’ message that a doctrine whose only support lies in revelation is not worth the respect of thoughtful and tough-minded people. This was signalled to other free thinkers (and also to clerical opponents versed in deist literature) by the cursory and formulaic nature of the appeal to revelation. Thirdly, and, Berman argues, most importantly, there is ‘insinuation, or gently and covertly suggesting the second component (the radical message) to some of those ignorant of it’.6 The deist hoped to do more than conceal his unbelief from some and to hint at it to others: he hoped that there would be those who would be so troubled by the contrast between the force of the attack on the rationality of belief in, say, the immortality of the soul and the brevity of the appeal to revelation that they would dismiss the doctrine altogether. Berman claims that Hume, in the essay on the immortality of the soul and elsewhere, uses this deist (p.144) tactic. All that separates Hume from earlier writers is that his ‘insinuation’ is more obvious.7
Berman makes Hume's agenda (and that of the deists) a rather simple one: it is to rid readers of as many religious beliefs as possible. In this paper I wish to complicate this picture of Hume's intentions, by placing his use of fideistic language in its contemporary Scottish context. There are, of course, many contexts in which Hume's writings demand to be understood, but one of them is the Scottish one, and I shall concentrate upon it here to the exclusion of others. My point of departure is the fact that, while Berman portrays Hume's writings on religion (and those of the deists) as a series of broadside attacks on a monolithic, homogeneous system of belief, the truth is that in eighteenth-century Scotland no such monolith existed to be attacked. From the 1720s onwards, Scotland was the site of a running battle between would-be modernizers of religion and those who clung to the theology, and with it the anthropology, of the seventeenth century.8 One focus of the dispute was the role which individual parishes should play in the selection of ministers: the modernizers upheld the right of the ‘heritors’, who paid the minister's wages, to determine appointments, while the reactionary party insisted that it was in the spirit of Presbyterianism that communities choose their own ministers. However, and as has been shown by Ian Clark, the central questions in this dispute were much more abstract, and had to do instead with relations between Church and State, and with whether the Church was to continue to consider itself an independent and inviolable community set up against the world and its temporal concerns, or to begin to see itself as a community which would work with the State in the pursuit of various kinds of ‘improvement’.9 The new programme had it that the preacher, instead of dwelling on Original Sin,predestination, the bondage of the will, and dependence on Christ's atonement, should seek to present the reasonableness of Christianity, and show how the life of politeness, benevolence, and industry had its surest foundation in the doctrines of natural religion. Hume regarded this modernizing attempt to involve religion in the renovation of Scottish society with great mistrust, and, so I shall suggest, invokes an old language of sceptical (p.145) fideism in order to insinuate, to use Berman's word, its superficiality. For want of time and space necessary for a full treatment of the subject, attention will be restricted to Hume's appeals to faith and revelation in the First Enquiry.
The standard interpretation of the passages from the First Enquiry quoted above is that they are no more than exercises in mischief-making and heavy-handed irony.10 My alternative, or supplementary, interpretation owes much to work recently published by M. A. Stewart on the context in which Hume rewrote Book i of the Treatise of Human Nature for publication in the form of a series of essays.11 Stewart has argued that some (though not all) characteristic features of what we now call the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding are to be seen as the product of Hume's failed attempt to secure the Edinburgh moral philosophy chair in 1745.12 According to Stewart, the First Enquiry is, at least in part, ‘effectively [Hume's] public attempt to rebut the accusations of his opponents’.13 Hume's attack on Stoicism in Section 5, his rejection in Section 8 of the idea that the falsity of an opinion is indicated by its having ‘dangerous consequences’, and his clarification of the nature of his scepticism in Section 12 are three signs of his engagement with contemporary controversy.14 More significant still are the distinctions between different species of philosophy made in Section 1, and the plea for freedom of philosophical speech in Section 11.15 Hume's goal in the First Enquiry considered as a whole is to make the case for a different species of philosophy from the practically orientated Christian Stoicism favoured by those, most notably Francis Hutcheson and William Leechman, who had banded together to ensure that the Edinburgh chair went to William Cleghorn instead of Hume. The thing to keep in mind in connection with this episode of Hume's career is that, as Stewart puts it, ‘it was not the extremists who went to such lengths to block Hume's chances. It was the leading liberals, opposing one systematic philosophy to (p.146) another.’16 Hume responds, therefore, with an attack on the philosophical system of the liberals; and this, it will be suggested here, provides a means of finding more than simple irony in his appeals to revelation at the expense of reason when considering the foundations of religious belief.
As Stewart describes the First Enquiry, it is to be understood as being in several important respects a reply to the accusations against Hume summarized in A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh. Part of Hume's answer to the charges made against the character of his philosophy is his clarification, in the Enquiry but also in the Letter, of the nature of his scepticism, and his rebuttal of the notion that he ‘denies’ the existence of causal connections anywhere in the universe. ‘The attacks on his religious conformity were clearly harder to counter’, Stewart says, ‘and Hume seems to have decided that the best tactic here was to come clean.’17 That is to say, Hume decided to be explicit where in the Treatise he had insinuated: so he came out into the open about the implications of his account of causal reasoning for natural religion (in ‘Of a Particular Providence’), and for revealed religion too (in ‘Of Miracles’). He also—and this is what I shall focus upon here—fought back with the claim that the species of philosophy most favourable to the interests of the Christian religion is in fact scepticism. There is irony, of course, in this claim: it would be absurd to imagine that Hume genuinely has the interests of the Christian religion in mind when he claims, as he does in the Letter, that one does an ‘essential Service to Piety’ when one shows the inability of human reason so much as to ‘satisfy itself with regard to its own Operations’, let alone with regard to the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity.18 But what Hume would have known was that the new species of philosophy advocated by Hutcheson, Leechman, William Wishart, and the others who blocked his candidacy for the Edinburgh chair had from its inception been under attack from a party in the Church of Scotland which was wholly serious in believing that reason, and philosophical reason in particular, was an inadequate basis for religious belief. This party clung to the traditional Calvinist view that human reason had been ruined by the Fall, and that faith, when it is granted to men, is not something that men can be said to have fashioned themselves, but is rather a gift from God himself, offered only to those who look to the Word, and the Word alone, for their salvation. When he sets up faith in opposition to reason, it is not some timeless form of piety that Hume adopts, but instead the rhetoric of these Calvinists, with whom he shared an opponent.
My suggestion, then, is that at least part of the reason why Hume is ostentatious in his claims about the value of Revelation is that he knew that (p.147) therein lay a way to make out that it was the modernizers, and not he himself, who threatened the cause of traditional religion. The suggestion is not, to repeat, that Hume sincerely and earnestly sought to vindicate his philosophy by highlighting its affinities with Calvinism. Hume's use of the language of Calvinism is to be understood, rather, as a means of casting aspersions on the pretensions to religious wholesomeness frequently made by those who had frustrated his academic ambitions. Hutcheson's appointment at Glasgow had been contested by men unwilling to let go of the kind of Christianity that Scots had suffered for during the dark years of the seventeenth century.19 Hutcheson had responded, in his inaugural lecture at Glasgow, with an apology for his new style of philosophy that culminates in the claim that to replace the ‘selfish scheme’ favoured by both Calvinists and natural lawyers such as Hobbes and Pufendorf with a theory of natural benevolence and sociability is better to serve the cause of religion: for that way, ‘the benevolence towards mankind of the Deity, whom we should always gratefully worship and admire, is obvious from man's very constitution’.20 It is characteristic of Hutcheson to seek to break down the distinction between moral philosophy, on the one hand, and natural religion, on the other. To describe human nature accurately is, according to Hutcheson, to illustrate divine benevolence, and to show that man has a place in the harmonious system that is the universe considered as a whole. It is precisely this aspect of Hutcheson's teaching that Leechman dwells upon in the ‘account of the life, writings and character of the author’ prefixed to Hutcheson's posthumous System of Moral Philosophy.21 It is also this aspect of Hutcheson's teaching that Hume rejects when he distinguishes between the task of the anatomist and that of the painter. Hume's prominent use of fideistic language in his writings on religious topics was intended to remind the reader that the idea that philosophy might provide a foundation for religious belief was a relatively novel and controversial one. The intention, we may infer, was to discredit by whatever means possible the revolution in moral philosophy being engineered by Hutcheson, and so to imply a need for a return to the time when moral philosophy was one thing, and the teaching of natural religion another.
(p.148) It is time to move from stage-setting to particulars, and to a more detailed characterization of what I am claiming to be the Calvinist background of Hume's invocations of the language of fideism in the First Enquiry. Of special concern here, it will be remembered, are three moments in that book: the refusal to attempt a solution to the problem of evil at the end of Section 8, the characterization of faith itself as a miracle at the end of Section 10, and the claim made at the end of Section 12 that theology has its ‘best and solid foundation’ in ‘faith and divine revelation’. It should be noted that what follows is not, and should not be taken to be, the fruit of an exhaustive survey of the Scottish Calvinist tradition. There were surely distinctions made and differences developed within that tradition that go unremarked here. Nor is it being claimed that Hume himself read all, or indeed any, of the works quoted from below. It is improbable that Hume was a careful student of the Scottish theology of the post-Reformation period.22 Hume never cites Scottish Calvinist texts, and the only time he quotes from a writer in order to support the claim that scepticism and religious belief are compatible, in the Letter from a Gentleman, the writer is the Catholic ‘Monsieur Huet the learned Bishop of Avaranches’ (p. 21). My purpose here is simply to identify affinities between the way in which Hume expresses himself at these three moments and the way Calvinists tended to express themselves when treating the same questions. It is unlikely that Hume chose to express himself in this way in ignorance of the resonances his language would have for his Scottish readership.
It is not necessary to spend a great deal of time demonstrating the echoes of Calvinism in Hume's remarks about the basis and nature of Christian faith in Sections 10 and 12. The idea that reason is no sure foundation for belief in God is ubiquitous in ‘orthodox’ Scottish Protestant theological texts. Robert Riccaltoun of Holkirk, for example, speaks for the mainstream Scottish Reformation tradition when he argues in the mid-eighteenth century that ‘had mankind been left to themselves, they had never entertained a thought beyond the present state of things as they appear to our senses’.23 Religion in lowland Scotland since the Reformation had been, in the main, a religion which followed Calvin in its estimation of faith, as opposed to works, as the supreme human achievement; and faith itself is in this tradition an act of Grace, something beyond what man is able to achieve for himself. The faculty of reason was not completely destroyed in the Fall, but what insight we have left, according to Calvin, ‘is utterly blind and stupid in divine (p.149) matters’.24 ‘The man who depends upon the light of nature’, writes Calvin, ‘comprehends nothing of God's spiritual mysteries.’25 ‘[N]ature and reason are not onely unable to leade us to the true knowledge of God’, according to John Knox, ‘but also we affirme, that they have bene maistresses of all errors and idolatrie.’26 In 1739 Archibald Campbell devoted The Necessity of Revelation to showing (in reply to Tindal) that ‘mankind given up to themselves, and left wholly to their own industry to investigate the principles of religion from the nature and relations of things, are not able … to discern the immortality of the soul, or the being, the perfections, and providence of God’.27 Again, when Hume says at the end of ‘Of Miracles’ that the honest man of faith ‘is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience’, he is perfectly in accord with the spirit of Calvinism. What Hume has drawn attention to in the essay, in effect, is the fact that someone is deceiving himself who holds to the Bible as he holds to, say, what is told us about the Roman wars in Gaul by Julius Caesar. The faith that is the result of reading the Bible has another kind of ground altogether, and, as such, is available (in principle at least) to even the most untutored person, to the person who has made no study of, for example, the textual history of the Bible or the reliability of the purported witnesses of the events described in it. And this is something that the Calvinist not only allows, but insists upon. ‘[A]s God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word’, Calvin himself writes, ‘so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of Spirit.’28 Scripture, according to Calvin, ‘is its own authentication’: ‘it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning’.29
There is, it cannot be denied, something plainly facetious in these passing invocations of the spirit of Calvinism. It is hard to imagine Hume being taken very seriously by anyone, least of all by the orthodox themselves, when he imitates the rhetoric of Calvinism in this way. Rather more significant, I shall now argue, is the use of Calvinist language at the close of ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’. I believe that the closing paragraphs of Section 8 should be added to the evidence collected by Stewart to show that the First Enquiry was designed, at least in part, to be Hume's answer to Hutcheson, Leechman, Wishart, and company. For what Hume does in his treatment of the problem of evil is to juxtapose an argumentative strategy characteristic of the modernizing faction with the traditional Calvinist alternative, and to (p.150) insinuate that intellectual honesty and a genuine commitment to truth are on the side of the Calvinists. To be more precise: Hume argues that the neo-Stoic solution to the problem, which amounts to an affirmation of the view that all evils, whether natural or moral, are in reality, and despite appearances, beneficial to the universe considered as a whole, is no more than a philosophical pipe-dream, a ‘remote and uncertain’ speculation which no human being can actually believe in. You can tell the man with gout or the victim of a crime that everything is for the best in this best of possible worlds—but he will not be able to believe you. Hume's point, here at least, is not that there is too much evil in the world for belief in providence to be rational.30 It is, instead, that it is psychologically impossible for human beings to believe that any evil, no matter how limited in extent, is really a good. And this is because what an evil is is, simply, either physical pain or else something that bespeaks a moral character which is, in Hume's words, ‘such as tend to public detriment and disturbance’ (Enquiry, 103). There is, then, no possibility of solving the problem of evil as the modernizers sought to solve it, by arguing that, when seen from the right perspective, evil is not really evil at all. When one seeks, as Hutcheson says that he does, to analyse human sentiments and passions by means of attention to psychological reality, evil refuses to be explained away in this manner. Hume does not mention Hutcheson or any other contemporary by name here, but his contemptuous allusions to the doctrine that ‘every thing is right with regard to the whole’ is fairly plainly directed at the proponents of the Stoic revival. Hutcheson (with the help of his colleague James Moor) had, after all, published his own translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in 1742.31
Hume's insistence on the reality of evil forces him on to the second horn of the dilemma he himself has raised for the defender of the doctrine of general providence. For if human actions really are criminal, and if human actions ‘can be traced up, by a necessary chain, to the Deity’, then, surely, ‘we must retract the attribute of perfection, which we ascribe to the Deity, and must acknowledge him to be the ultimate author of guilt and moral turpitude in all his creatures’ (Enquiry, 101). It is when faced with this conclusion that Hume adopts the language of fideism already quoted above. The usual interpretation of this move on Hume's part is to take him as hinting, broadly enough, that if religion has a problem with evil, then so much the worse for religion. And, as I have already admitted, this probably was Hume's own attitude to the problem. But what is interesting for present (p.151) purposes is that Hume has the weight of the Calvinist tradition behind him when he claims that the difficulties raised by the problem of evil are such as to evade solution by mere philosophy. It is in fact a central claim of the Christianity of the Calvinist tradition that human reason is unable to fathom how men can be at once predestined to sin and themselves wholly responsible for their sin. Not for Calvin the position that God permits, but does not ordain, moral evils; nor does Calvin accept a distinction between two divine wills, one of law, one of providence. God himself hardens the heart of the sinner. And yet, Calvin continues, ‘We have … no reason to complain except against ourselves’: ‘man's ruin is to be ascribed to man alone’.32 That we are responsible for our sins, conscience cannot deny, even though reason cannot make sense of its being true. The pains and terrors of a guilty conscience silence the objections of reason. Calvinist Scots repeatedly affirm the incomprehensibility of divine justice. Predestination to damnation may seem hard to square with the perfection of God; but, says Knox, if men ‘enteryng within themself, do but in parte consider what is their natural condition, what is their ignorance’, their objections will cease: the origin of evil ‘doth everie wicked man so fynd within himself, that his owne conscience shall convict him, that no where elles is the cause of his iniquitie … to be soght, but onely within himself, and as proceeding of himself by instigation of the Devill, into whose power he is delivered … by the inscrutable and incomprehensible (but yet most just) judgementes of God’.33 ‘Our consciences condemn us, and so acquit the Deity,’ writes Halyburton in his Natural Religion Insufficient of 1714. ‘But without revelation, we can never understand upon what grounds we are condemned by ourselves, nor how the Deity is to be justified; and so this sentence of our conscience involves the matter more and increases the difficulty.’34 As Hume would surely have known, there is nothing intrinsically irreligious in admitting that evil presents a problem ‘which mere natural and unassisted reason is very unfit to handle’.
It is perhaps worth emphasizing the prominence of the ‘all for the best’ scheme in the writings of those in favour of the renovation of religion in Scotland. In the fashion of Shaftesbury, Leibniz, and Pope, these writers postulated an all-embracing scheme of providence in which what we call evil has a necessary place. This was not exactly to deny that evil exists, but it was to redefine evil as something which God himself brings into being, as part of a scheme the perfection of which we human beings, from our limited perspective, cannot hope properly to understand. Evil is no longer conceived as a negation or rejection of God, but is rendered comparable to, say, the (p.152) shadows necessary to the bringing out of the beauty of a landscape. Asks Hutcheson: ‘May not many natural Evils be necessary to prevent future moral Evils, and to correct the Tempers of Agents, nay to introduce moral Good?’35 And again: ‘Can there be Forgiveness, Returns of good for evil, unless there be some moral Evil?’; ‘May not all the present Disorders which attend this state of prevalent Order, be rectified by the directing Providence in a future Part of our existence?’36 Similarly, George Turnbull argues ‘that many of the evils complained of in human life, moral as well as natural, are, in the nature of things, necessary, absolutely necessary to many goods, without which human life could have no distinguishing excellence, nor indeed any considerable happiness’.37 William Dudgeon, too, affirms that ‘there can be nothing evil with respect to the whole creation’: ‘[r]ight and wrong, good and evil, are relative terms’.38 And the same claim is made at the end of Kames's Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion: there Kames attempts ‘to show, that pain and distress are productive of manifold good ends, and the present system could not be without them’; and that ‘All our actions contribute equally to carry on the great and good designs of Providence; and, therefore, there is nothing which in [God's] sight is evil; at least, nothing which is evil upon the whole’.39 Here we have a variety of writers with a variety of agendas, but all seek to replace the Calvinist picture of a mysterious God exercising his providence through predestination and unpredictable, and undeserved, donations of grace with an intelligible, law-governed, and, above all, benevolent scheme in which everything, evil included, has a comprehensible place. The overriding objective was to construct a metaphysical environment, so to speak, in which virtue in all its forms might be regarded as natural, as simply part of the divinely ordained fabric of the universe. Teaching and preaching could then be dedicated to cultivating this natural virtue. It would no longer be necessary to look directly to God for means of overcoming evil, since evil had been redefined as merely a necessary means of maximizing goodness.
Hume, by contrast, regards it as a disaster for serious investigation of moral subjects that the starting-point of philosophy be such sublime reflections as these. The danger—amply demonstrated, Hume hints in his correspondence with Hutcheson, in Hutcheson's own moral philosophy—is that teleology will be reintroduced into the science of the mind: that ends will first be postulated, and then the data distorted so as to ‘prove’ that the faculties of the mind serve (p.153) those ends. Hume's primary purpose in the First Enquiry is to vindicate a style of philosophy different from the ‘easy philosophy’ that restricts its ambitions to the cultivation of virtue, and that fails to examine properly what the nature and basis of virtue are. The traditionalist wing of the Church of Scotland might have had no interest in Humean ‘anatomy’, but they shared Hume's antipathy to speculative and ill-grounded meditations of the neo-Stoic variety. In particular, they disliked the new view of divine providence, and the easy-going confidence in human abilities that went with it. This is especially clear in John Witherspoon's parody of the newly formed ‘Moderate Party’ in his Ecclesiastical Characteristics of 1754. Witherspoon includes in his pamphlet an ‘Athenian Creed’ (as distinct from the Athanasian Creed), which contains a declaration of belief ‘that there is no ill in the universe, nor any such thing as virtue absolutely considered; that those things vulgarly called sins, are only errors in the judgment, and foils to set off the beauty of Nature, or patches to adorn her face; that the whole race of intelligent beings, even the devils themselves (if there are any), shall finally be happy; so that Judas Iscariot is by this time a glorified saint, and it is good for him that he hath been born’.40 The Ecclesiastical Characteristics gives the ‘all for the best’ scheme a central place in the new order of things. Its sixth maxim is that ‘It is not only unnecessary for a moderate man to have much learning, but he ought to be filled with a contempt of all kinds of learning but one, which is to understand Leibnitz's scheme well; the chief parts of which are so beautifully painted, and so harmoniously sung by Lord Shaftsbury, and which has been so well licked into form and method, by the late immortal Mr. H[utcheso]n’.41 Witherspoon is no Bayle or Voltaire, but his satire has the virtue of making apparent the ways in which Hutcheson, Leechman, and their like offended the sensibilities of Calvinist traditionalists. In the process it shows that it was not necessarily a sign of scepticism about religion to reject the ‘all for the best’ scheme. The way in which Hume dismisses that scheme in ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ is designed, I am suggesting, to contrast neo-Stoic naïveté with realism about the intractability of the problem of evil that he wants us to recognize as common ground between him and the Calvinist tradition. The point is not to masquerade as a Calvinist, but rather to emphasize the superficiality of the new philosophy.42
(p.154) It was, in fact, not long before Hume's scepticism about the capacities of the understanding to solve deep metaphysical and theological problems was taken up by people whom no one could possibly accuse of being ironical. Thus the Common Sense philosopher James Oswald, as moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1766 a scourge of the Moderate Party,43 endorses Hume's criticism of the argument from design: ‘for it will not be denied that the universe is a singularity that cannot be reduced to any genus with which we are acquainted; and, therefore, that we have not access to reason from works of art to the foundation of the universe, as we draw inferences from one species with which we are acquainted, to another which belongs to the same genus’.44 And Oswald's recognition of the affinity of Humean scepticism with the anti-rationalism of the Calvinist tradition became more general with the 1805 controversy over the election of John Leslie to the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh.45 In a trial of strength between the leaders of the Moderate Party and the town council, an attempt was staged by some of the Moderates to block Leslie's candidacy with a trumped-up charge of atheism. The ground of the charge was a footnote in Leslie's Experimental Inquiry into the Nature and Propagation of Heat, in which he endorses Hume's treatment of the relation of cause and effect, and claims that ‘The unsophisticated sentiments of mankind are in perfect union with the deductions of logic, and imply nothing more at bottom, in the relation of cause and effect, than a constant and invariable sequence.’46 Both Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown laboured, albeit in different ways, to show that there was nothing dangerous in the Humean theory. More significant for the purposes of this paper is the fact that a host of ‘orthodox’ opponents of Moderatism joined them, at least one arguing that Hume's attack on human reason is a proper reminder of the primacy of Revelation in religion. An anonymous pamphlet claims that Leslie has every right ‘to discard all the ordinary framework of natural religion, and assert at the same time, his claim to the character of a sound theist’: ‘Many divines, to whom no one ever dreamed of attributing atheism, have maintained, that all the arguments which we derive from the light of nature to prove either the being or the providence of God, are either of a very inferior kind, or altogether inconclusive; and that (p.155) revelation, and revelation alone, is the grand source of all religious knowledge.’47 Admittedly, two of the examples the writer gives are unexpected: the Dutch Arminian ‘Philip Limborch’ and ‘Faustus Socinus’, who was usually represented by Calvinists as an arch-rationalist of the most dangerous kind. The third example given is Robert Riccaltoun, already cited above. The Leslie affair saw the first serious defeat sustained by the Moderates for decades, and attacks in the spirit of Hume on the over-estimation of natural religion grow increasingly common as the evangelical revival of the nineteenth century gathers steam.
The old view of Hume—presented most dramatically in Mossner's biography48—as leading an assault on the part of the Scottish forces of ‘Enlightenment’ against Calvinist bigotry now appears unduly simplistic. Its major flaw is that it neglects the fact that there were significant differences of opinion separating Hume, on the one hand, and possibly also Smith, from other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.49 Hume's principal opponents, in the 1740s at least, did not come from the ranks of the ‘orthodox’, but were rather the forebears of the ‘moderate literati’ who dominated Scottish intellectual life during the second half of the eighteenth century. From the point of view of Francis Hutcheson and others with the same ambitions, Hume stood in the way of a new synthesis of moral philosophy and religion, a synthesis that would help to bring Scotland into the modern world by emphasizing active personal and political virtue (as opposed to an introspective and fragile experience of grace) as the mark of the genuine Christian. Or, at least, Hume would have stood in the way of that synthesis had he been charged with the teaching of moral philosophy in Scotland's capital city. The mainstream Scottish Enlightenment was from the first a practical movement dedicated to improvement and progress. By contrast, Hume's was the elevated and detached perspective of the observer of human affairs and of human weaknesses. Improvement and progress, from his point of view, were always unintended and accidental—and fragile and reversible as well. Hume's influence needed to be minimized, therefore, and this was why he ended up, eventually, as a librarian rather than a professor of philosophy. Hume's reaction to the concerted efforts of Hutcheson and company to keep him out of a position of importance was to do his best, first, to explain better the nature of his philosophical project, (p.156) and, secondly, to discredit the rather different project of his opponents. The suggestion made here has been that one of the ways in which Hume sought to insinuate the failings of the rival project was to hint at the affinities between his own scepticism and the hesitancy about the capacities of human reason characteristic of the Scottish post-Reformation theological tradition, thereby to highlight the superficiality of brash new fashions of thought.
The reader of Hume who wants an answer to the question of what Hume's own views really were about religious matters will have only been frustrated by what has been argued here. As I hope to have made quite clear, the title of this paper is not meant to imply that Hume himself was, deep down, and despite appearances, a Christian of the Calvinist variety. In fact, it seems to me that to use Hume's texts in order to attempt to characterize Hume's personal attitude towards religion is quite pointless. The interest of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, for instance, is plainly not limited to working out which of the interlocutors ‘speaks for Hume’. The same goes for the dialogue presented in Section 11 of the First Enquiry. When writing on religious issues, even if not using the dialogue form, Hume's arrangements are always polyphonic, and the best thing to say is probably that in every case all the voices are Hume's own. At any rate, a brief survey of the various hypotheses that have been proposed as to what Hume's ‘real’ views were should suffice to make anyone extremely wary of committing himself in this connection. Thus in his own lifetime Hume, as has already been mentioned, was popularly supposed to be an atheist; yet Hume's first biographer, Thomas Ritchie, says that the Natural History of Religion and the Dialogues are ‘favourable to deism’.50 A later biographer, John Hill Burton, claims that it is with Cleanthes, and not Philo, that the author of the Dialogues ‘shows most sympathy’.51 Thomas Henry Huxley wrote of Hume's ‘shadowy inconsistent theism’,52 and Terence Penelhum has recently endorsed Huxley's judgment.53 H. O. Mounce declares that ‘The evidence is overwhelming that Hume never rid himself of his belief in God.’54 The truth, however, is that Hume's texts, taken by themselves and independently of received opinions and familiar anecdotes, cannot settle the matter. The right question to ask is not what Hume privately thought, but why he chose to express himself as he did. This paper is intended to provide part of an answer to that question.
[Anon.], A Letter to the Reverend Principal Hill on the case of Mr. John Leslie, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1805).
Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
Campbell, Archibald, The Necessity of Revelation; or, An Inquiry into the Extent of Human Powers with respect to Matters of Religion (London, 1739).
Dudgeon, William, The Philosophical Works (n. p., 1765).
Halyburton, Thomas, Natural Religion Insufficient; and Reveal'd Necessary to Man's Happiness in his Present State: or, a Rational Inquiry into the Principles of the Modern Deists (Edinburgh, 1714).
[Home, Henry, later Lord Kames], Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (London, 1751).
Hume, David, A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh, ed. E. C. Mossner and J. V. Price (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1967).
—— Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller, rev. edn. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987).
—— Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and the Natural History of Religion, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
—— An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3rd edn., rev. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).
Hutcheson, Francis, A System of Moral Philosophy (London, 1755).
—— ‘Inaugural lecture on the social nature of man’, in Francis Hutcheson: Two Texts on Human Nature, ed. T. Mautner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
—— An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense, ed. A. Garrett (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
Knox, John, Works, ed. D. Laing, 6 vols. (Edinburgh, 1846–64).
Leslie, John, An Experimental Inquiry into the Nature and Propagation of Heat (Edinburgh, 1804).
Montaigne, Michel de, The Complete Essays, ed. M. A. Screech (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991).
Oswald, James, An Appeal to Common Sense in Behalf of Religion, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1766–72).
Riccaltoun, Robert, Works, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1771–2).
Ritchie, Thomas, An Account of the Life and Writings of David Hume, Esq. (London, 1807).
Turnbull, George, The Principles of Moral Philosophy: An Enquiry into the Wise and Good Government of the Moral World (London, 1740).
[Witherspoon, John], Ecclesiastical Characteristics: or, the Arcana of Church Policy: Being an Attempt to open up the Mystery of Moderation, 2nd edn. (Glasgow, 1754).
Berman, David, ‘Deism, immortality, and the art of theological lying’, in J. A. Leo Lemay (ed.), Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 61–78.
Botterill, George, ‘Hume on liberty and necessity’, in P. Millican (ed.), Reading Hume on Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 277–300.
Buckle, Stephen, Hume's Enlightenment Tract: The Unity and Purpose of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).
Burton, John H., Life and Correspondence of David Hume, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1846).
Clark, Ian D. L., ‘The Leslie controversy, 1805’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 14 (1963): 179–97.
—— ‘From protest to reaction: the moderate regime in the Church of Scotland’, in N. T. Phillipson and R. Mitchison (eds.), Scotland in the Age of Improvement (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970), 200–24.
Emerson, Roger, ‘The ‘affair’ at Edinburgh and the ‘project’ at Glasgow’, in M. A. Stewart and J. P. Wright (eds.), Hume and Hume's Connexions, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), 1–22.
Flew, Antony, Hume's Philosophy of Belief (London: Routledge, 1961).
Huxley, Thomas Henry, Hume (London: Macmillan, 1879).
Mackie, J. L., The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
Moore, James, ‘Hume and Hutcheson’ in M. A. Stewart and J. P. Wright (eds.), Hume and Hume's Connexions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), 23–57.
—— ‘Hutcheson's theodicy: the argument and the contexts of A System of Moral Philosophy’, in P. Wood (ed.), The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation, (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2000), 239–66.
Mossner, Ernest C., The Life of David Hume, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).
Mounce, H. O., Hume's Naturalism (London: Routledge, 1999).
Norton, David Fate, and Norton, Mary, The David Hume Library (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1996).
Scott, William Robert, Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching, and Position in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900).
Sher, Richard, B., Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985).
Stewart, M. A., ‘The Stoic legacy in the early Scottish Enlightenment’, in Margaret J. Osler (ed.), Atoms, ‘Pneuma’, and Tranquillity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 273–96.
—— The Kirk and the Infidel (Lancaster: Lancaster University, 1995).
Earlier versions of this paper were delivered at the 29th Hume Society Conference, held at Helsinki in 2002, and at Hume Studies in Britain II, held at Edinburgh in the same year. I am grateful to audiences on both occasions for their questions and comments. I should particularly like to thank my commentator at Helsinki, Wade Robison. My greatest debt is to M. A. Stewart, who, with his usual generosity, provided me with several pages of comments on a later version, and thereby improved the end result a great deal. All work on this paper was done during my tenure of a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship.
(6) Ibid., 72.
(7) See David Berman, ‘Deism, immortality, and the art of theological lying’, in J. A. Leo Lemay (ed.), Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 75–6. Berman does not regard Hume as a deist. Rather, he appears to regard the deists as having been, despite appearances, Humeans avant la lettre. In reality, according to Berman, the deists believed no more in natural religion than they did in revealed religion: their aim was to ‘insinuate’ that the former has just as little basis as the latter.
(8) For a general account of Scottish theology in the eighteenth century, see M. A. Stewart, ‘Religion and rational theology’, in A. Broadie (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 31–59.
(9) See Ian D. L. Clark, ‘From protest to reaction: the moderate regime in the Church of Scotland’, in N. T. Phillipson and R. Mitchison (eds.), Scotland in the Age of Improvement (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970), 200–24.
(10) See e.g. Antony Flew, Hume's Philosophy of Belief (London: Routledge, 1961), 162 (Hume concludes ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ with ‘a smirking genuflection of piety’); George Botterill, ‘Hume on liberty and necessity’, in P. Millican (ed.), Reading Hume on Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 289 (the final paragraph of the same essay is ‘a very masterpiece of ironic disingenuity’); J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 29 (the conclusion of ‘Of Miracles’ is ‘of course … only a joke’). For a more careful consideration of the conclusion of ‘Of Miracles’, see Stephen Buckle, Hume's Enlightenment Tract: The Unity and Purpose of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 269–74. Buckle notes the fideistic pedigree of Hume's remarks, but in the end decides that Hume intends no more than ‘an ironical allusion to the errors of the religious “enthusiasts”’.
(11) See M. A. Stewart, ‘Two species of philosophy: the historical significance of the First Enquiry’, in Millican (ed.), Reading Hume, 67–95.
(12) For a full account of this episode, see M. A. Stewart, The Kirk and the Infidel (Lancaster: Lancaster University, 1995). See also Roger Emerson, ‘The “affair” at Edinburgh and the “project” at Glasgow’, in M. A. Stewart and J. P. Wright (eds.), Hume and Hume's Connexions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), 1–22.
(13) Stewart, ‘Two species of philosophy’, 83.
(14) See ibid., 83–6.
(15) See ibid., 86–94.
(16) Stewart, ‘Two species of philosophy’, 94.
(17) Ibid., 86.
(19) See William Robert Scott, Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching, and Position in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900), 54–6. Hutcheson was elected to the chair of moral philosophy by a majority of just one vote.
(21) See esp. Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (London, 1755), ‘The Preface, giving some Account of the Life, Writings, and Character of the Author’, by William Leechman, i, pp. xxxii–iii. James Moore has argued that theodicy is more prominent in the System of Moral Philosophy than elsewhere in Hutcheson's writings: see ‘Hutcheson's theodicy: the argument and the contexts of A System of Moral Philosophy’, in P. Wood (ed.), The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2000), 239–66. I cannot argue the case here, but I think that theodicy is just as central to the texts of the 1720s.
(22) M. A. Stewart has pointed out to me, however, that the Hume family library did contain a collection of pamphlets concerning the controversy generated by John Simson, the Glasgow professor of divinity, in the late 1720s: see David Fate Norton and Mary Norton, The David Hume Library (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, 1996), 61.
(25) Ibid. 280 (ii. ii. 20).
(28) Calvin, Institutes, 78 (i. vii. 4).
(29) Ibid. 80 (i. vii. 5).
(30) This is, however, Philo's point in Parts X and XI of the Dialogues; and also the Epicurean's in Section 11 of the First Enquiry, 138–9.
(31) For Hutcheson and Stoicism, and Hume and scepticism, see M. A. Stewart, ‘The Stoic legacy in the early Scottish Enlightenment’, in Margaret J. Osler (ed.), Atoms, ‘Pneuma’, and Tranquillity: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 273–96.
(32) Calvin, Institutes, 254 (ii. i. 10).
(33) Knox, Works, v. 350–1.
(34) Thomas Halyburton, Natural Religion Insufficient; and Reveal'd Necessary to Man's Happiness in his Present State: or, a Rational Inquiry into the Principles of the Modern Deists (Edinburgh, 1714), 114.
(41) Ibid., 23.
(42) It is important to distinguish the Hutcheson–Leechman–Wishart axis of the 1740s, on the one hand, from the ‘Moderate Party’, on the other. Allegiances and agendas are changing rapidly by the mid-century. The Moderate Party is in many important respects a creation of the 1750s, and several of its members were friends of Hume's. One of the Party's first concerted actions was to defend Hume from the attempt on the part of the opposing ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Highflying’ or ‘Popular’ party to excommunicate him (and Kames) in 1755–6. Nevertheless, and as Witherspoon's pamphlet suggests, the philosophical-theological agenda of the early Scottish Enlightenment is taken up by the Moderates. See also Richard Sher, Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985), 175–86.
(49) See the papers by Stewart cited above; and also work by James Moore on the relationship between Hume and Hutcheson: e.g. and esp. ‘Hume and Hutcheson’, in Stewart and Wright (eds.), Hume and Hume's Connexions, 23–57.
(53) In a paper on Huxley's book on Hume, given at the 29th Hume Society Conference in Helsinki in August 2002.