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Books & Such

On Hume 

In The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well, independent scholar Julian Baggini proposes the idea – upon the inspiration of eighteenth century Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) – that we might all be better off if we just sit back, take a deep breath, and ponder how we have arrived at seeing the world as we do.

Rather than seeking eternal truths and moral absolutes, as many of his contemporaries were doing, Hume’s philosophy relied upon the more tangible observations of human nature. As a seeker of wisdom, Hume’s approach is grounded in his experiences and how he perceived them.

Hume determined that much could be learned by simply accepting that we are emotional creatures with varied and limited abilities to decipher the riddles of life. 

It must be noted that, if you are one who lives this life largely in preparation for the next, David Hume may not be your guy. With that said, and if you are still with me here, in order to understand Hume as an original thinker, it might be helpful to first examine the old ideas he was rejecting. (This is why it’s called the Enlightenment, by the way.) 

While many of the other philosophers of the age used reason to sharpen their religiosity, Hume challenged the prevailing view that the entirety of human existence serves as some sort of test to weed out good souls from bad.

Rather, as Hume writes in Concerning the Principles of Morals, one should approach the only life that is certain to exist “without the delusive glosses of superstition and false religion.”

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason [Hume asks] are [these unpleasant and unreasonable demands] everywhere rejected by men of sense… [they] neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they… stupify the understanding… harden the heart… and sour the temper.

I, for one, would like to “advance” my “fortune,” be “a more valuable member of society,” be seen as someone who might facilitate “the entertainment of company,” and “increase” my “power of self-enjoyment.”

Who in the hell—and I do not use the term loosely—decided that so many of the lovely, compassionate, altruistic, and earthly delights of this world shall be subjected to the dictates of a collection of tribal myths whose pronouncements of human salvation demand a rejection of just about every human impulse I have ever had?

Not only are these “monkish” ideas contrary to human nature, according to Hume they are grounded in the wholly implausible notion that there is a supposedly malevolent being out there who would engage in such a wicked experiment; to assign to each of us a heaven or hell without regard to the very observable and experienced evidence that we all exhibit a vicissitude of behaviors over the course of a long life that point us in one direction, then the other, and so on.

Hume postulated that we should trust the instincts of our own nature. When those instincts, however, have us joining the mob, perhaps we should reconsider. To wit, during the long seventeenth century directly preceding Hume’s birth, roughly 1500 Scots were executed for witchcraft.

And this brings us to the raw practicality of David Hume. Without any spiritual guidance outside his humanity, Hume felt pride in his accomplishments, and was driven to learn and understand the world and his place within it through an innate sense of curiosity. He took pleasure in doing good deeds for others and he had sympathy for those that suffered. He was a moral person determined to do “right,” and when “right” was not easily discernible, he was driven to figure it out.

He enjoyed his food and drink without guilt… and accepted his obesity with good humor. He was a welcomed guest in France, England and, of course, his native Scotland.

I’m no philosopher and also not a religious adherent. I am, however, a human being, attune to the mystery of my existence. In as much, I cannot help but conjure that the things I experience and my personal reaction to them might offer clues superior in merit to those who reverentially refer to the words of dusty books whose origins and artificial sanctity are somehow not subject to serious human inquiry.

And, if I were to live within a community that addressed the mysteries of life by proclaiming only upon faith, that those who strayed from the dictates of that faith deserved to be set afire, I would seriously consider moving to the next town.

I like David Hume. He enjoyed his solitude and was often content with the company of books, especially in an age when these volumes were increasingly filled with new ideas favoring science and reason over superstition. He also relished “the company of a few select companions” but only those capable of engaging with the ideas of the day.

As his health waned, Hume accepted the limitations of his human form, as he had done much of his life. “I believe a Fireside & a Book,” he wrote, “the best things in the World for my Age & Disposition.”

When his time was done, as Baggini reports, the theists gathered around to watch the “atheist” fade away, wondering how Hume’s lack of faith might rock his last days. To their chagrin, one of Hume’s final observations of human nature captured the essence of his philosophy. “Accepting death is not the same as welcoming it,” he mused, but “loving life does not mean clinging to it.”


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