An Average Joe’s Intellectual History of Western Europe— David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment in the 1700s

[This is the tenth installment of my mini-history—three more to come]

The intellectuals of the early 1700s were confident they could know the world through their experiences, the facts of nature, which they believed to directly reflect the will of God and his Providence. But Locke had already made clear that experience is contingent on time and place and always subject to revision by new experiences. Our knowledge of the world is probable, not certain. If we know God from our knowledge of nature, as the deists and natural theologists claimed, then what we know of God would be clouded by the inherent uncertainty in the empiricist’s body of knowledge. We see through a glass darkly. Moreover, Bishop George Berkeley asked: What are these experiences but ideas, mental images we collect and imperfectly remember – derived from the real, material, natural world, certainly, but nonetheless ideas and images, which are, in themselves, immaterial? The more intellectuals attacked Berkeley’s philosophical “idealism,” the more influential became his doubt about the solidity of their system of knowledge.

Berkeley’s doubt was corrosive to the philosophical optimism of the age but nothing like the caustic soda of David Hume’s amiable skepticism about our ability to know anything about God, his design and his plan. Hume shattered the case for philosophical optimism by simply making its premises look ridiculous.

Edinburgh—‘a Hotbed of Genius’

There is no historical figure in the intellectual history of Western Europe with whom I’d rather spend an evening than with David Hume. To help you understand why, I must provide some social context for the Scottish Enlightenment, with the help of Arthur Herman’s audacious but convincing How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Herman describes the mid-1700s world of artistic, intellectual Edinburgh and innovative, practical Glasgow and the intellectuals who regularly made the day-and-a-half journey between them on the post coach. Herman colorfully describes Scottish intellectual life in this era, particularly in Edinburgh (pp. 190-191):

What really made Edinburgh different … was its close-knit community of scholars and thinkers, who were willing to take up new ideas while putting old ones to the test of discussion and criticism. Edinburgh was, as contemporaries said, ‘a hotbed of genius.’ It sharpened minds, inspired originality, and intensified that sense of purposeful activity that every thinker, writer, or artist needs to be truly productive and creative.

Only London and Paris could compete with Edinburgh as an intellectual center. But unlike those two world capitals, Edinburgh’s cultural life was not dominated by state institutions or aristocratic salons and patrons. It depended instead on a circle of tough-minded, self-directed intellectuals and men of letters, or ‘literati,as they called themselves. By the standards of 1760, it was remarkably democratic. It was a place where all ideas were created equal, where brains rather than social rank, took pride of place, and where serious issues could be debated with, in the words of Lord Shaftesbury, ‘that sort of freedom which taken is taken amongst Gentlemen and Friends, who know each other well.’

Edinburgh’s intellectuals fully entered into the Old Town’s traditions of boisterous and informal society. Many of the city’s most important intellectual movements began with a gathering in a tavern. Discussion of a pressing political or theological issue without bottles on the table and loud gusts of laughter was inconceivable. [They did their] drinking surrounded by charming and lively company, and usually under the auspices of one of Edinburgh’s social clubs. The most important of these clubs was the Select Society.

The Select Society was founded in 1754, and its original 32 members included most of the best-known literati of the time, of whom we are most likely to recognize David Hume and Adam Smith. For ten years, the Select Society was the epicenter of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its membership was distinguished in their accomplishments and remarkably diverse in their views and experience. They could be depended on to give a rigorous but fair critique to any paper or talk presented at their meetings, far more insightful, challenging and therefore valuable than could be expected from any academic or university audience of the day.

Francis Hutcheson

It may be helpful to understand that there were two “fathers” of this Scots branch of the Enlightenment. Francis Hutcheson was a Presbyterian minister and philosopher. He published his first book in 1725 and was for many years, until his death in 1746, professor of natural religion, morals, jurisprudence and government at the University of Glasgow. He was an enormously popular lecturer. He spoke without notes, in contrast to the tradition of reading a written lecture aloud, and he did so in English, perhaps the first in Europe to lecture in the local vernacular rather than Latin. Herman claims Hutcheson was (p. 83):

Europe’s first liberal, in the classic sense: a believer in maximizing personal liberty in the social, economic, and intellectual spheres, as well as the political. But the ultimate goal of this liberty was, we should remember, happiness—which Hutcheson always defined as helping others to be happy.

Freedom’s ends are not selfish ones, he believed; they are in truth governed by God, through our moral reasoning. Hutcheson never worried about the dangers of letting people do or say whatever they wanted, because in his mind a free society enjoys a firm and permanent backstop, our innate moral sense, which enables us to distinguish the vicious from the virtuous, and the decent from the obscene, just as our intellectual reason enables us to sort out truth from falsehood.

Hutcheson’s doctrine of happiness, then, had two faces. It involved, on one side, gratification of the self through a joyous and contented life. On the other, it was also intensely altruistic. No man stands alone, was the message his students absorbed. Hutcheson constantly enjoins us to get out and become involved in the lives of our fellow human beings. Our willingness to do so becomes the measure of who we are. His statement on the point—‘action is best, which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number’—would also ring down through the next two centuries, underpinning the utilitarian philosophy of two later Scots, James and John Stuart Mill.

Lord Kames

In sharp contrast to his contemporary Hutcheson, Henry Home was the other father of the Scottish Enlightenment. He became a full-fledged advocate and member of the Scottish bar in 1723 in Edinburgh, at age 27. In the tradition of the Scottish legal system, left intact after the Act of Union with England in 1707, Home took an honorary title, Lord Kames, when in 1752 he became a judge of Scotland’s highest court. Kames managed to be a prolific writer on the law, human nature, social evolution and history, despite his demanding court schedule and evenings at social gatherings with his wife. Quoting Herman again:

Kames liked to mix food and drink, including prodigious quantities of claret, with serious discussion of philosophical and legal issues. Kames’s love of good company set the style and tone of Edinburgh’s intellectual life for near a century, while his guests included a series of young men of genius who would dominate the Scottish Enlightenment.

These young men included John Millar, who “would virtually invent modern political history,” Adam Smith, whom Kames sponsored to give a series of lectures that “would become the foundation for the Wealth of Nations,” and James Boswell, who defined a genre with his biography of Samuel Johnson. But Herman writes that Kames’s favorite young protégé was his distant relative, David Hume, for whom Kames became a father figure and intellectual sparring partner. Given the enormous influence of Kames on Hume, we need to know more about his thinking.

Herman writes:

… while Francis Hutcheson was insisting that men form governments in order to pursue the common good, Kames’s emphasis on this self-interested sense of property introduced a note of realism. Kames was quite willing to believe in the notion of an innate moral sense, and man’s natural sociability. … But life as an attorney had taught Kames a more realistic, if not cynical, view. Kames recognized that human beings need a more compelling reason to draw together into a binding community, and to surrender their personal freedom to others.

That “compelling reason,” for Kames, is the protection of our rights to our own property, as an integral part of our individual identities. This is the reason human society has instituted laws, not just to regulate social relations but to teach and uphold a moral code of conduct. In seeking to know why laws exist, Kames drew from his extensive reading in comparative law, history and geography to develop an evolutionary history of human society in four stages based on the way we earn our living: as hunters and gatherers, as shepherds and nomads, as farmers and peasants, or as merchants and manufacturers. While Kames deeply understood that laws must provide a firm base on which social relations can be conducted (otherwise the law becomes “the plaything of power, not its master” in Herman’s wonderful language), he also could see that the law must change as the ways of making a living, and therefore the nature of property, change.

In the mid-1700s, Kames’s four-stage theory in his Sketches on the History of Man was conceptually revolutionary.

It served as the model for William Robertson and others of the ‘Scottish historical school,’ and for the great masterpiece of Enlightenment history, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It defined the fields of comparative anthropology and sociology for two hundred years, and inspired a historical genre, ‘the story of civilization,’ that would last down to Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and William McNeill’s The Rise of the West. And at its core was Kames’s notion that changing forms of property drove the evolution of civil society. ‘Without private property,’ he wrote in the Sketches, ‘there would be no industry, and without industry, men would remain savages forever.’

Kames hereby introduced a new view of history as progressive, in which change is normal and even desirable. In our time, when we speak of being “on the side of history,” we are agreeing with this view of history as a progressive process. With further development in the next century by Hegel and Marx, this historical progression was proposed to be is inexorable and unidirectional toward a better state of human society—a dubious proposition in light of subsequent history but still compelling for today’s thinking.

Current multiculturalism dismisses the four-stage history of Kames as ethnocentric, if not racist. As always, it is wise to be careful with glib condemnations of thinkers in the past. The same Lord Kames and William Robertson of the Scottish Enlightenment would not correlate “civilized” and “savage” with skin color or geographic location. For them the fundamental issue was human liberty and how the changes in ways of living, in notions of property and in the law made human liberty more or less available to the mass of humanity. In the fascinating case of Joseph Knight, an African-born slave sold in Jamaica and later taken by his master to Scotland, Lord Kames led the majority of judges of the highest Scottish court in pronouncing slavery to be against the law in Scotland—in 1777. The decision was based on a broad principle: Kames’s concept of property as an integral part of a human’s individual identity and freedom would not allow one human being to unwillingly become the property of another “civilized” human being. He was applying his idea of progress to bring the law in line with the current stage of history.

If Hutcheson was arguing that the most important instinct human beings have in common is their moral sense, Kames was saying that it is their sense of property and desire to own things.

If Francis Hutcheson represents the soft, humane side of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish character, Kames represents its hard, cold-eyed edge. His sardonic view of the primacy of self-interest and the ‘thirst for opulence’ anticipates what comes later in the works of David Hume, and dismays champions of Hutcheson’s moral altruism.

Though he detested that his protégé David Hume had no religion, and they quarreled especially about religion, Kames himself gave short shrift to religious feeling. Six days before Kames died in 1782, James Boswell tried to draw him out on the possibility of an afterlife. “Nobody believes it,” said Kames.

Even so, the Scottish Enlightenment was unique for its core group of erudite and believing clergymen—in sharp contrast to clerics of the French Enlightenment who were mostly religious skeptics who had taken orders only to gain social position and income. William Robertson, Hugh Blair and the others asserted that the doctrines of Christianity were essential to the civilizing process of history, at the heart of what it means to be modern. Unlike the vast majority of French Enlightenment intellectuals, the enlightened Scots, including David Hume, never saw Christianity as their mortal enemy. Rather, many of them engaged the Presbyterian Church of Scotland from within to reform it. Beginning in 1751, Robertson, Blair and others battled within the Presbyterian General Assembly with the old fire-and-brimstone hardliners to bring “the Kirk” into the modern world, their modern world. The reformers positioned themselves between the traditionalists of the old Kirk and the religious skepticism of the English deists—and David Hume.

David Hume

David Hume’s quite literally unorthodox views, by themselves, would have stood out at the meetings of the Select Society and other gatherings—in fact, he was legendary in Edinburgh at large as “David Hume the Atheist.” More accurately, his fellow intellectuals knew Hume as “the good-humoured agnostic”—A. N. Wilson’s words in God’s Funeral (p. 22); in fact, Wilson speculated that “Hume is surely the most amiable British philosopher,” which, translating from erudite English English, means “lots of fun to hang out with.” Herman writes that Hume’s affability “made him a popular guest at dinner parties and club meetings,” holding forth in elegant English accented by his heavy Scottish burr. Intellectual propositions at these gatherings had to be honed to razor-sharp precision and honesty, shorn of any pretension or sanctimony, to escape Hume’s amiable but withering skepticism. Wilson goes on to characterize Hume (and Gibbon) as authors “incapable of dullness” and “urbane, vigorous and, above all, funny.” Referring to the Victorians, Wilson wrote: “It required a generation devoid of humour, perhaps, to make them dangerous.”

Nonetheless, the response of the Edinburgh literati of the mid-1700s to David Hume’s philosophy was mostly respectful but, very understandably, negative, because of its deeply disturbing implications. Herman writes (p. 202) that “Hutcheson was horrified … the Kirk’s General Assembly tried to have him censured [and] he failed to get a university appointment not once but twice.” To our present-day ears, Hume’s propositions seem rather tame, even obvious, which further illustrates a major theme that, according to Herman (p. 94), Hume shared with his old mentor Lord Kames and indeed with the general Scottish view of history, anthropology, psychology and economics: context matters. These Scots asserted that we are products of our environment, “dependent to some degree on our experience in a particular time and place, rather than solely on some inborn quality or sense.” However, Hume and Kames went further to “detach our understanding of human nature from its traditional theological moorings.” “Both offended conventional opinion by pointing out that morality, like society itself, arose from human aspirations rather than divine ones—in Hume’s words, from ‘mere human contrivances for the interest of society’”

David Hume’s first major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, was published in 1734, when he was just twenty-six. Like most Enlightenment writers, Hume sought to understand human nature and apply this understanding to history, moral philosophy and government. In this early work, he established the themes of his next forty years of writing, which became a new philosophical outlook emphasizing the priority of self-interest in human nature and therefore in the creation and formation of social ties. Herman provides this summary.

For Hume, self-interest was all there is. The overriding guiding force in all our actions is not our reason, or our sense of obligation toward others, or any innate moral sense—all these are simply formed out of habit and experience—but the most basic human passion of all, the desire for self-gratification. It is the one thing human beings have in common. It is also the necessary starting point of any system of morality, and of any system of government.

What was most profoundly offensive to Enlightenment intellectuals and their self-described Age of Reason, indeed to two thousand years of Western philosophy, was Hume’s insistence that reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. The time-honored consensus among philosophers was that right reason masters our emotions and appetites and guides our actions and pursuit of virtue.Hume said no, we use reason to get what we want, to rationalize our passions, not control them. We are products of our physical and social environment, in which we learn through trial and error which expressions of our emotions and passions advance our self-interest (pleasure) and which are destructive of our self-interest (pain). The job of society (and in larger societies, government) is to channel our passions in constructive ways, leading us to form regular habits that internalize a sort of golden rule to not trample the self-interest of others in exchange for them not trampling ours. Thus, in modern society, there must be a dynamic balance between liberty, which preserves individuals, and authority, which preserves society (a theme he explored in his later History of England).

With his trademark “sunny good cheer” (Wilson’s words, p. 10), Hume portrayed a world (according to Herman),

… in which morality is largely a matter of convention and ingrained habit; in which the laws of nature offer nothing to help, and appeals to reason fall on deaf ears; and with an empty sky above, devoid of divine guidance or even a supernatural presence. This world offers a form of liberty—the freedom to pursue one’s own self-interest—and a form of authority: the power of the magistrate ‘to punish transgressors, to correct fraud and violence, and to oblige men, however reluctant, to consult their own real and permanent [long-term] interests.’ But, Hume had to conclude, there is nothing particularly exalted, or inspiring, about the nature of civil society.

Yet Hume was welcomed at dinner parties and club meetings not just for his “sunny good cheer” but because of his confidence in the progress of civil society, despite the messy trial-and-error process which drives this progress. In his Political Discourses, published in 1752, Hume pointed out (again according to Herman),

Society’s effort to canalize human being’s passions into constructive channels doeswork; we do learn from past failures and manage over time to improve how government works and how it administers justice and protects civil rights. The whole growth of the British constitution from feudal despotism to modern liberty was proof of this. History revealed to Hume a growth of human industry and cooperation over time, as well as growth of personal liberty of the sort Hutcheson and others celebrated. And central to it was the role of commerce, as the great engine of change. Commerce and liberty; liberty and refinement; refinement and the progress of the human spirit were all interrelated. And every Scottish Whig could applaud Hume’s statement that ‘it is impossible for the arts and sciences to arise, at first, among any people unless that people enjoy the blessing of a free government.

For those who remember several pages back and wonder how Hume shattered the case for philosophical optimism by simply making its premises look ridiculous, I return to the lectures of Professor Kors to explain.

Hume’s most revealing and pointed work on natural optimism, as it relates to natural religion or theology, is a work unpublished until his death [in 1776] but widely known among his friends—his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. His friends convince him it is too dangerous a work … to publish during his lifetime. In theory, it committed Hume to no particular view, since it was a dialogue among competing analyses of natural theology: an advocate, a traditionalist critic of the new philosophy, and a philosophical skeptic whom he names Philo.

Through Philo, Hume challenged the fundamental premise of natural religion—that the abundant evidence of the order and benevolence of the universe requires us to infer an intelligent creator and designer who is intelligent, wise, omnipotent and good, namely God. An argument basing religion on experience of the natural world had, according to Philo, four fatal flaws.

The first flaw had been identified by Locke: knowledge based on experience is probable at best, never certain, not the last word, as long as new experience might overturn our conclusions up to that point. This means that religious belief is at best provisional as long as new experience or new evidence is lurking off stage, which it always is. Not a satisfying foundation for religion!

The second flaw is the weak analogy made by natural theologians between the universe and a machine designed and built by a human being. Science is full of analogies that aid our understanding, but they mostly serve a heuristic or teaching function. In reality, like effects (the universe and the machine) do not imply like causes (a single, intelligent designer). The movement of sap in trees is analogous to the circulation of blood in animals, but one is driven by evaporation from the leaves, which causes transpiration that pulls the sap up through the xylem cells, and the other is driven by a muscular pump, the heart, fueled by a complex cellular chemistry controlled by a nervous system and an endocrine system interacting with each other. It would be extremely foolish to conclude that trees have hearts, despite the striking similarities in the way nutrients and waste move in trees and in animals. The dissimilarities count far more than the similarities in this analogy and even more in the analogy of the universe and a man-made machine, like a watch.

The third flaw is that we can observe only one universe and only a very small part of this universe. If we were able to compare two or more universes, we might see similar features that point to similar causes. But we cannot. Moreover, if we knew our universe thoroughly, we might have a fighting chance of discerning its cause. But we do not.

Fourth, Philo points out that in testing the strength of scientific hypotheses, negative evidence counts more than positive evidence. Natural theologians marshaled only positive evidence for the existence of God, but there is equally abundant negative evidence. For all the evidence of order, there is abundant evidence of disorder. For all the evidence of goodness in the universe, there is abundant evidence of evil. Whatever cause we propose, it has to explain or predict both types of evidence. Such a cause would not be the intelligent, wise, powerful and good God of the natural theologians.

Philo the skeptic (i.e., Hume) was not arguing for or against the existence of God, only for the impossibility of our knowing the right answer. It was an epistemological question regarding how we might know. Why should we propose the cause of the universe is like a human mind? What is so special about this analogy? And given the complexity of the universe and the number of human minds it takes to build a complex machine, like a battleship, why propose just one mind? Why not many, like the warring pantheon of Greek gods? Moreover, as A.N. Wilson quotes Hume, “For aught we know, a priori, matter may contain the source, or spring, of order originally, within itself, as well as the mind does.” Thus, a hundred years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Hume was suggesting the possibility that matter contains the seeds of its own creation.

The sunny Hume was attempting to discredit the equally sunny natural theology of his day. In succeeding, however, Hume managed to (in Wilson’s words, p. 25)

remove the philosophical necessity for believing in God. Being himself a sunny, cheerfully-disposed individual, he appears to have felt no particular sorrow that we live in an empty, Godless universe, devoid of purpose. The world was really awaiting, after Hume, some empirical demonstration of his metaphysical inquiries. They were supplied in the nineteenth century, not by one scientist, but by a cluster of men any one of whose theories and discoveries would injure faith in the goodness of God or the purposes of God.

Wilson goes on to mention Charles Lyell, the geologist, and Charles Darwin, the biologist, in particular, but I will come to them in the last installment of this history. Meanwhile, I should clarify why I would enjoy the intellectual company of David Hume. Certainly not because I agree with him—at least not in his ultimate conclusions. Rather it is because Hume would bean entertaining and useful adversary, who would force my own thinking to be more precise, more clear, and therefore, more confident going forward. And in the process, I suspect we would have a grand time of it. On the other hand, I am doubtful that I would be a worthy intellectual sparring partner for Hume, so I would prefer to watch and listen to him taking on someone better prepared to get in the ring with him. What a show it would be!

David Hume’s most important contribution to the intellectual history of Western Civilization, it seems to me, is that he checkmated the efforts to justify Christianity, and more generally belief in God, with arguments based on evidence from the natural, material world. Despite the warnings of Blaise Pascal, Pierre Bayle, John Locke, George Berkeley, even Bishop Butler, philosophical theologians, at least from Thomas Aquinas onward through the believing natural philosophers (scientists) of the 1600s, insisted that they could “see” the proof of God’s existence and attributes and providence in the natural world. They insisted that rational argument from the evidence in nature could make the case for God without appeal to “faith” in a humanly inconceivable spiritual existence which is beyond the reach of human reasoning from the things humans can sense in the natural world. David Hume, more decisively than ever before or since, proved them wrong.

Ironically, neither side in the debate seemed to understand the significance, the finality of Hume’s “checkmate.” For them the game was not over; it continues to this day. Even more insistently in the 19th and 20th centuries than in the 18th century, because those who read and understood the significance of Hume, even after publication of his Dialogues in 1779, were an elite few. One who did understand Hume, probably better than anyone else, was Adam Smith. I cannot move on from the Scottish version of the Enlightenment without respectful but brief summary of the works of Adam Smith, but first, I must mention the concurrent impact of the historian Edward Gibbon.

Gibbon’s History

Though he was an English Member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon was intellectually a Scot. He was a follower of the Scottish historical school founded by William Robertson and an ardent admirer of David Hume and Adam Smith.

Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in three installments from 1776 to 1788. A. N. Wilson (God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization) suggests that this book and Hume’s Dialogues were the two books in the English language that have done more than any other to undermine Western Civilization’s Christian faith. Hume’s work portrayed Christian belief as irrational, if not preposterous, while Gibbon attacked ad hominem by making it (in Wilson’s words) “difficult to admire many of the greatest saints, popes and doctors of the universal Church.”

Like most of the intellectuals of the 1700s, Gibbon was a deist, and it was from the deist, anti-Christian (especially anti-Catholic) point of view that he wrote his history. The impact of Gibbon on the 19th century was so strong, because for those who read only English, his history was actually their only source of information about the first thousand years of Christianity. This passage from Wilson (p. 19-20) captures Gibbon’s devastatingly effective technique:

Gibbon’s supreme achievement as an anti-Christian propagandist was that style did all his work for him. It enabled the historian to suggest, without once stating it either as an opinion or as a fact, that nearly all the early Christians, the martyrs, the doctors and the council fathers, were, when not totally contemptible, then morally absurd. The ironical tone said all.

He writes from a position of urbane civilization which, as the style alone indicates, is demonstrably superior to the barbarism which he depicts. Imagine, his style seems to state, Saints Polycarp or Simeon Stylites or Bernard of Clairvaux at a dinner table with my Lord Sheffield, with Mr. Adam Smith or Sir Joshua Reynolds or Dr. Burney! Need anything more be said?

Classic English elitism at its funny, devastating “best.” Wilson continues:

It is not merely in the repeated and hilarious identification of individual Christian wickedness that Gibbon reaches his target. Rather, it is in his whole attitude, which resolutely refuses to be impressed by the Christian contribution to ‘civilization.’ Even the devout, after an exposure to Gibbon, would hesitate to use the word Christian as a term of approbation.

Gibbon’s contrast of the evident wisdom of pre-Christian civilization with the superstitious barbarism of the monks and hermits of medieval Europe echoed the Renaissance humanists’ elevating of Antiquity and drawing of the veil of contempt across the ‘Dark Ages.’

While Hume and Gibbon delivered this near-simultaneous one-two punch to the body of Christian tradition and belief, Adam Smith sought a more temperate and constructive synthesis of the Hutcheson and Kames/Hume wings of the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson are the primary subjects of the next post in this series.


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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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