This edition, now or lately published by Messrs. Ward, Lock, and Tyler, was first issued by Messrs. A cheap and complete edition of Hume will doubtless ere long be forthcoming. It does not save the credit of the pious publisher that his excisions fail to make the treatise innocuous to his faith; and many readers may have found the pruned version very sufficient for its purpose.
To every independent student, however, the mutilation of a text in the interests of orthodoxy is an intolerable presumption; and for such students the present issue is intended.
Green and Grose, which has been followed in this matter, it gives the many classical references in full, and according to the standard texts.
It is the one of his works which most explicitly asserts his Deism; but on account of its rationalistic treatment of concrete religion in general, which only nominally spared Christianity, it was that which first brought upon him much theological odium in England.
He is establishing Atheism; and in one single line of a long essay professes to believe Christianity. He may have many, for aught I know; but let me observe to you there are vices of the mind as well as of the body; and I think a wickeder mind, and more obstinately bent on public mischief, I never knew.
The publisher being undeterred, other steps were taken. Hurd wrote a pamphlet against it, with all the illiberal petulance, arrogance, and scurrility, which distinguish the Warburtonian school. This pamphlet gave me some consolation for the otherwise indifferent reception of my performance. The pamphlet was really in the main the work of Warburton, as we learn from Hurd, who, as Messrs.
Warburton, of course, was incapable of efficient controversy with Hume on philosophical questions; and indeed it would be impossible to point to any Englishman of that period who was properly qualified for such a task.
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Hume here, apparently without seeking to rest his assumption on any distinct theoretical basis, adopted the view of those ancients who, though in the dark as to cosmic history, held alike on traditional and on common-sense grounds that mankind had risen from a state of savagery.
Cudworth, writing a hundred years before, brought immense learning to the work of showing that all the non-Christian religions exhibited a degeneration from the monotheistic truth originally revealed to men by the creator; the attempt being motived, of course, by the belief in creation and revelation with which Cudworth set out. Hume, despite his avowed Deism, must have given up the ordinary doctrine of the creation of man, whatever theory he may have held as to the creation of the world.
He offers, however, no hypothesis as to the actual origin of human life; and his notion of the rise of religion would seem thus to rest on an unfixed conception of human beginnings, of which we cannot now even guess the details. This habitual belief, as it were, tied men down to Deism; and it doubtless operated Edition: current; Page: [ x ] in the case of Hume. Hume argued less rashly.
But in point of fact Hume assumes the inevitableness of primeval polytheism, and goes on to make his historic statement, loosely enough, as part of the proof.
The historic proposition is indeed so inaccurate as to imply that Hume at this particular point was temporising, since Edition: current; Page: [ xi ] he must have known the facts were not as he said. Indeed, the drift of the treatise is only too clearly, for orthodox readers, in the direction of showing that Christianity exemplifies all the laws of religious degeneration seen at work in the faiths of the past. Hume did not write his book merely to show how men constructed foolish creeds in antiquity.
When a controversy is started, some people pretend always with certainty to foretell the issue. Whichever opinion, say they, is most contrary to plain sense, is sure to prevail, even where the general interest of the system requires not that decision. Though the reproach of heresy may, for some time, be bandied about among the disputants, it always rests at last on the side of reason.
Anyone, it is pretended, that has but learning enough of this kind to know the definition of Arian, Pelagian, Erastian, Socinian, Sabellian, Eutychian, Nestorian, Monothelite, etc. It is thus a system becomes more absurd in the end, merely from its being reasonable and philosophical in the beginning. Will you set up profane reason against sacred mystery? No punishment is great enough for your impiety.
And the same fires which were kindled for heretics will serve also for the destruction of philosophers. After full reflection the answer must be given in a qualified affirmative. The case is well summed up by Prefessor Huxley:. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment, appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny concerning this subject.
But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld, did we not enlarge our view, Edition: current; Page: [ xiv ] and, opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy.
Some astonishment, indeed, will naturally arise from the greatness of the object; some melancholy from its obscurity; some contempt of human reason, that it can give no solution more satisfactory with regard to so extraordinary and magnificent a question. But believe me, Cleanthes, the most natural sentiment which a well-disposed mind will feel on this occasion, is a longing desire and expectation that Heaven would be pleased to dissipate, or at least alleviate, this profound ignorance, by affording some more particular revelation to mankind, and making discoveries of the nature, attributes and operations of the divine object of our faith.
If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other, and so on without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humor which it is impossible ever to satisfy.
I know not: I care not; that concerns not me. I have found a Deity, and here I stop my inquiry. Let those go further who are wiser or more enterprising.
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That is to say, the plan is clearly single and consistent, though it is unintelligible. And Being of which we do not know the Nature is simply Existence, which is what the Atheist predicates of the Universe. He had written the Dialogues years before the publication of the Natural History, and kept them by him for the rest of his life, retouching them with so much care as to make them the most finished of all his compositions.
Such was the character of the man!
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Blair pleaded strongly for its suppression; and Smith, who had made up his mind that he would not edit the work, seems to have desired that the testamentary injunction laid on him might be revoked.
Hume never rebutted his own anti-theistic arguments. That would perhaps be a too positive statement of the case; but it seems as if a few qualifications would reduce it to accuracy. It is very much as if Mr. Spencer should call the Unknowable by the name God, by way of getting on pleasantly with Mr. Martineau and Mr. Voysey; only Mr.
Had he professed downright Atheism, no personal amiability could have availed to save him from almost general ostracism; the average Deist being commonly found to be only a few degrees less bigoted than the average Christian, when it comes to the handling of professed Atheists. When all is said, however, the fact remains that under grave menace of hardship Hume temporised on religious questions. As to this, again, we have to remember that in his middle age he had become a commonplace Tory, that is, a Tory by temperament; and that his political bias would of necessity affect his relations to outspoken rationalism in other directions.
But he was certainly not one of the heroes of truth, or of the martyrs of progress. He was a great Edition: current; Page: [ xxii ] writer; but the sterner joys of his vocation were not for him. This said, it remains to do justice to the incomparable insight and lucidity of his philosophical performance. This is not the place to review his system as a whole; but no characterization of Hume can be just which does not take note of the masterliness of his grasp of the fundamental problems of philosophy, and the singular skill of his exposition of every subject on which he laid his hand.
A Natural History of Religion
In the estimation of a critic of a different school, he is the first master of philosophical English; and it is matter of history that his performance is the turning point of all modern metaphysics.
The treatise which follows is a study rather in psychology than in metaphysics, being indeed one of the first successes of positive philosophy, properly so called, and in effect the foundation of the modern scientific study of religion, having had a large share in priming the French rationalistic work of the Revolutionary period.
It has not yet been superseded, because some of its most acute and important suggestions have not yet been systematically applied, as they must one day be, in regard to any one case of religious history. As they stand they are incomplete; and one could wish that Hume had set himself to work out in the concrete the evolution, for instance, of Judaism and Christianity. He has made far fewer rationalists than Paine.
And it would have been very well worth his while to show in detail how far the temper of oriental adulation went to magnify the tribal Yahu into a deity further transformable into the, so to speak, pantheised Spirit of a creed evolved from an older and wider culture.
That deities are the mere personifications of unknown causes; that untrained minds theologise from particulars and not from generals, and ignore inconsistencies from sheer mental impotence; that ignorance is always tending to turn abstract notions of Deity into concrete, to give its God its own characteristics, and to resort to ignoble propitiations; that religious history is a process of flux and reflux between the refined and the crude conceptions, ignorance now degrading a doctrine, and reason again revolting from the follies of ignorance and seeking to purify its ideas—all this is set forth by Hume with the puissant ease which marks his reflective writing in general.
The ostensible drift of the treatise, as we saw, is to make out that whereas ignorant people cannot rightly conceive the power interpenetrating an infinite universe, more cultured people may; but that is a thesis which for any thoughtful reader serves to refute itself. He, at least, who in these days can suppose that the scanty knowledge possible to the wisest of mankind will serve to bridge the gulf between finity and infinitude, Edition: current; Page: [ xxiv ] is already past all misleading.
It is a drawback, again, that the temporising spirit has withheld a plain application of the argument to the beliefs actually current in Europe. There is thus secured the gain of a comprehensive and philosophic view.
As every enquiry which regards religion is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular which challenge our principal attention, to wit, that concerning its foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature.
Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflexion, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.
But the other question, concerning the origin of religion in human nature, is exposed to some more difficulty. The belief of invisible, intelligent power has been very generally diffused over the human race, in all places and in all ages; but it has neither perhaps been so universal as to admit of no exceptions, nor has it been, in any degree, uniform in the ideas which it has suggested.
Some nations have been discovered, who entertained no sentiments of Religion, if travellers and historians may be credited; and no two nations, and scarce any two men, have ever agreed precisely in the same sentiments. It would appear, therefore, that this preconception springs Edition: current; Page: [ 2 ] not from an original instinct or primary impression of nature, such as gives rise to self-love, affection between the sexes, love of progeny, gratitude, resentment; since every instinct of this kind has been found absolutely universal in all nations and ages, and has always a precise determinate object, which it inflexibly pursues.
The first religious principles must be secondary; such as may easily be perverted by various accidents and causes, and whose operation too, in some cases, may by an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances be altogether prevented. What those principles are, which give rise to the original belief, and what those accidents and causes are, which direct its operation, is the subject of our present enquiry.
It appears to me, that if we consider the improvement of human society, from rude beginnings to a state of greater perfection, polytheism or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind.
This opinion I shall endeavor to confirm by the following arguments.
The Natural History of Religion
It is a matter of fact incontestable, that about 1, years ago all mankind were polytheists. The doubtful and sceptical principles of a few philosophers, or the theism, and that too not entirely pure, of one or two nations, form no objection worth regarding.
Behold then the clear testimony of history. The farther we mount up into antiquity, the more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism. No marks, no symptoms of any more perfect religion. The most ancient records of the human race still Edition: current; Page: [ 3 ] present us with that system as the popular and established creed.
The north, the south, the east, the west, give their unanimous testimony to the same fact.
What can be opposed to so full an evidence? As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth; but fell into error, as soon as they acquired learn- and politeness.
But in this assertion you not only contradict all appearance of probability, but also our present experience concerning the principles and opinions of barbarous nations. The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia, are all idolaters.
Not a single exception to this rule.