David Hume

David Hume in United Kingdom

British Political and Social Thought: The Conservatism of Hume and Burke

Introduction to David Hume

In addition to playing a significant role in the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume was important in the development of the British conservative tradition. In Of the Origin of Government and Of the Original Contract, he described society as the product of convention and habit rather than of a rational decision on the part of any group to leave the chaotic state of nature. People obey their governments not from some ancestral promise of partnership in a social contract but from the mere fact that a government has been established for a long time. Obedience and subjection are so familiar to people that they do not try to understand the origin and cause of their government. Furthermore, according to Hume, obeying government is convenient and useful. People obey government because common sense tells them that stability and order in society will be maintained.

The most important British conservative was Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is still considered the classic statement of conservatism. Burke believed that the revolutionaries in France and the British radicals of his day, who were calling for universal voting rights and an end to the monarchy, had a misguided faith in reason and abstract ideas. They assumed that a simple belief in natural rights, or freedom and equality, was a sufficient basis for reforming existing governments. Radicals and revolutionaries, Burke wrote, underestimate the complexity of institutions and the depth of their roots in history and tradition. Burke was suspicious of all intellectuals who sought to create an ideal new political order instead of accepting what history had produced. In Burke’s view, injustice and misery are best overcome through gradual efforts at improvement and reform, not through destructive revolutionary change.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke also rejected the democratic convictions of the revolutionaries. He considered the people ignorant and impetuous and argued that they are best governed by their social and intellectual superiors. Since the capacity for reason in most people is severely limited, according to Burke, the wisdom of the past is always the best guide. That wisdom is best articulated by the church, the aristocracy, and the monarchy, which represent the social and political institutions most deeply rooted in the past. In making these assertions, Burke repudiated not only the French Revolution but also the prior two centuries of British political and social thought.” (1)

Alternative Biography

HUME, DAVID, (1711-1776). —Philosopher and historian, second son of Joseph H., of Ninewells, Berwickshire, was born and ed. in Edin., and was intended for the law. For this, however, he had no aptitude, and commercial pursuits into which he was initiated in a counting-house in Bristol proving equally uncongenial, he was permitted to follow out his literary bent, and in 1734 went to France, where he passed three years at Rheims and La Flèche in study, living on a small allowance made him by his f. In 1739 he pub.anonymously his Treatise on Human Nature, which attracted little attention. Having returned to Scotland, he wrote at Ninewells his Essays, Moral and Philosophical (1741-42). He now became desirous of finding some employment which would put him in a position of independence, and having been unsuccessful in his candidature for the Chair of Moral Philosophy in Edin., he became in 1745 governor to the Marquis of Annandale, a nobleman whose state was little removed from insanity. Two years later he accepted the more congenial appointment of Judge-Advocate-General to General St. Clair on his expedition to Port L’Orient, and in 1748 accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to France, whence he passed on to Vienna and Turin. About the same time he produced his Philosophical Essays (1748), including the famous Essay in Miracles which gave rise to so much controversy. These were followed in 1751 by his Enquiry into the Principles of Morals, which he considered his best work; and in 1752 by his Political Discourses, which alone of his works had an immediate success. In the same year he applied unsuccessfully for the Chair of Logic in Glasgow, but was appointed Keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edin. The access to books and original authorities which this position gave him appears to have suggested to his mind the idea of writing a history, and the first vol. of his History of England, containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I., was pub. in 1754. Its reception was not favourable, and the disappointment of the author was so great that, had it not been for the state of war between the two countries, he would have left his native land, changed his name, and settled permanently in France. The second vol., which appeared in 1757, dealing with the Commonwealth, and the reigns of Charles II. and James II., had a better reception, and had the effect of “buoying up its unfortunate brother.” Thereafter the tide completely turned, and the remaining four vols., 1759 and 1762, in which he turned back and finished the history from the invasion of Julius Cæsar to the accession of Henry VII., attained a vast popularity, which extended to the whole work. During the progress of the history H. pub. in 1757 Four Dissertations: the Natural History of Religion; of the Passions; of Tragedy; of the Standard of Taste. Two others on Suicide and on The Immortality of the Soul were cancelled, but pub. posthumously. In 1763 H. accompanied Lord Hertford to Paris, and for a few months acted as Chargé d’Affaires. While there he was introduced to the brilliant literary society for which the French capital was then famous. Among other acquaintances which he made was that of Rousseau, whom he persuaded to accompany him on his return home, and for whom he procured a pension. The suspicious and fickle character of R., however, soon brought the friendship to an end. Soon after his return H. received a pension, and from 1767-68 he was under-sec. to General Conway, then Sec. of State. In 1769 he retired, and returned to Edin. with an income of £1000 a year which, time and place considered, was an ample competence, and there he spent the remainder of his days, the recognised head of the intellectual and literary society of the city.
The mind of H. was one of the most original and operative of his age. His philosophy was largely a questioning of the views of previous metaphysicians, and he occupied towards mind, considered as a self-subsisting entity, a position analogous to that assumed by Berkeley towards matter similarly considered. He profoundly influenced European thought, and by indirectly calling into being the philosophy of Kant on the one hand, and that of the Scottish School on the other, created a new era of thought. As a historian he showed the same originality. He introduced a new and higher method of writing history than had previously been practised. Until his time chronicles and contemporary memoirs had, generally speaking, been all that had been produced; and though his great work cannot, from its frequent inaccuracies and the fact that it is not based upon original documents, claim the character of an authority, its clear, graceful, and spirited narrative style, and its reflection of the individuality of the writer, constitute it a classic, and it must always retain a place among the masterpieces of historical literature. In character H. was kindly, candid, and good-humoured, and he was beloved as a man even by many who held his views in what was little short of abhorrence.
SUMMARY.—B. 1711, ed. at Edin., tries law and commerce, but decides for literature, goes to France 1734-37, pub. Human Nature 1739, Essays Moral and Philosophical1741-2, governor to M. of Annandale 1745, accompanies expedition to L’Orient, engaged diplomatically 1748, pub. Philosophical Essays, including Miracles 1748, Enquiry into Principles of Morals 1751, Political Discourses 1752, Keeper of Advocates’ Library 1752, pub. History of England 1754-62, Four Dissertations 1757, Chargé d’Affaires at Paris 1763, became acquainted with Rousseau, under-sec. of State 1767-8, retires and settles in Edin. 1769.
Life by Hill Burton (2 vols., 1846), shorter ones by Huxley, Knight, and Calderwood. Works ed. by Green and Grose (4 vols., 1874). History often reprinted with Smollett’s continuations.

Source: A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature


Notes and References

Guide to Hume



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