Episode 129: Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment (with Thomas W. Merrill)

Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from
Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell. Matthew Feeney: And I’m Matthew Feeney. Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Thomas Merrill.
He’s associate Professor of Government and Associate Director of the Political Theory
Institute at American University. He’s also authored the new book, Hume and the Politics
of Enlightenment from Cambridge University Press. A couple of years back, the philosophy
podcast, Philosophy Bites, did an episode where they had a bunch of their guests—I’m
guessing 50, 60, 70 of them just briefly say who their favorite philosopher was and these
were all academic philosophers. And the two frontrunners by an enormous margin—I tried
to look up the tally this morning but couldn’t find one, so I’m relying on recollection.
But the two frontrunners were Aristotle and then David Hume, and I think Hume probably
edged out Aristotle. So maybe we start with and we’re going to get into the specifics
of Hume’s thought in his biography and all that, but what is it about him that makes
him this popular? Thomas Merrill: Well, I think Hume exemplifies
a certain kind of skeptical spirit that speaks to a lot of people who get interested in philosophy
and I think that’s probably the most important thing for the fact that you mentioned. I mean
I think in terms of, you know, politics, I mean, you know, he’s a gigantically influential
person on things that, you know, people Cato care about, right? I mean he’s a big influence
on the American founding. He’s—you know, when James Madison sits down to write “Federalist
10,” he has Hume’s essays by his hand and there’s a pretty close connection that
you can draw between Hume and Madison and, therefore, the rest of the American founding,
Hamilton in particular. Also, he’s—you know, he’s Adam Smith’s
best friend, right? So he’s right there at the origins of what we like to think of
as classical liberalism or commercial republicanism. So, I think those two things are the reason
why people think Hume is important. Matthew Feeney: And who was he exactly? I
mean very influential in the American founding, but he was a Scottish originally? Thomas Merrill: Yes. Right. So, he was a Scottish
philosopher. I’m not sure that anybody ever has philosopher as a job title. He actually
has a bunch of different jobs including being—he took care of a crazy guy for a while. He was
a librarian. He was—and eventually he’s an author who publishes lots of books and
he’s able to hold off his royalties. But he’s born in 1711. He dies in 1776. He writes
one book, A Treatise of Human Nature, which is a gigantic failure and then tries again.
It was a good lesson for all of these authors. And eventually becomes an extremely popular
writing The History of England. It’s one of the major bestsellers in the 18th century
and, you know, a very important work of political theory. Matthew Feeney: And what was his, I suppose,
philosophical project? Why are philosophers interested in him? What’s his— Thomas Merrill: Well, I would say in the 20th
century, philosophers were interested in him because they like the empiricism and the skepticism.
I would say in his time, he’s not known for that so much as he is known for really,
well, I think is the first generation of classical liberalism or what scholars sometimes called
commercial republicanism. And so I think it’s in that mode as kind of a political educator
or as a person who’s talking about ideas and trying to justify what really is in the
mid-18th century, a radical new regime, that’s why he is important from a sort of political-moral
point of view. We could talk about, you know, the 20th century on why philosophers like
him if you want, but I think just from the political point of view, that’s the main
thing. Aaron Powell: So what do we mean by—I mean
he’s known as a skeptic. Thomas Merrill: Yeah. Aaron Powell: So what do we mean by that?
What was he responding to? And what did the skepticism look like? Thomas Merrill: Well, so the skepticism—this
is the way that the most complicated topic in Hume. He gives us—in his Treatise, he
gives us kind of autobiographical description of the—you know, he understands himself
to be a philosopher who wants to know what’s the truth about why some things cause other
things and he gets to a point when he realizes in order to answer that question or explain
why science explains the world, he’s got to have some answer to the question of what
the ultimate cause is. Science doesn’t have that and Hume doesn’t have that. I’m not
sure that anybody else really does either. And he presented almost as though he has an
existential crisis, right? That there’s this kind of, you know, like “Oh, my goodness,
I don’t know why does the sun rise tomorrow. How do I know that?” And I think a lot—you know, many, many philosophers
have had that kind of experience and recognized that as, you know, perhaps not inspiring but
more honest than, you know, this kind of story that you might get from Aristotle. But one
of the things that I argue in the book is that that’s not just a personal thing for
Hume, that he sees this—he’s sort of telling the story as it were. It’s kind of a political
parable. He sees that in European history that it’s not just him that has been interested
in these questions about the ultimate cause, but that, you know, in medieval times this
is what he call superstition that people come up with these accounts of what the ultimate
cause is and then they try to rule in politics on the basis of that. But if that seems to
be the case, nobody has kind of a settle answer to that. The political consequence of trying
to make your philosophy in the grandest sense the basis for politics means religious warfare,
non-stop religious warfare which is really the political story of Europe between 1500
and 1700. So, his skepticism is I think an attempt to
try to recognize first of all that that’s insanity, right? This is horrible and, you
know, many, many people die. Without I think giving up on the idea that somehow these questions
are questions that we can’t stop asking, right? That there’s some part of the human
spirit that, you know, in Plato’s image wants to be outside of the cave and that Hume
knows very well. And so I think his skepticism when he talks about it in the Treatise and
in the essays is really an attempt to somehow do justice to both of those truths. That’s,
you know, we are beings that want to know the truth about the world, but we’re also
beings that need a certain amount of political sanity and want to be down-to-earth and, you
know, not go off on crazy religious crusades or something like that. Aaron Powell: So is this related to probably
his most famous idea is that the problem of induction, right? Is that related to the skepticism? Thomas Merrill: Absolutely. Aaron Powell: What is that? Thomas Merrill: So the problem of induction
is how do you know that causes produce effects? And so when we start reasoning inductively
about the world, we say, you know, well, what causes tuberculosis or something and you try
to figure out what the cause is as a good empirical scientist. And that makes a lot
of sense and tremendously powerful and, you know, there’s no doubt that our entire world
has been transformed by it. But when you start asking why do we think that causes actually
produce effects and if you turn the inductive process onto itself, then you sort of have
to look for what’s the evidence that, you know, the world is a rational place and there
is no evidence is Hume’s most basic point. And so that’s kind of a problem, right?
Yeah. So that’s— Matthew Feeney: It’s like a rather large
one. Thomas Merrill: It’s a rather large one,
yup, that’s right. Yeah. And I think Hume would say you have to sort of face up to that,
you can’t just try to like push that into a corner and forget about it, but you also
don’t want to keep you from trying to figure out more sort of a piecemeal way that you
can about the world that we live in. Matthew Feeney: So that’s his I suppose
epistemology and sitting here in Washington in the Cato Institute, we spent a bit more
time worrying about politics which we’ve just written a book about. So what—given
Hume’s conception of how we know things and how people—what was he thinking about
politically especially given that Hobbes before him had written a very influential book, the
Leviathan. So what was Hobbes’—sorry, excuse me. What was Hume’s politics and
his attitude towards that? Thomas Merrill: So, I think the scholarly
term for him in politics is commercial republicanism. What that means in the first-hand sense is
the political good for Hume is individual liberty under law. It’s not just individual
liberty because, you know, that would be anarchy and, you know, strong people beating up weak
people. But on the other hand, it is having a kind of protected space for individuals
to live their lives in the way that they see fit. So, I think of Hume and really Hume and
Montesquieu would almost exactly the same time I think from different points of view
arrive at the same basic position that what you want out of a government is protection
from violence but also protection from arbitrary power. And that means you want a regime that
has rule of law as the most important thing and you want a regime that is able to back
that up. So, when he thinks about individual liberty I think today, we often think about
it as democracy that you get to have your say in politics and Hume’s view is more
“I want to have a government that’s strong enough to protect me, but that is not going
to come and do bad things to me basically. Matthew Feeney: So how does he fit into the
group of philosophers that we might call the social contract theorists who were also operating
in I suppose similar sort of time period? Thomas Merrill: So—yes. Matthew Feeney: Or around then. Thomas Merrill: So, Hume is in some ways very
close to someone like Locke, but I would say there is sort of a family quarrel between
the two. Hume has got famous criticisms the whole idea of the social contract, the idea
that somehow there is this moment when everyone comes together and agrees. And Hume thinks
that historically that’s false and if you say that the only legitimate regimes are ones
in which everyone gave explicit consent, then that’s very difficult to actually have happened
and that undermines the regimes that we actually have without sort of a clear better alternative.
And so Hume is quite harsh on the idea of the original contract, but I think you have
to—you know, so that sometimes people say Locke is the liberal, Hume is the conservative. But I think it’s more complicated than that
because Hume also—he says, “Look, the contractarians, the effective truth of contractarianism
is if the government is screwing you, you have a right to repel and Hume definitely
agrees with that that he thinks maybe we shouldn’t talk about it as much as Locke or Jefferson
or something like that. It’s politically dangerous but it’s also pretty clearly a
truth for Hume that when the government is oppressing people, people are going to push
back. So it’s kind of a mixed bag. It’s wrong in the theory but right on the practice,
I guess would be one way of saying it. Aaron Powell: But he was a bit more reserved
in his willingness to embrace revolution than say Locke. Like Locke, you know, as soon as
the government is here to do these things, the moment the government stops doing these
things, you need to overthrow it and make a better one. Thomas Merrill: Right. Aaron Powell: But Hume seems to think like,
no, as long as the government is largely working or isn’t too awful, then you have an obligation
to support it. Is that a fair or— Thomas Merrill: Obligation is a tricky word.
Yeah, I think the differences that Locke thinks, you know, if you’re going to have a revolution,
you have to—you know, the people are naturally conservative and so you have to really talk
them up into it, so you have to go way on the other end of, you know, let’s—you
know, go get your guns. Hume thinks it’s much more fragile that political order can
be destroyed pretty easily and he’s thinking of, you know, the English Civil War and things
like that. So here’s an example of the difference between—of how Hume treats the right of
rebellion. In The History of England, he tells a story
about Charles I who is executed by the parliamentarians. And in general, Hume is pretty clearly on
the side of the parliamentarians and he thinks this is sort of the way that the right regime
should be represented of democracy that protects property. Charles I gets executed and Hume
tells this very, you know, sort of tragic story of this guy who couldn’t somehow figure
out how to live with the new world that he was in. And then Hume—after telling the
story, he says “Oh, and by the way, if there was ever a truth that you should hide from
the people, it’s the idea that you can ever legitimately oppose your monarch and maybe
even kill him. Never ever talk about this in public, okay?” And which is sort of funny.
I mean like History of England is like the most read history in British, right? And so—and
then he goes on for 3 pages to talk about all the cases in which you might do exactly
that, right? And so it’s a very weird kind of dance that he does that on the one hand
“don’t talk about this, but I am talking about this,” right? This is kind of a form
of contradiction. My own sense is that he’s playing with us
that it’s kind of a joke, right? That he knows that you’re going to see through that
he doesn’t really keep it a secret. But then he’s trying to give you kind of a lesson
like exemplify how to handle it that this is a very sensitive thing that you shouldn’t
just, you know, tell people go have a rebellion over every single thing, but you want to sort
of preserve it as a possibility over the long run. Aaron Powell: This saying—like I guess not
saying what he’s really saying or what he wants to say seems to be a theme throughout
his life though. I mean so we get with the Treatise there, many chapters were cut from
the original, right? Thomas Merrill: Yes, that’s right. Aaron Powell: And he’s— Thomas Merrill: Castrated of its noblest parts. Aaron Powell: His work on—I mean he was
an atheist, right? Thomas Merrill: Yes. Aaron Powell: And he kind of hid that. His
work on religion was published after his death. Was this—I mean how much did this kind of
play into the obviously his work on—religion and atheism, we had to cut out because it
would have been bad for him, but these other ideas, how much did that sense of like people
don’t like what I’m going to say play into maybe how he colored? Thomas Merrill: I think he is—I mean I think
a lot of the great philosophers are very self-conscious about how they say things in public and I
think that’s an important theme that you have to keep in mind. It should also be said—so
this thing that we just talked about, induction. I mean that is in a way the religious question
without talking about religion because it is—that’s the thing behind it, what’s
the ultimate cause or, you know, what is God, I guess would be the one way of saying it. Yeah, I mean Hume, you know, hides certain
things. He says he’s castrated of its noblest parts but many, many people were not fooled.
I mean Hume tried to get a job as a professor at the University of Edinburgh and fails because
everyone says he’s an atheist. So, you know, in some ways he’s not so good at that, right?
And if you really want to keep a secret, you would just not say anything but I think Hume
both wants to be discreet but also to say what he really thinks. So I think it’s—yeah,
I’m not sure if that answered your question. Matthew Feeney: So, you mentioning Edinburg
remind me of another Scott that played a big role in Hume’s life, Adam Smith— Thomas Merrill: Right. Matthew Feeney: –who we think a lot about
here at the Cato Institute. Thomas Merrill: Sure, yeah. Matthew Feeney: So, what was their relationship?
They were friends, but then also perhaps more importantly, what was the influence on one
another? Thomas Merrill: Okay. So, Hume and Smith are
best friends and they have a lot in common. Hume is the elder by I think 11 years. I guess
from an intellectual point of view, Hume writes in the essays right around late 1740s or early
1750. He writes a whole series of essays about commerce that you might think of as kind of
sketch for the kind of arguments that you’re going to see in Wealth of Nations. Wealth
of Nations did not publish until 1776, so you’re really talking about 25 years later
and Wealth of Nations is the much more sophisticated, fully worked out version of those arguments.
But I would say that, yeah, what we think of as the arguments for commerce really come
out of that milieu. I mean I would say it’s really Montesquieu in France in The Spirit
of the Laws gives some version of this. Hume gives a version of this and then Adam Smith
gives you the great Wealth of Nations. Matthew Feeney: But they did agree—I mean
correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember that Hume likes Smith’s thoughts. Commerce
was a good thing, that it helped perfected or helped the people improve their life. Thomas Merrill: Yes. Matthew Feeney: And depressingly, I think—I
mean—so Hume dies in 1776 which is the year of the Wealth of Nations is published. Thomas Merrill: That’s correct, yes. Matthew Feeney: And he did read it I think,
but the—I know that there was a letter where he brings up some issue with I think the pricing
system, although he’s a fan of the book. He says he has some qualms with it. It’s
a shame I think we don’t know his in-depth criticisms. But does this attitude towards
commerce come from some sort of deeper philosophical foundation? Where does that come from? Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So I would say—so
Hume thinks government’s job is to basically let you live your life and for that you need
a regime that supports rule of law. But it’s not enough just to have like a constitution
that says we’re going to have rule of law, right? You know, what Madison would call parchment
barriers that it has to be—the regime has to be rooted in a group of people who are
actually willing to support and stand up for the rule of law. So, when Hume looks at the
history of England between 1500 and his time, the big sociological change is what we now
call rise of the middle class. And Hume is really the guy who first kind of puts this
on a map as an intellectual matter, and he says commerce is good because it allows people
who are previously served to basically get off the plantation and to become artisans
and manufacturers and live in cities and that they start to see themselves differently.
And so from his point of view, they’re really the sociologic—the middle class is the sociological
basis for regime that’s going to protect individual liberty. So, it’s good politically.
It’s better for them because they are no longer under some, you know, feudal lord’s
thumb and they can live their own lives, which might not be lives like Hume’s. They’re
not going to be philosophers, right? But I think the most important reason is really
just the support of regime that supports rule of law. That’s the thing that he thinks
is ultimately the good thing. Aaron Powell: Behind all of this is Hume’s
moral theory, which he also—I mean—So, Adam Smith has this theory of moral sentiments
and Hume is—often he’s also a moral sentiments guy and also gets—I mean today in kind of
the modern virtue ethics tradition, he is seen as part of that as well. So, what does
his underlying moral theory look like and how does it play into this—you know, we
need to base our morals in something but this problem of induction makes it awfully hard
to find the floor and figure out where to start. Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So that’s a good question.
I mean Hume is a skeptic and I think, you know, people—scholars today want to go back
and find in moral sentiment theory kind of a new foundation for morality. I’m not so
sure that that’s what Hume understands himself to be. I think he thinks—Hume beings are
moralizing animals, so they can’t stop having moral opinions of praise or blame like this
is right or wrong. That’s quite a different thing than saying that they always act morally,
right? And, you know, Hume is—there’s a lot of
irony. He says, you know, the best regimes, the freest regimes, so republics, are often
the worst for the provinces because people in the regime, it’s really good for them
but when they conquer another regime, they’re perfectly willing to do all kinds of awful
things. And so, I think for him the question is less can we establish the one true morality
than it is thinking sort of prudently about what our actual interests. So he’s less
on the sort of moralizing, telling people how to live kind of side of things than he
is on what we see things in a very clear-minded empirical point of view will realize that
it’s actually in our interest to have a regime that protects people’s property rights
no matter who they are. And, you know, I can’t expect that my rights are going to be protected
unless we have a regime that’s protecting everyone’s rights. And so it’s that kind
of self-interest rightly understood I think would be a better description of Hume’s
moral stance than some hifalutin here’s the, you know, universal principle that solves
everything. Aaron Powell: So this then depends on the
people’s intution? Like is it kind of the state and the rules of justice and what the
state ought to be doing have a conventional direction to them? Because if—so you’re
depending on this group of people saying “Look, I have a set of interests and these interests
are going to be furthered by political liberty of this kind and having a state that protects
these things, but we can see broad differences in, say, cultures between what they value
and so the ideal political system or would Hume’s system look different or fall apart
in, say, places that weren’t 18th century England? Thomas Merrill: Okay. So that’s a tough
question. Hume thinks if you take an unvarnished look at what the human condition is, that’s
we want better conditions and he thinks that that is kind of an elemental truth that can
be hidden by all kinds of crazy cultural things. But that is, you know, part of just what it
means to be a human being. He definitely doesn’t think that England should go around trying
to tell everyone else that they should be just like England or trying to conquer them
into being liberal democracy or anything like that. But I think he thinks if you—once
you break the spell of religion as the sort of glue that holds society together and people
start thinking honestly about what their interests are, they will more or less come around to
seeing that something like a regime of rule of laws is really the way to go. But his arguments
are always more on “here’s what your interest is and this is why it leads to this kind of
regime.” I guess one way that I think about this, when he presents his political science—he
presents himself as a political scientist more than as a moral philosopher. Aaron Powell: Okay. Thomas Merrill: I think that’s an important
thing to say. And his main source if you read the essays when he explains his political
science like what’s the source, well, it’s all Machiavelli like explicitly it’s Machiavelli.
And I think that’s an important truth that he thinks realism is a better basis for a
solid regime and for people’s commitment to the regime than it is talking about moral
sentiments. Matthew Feeney: Well, your question Aaron
made me think. I mean the fact that, yeah, maybe Hume applicable to 18th century England
but we started the discussion by talking about the American founding. And what was it exactly
that made him so attractive to figures like Madison, Hamilton or Jefferson? Is it the
rule of government exactly? Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So it’s not Jefferson.
Jefferson hates Hume. But, yeah, in Hume’s political science is a political science that
starts from the proposition that you can’t expect people—you can’t expect rulers
to do the right thing just because they’re nice guys that you need to set up institutions
that are somehow going to—I think he says make it the interest even of bad men to preserve
the constitution and preserve the rule of law. So, yeah, I mean you could think of Hume
as the place where Machiavellian insights enter the constitutional tradition that you
want to design institutions that ambition is going to check the ambition in the phrase
of Federalist 51. Everything that you see I would say in Federalist 10 and Federalist
51 are—it’s not just Hume. There are lots of other people, but that’s the general
spirit of Hume constitutionalism. We want to design institutions that are going to be
build competition into the institution so that people are sort of more likely to do
the things that we want them to do rather than the things that, you know, just tyrannizing
everybody else as they’re likely to do. Matthew Feeney: Why did Jefferson hate Hume? Thomas Merrill: So, well, it’s a complicated
story. So the American founders split as you know after the federal’s papers and there
was a big fight between Hamilton on the one side and Jefferson and Madison on the other.
And I think—so after 1800, Jefferson writes many, many letters, maybe a dozen letters
saying that Hume is a really awful person. I think there’s one letter in which he says
something like Hume has done more to undermine the rights of men in Europe than all the troops
of Napoleon’s armies. And I think the easy answer is that he sees Hume as—he sets a
team with Hamilton and there’s this residual bitterness over this titanic battle over what
the constitution means in the 1790s. But I think there’s—I think Jefferson—in my
own sense, Jefferson is kind of an enthusiast that he thinks if you’re morally correct,
then everything you do is going to be the right thing. And Hume is much more of a skeptic
that Hume doesn’t think that at the end of the day, if you have majority rule, that
majority is going to do the right thing. And so I think there’s just a different kind
of disposition that, you know, Jefferson—I think Hume would say Jefferson is more of
an ideologue and that Hume is more of a disillusioned realist or something like that. Aaron Powell: Is that willingness to—or
that embrace of kind of the messiness like that we can’t have these perfect systems
that we apply but that we cannot work with them. Is that part of the distinction between
like you mentioned he thought himself more as a political scientist than a political
philosopher. Is that part of that difference? Or I guess what does it mean to say he’s
more of a political scientist than a political philosopher? Thomas Merrill: So when you say—I want to
make the contrast between political science and political philosophy, I would say political
science versus moral philosophy. Aaron Powell: Okay. Thomas Merrill: And I think that it goes back
to kind of the insight that you can’t—your preaching is not going to get you anywhere,
getting people to do what you think is the right thing, that you need somehow to speak
to their interest rather than to—because morality is what we all say in public, right?
But oftentimes, when we get the chance, we don’t do that. And this is—I think when
he makes that line about republics being the worst for their provinces, right when there’s
no check on your power, you are going to act like a tyrant and he thinks that’s true
about everyone including maybe himself. So, I think he always thinks—you know, you have
to somehow start by speaking to where people are rather than where you want them to be.
I’ll give you an example that goes back to the commerce thing. When he makes his case
for commerce, he starts by asking by taking the point of view of the sovereign, right?
The sovereign is the guy who’s going to make the choice, let’s say the King of England.
And he says to the King of England, he says “Okay, you want to increase your power.
What’s the best way that you can do that?” Well, maybe you would want to do that by going
back to ancient Sparta and making sure that everyone is devoted to the cause, right? And
having everyone on the same team and then you can—you know, have this army that you’re
going to send out and beat your enemies. But if you think about that, that’s actually
not the right way to increase your power because it’s going to be much better if you say
to the people, “Okay, you can go out and benefit yourself by engaging in commerce.
You’re going to become richer.” And Hume says sort of like this sneaky advice to the
sovereign. So they were going to get richer and richer and then when you need them, when
you need an army, you can always come and take their stuff and force them into the army.
You’re going to have a much stronger army because they’re—basically they’re going
to think that they’re working for themselves when they’re actually working for you, right? And so, it’s a very Machiavellian kind of
real politic. If you want to have a strong country, you should allow commerce—you should
allow the freedom of commerce because the country is going to be richer and then you’re
going to have a stronger army. I think Hume is basically right about that. Okay? So that
sounds very Machiavellian like there’s no morality. It’s just all real politic. But
then the thing that I think is really striking and this is the other side of the story that
people sometimes fail to note, right? Is that as Hume’s essays go on, it becomes clear
what happens when the sovereign allows commerce to proceed. Well, you’re going to get this
rising middle class. The middle class is going to become stronger and stronger and more and
more people are going to be part of it. And then they’re going to start to see themselves
as political actors and they’re going to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re like a
big part of the society. We want representation in parliament.” And this is basically the
story of England between 1500 and 1700, right? Is that the sovereigns, the tutor kings basically
allow commerce to go and even while they’re killing off all the aristocrats. But what’s the ultimate outcome? Well, eventually
the middle class rises up and kills the king, right? So—and I think Hume knows that and
his audience knows that and this advice that he gives to the sovereign that looks very
real politic. It’s sort of like a poisoned apple, right? The sovereign has to do it.
It’s in his interest to allow commerce to proceed, but over time, over generations,
it’s also going to lead to the undermining of his own regime and eventually, right? So
Charles I is going to have his head cut off, right? So, I think that’s an example. So, if you think about it, Hume’s advice
to the sovereign allow people to think they’re working in their own self-interest and it’s
going to go down to your benefit. Actually, it describes the advice that he gives to the
sovereign himself. He says to the sovereign “Do what you think is in your self-interest”
and it’s going to have this long-term effect that supports free government and is actually
opposed to absolute monarchy. That’s an example of what I would think of is the Hume
sort of MO in trying to, you know, support political freedom and rule of law and that
kind of stuff. Aaron Powell: So then what did the political
classes think of Hume at the time? I mean was he expressing in the zeitgeist or was
he going against the grain? Did they have—do we know what sort of opinion they had of his
political philosophy? Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So that’s a good question.
I mean lots of people think that Hume is dangerous, right? Like he’s—you know, I mean he has
his reputation as an atheist and or as a “Hobbesist” or something like that. I’m not sure, you
know, what the ruling classes of Great Britain in 1765 thought about this. I mean I would
just say, you know, in a way, I mean Hume’s legacy are the Americans, right? And the whole
discussion about, you know, the battle between Jefferson and Madison on the one side and
Hamilton on the other, right? That’s the place where Hume’s influence really shows
itself. And I would say Hamilton in a way says “We need more commerce. We need less
agriculture” and that’s one interpretation of what Hume’s message is, right? So I would
see Hume on sort of on both sides of the American struggle. That’s where I would see the main
influence. Matthew Feeney: So I want to ask a question
about the English Civil War. So, it seems interesting to me that—so we have Charles
I who seems to be a monarch who didn’t follow Hume’s I guess advice and—but then what
was Hume’s attitude then on republicanism? Because it seems hard to square Hume’s attitude
if—I mean am I wrong in thinking that he was skeptical of republics and, you know,
okay with monarchy under certain circumstances? Because unless I’m wrong, he seemed to think
that half-reluctantly that the execution of Charles I was—or the outcome of the English
Civil War was the right one. Or am I wrong about that? I’m trying to—It’s been
a while since I thought about this. Thomas Merrill: So—yeah, it’s a complicated
question. Hume is on the side of the parliament, so it’s a long battle between parliament
and the Stuart Kings, right? Not just Charles but also his dad. And Charles’ father, James
I, was, you know, representative of the divine right of kings theory and Hume thinks that
that’s crazy and that that is, you know, in the long run a really bad thing. And so
he’s on the side of the parliament I would say through the 1620s all the way up to the
beginning of the English Civil War. But, you know, there are—final analysis, there are
no good guys in the conversation, right? So, once the parliament overthrows the king, they
kind of go crazy, right? They can’t restrain themselves. And I would say that, you know,
for Hume, Charles I, the person may be not so important but somehow the institution represents
some sense of constitutionalism, right? That we’re all in the same team and we’re going
to allow ourselves to be bound by whatever the rules of the game are right now. And once
that’s undermined, the parliament can’t get anyone to obey its orders, right? So, the rest of the story is the important
part, right? That parliament kills the king and them parliament is immediately overthrown
by the army which is a bunch of religious fanatics. And then you have 10 years of dictatorship
and Hume says, “Look, you know, in the grand scheme of things, it will be much better to
have a republic with rule of law rather than to have a dictator.” But, under the circumstances
in which you’ve undermined any sense of common belonging, dictatorship may have been
the only regime that was possible in the England in 1650. That doesn’t mean that we like
it, but that’s just kind of the way that it is. So, I think Hume thinks, you know,
it’s better to have a regime where parliament is the main thing and you’ve got a king
that somehow represents the nation as a whole. But once you’ve done away with the king,
you have this long period between 1650 and really 1688. That’s one long sort of the
Civil War as a cold war, right? With some hot moments. But it takes a long time to build
up that sense of trust that you really need in order to have a regime that can rule by
rule of law. Aaron Powell: How well—so Hume has obviously
in philosophy has had an enormous influence. Thomas Merrill: Yeah. Aaron Powell: But, in political science, I
mean one of the risks of being super-empirical in your work is that as we learn more over
time your conclusions can look wrong because it turns out we have better data. So how well
has Hume as a political scientist held up over the years? Thomas Merrill: How well is Hume as a political
scientist? Well, I would say pretty well. I mean I would say maybe the most important
point is that Hume doesn’t say “my empirical results are the only thing or the most important
thing,” right? The most important thing is a certain kind of skeptical empirical spirit,
attitude towards politics like the stance. And so even if the particular results are
wrong, that you’re still exemplifying a certain kind of stance, okay? So that part
I think is still strong. But, you know, look, I mean was he so wrong
that regimes that are devoted to allowing individuals to live their lives where they
see fit are, you know, better on the whole than other kinds of regimes. That doesn’t
seem wrong. Is he wrong that we need to have separation of powers in a certain kind of
competition between different branches of government in order to keep any one government,
any one part from becoming tyrannical. That doesn’t seem wrong. Is he wrong that in
order to have these kinds of regimes, you need to have a kind of middle class that is
dependent on—it can’t be that the government just gives everyone stuff, right? Because
sooner or later the government is going to run out of places to get the stuff, that you
need to have a vibrant economy. That doesn’t seem to be wrong either, right? So, those
I think are the most important sort of empirical conversations, right? Or conclusions that
he would draw. So, yeah, that’s what I would say. Aaron Powell: So let me ask about—this is
maybe jumping backwards in the order of how we ought to have been discussing things, but
it’s okay. For listeners who are new to Hume or haven’t read him, the one line that
lots of people know from Hume is this “reason is the slave of the passion” line. What
does that mean? Thomas Merrill: So, the classical model was—so
if you replay this republic, right? Inside the soul, there are 3 parts, right? And they’re—on
the bottom is desire like you want all these stuff, you know, sex and money and all that
kind of stuff. In the middle is spiritedness, the part that gets—you get angry and you
want to stand up and fight with people. And then on the top should be reason, right? And
reason as calculative reason but also reason as somehow comprehending the whole of the
universe. That seems, you know, whether that’s accurate. I mean there’s clearly something
to that. We all sort of recognize those 3 parts. But that’s a very hierarchical picture
of what the self is. Hume’s view is much more the Machiavellian
view that passion is the core of what human beings are, that the core of what human beings
are is a sort of infinite desire for more and more stuff and that way he’s like Hobbes.
And that reason is in many cases is an instrument of those passions rather than the thing that
is somehow dominating or ruling the passions, that it’s not a separate faculty in the
way that Plato seems to say. And—I mean I think that he thinks that’s an empirical
question. He’s also—he has a different conception of reason I think than Plato does.
I mean he’s thinking of something like calculative reason or Cartesian reason in which you’re
just sort of saying, you know, what are the pros and cons or what are the benefits of
the advices of this course of action. So, and lots of people—especially Kantians
find that to be a really disturbing thing to say that somehow we’re just these animals
that don’t really have—because I think Kantians want to say there’s this part of
us that’s pure reason that can somehow stand above our passionate selves and put it on
to order. And that’s—I don’t have any great answer for that question. But I would
say that Hume also has this sense that there is a sense of reason itself as a passion,
that there is this part of us that wants to know the truth about things. And so when he
says that in the Treatise of Human Nature, he says at the end of Book 2 and in several
chapters later, he’s got a chapter on the love of truth and sort of like the culminating
passion of the entire discussion. So he seems to think that there’s some part of the human
being that wants to know what the actual truth is no matter how ugly or disturbing that might
be. And that from a certain point of view, in Hume’s accounts of himself, that looks
like that’s the ruling passion, right? That’s the passion that dominates his own understanding
of who he is. So, in that way, that’s not so far from
the Plutonic notion that we’re not—I mean passion isn’t simply the same thing as I
want a lot of stuff and I want, you know, more food and I want more sex or whatever.
The philosophy itself for Hume is a passion and that’s an important fact. There’s
another dimension to that question if you want me to— Aaron Powell: Sure, yeah. Thomas Merrill: Which is that—I mean the
passion is also learned for Hume. The passion gets smarter and they get smarter and more
efficient about fulfilling themselves and that his political science is in a way an
attempt to educate the passions to being more sensible about, you know, what does it mean
to try to seek satisfaction, right? So Hume’s political science is an attempt to bring reason
to bear on passion. So, that also has to be part of that conversation. Aaron Powell: I guess one of the things—I
mean there’s real sense in reading Hume that you get less of in, say, Kant or many
other philosophers of like a humanity that I think is a big part of his appeal that even
if you’re disagreeing with what he says there’s a sense of like a—that passion
for basically everything is there throughout it. In fact, I mean I was trying to think
of this like is there anyone, any major figure in the Western canon outside of maybe Socrates
that it would be more fun to go to a pub with than David Hume? Thomas Merrill: Yeah, that’s a good question.
I mean I don’t know [Indiscernible] maybe or somebody like that. No, I think that’s
right. I think that that’s part of the attraction of Hume, is that when he—I mean he understands
himself as a philosopher that in order to understand all these hifalutin philosophy
things, you have to start by understanding human beings and that means you have to understand
them sort of as they understand themselves. There’s this great line from a Roman playwright,
“nothing human is alien to me” that I think really captured something of the spirit
of Hume’s political science that it’s not “we’re going to solve all these problems
or create a rational order in human beings,” but that—somehow that’s part of the, you
know, the joy of the things to somehow see human beings in all of their greatness and
all of their ugliness, right? That Hume has a vivid sense of just what crazy, weird, wonderful,
awful maybe things that human beings are. So I think that does go very much to your
question about humanity. Yeah. Matthew Feeney: Well, when I was first introduced
or first read Hume in undergrad, I mean something that really comes out is that he is a joy
to read of all philosophers. He clearly has a style that still resonates today that is
still engaging and interesting. And I think some of our listeners who are perhaps not
familiar with Hume might want to know where to start. If someone has listened to this
and is convinced that he’s worth reading, where would you recommend that people new
to Hume dig their feet in first? Thomas Merrill: Yeah. So I think the core
of the political teaching if you want to understand classical liberalism for me are really the
essays, right? And both—so there are political essays at the beginning when he lays out his
political science. That’s the stuff that leads into Madison. There’s also a really
brilliant series of essays on philosophers that I think is also political in a strange
kind of way. And then in the second part of the essays, there’s all these essays about
commerce and there’s essays about how to think about politics, think about political
controversies. So I think—and he means those essays to be accessible to the middling rank
of men, right? To normal human beings, not to philosophers sitting in their offices somewhere,
definitely not to professional philosophers, but to human beings who are just trying to
figure out what’s this messy world. So that’s one place I would start. I would also—I mean the text that’s closest
to my heart is the text at the end of Book 1 of the Treatise of Human Nature in which
he describes his what you might call his existential crisis about philosophy and his turn to moral
and political things. To me, that’s a very short text. It’s harrowing, right? I mean
he goes off the rails and it seems like he’s going to commit suicide or something. But
that’s a text—you know, I teach a lot of undergraduates and I think that, you know,
they often sort of when they really start thinking about the world, they also have that
kind of skeptical crisis. There’s something that’s very vivid and very honest about
that. But in some ways, all of Hume is contained within that one—you know, it’s like a
10-page chapter. So I would say those two things are the things that I would start with. Aaron Powell: So for those of us today listening
to this, I mean obviously Hume is of terrific historical interest. He’s of just plain
literary interest. But what is his—does his thought have significance for where we
find ourselves and the issues we face today? Thomas Merrill: Right. So, I would say—I
mean I think classical liberalism is still, you know, it’s not a force to be reckoned
with and a serious contender in the marketplace of ideas. But I would say—I mean from Hume’s
point of view, we human beings are always falling into ideological, like we want to
have answers to the world that are going to put everything to a box and then just solve
it. And he would say part of the danger of democratic politics is that we’re working
out our own psychodramas on the—we want to solve the problem of the world and so we
look for some savior who’s going to come along. And Hume is just very skeptical that
there is any such person who’s going to save us from ourselves. But there’s a passage that I think—it’s
not so much the specific conclusions that I think are important for us today as a certain
kind of ethos or certain kind of stance towards politics. And so if it’s okay with you,
I’d like to just read this. This is from Hume’s essays, the very end of the book
and he’s been discussing political controversies in English history and basically saying there’s
something to be said on both sides of the question. So, this is from the essay Of The
Protestant Succession. He says, “It appears to me, that these advantages and disadvantages”
in the positions he’s just been talking about “are allowed on both sides; at least,
by every one who is at all susceptible of argument or reasoning.” And so this is a
[Indiscernible] and we just have to work through. And then he goes on, “It belongs, therefore,
to a philosopher alone, who is of neither party, to put all the circumstances in the
scale, and assign to each of them its proper poise and influence. Such a one will readily,
at first, acknowledge that all political questions are infinitely complicated, and that there
scarcely ever occurs, in any deliberation, a choice, which is either purely good, or
purely ill. Consequences, mixed and varied, may be foreseen to flow from every measure:
And many consequences, unforeseen, do always, in fact, result from every one. Hesitation,
and reserve, and suspense, are, therefore, the only sentiments that he brings to this
essay or trial. Or if he indulges any passion, it is that of derision against the ignorant
multitude, who are always clamorous and dogmatical, even in the nicest questions, of which, from
want of temper, perhaps still more than of understanding, they are altogether unfit judges.” I think it’s that temperament that kind
of ethos that is Hume is trying to give us an education in. And one thing that’s really
striking, right, so obviously there’s nothing that’s purely good or purely bad and so
you just have to work through what are the pros and cons even of a commercial republicanism,
right? There are some things that are good and some things that are bad. And there are
going to be unforeseen consequences that are going to mess all of your expectations up.
You just need to be ready for them. But I think the thing that’s really interesting
is he says hesitation and reserve are the only sentiments he brings to this essay or
trial that the attitude of the philosopher from his point of view and what a skeptical
philosopher in politics will see himself as doing is doing essays, right? The original
meaning of essay is you try something out. Well, if you put this together with the fact
that the title of the book is Essays, right? Moral, Political and Literary, I think he’s
kind of clueing you in to what the meaning of the book as a whole is, that if you translate
it, what a book of essays is practiced in being a philosopher, right? It’s not giving
you the answer. It’s more like taking you to the gym and saying, “I need to work out.
I need to exercise every day for, you know, 3 months before I run a marathon or something.”
And that’s what all—you sort of have to take all these things in the right spirit
that you’re sort of being forced to habituate yourself to trying things out to see what
the pros and cons are. I think that’s really the spirit that—I mean, not to make any
contemporary political statements, but that we need in American politics more than anything
else. It’s so easy to become ideological and to me, you know, that’s the spirit of
classical liberalism at its heart. That’s the thing that’s really still living about
it. Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. Free
Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web
at www.libertarianism.org.

Maurice Vega

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