Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Reason Not the Need
As a rule, I'm not much for philosophers. Essayists I like. History I read all the time. Even short works with titles like, "Of the Origin of Government," or "The Platonist," not so much. Still, David Hume is not a difficult stylist, as the general run of philosophers go, and as a gentleman of the Enlightenment, he's very much my sort.
I picked the Essays out of my general stacks again because I was already reading Hume this summer, and wanted further reference.
Dr. Johnson thought David Hume a dangerous man. To the reader of either gentleman today, this seems a curious response to such an important, if largely benign figure in modern philosophy. But then, the Englishman loudly disliked the Scots as a body, or claimed to, despite his affection for Boswell. (Clearly, the Doctor rather enjoyed teasing his biographer.) It's also clear from conversations reproduced in the great biography that Johnson, justly or unjustly, considered the philosopher a bad'un, and went so far as to hurl the opprobrium of "atheist" at him. Of course, the definition of that word "atheist" in Johnson's day was rather broader than it is in ours. (Don't know that it would have occurred to Hume to simply do away with the whole metaphysical and cultural apparatus of Christianity, for example, as a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins might hope to nowadays, although Hume himself clearly had little use for any of it.) For Johnson, that word, "atheist," was entirely pejorative, perhaps the worst thing he could think to say of another human being and doubtless reserved in even his liberal usage for only those he saw as active enemies of religion. Whatever Hume's actual beliefs or lack thereof, from the evidence of his biography and his writings on the subject of religion, we would probably describe him as a sceptic, for want of specifics, hence more an agnostic. Certainly, Hume was too cautious a man to have ever used the word to describe himself. "Atheist", in its more activist, contemporary meaning, may seem something of an exaggeration, even now, at least in so far as Hume's published work. Privately, he seems to have disbelieved in both God and his Heaven, but Johnson would not have ever heard him say so in person or print. But scepticism, even just doubt, or any divergence from strict orthodoxy was enough to brand Hume an "atheist", and not just for Johnson. Indeed, what he'd written was enough to keep Hume from not one but two potentially lucrative and estimable academic appointments, presumably on just such grounds.
Johnson's antipathy to Hume nevertheless does indeed seem a little strange, and not just to the casual reader of both. (So strange in fact as to have produced a few years back a whole book arguing their philosophical kinship, by one Professor Adam Potkay.) Both were Tories after all: politically conservative monarchists, both just shy of actually espousing the lost cause of the Jacobites, with little enough affection for the German Georges, Whig reforms, Voltaire, or "the mob." Both saw tradition and the stability of political and cultural institutions as fundamental to the maintenance of individual liberty and the English Constitution. Neither trusted either republicanism or representative democracy -- at least not in any form we might recognize as such -- and both saw revolution as a dangerous and irrational destructive force.
Johnson may never have been the most tolerant man when it came to religion -- or any disagreement for that matter -- but what makes Hume "dangerous"?
I've started the second volume of Hume's History of England, aka My Summer Reading Project. Not much in the way of dangerous ideas so far. Indeed, unlike some of the other and later English histories I've read, Hume's seems to me deliberately dry and rather rigidly objective. There's none of Macaulay's Romantic dash and Whig triumphalism, none of Froude's fury, nor for that matter any of the more quietly progressive, more typically Victorian optimism of John Richard Green. From the evidence of Hume's first volume, from prehistory to King John, there's nearly nothing to suggest a style, let alone an agenda. Facts, such as Hume had, questionable, incomplete and or horrifying as they may be, are pretty much all that's on offer. Facts carefully marshaled in tight formation and marched down the ages, page after page, and while the historian clearly disapproves of all this barbarity and bloodshed, he reports it all as honestly as he can. He doesn't judge Canute for failing to be a decent chap, as some of the later gentlemen-historians might have done, and neither is he much impressed Æthelberht of Kent conversion to Christianity. Hume seems to judge most men by their times. Ironically then, at least in this, Hume can read as a more modern historian than many that came well after him. Can make reading history a rather more dull business than otherwise though, that kind of strict reasonableness. Hume hardly lets so much as a hint of real emotion into the whole first 400 pages.
Admittedly, in his History, when it comes to the Church, he isn't subtle in his disdain for the institution from the start. Saints, from the martyrs to St. Thomas More, he clearly finds risible, priests, prelates and popes all come in for a a measure of blunt disrespect in Hume's evaluation of both their actual motives and their effect on the body politic. This might once have passed for the general British distrust in those days for all things Roman Catholic. (There are periodic nods to "true religion" in the text, a traditional Protestant catch-phrase.)
Still, nothing to warrant such hostility from Johnson, I shouldn't have thought. I've read Hume's essay "On Miracles" just tonight to get a clearer picture of what it was that might have set Johnson again' him. Not the most orthodox discussion of the subject, certainly. Neither is it a denial of either Christ or Christianity.
Elsewhere Hume said, "In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."
According to the evidence then, at least insofar as I've been willing to look, it's only just occurred to me what it was got Hume such a reputation for disbelief, at least so far as his History is concerned. It is Providence that is missing. There's not a hint of the Hand of God anywhere in it. Men move about, make wars, and kings, make some progress in terms of both civilization and the creation of workable political institutions, make history. Various claims are made on the supernatural; first the old gods are invoked and then the new God, and still men move about, make wars, etc. It is never Hume who names God in any of this hugger-mugger of Princes and Popes, competing dynasties and systems. If anything, at least in the early going, it is at most those rare instances of rational self-interest, of sense that seem to offer the only suggestions of future prosperity, tranquility, civility, order.
What's made this all seem strikingly relevant in the past few days has been a test set me by social media, a test I recently failed. Having made contact with a few old friends via facebook, I've now been "friended" in turn by a number of people I remember less well; people from my hometown, people with whom I went to school. Among this wider circle of my "new" old friends, there have proved to be more than a few with whom I have little or nothing otherwise in common. There are inevitably Republicans, and NRA members, and yes, even Christians among my more established and better remembered friends. Now there are people, at least in my new "virtual" acquaintance, who are not only at variance with me politically, but for whom social media is a regular, if not daily means of expressing their political and religious opinions, just as inevitably those with whom I am in better agreement do. That then has been the test.
Naturally, I do not agree with everything posted by my fellow progressives and liberals. I do not think Monsanto has been a particularly responsible corporate citizen, for example, but neither do I think that GMOs are tools designed specifically to poison third world children or to eliminate heirloom tomatoes from my local farmers' market. I do not want to Take Back the Night anymore, it's true, and neither do I wish to sign the virtual petition requiring skateboarding helmets. Just as inevitably, from the other side, I am as completely disinterested in joining a prayer network as I am in recipes made from corn chips and ground beef. All of that can and does just slide right by me without comment. To each, virtually his or her own.
This diversity of opinion has been, I've thought, good for me; a lesson in tolerance. (Such a liberal notion, in both the older and newer, more American sense, I suppose, but there we are.) I've had to find my own way of negotiating what may or may not require comment. Racism, homophobia and misogyny are all on my list of what cannot pass without challenge in what is, after all, my own little corner of the virtual town square. Not on my front door, thank you very much. (Perhaps I was naive, but this has come up more often recently than I might ever had thought still possible.) Likewise obvious, often less than entirely innocent errors of fact and or attribution. (Poor ol' George Orwell seems to come in for a lot of the latter.)
I think, on the whole, I've handled myself pretty responsibly in this new context; I've minded my manners more often than not, not said nearly what I might have done, and I've tried with some success to be respectful even in fairly heated exchanges with what are, after all, only virtual friends or put it another way, strangers. I have tried to be kind, even when I may not have felt much like being kind.
To "unfriend" someone has become a response of only last resort, though I haven't hesitated to do so when on rare occasions it has become clear that continuing the conversation can only make me, and presumably the other party, really unhappy. (This happened again not but a few days ago, over a posting presumably inspired by a recent criminal acquittal, a posting I initially intended to refute as best I could, point by point, before I finally just had to admit defeat and say goodbye. The sentiments expressed were flatly racist, the author of the post was a notorious reactionary, a man I personally detest. I do not believe the person who put this item up on facebook, my old school friend, intended offence to me personally, but I had, it seems already exhausted my patience in previous discussions of like postings. I simply wasn't willing to argue why Patrick Buchanan is a shit, but neither was I willing to let that kind of hatefulness go unchallenged. I wished my friend well, sincerely, and admitted defeat.)
Nevertheless, it's been good for me, this new commitment to respectfully disagree, as often and as best I can, it really has. I've learned from it a patience clearly not altogether natural to me. It has reminded me of lessons learned in childhood, from good parents and teachers, lessons that, luckily, I have had the need of less often since I moved away from places where my own beliefs and opinions would have inevitably put me very much in the minority. It has reminded me daily of the persistence of many of the ideas I rejected when I determined, at a very young age, to get as far away, physically and psychically as possible from the people and opinions that threatened my sanity and well being.
I was shocked then, in a very recent exchange with one of these renewed contacts, to find myself arguing not over a difference of opinion, as I'd assumed, but rather with a rejection of the very premise from which I was arguing, namely that tolerance of diversity in religious belief, or in my case, disbelief, was an inherent good. Discretion even now prevents me reproducing any substantial part of the conversation to which I refer here. I still believe that the other party to this discussion is neither a bad person nor an unkind one. Obviously, I think she is wrong. I don't feel I am betraying any confidence in quoting her final statement on the subject:
"I can't have your atheism in my life."
And there we are. Back to Hume and Johnson and the absence of Providence. Just to be clear, I made no argument against her faith. I never attempted to persuade her to disbelief. I had not mocked her God. At the time that she decided to cease any further communication, we were not even discussing religion, or politics for that matter. She simply decided that our renewed acquaintance, and my disbelief was enough to challenge her personal equilibrium and constituted an affront to her faith. What possible answer could I make to that, even had I wanted to? And so we parted ways.
Let that be a lesson to me. I have a new appreciation of Hume's delicate position. I also have a personal context for Johnson's rejection of David Hume and all his works. Finally, I have a better understanding now, as much from my recent reading of Hume & Johnson as from recent national events and the personal encounters described briefly above, of what it means to believe.
It seems it is still enough that some people disbelieve to discomfort some that do. Johnson wasn't wrong to think that reason can not answer every question, but then Hume wasn't wrong, I think, to try.