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“Rare are the happy times, when you can think what you like, and say what you think.”

In Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment, Thomas W. Merrill gives us a careful and compelling reading of the Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume’s first work (published in two installments in 1739 and 1740), and also of the Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, the work that completes the main part of Hume’s political and philosophical enterprise, as Merrill convincingly shows.

This is a terrific book. The analysis offered by Merrill, an associate professor of government at American University, will appeal to those who never forget the fate of Socrates, the first to philosophize about the human things. It will be appreciated most by those who take seriously what Socrates’ death teaches about the permanent and inescapable tension between philosophy and politics or the city.

Merrill suggests that Hume’s very personal discovery of that tension (conveyed in the famous passage about “philosophical melancholy and delirium” at the end of Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature) led to a philosophical turning akin to the Socratic turn, or second sailing, and that this is the key to understanding both Hume’s overall philosophical aim and his moral and political essays, which are intended to foster what Merrill calls a “cultural revolution” in favor of liberty, understood as commercial society understands it. He notes the epigraph from Tacitus on the title page of Hume’s first work: “Rare are the happy times, when you can think what you like, and say what you think.”

Today, Hume’s writings are largely the province of philosophy departments, and are not commonly found on the syllabi of courses in political science or political theory. Hume is notorious for his philosophical skepticism, for his supposed atheism, and for the is/ought passage that seems to be a staple of Philosophy 101 classes. This is the case despite Hume’s also being notorious for turning away from philosophy proper in favor of history. (Some believe his masterwork to be the six-volume History of England.)

Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment gives us a much more accurate picture. It shows Hume to be a deep and penetrating thinker about human nature and politics above all, and from the very beginning, when Hume was still in his twenties. Merrill begins where Hume begins, with the first book of the Treatise, and works carefully through it and the Essays in six chapters, plus an Introduction and an Epilogue.

The Introduction briefly discusses the state of philosophy in the last century, with some attention to the radical questioning of Martin Heidegger and the response by Richard Rorty, who suggested that philosophers ought to “simply drop any claim to foundational truth” since “our longings for such truth are a vestige of metaphysics, the sooner escaped the better.” Merrill suggests that Hume’s alternative is superior, writing that:

Like Heidegger, Hume believes that radical questioning has its own grim dignity and greatness. For some few thinkers, the question of the ground of causation is the object of a natural inclination to inquire and is, even in the absence of final answers, the source of life’s greatest pleasures.

He might have used the words of Socrates as Plato conveys them: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” In Merrill’s formulation, Hume is “the greatest thinker to bear public witness to the pathos and dignity of radical questioning who was also a liberal, or the greatest liberal to discuss openly the problematic but unavoidable attraction of radical questioning.” Merrill says his first task “is to convey some sense of the strangeness of Hume’s thought: its quality of combining radical questioning and political prudence in ways both surprising and alien to our own late modern assumptions about these matters.”

If the space of a book review permitted, I would happily try to summarize each of the six main chapters, beginning with the first, “Hume’s Socratism.” But suffice it to say Merrill anchors his interpretation convincingly in the text of each of the three books of the Treatise of Human Nature, and in the text of Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, and that his interpretation is a tour de force. 

Chapter 2 is entitled, “Calling Philosophy Down from the Heavens,” an allusion to the famous line from Cicero about the Socratic “turn” in philosophy. It and “Hume’s Socratism” are mainly concerned with the first book of the Treatise, “Of the Understanding.” Chapter 3 (“Turning to the Human Things”) deals with what Merrill calls “the overlooked stepchild of the Treatise,” by which he means its second book, “Of the Passions.” Chapter 4 continues the focus on human nature by taking up morality and politics as Hume does in the third and final book of the Treatise, “Of Morals.”

This sets up the consideration of the Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary in Chapter 5 (“Hume’s Cultural Revolution”) and Chapter 6 (“The Education of Honest Gentlemen”). Merrill points out that the publication in 1742 of the first part of the Essays followed almost immediately the publication of the Treatise, while the second part (the so-called political economy essays) came a decade later and seems to serve a purpose distinct from that of the first volume. Merrill’s is the most persuasive explanation of the ordering of the Essays that I have ever encountered. And he offers the best account I have ever seen of the four essays on ancient philosophical sects, a highlight of the first volume.

I will confine myself to a brief relation of a couple of my very favorite parts of this fine book.

Addressing that “overlooked stepchild” (the part of the Treatise called “Of the Passions”), our author traces Hume’s account of the “indirect passions” as a way to grasp Hume’s idea of the self. According to Merrill, Hume is determined not to start from any metaphysical (specifically Cartesian) claim about self identity or consciousness; his inquiry is “phenomenological rather than metaphysical or scientific.” The indirect passions—most importantly, pride and humility—have both “an object, which is the self or the idea of the self, and a cause, which is some other thing of which the person is proud or ashamed. Hume has in mind the way we speak when we say, ‘I am proud (or humble) of my possessions, my talents, my good looks,’ and so on.”

Hume is trying, Merrill writes, “to explain what it is like to be self-conscious and so what is characteristically human. The indirect passions give Hume a way of talking about what it is like to be a self that was unavailable to him in Book 1, where the paradigm was the understanding. To be human is to be self-conscious and to go through life with one eye on what is right in front of you and one eye cast backwards onto the self.”

The direct passions (such as love and hate) are not self-aware; “the self never apprehends itself directly. It is only by going outside of the self to something that is felt or believed to be outside of the self and then coming back to itself that we are aware of ourselves.”

This is an illustration of Hume’s “Socratic turn”: The world we live in (the universe) is only approachable indirectly. We see it reflected, as it were, in our speech, in our experience of ordinary things; by repeated questioning we begin to discern (using the imagination, the core faculty of our human-ness) the outlines of the world we inhabit.

Merrill goes on to show that “the structure of human self-consciousness is thus both fixed and open-ended. Put differently, human self-awareness is naturally incomplete. There is a human nature, but it has to be completed by something outside of itself. It naturally needs convention in order to be what it is. Yet whether some external objects and some conventions do a better job of completing the self, and if so, which ones, remains to be seen.”

Perhaps the highlight of Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment, for me at least, is its treatment of the four essays on ancient philosophical sects from Part 1 of the Essays. On first reading, I found myself objecting to Merrill’s repeated use of the term “cultural revolution” for Hume’s achievement (naturally because it connotes the horrors of Mao Zedong’s China). But he managed to bring me around with his account of the “happiness essays,” as they are sometimes called.

“The core of Hume’s case for commercial republicanism,” Merrill writes, “is a defense of intellectual competition.” Christianity “attempted to harmonize radical questioning and practical life by making wisdom the authority for religion and politics. Yet the result was not the liberation of philosophy but the destruction of philosophical pluralism.”

In the essays on philosophic sects (“The Epicurean,” “The Stoic,” “The Platonist,” and “The Skeptic”) Hume takes up this problem. According to Merrill, on the level of politics, “the meaning of the essays is clear enough. Hume’s primary message is contained merely in the number of philosophic sects: four, not one. . . . The four philosophic essays represent a re-assertion of philosophy’s naturally controversial character and its inner diversity after the long period of its suppression by Christianity.”

Merrill’s analysis of the fourth essay, “The Skeptic,” is the key step.

“Unidentified interlocutors speak up to challenge the skeptic’s apparent relativism,” he writes. These interlocutors “raise the same question we ourselves raised on the basis of surveying all four philosophic sects. They ask: is there any way of life that is simply justified? Or is every choice of a life relative and dependent on what a person’s ruling passion is? The skeptic’s speech has provoked, and perhaps was intended to provoke, a passionate desire to know what the good life is.”

A couple of pages later Merrill tells us that “Hume has used their exchange with the skeptic to call into question the basic expectation that philosophy and radical questioning can and should be a moral-political authority and thereby called into question the fundamental fusion of philosophy with religion and politics that underlies the world of European Christianity.”

That is what justifies Merrill’s use of the term “cultural revolution” as a description of Hume’s undertaking.

I cannot close without mentioning an unfortunate feature of the book, a copyediting deficit for which I blame Cambridge University Press. The text contains far too many grammar errors, omitted words, and inaccurate quotations. A book on Hume, of all authors famous for his concern with causes and causation, should not misquote him (substituting the word “causal” where Hume wrote “casual and accidental”—this happens twice, quoting the same passage from the Treatise 2.3.2.6). Even with the declining standards of the publishing industry in our day, this is not acceptable.

Nonetheless, the author is to be congratulated for writing one of the best books on Hume this reviewer has ever read.

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