Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

David Hume
Chapter VII Hume's Attitude as to Religion

Being in philosophy a sceptic as to all that transcends individual experience, Hume was regarded and treated as a sceptic in religion. ' Hume the Atheist' was a designation of him not uncommon. Accordingly, he was disliked and resisted as the enemy of religion In the boldness of his spirit he rather courted antagonism; yet the sense of odium fretted his life, and often seriously embittered it.

This traditional view of his position, though erroneous, still lingers among us, on account of the difficulty of distinguishing between a man's theory and his faith. To Hume it was matter of satisfaction that ' our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on Reason.' Most Christians will hold that faith and reason are united in the religious life; and religious faith at least is honoured by Hume. His scepticism belonged to the region of philosophy, not to the sphere of religion. No doubt, scepticism, in dealing even with the abstruse problems of the universe, must in some degree react on faith and feeling. But in Hume's life it never banished them. He had started with the assumption that certainty depends altogether on the senses; and as the knowledge of God cannot come in this way, religion was for him exclusively a matter of faith. Yet so difficult is it for a man to adhere to his theory, that he, supposing himself to be Epicurus, addressing the Athenians, says, 'Religion is nothing but a species of Philosophy' (Green, Works, IV., 171; Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sec. xi., Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State, ed. Selby-Bigge, section 113). No life of Hume can be accurate which depicts him as ' Hume the Atheist.'

How his thought concerning the philosophic interpretation of the universe widened out will readily appear by reference to his theory of morals. In theory he held that utility is the measure of rightness—a poor enough theory I admit, but he maintained at the same time that our regard for moral distinctions depends on ' a feeling which Nature has made universal in the race.' The Supreme Power rules for righteousness. ' The Deity is known to us only by his productions.' ' As the universe shews wisdom and goodness, we infer wisdom and goodness' (Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sec. xi.).

Conclusive as this evidence is, Hume made such open and formal avowal of his sceptical philosophy, as if it were matter of enjoyment to him to do so (Burton, II., 443), that he was resisted by the religious men of his time as the adversary of earnest religious life. On the other hand, he was the intimate friend of prominent clergymen, such as Blair, ' Jupiter' Carlyle, and Home, though these belonged to the ' moderate ' school. Nevertheless, of the intensity of antagonism to him, we have this striking testimony, that his most intimate friend, Adam Smith, was strenuously opposed to the publication of his critical views, and expressed this opinion in strongest terms even after Hume's death, when the question was raised whether the author's desire should be respected as to the printing of the Dialogues on Religion. We have besides evidence of the spirit of the times in the fact that a complaint was made against Hume before the Presbytery of Edinburgh that he should be subjected to discipline for heterodoxy; this was formally discussed, but rejected. It is mainly to the impression made by the Essay on Miracles that the intensity of feeling cherished in religious circles is to be attributed.

In our day, it is possible, by deliberate and critical investigation of his writings, to form a fuller and more favourable judgment of his position. He seriously concealed and beclouded his position, not only by the prominence given to the sceptical element in his philosophy, but by the boldness with which he maintained the sceptics' attitude. To himself we must assign a large share of responsibility for the prevalence of the traditional view which represented him as the enemy of religion. He cherished horror of the 'Zealots'; they, with vastly greater reason, dreaded that ' candid ..indifference' which he exemplified and commended.

For evidence of his attitude towards religious faith and reverence we have four conspicuous portions of his works :—His Essay on Miracles ; his Natural History of Religion ; his History of England, especially in the volume first published; and his Dialogues on Religion, prepared with great care, and by his own express wish, published only after his death.

The history of the Essay on Miracles (constituting sec. x. of Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding) is important. In My Own Life the reference to it is only indirect. But in a letter to Principal Campbell, author of Dissertation on Miracles, he writes :—' It may perhaps amuse you to learn the first hint which suggested to me that argument which you have so strenuously attacked. I was walking in the cloisters of the Jesuits' College of La Fleche (France), a town in which I passed two years of my youth, and engaged in a conversation with a Jesuit, of some parts and learning, who was relating to me, and urging some nonsensical miracle performed lately in their convent, when I was tempted to dispute against him; and as my head was full of the topics of my Treatise of Human Nature, which I was at that time composing, this argument immediately occurred to me, and I thought it very much gravelled my companion ; but at last he observed to me that it was impossible for that argument to have any solidity, because it operated equally against the Gospel as the Catholic miracles, which observation I thought proper to admit as a sufficient answer. I believe you will allow that the freedom at least of this reasoning makes it somewhat extraordinary to have been the produce of a convent of Jesuits, though, perhaps, you may think the sophistry of it savours plainly of the place of its birth' (Burton's Life, I., 5 7). The origin of the suggestion was the superstitious spirit leading to unquestioning acceptance of trifling wonders, not a deliberate study of the Gospel miracles or even of the laws of evidence.

The argument involves a return on individual experience as the basis of certainty, as that may affect our reliance on the testimony of eye-witnesses. The enquiry affects the value of our Christian faith as it relies on historic evidence. The substance of this argument is thus stated by Hume—' Our evidence for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses ; because even in the first authors of our religion it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can anyone rest such confidence in their testimony as in the immediate object of his senses.' Yet, it is ' necessary to human life to rely on the testimony of men,' though it must be granted thaV testimony may vary in value, sometimes suggesting probability, at others supplying proof. If, however, the reported event is ' extraordinary,' 1 the testimony admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual.' When the event 'has seldom fallen under observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences, of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes.' Suppose the reported event be ' miraculous,' and ' suppose also that the testimony, considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail.' ' A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.' ' Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happen in the common course of nature.' ' There must therefore be an uniform experience against every miraculous event.' ' The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention) that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.'

Hume was peculiarly liable to be attracted by an argument such as this. Its fascination was great to a mind which had schooled itself in sceptical criticism. Such an argument was to him like a nugget to a gold-digger—a thing to boast of to all around. Hear his words :—' I flatter myself that I have discovered an argument which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently will be useful as long as the world endures.'

In one aspect, the argument is a freak of ingenuity; in another and secondary aspect, it is a substantial contribution towards the modern view of uniform sequence under natural law. But the philosopher delights in the freak— he is fascinated by ' the freedom, at least, of the reasoning,' even if it contain a considerable admixture of ' sophistry.' It is the misfortune of the sceptic that, being engrossed with criticism of other people's faith, he does not sufficiently criticise his own. Hume, powerful as he was, could not escape the consequences of a long cultivated habit of enlarged faith. A miracle cannot be directly vivified by us. Nothing is more certain; but so it is with all facts of history, from the most common to the most singular. Any argument on this account is not an argument agrinst miracles, but against faith in the past. The historian saws through the bench on which he sits.

In dealing with laws of evidence, in insisting on the sifting of testimony, and on the special difficulty of ascertaining what is reliable in the records concerning events in distant ages, Hume's Essay is at once able and of practical value ; but abstract reasoning to prove the impossibility of occurrences we have never witnessed, or impossibility of evidence to prove that such things have occurred, is vain on the conditions of experience itself.

But we must note the range of Hume's reasoning. His Essay is not an argument against the possibility of miracles. The thinker who insisted that certainty depends on individual experience could not have constructed such an argument. He had supplied the weapon to cut all such arguments in two. He is naturally solicitous, therefore, that the rigid limits of his 'free reasoning' should be observed. ' I beg the limitations here made may be remarked when I say, that a miracle can never be proved so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own that, otherwise, there may possibly be miracles.' Hume never committed himself to the proposition that no miracle has happened; still less to the proposition that such an event could not occur. The possibility of an event depends on power and will, not on testimony, which can be only subsequent to the event.

What then of Hume's denial of the possibility of evidence to warrant belief in a miracle? Granting ' uniform experience' as to fixed laws in nature, what bearing has this on evidence for miracles? By miracles we certainly mean events distinct from the common occurrences explained by natural law. ' Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happen in the common course of nature.' But if we admit that they are distinct events, Hume's definition needs to be rectified, and his appeal to experience as to ' the common course of nature' can be of no avail. What is meant by a miracle is not ' a violation of the laws of nature,' nor is it ' a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity,' .but 'a particular volition of the Deity,' for other ends than those secured ' in the common course of nature,' such as moral ends, which are not secured by fixed laws of nature, but depend on man's reason and volition, as these may be influenced by Revelation. But when ' violation of the laws of nature' is withdrawn from the definition, the point of the argument is lost, and a basis is found for Hume's admission that 'there may possibly be miracles.' 'A particular volition of the Deity' for a moral end implies the action of supernatural power.

As to the evidence for such intervention in human history, our uniform experience of the common course of nature can supply nothing of testimony and no ground for criticism. To represent human experience as witnessing to ' the common course of nature' is sound science and is good philosophy, but to say that human experience has borne witness to nothing more is to beg the question in dispute, and to suggest that moral government has no place in the history of the universe. Granting that ' firm and unalterable experience has established these laws,' such experience can bear no testimony as to possibilities or impossibilities beyond.

Hume's attempt here to lift religion out of the sphere of reason proved a failure. It was, indeed, at variance with his deeper instinct. The whole discussion as to proof and probability, keenly sustained on both sides, witnesses to the impossibility of religion being limited to faith. Hume's purpose, honest and earnest, to put ' an

everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion,' | was one which could not have been served even by j making good the position that the unbroken testimony of common experience makes evidence for a miracle impossible. To separate faith from understanding is to/ open wide the door to superstition. It may be described/ in his own language as a vain endeavour after ' subduing the rebellious reason by the belief of the most unintelligible sophisms' (Natural History of Religion, sec. x.). But his contention is interpreted aright only as we acknowledge his avowal that ' there may possibly be miracles,' while he at the same time holds that these cannot afford testimony for ' a system " of religion.' The spirit of his argument is shewn in his own estimate of its worth. ' I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends, or disguised enemies to the Christian religion, wh6 have undertaken to defend it by the principles af human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on Reason of miracles.' This Essay shews insight as to the uniformity of nature in considerable advance of his time, but it shews for him a singular failure in the exercise of his critical power. In passing to the Natural History of Religion, which first appeared in 1777, it becomes apparent how much Hume occupied himself with the problems of religion. Here also we have fuller indication of his personal faith, and at so many points as to remove all uncertainty as to his attitude. 'The whole frame of nature bespeaks an Intelligent Author, and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of a genuine Theism and Religion' (Intro.).

This avowal at the outset, recognising that religion has 'its foundation in reason,' is the more important as his Treatise is occupied mainly with the inconsistencies, superstitions, and immoralities appearing under the name of religion. Here also Hume is the critic, exercising ' freedom of reasoning ' in handling the beliefs and sacred rites of ' popular religions,' ' for the most part polytheistic.' He is content to go back to the Christian era, where he finds the whole world given to idolatry. Looking around on the varied aspects of popular religion, he proceeds to consider how religious principles may be easily perverted by various accidents and causes. His purpose in this work is to consider ' what those principles are which give rise to the original belief, and what those accidents and causes are which direct its operation.'

'The only point of theology in which we shall find a consent of mankind almost universal is that there is invisible intelligent power in the world ' (sec. iv.). ' Nevertheless, the doctrine of one Supreme Deity, the author of nature, is very ancient, has spread itself over great and populous nations, and among them has been embraced by all ranks and conditions of men' (sec. vi.). We therefore admit that there are ' invincible reasons on which it is undoubtedly founded.' ' But it is chiefly our present business to consider the gross polytheism of the vulgar, and to trace all its various appearances, in the principles of human nature, whence they are derived' (sec. v.). In carrying through this enquiry he has much to say as to the superstition and the fanaticism which have appeared in the natural history of religion, and here he often indulges in the free criticism which appeared in the History of England, and called forth the adverse criticism of the friends of evangelical religion. But the Treatise is a vigorous treatment of the subject, shewing extended research, specially directed upon classical authors, discovering prominent features in the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while including frequent references to the religious rites prevailing among uncivilised tribes in all ages. In all this he deals carefully with a vast mass of evidence essential to the discussion. We cannot attempt even a summary of the extended investigation. It includes much that is of the utmost value as to the history of the unfolding of religious ideas and the institution and continuance of religious rites. With all this outcome of research under review, he remarks that ' there is not wanting a sufficient stock of religious zeal and faith among mankind.' ' Look out for a people entirely destitute of religion: if you find them at all, be assured that they are but few degrees removed from brutes.'/ But corruptions naturally appear in the fancies, traditions, and religious observances of men. ' Men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism into idolatry.' 'The corruptions of the best things give rise to the worst.' On the other hand, theism is sustained by the reflection of the most thoughtful. ' Where theism forms the fundamental principle of any popular religion, that tenet is so conformable to sound reason that philosophy is apt to incorporate itself with such a system of theology ' (sec. xi.). Our speculative thought as to the first cause—the supreme intelligence —is of the first moment to the individual thinker and to our race as a whole. 1 What a noble privilege it is of human reason to attain the Knowledge of the Supreme Being, and from the visible works of nature be enabled to infer so sublime a principle as its supreme Creator' (sec. xv.). But when we ' examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed,' many of them are to be discredited as ' sick men's dreams,' rather than respected as ' the serious, positive, dogmatical asseverations of a being who dignifies himself with the name of rational' (lb.). When we look at the vast problem as it stands before us in history, 1 the whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery ' (3.). But faith remains unmoved. 1 The universal propensity to believe in invisible intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp which the divine workman has set upon his work; and nothing surely can more dignify mankind than to be selected from all parts of creation, and to bear the image or impression of the universal Creator'.

These extracts shew how clearly Hume maintained his conviction of the inherent value of religion, even when tracing the inconsistencies which appear in its history among the several nations and tribes of men. His mental characteristics, intellectual and emotional, induced him to treat scornfully of these inconsistencies, as if they were traces of hypocrisy. This tendency appeared so offensively in the first volume of his History of England as to subject him to severe criticism. He owned its force, and modified several passages. Burton gives besides a paper designed for a preface to his second volume, which was afterwards modified and transferred to the position of a note. The opening sentences of this Preface are of special interest here. ' It ought to be no matter of offence that in this volume, as well as in the foregoing, the mischiefs which arise from the abuses of religion are so often mentioned, while so little in comparison is said of the salutary consequences which result from true and genuine piety. The proper office of religion is to reform men's lives, to purify their hearts, to enforce all moral duties, and to secure obedience to the laws and civil magistrate. While it pursues these useful purposes its operations, though infinitely valuable, are secret and silent, and seldom come under the cognisance of history' (Burton, II., 11).

From the Natural History of Religion Hume passed on to the study of the rational basis of Natural Theology, which he prosecuted in the critical spirit characteristic of him. For the long period of twenty-five years the subject was kept before him. When the results appeared after his death the publication was a small volume of 152 pages. It is a work of great value, presenting a searching scrutiny of the conditions under which we seek to think out the relations of the universe to the invisible intelligence, the first cause. The volume bears evidence of care in thought j and expression, and anxious revision. It assigns to critical and sceptical thought its utmost scope, and alongside of this presents ' the invincible reasons' on which natural i; theology is founded. To the reader who dips into it, 1 turning its pages with a light hand, it will seem in its main contents a sceptical book; to the critical student . it will appear a book of great constructive worth, while it hides nothing of the difficulties of our speculative thought.

The history of the manuscript volume is of exceptional interest. It is clear from a letter to Elliot, written from Ninewells, dated March ro, 1751, that the first draft was written then, and was submitted for Elliot's criticism. Hume's death occurred in 1776, and the Dialogues were not published till fully two years after that event. The manuscript in possession of the Royal Society of Edinburgh shews many emendations and corrections, making it certain that the author worked over those pages with anxious solicitude, and that in its published form we have the statement of his matured thought, as well as the results of his best literary effort. From his literary friends he sought suggestions in the freest spirit; and we know that Elliot, Adam Smith, Blair, and others were intimately acquainted with the contents. So early as the date named, Elliot had ' a sample ' of the Dialogue, in which Philo is the Sceptic, Cleanthes the Philosophic believer, Demea the rigidly orthodox or quiescent believer, who distrusts speculation. To Elliot he says,—' I make Cleanthes the hero of the dialogue; whatever you can think of, to strengthen that side of the argument, will be most acceptable to me. Any propensity you imagine I have to the other side crept in upon me against my will' (Burton, I., 33r). At the same time he tells how, before he was twenty, ' doubts stole in upon him,' involving him in a perpetual struggle of a restless imagination against inclination, perhaps against reason.' The Dialogues present his effort to clear the way through inevitable doubts. His own estimate of the result he indicates in this letter to Elliot,—'The instances I have chosen for Cleanthes are, I hope, tolerably happy, and the confusion in which I represent the sceptic seems natural'

As the close of life approached, Hume felt great solicitude about the publication of these Dialogues. This feeling was increased by the desire expressed by some of his most intimate literary friends that he should withhold the book. He was willing that it should not be published till after his death, but he took pains to secure that it should appear 1 within two years' thereafter. The delay indicated his aversion to encounter the storm likely to be raised by their appearance; his fixed determination that it should appear within a defined period testifies to his conviction that an important service was to be rendered to the cause of religion by unreserved critical handling of the difficulties which beset our attempts to apply the Theistic conception in the midst of finite relations.

On the 4th of January 1776, he executed a settlement of his estate, leaving his money to his brother, sister, and younger relatives, £200 to D'Alembert; the same to Adam Ferguson, and the same to Adam Smith, under special proviso. ' To my friend Dr Adam Smith, late Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow, I leave all my manuscripts without exception, desiring him to publish my Dialogues on Natural Religion which are comprehended in this present bequest. ... I even leave him full power over all my papers, except the Dialogues above mentioned ; and though I can trust to that intimate and sincere friendship which has ever subsisted between us for his faithful execution of this part of my Will, yet, as a small recompense of his pain in correcting and publishing this work, I leave him two hundred pounds, to be paid immediately after the publication of it' (Burton, II., 490).

Hume explained to Adam Smith his desire that he should superintend the publication of the Dialogues. Smith declined the responsibility, being averse to the publication, as likely to increase the popular clamour against him. On this, Hume writes to his friend on 3rd May 1776, three months before his death:—* My dear Friend, ... I own that your scruples have a specious appearance. But my opinion is, that if upon my death you determine never to publish these papers, you should leave them, sealed up, with my brother and family, with some inscription that you reserve to yourself the power of reclaiming them whenever you think proper. If I live a few years longer, I shall publish them myself' (Burton, II., 492). In an accompanying letter Hume adds—'I am content to leave it entirely to your discretion at what time you will publish that piece, or whether you will publish it at all.'

Afterwards he added a codicil, retracting the previous provision, and substituting the following:—' I leave my manuscripts to the care of Mr William Strahan of London, Member of Parliament, trusting to the friendship that has long subsisted between us for his careful and faithful execution of my intentions. I desire that my Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion may be printed and published any time within two years after my death.'

Still later, it is added—' I do ordain that if my Dialogues,1 from whatever cause, be not published within two years and a half of my death, as also the account of my life, the property shall return to my nephew, David, whose duty in publishing them, as the last request of his uncle, must be approved of by all the world ' (Burton, II., 494).

Strahan also declined the responsibility, and the Dialogues were eventually published by the author's nephew, David, in 1779, and without name of publisher or printer. Fortunately for the literature of our country, the author persisted in his determination. Now that the prejudices against him have in considerable measure passed away, we can admit that his perplexities may be helpful to us who follow. Faith succeeds doubt, while preparing the way for better thought. A true service is rendered in the history of intellectual and religious development when the common difficulties of our position in the universe are stated with clearness and force. Pioneers, after enduring untold hardships, may have the gratitude of the people. On the voyage of life there is gain in sounding all depths.

In the title of his work Hume uses the term ' Religion ' rather than 'Theology.' This usage applies the same term to the practical experience and the speculative exercise. Some confusion is apt to arise in this way, for it is admitted that religion, as a characteristic of human life, may flourish apart from direct and intimate concern with the perplexities of thought, from which theology cannot escape.

Hume's reasons for adopting the form of dialogue have obvious force in view of the nature of the subject and the end he sought. His purpose was to present in their utmost strength the difficulties encountered in thinking of the relations of God to the universe, and to shew religious faith at its best in the sphere of intelligence. The certainty of the Divine existence being admitted, the object is to discuss ' what obscure questions occur concerning the nature of that Divine being, his attributes, his decrees, and his plan of providence ' (p. 3).

For understanding of the discussion it is needful to keep in view the attitude and special bias of the speakers. Philo is the pronounced sceptic who dwells on the weakness and blindness of our intelligence, and delights in doubts as if they constituted the current coin of the realm. Cleanthes is the philosophic thinker, ready to examine every doubt presented, and relying on regulated methodical thought for attainment of a vision of truth in harmony with our fundamental faith in the Divine existence and government. Demea is the quiet believer in God and his goodness, content to trust, willing to treat obscure questions of speculative thought as things too high for us belonging to an unknown territory into which the ordinary believer does not travel. Philo and Demea are at the opposite extremes, but occasionally in close agreement, because of their readiness to think lightly of human intelligence. Cleanthes is the philosophic thinker, deliberate, patient, and strong, ' the hero of the Dialogue.' ' The remarkable contrast in their characters ' gives interest to the discussion, and makes it possible for the author to give a breadth of representation of the varied tendencies and habits of thought subsisting in society.

Part I

Demea. Natural theology being the most abstruse of all sciences, needs a mind enriched with all the other sciences, and may be postponed while the opening intelligence is ' seasoned with early piety.'

Philo. To season the mind thus is reasonable as a defence against an irreligious spirit, but the danger is that of' inspiring pride and self sufficiency' to guard against which evils we must ' become thoroughly sensible of the weakness, blindness, and narrow limits of human reason.' Having such poor intelligence, ' with what assurance can we decide concerning the origin of worlds, or trace their history from eternity to eternity ? '

Cleanthes. ' You propose then to erect religious faith or philosophical scepticism.' But this is a foundation weaker than reason, and which the common intelligence, weak as it is, readily rejects, because of its obvious inconsistency; for 'though a man, in a flush of humour, may entirely renounce all belief and opinion, it is impossible for him to persevere in it, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours.'

Ph. ' However sceptical anyone may be, I own he must act and live, and converse like other men; and for this conduct he is not obliged to give any other reason than the absolute necessity he lies under of so doing.' But there is a fascination in speculative thought; ' everyone, even in common life, is constrained to have more or less of this philosophy,' ' and what we call philosophy is nothing but a more regular and methodical operation of the same kind.' But ' when we look beyond human affairs,' and carry our speculations forward to consider 'the powers of operations of one universal Spirit,' ' we have here got beyond the reach of our faculties,' 'and are entirely guided by a kind of instinct or necessity in employing them.'

CI. But 'your doctrine and practice are as much at variance in the most abstruse points of theory as in the conduct of common life.' 'There is, indeed, a kind of brutish and ignorant scepticism' which ' is fatal to knowledge, not to religion.' ' But the refined and philosophic sceptics fall into an inconsistence of an opposite nature. They push their researches into the most abstruse corners of science, and their assent attends them in every step, proportioned to the evidence with which they meet.'

Ph. Taking together ' the history of the religious and the irreligious scepticism,' 'it appears to me that there are strong symptoms of priestcraft in the progress of this affair.' These reverend gentlemen are ' sceptics in one age, dogmatists in another,' as ' best suits their purpose.'

CI. ' We need not have recourse to priestcraft' to account for the history of events. ' Nothing can afford a stronger presumption that any set of principles are true, than to observe that they tend to the confirmation of true religion, and serve to confound the free-thinkers.'

Such in outline is the opening Dialogue. Interest concentrates on the antagonistic reasoning of the Sceptic and the Philosopher. To their several parts we shall restrict this summary.

Part II.—Does limited knowledge involve uncertainty in Analogies?

Ph. 'Where reasonable men treat these subjects, the question can never be concerning the being, but only the nature of the Deity.' The former truth is unquestionable and self evident. ' But our ideas reach no further than our experience; and we have no experience of Divine attributes and operations.'

CI. ' The curious adapting of means to ends throughout all nature resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance, of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence.'

Ph. ' Wherever you depart in the least from the similarity of the cases, you diminish proportionably the evidence ; and may at last bring it to a very weak analogy, which is confessedly liable to error and uncertainty.'

CI. ' Is the whole adjustment of means to ends in a house and in the universe so slight a resemblance ? The economy of final causes ? The order, proportion, and arrangement of every part ? '

Ph. ' I must allow that this fairly represents the argument ' from observation and experience. But ' experience alone can point out the true cause of any phenomenon.' ' Order, arrangement, or the adjustment of final causes is no proof of design, except in so far as it has been experienced to proceed from that principle.' But I am 'scandalised with this resemblance which is asserted between the Deity and human creatures, which I conceive implies a degradation of the Supreme Being.' • I prefer to agree with the orthodox in defending what is justly called ' the adorable mysteriousness of the Divine Nature.' ' Thought, design, intelligence, such as we discover in men and other animals is no more than one of the springs and principles of the universe, as well as heat or cold, attraction or repulsion.' ' Why select so minute, so weak, so bounded a principle as the reason and design of animals ? What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe.'

CI. Let me suggest that you do not ' abuse terms.'

We ' distinguish reason from experience, even where the question relates only to matter of fact and existence.' ' To prove by experience the origin of the universe from mind is not more contrary to common speech than to prove the motion of the earth from the same principle.'

Ph. In the 'cautious procedure' of observational science is to be found the condemnation of rash speculation in Natural Theology. 'The subject in which you are engaged exceeds all human reason and enquiry.' ' Have you ever seen Nature in any such situation as resembles the first arrangement of the elements ?'

Part III.—Conditions of reasoning from Experience to that which transcends it.

CI. ' It is by no means necessary that Theists should prove the similarity of the works of Nature to those of art, because this similarity is self-evident and undeniable.' 'Suppose that there is a natural, universal, invariable language, common to every individual of human race, and that books are natural productions, which perpetuate themselves in the same manner with animals and vegetables. Suppose that you enter into your library, thus peopled by natural volumes, containing the most refined reason and most exquisite beauty, could you possibly open one of them and doubt that its original cause bore the strongest analogy to mind and intelligence ?' ' Any objection which you start by carrying me back to so unusual and extraordinary a scene as the first formation of worlds, the same objection has place on the supposition of our vegetating library.' 'To exclude all argument or reasoning of every kind is either affectation or madness.'

Ph. 'Your instance drawn from books and language, being familiar, has, I confess, so much more force on that account; but is there not some danger too in this very circumstance ?' ' When I read a volume, I enter into the mind and intention of the author; I become him, in a manner, for the instant. . . . But so near an approach we never surely can make to the Deity. His ways are not our ways. His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible. And this volume of Nature contains a great and inexplicable riddle, more than any intelligible discourse or reasoning.' ' Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded; and were we to remove these circumstances, we absolutely annihilate its essence, and it would, in such a case, be an abuse of terms to apply to it the name of thought or reason. At least, if it appear more pious and respectful (as it really is) still to retain these terms when we mention the Supreme Being, we ought to acknowledge that their meaning in that case is totally incomprehensible ; and that the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the Divine attributes.'

Part IV.—Can phases of the human mind be attributed to the Divine Intelligence?

CI. 'The Deity, I can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes, of which we can have no comprehension. But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on.'1 . . . 'Though it be allowed that the Deity possesses attributes of which we have no comprehension, yet ought we never to ascribe to Him any attributes which are absolutely incompatible with that intelligent nature essential to Him.'

Ph. ' I shall endeavour to shew you the inconveniences of that Anthropomorphism (Theology founded on human characteristics) which you have embraced; and shall prove that there is no ground to suppose a plan of the world to be formed in the Divine mind, consisting of distinct ideas differently arranged, in the same manner as an architect forms in his head the plan of a house which he intends to execute.' Suppose we judge of the matter by Reason :— ' a mental world, or universe of ideas, requires a cause as much as does a material world, or universe of objects ; and if similar in its arrangement, must require a similar cause.' We are still obliged to mount higher in order to find the cause of this cause, if we take the world of ideas to be the cause of the world of objects. Suppose we judge of the matter by Experience ;—' How shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of the ideal world into which you trace the material ?' 1 When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour, which it is impossible ever to satisfy.' ' To say that the different ideas, which compose the reason of the Supreme Being, fall into order of themselves, and by their own nature, is really to talk without any precise meaning.' 1 No satisfaction can ever be attained by these speculations, which so far exceed the narrow bounds of human understanding.'

CI. ' The order and arrangement of Nature, the curious adjustment of final causes, the plain use and intention oi every part and organ; all these bespeak in the clearest language an intellectual cause or author.' ' I have found a Deity, and here I stop my enquiry. Let those go further who are wiser or more enterprising.'

Ph. ' I pretend to be neither, and for that very reason I should never perhaps have attempted to go so far, especially when I am sensible that I must at last be contented to sit down with the same answer.'

Part V.—' Like effects prove like causes.'—How far is the maxim applicable?

Ph. ' Please to take a new survey of your principles. Like effects prove like causes. This is the experimental argument; and this, you say too, is the sole theological argument. Now it is certain that the liker the effects are which are seen, and the liker the causes which are inferred, the stronger is the argument. Every departure on either side diminishes the probability, and renders the experiment less conclusive.' Now, ' by this method of reasoning you renounce all claim to infinity in any of the attributes of the Deity,' and there is left no reason 'for ascribing perfection to the Deity.' On your hypothesis 'a man is able, perhaps, to assert or conjecture that the Universe, sometime, arose from something like design; but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance.'

CI. ' These suppositions I absolutely disown: they strike me, however, with no horror. On the contrary they give me pleasure, when I see that, by the utmost indulgence of your imagination, you never get rid of the hypothesis of design in the Universe, but are obliged at every turn to have recourse to it. To this concession I steadily adhere; and this I regard as a sufficient foundation for religion.'

Part VI.—Can we reason from the known to the unknown ?

Ph. ' There is another principle' derived from experience, ' that where several known circumstances are observed to be similar, the unknown will also be similar. Thus, if >ve see the limbs of a human body, we conclude that it is also attended with a human head, though hid from us.' 'Now if we survey the universe, so far as it falls under our knowledge, it bears a great resemblance to an animal or organised body, and seems actuated with a like principle of life and motion.' ' The world, therefore, I infer, is an animal,' and, according to the hypothesis of the ancients, ' the Deity is the soul of the world actuating it, and actuated by it.' ' If our limited analogy could ever with any propriety be extended to the whole of Nature, the inference seems juster in favour of the ancient than the modern theory.'

CI. ' This theory, I own, has never before occurred to me, though a pretty natural one, and I cannot readily upon so short an examination and reflection deliver any opinion with regard to it. It seems to me the analogy is defective in many circumstances the most material—no organs of sense, no seat of thought or reason, no one precise origin of motion and action.' Besides, ' human society is in continual revolution between ignorance and knowledge, liberty and slavery, riches and poverty, so that it is impossible for us, from our limited experience, to foretell with assurance what events may or may not be expected.'

Ph. ' It is observable that all the changes and corruptions of which we have ever had experience are but passages from one state of order to another, nor can matter ever rest in total deformity and confusion. What we see in the parts, we may infer in the whole; at least that is the method of reasoning on which you rest your whole theory. And were I obliged to defend any particular system of this nature (which I never willingly should do) I esteem none more plausible than that which ascribes an eternal inherent principle of order in the world, though attended with great and continual revolutions and alterations. This at once solves all difficulties, and if the solution, by being so general, is not entirely complete and satisfactory, it is, at least, a theory that we must sooner or later have recourse to, whatever system we embrace.'

Part VII.—Shall we think of the Universe as Organism or as Mechanism?

Ph. ' If the Universe bears a greater likeness to animal bodies and to vegetables than to the works of human art, its origin ought rather to be ascribed to generation or vegetation than to reason or design.' If we must rely on experience alone, this seems a legitimate hypothesis, but 1 we have no data to establish any system of cosmogony. Our experience, so imperfect in itself, and so limited both in extent and duration, can afford us no probable conjecture concerning the whole of things.' And organism 'bears stronger resemblance to the world than does any artificial machine.' We may refer to reason, instinct, generation, or vegetation, but ' the principles themselves and their manner of operation are totally unknown.'

CI. 'I must confess, Philo, that the task which you have undertaken of raising doubts and objections suits you best, and seems in a manner natural and unavoidable to you. So great is your fertility of invention that I am not ashamed to acknowledge myself unable on a sudden to solve regularly such out-of-the-way difficulties as you incessantly start upon me, though I clearly see in general their fallacy and error. And I question not but you are yourself in the same case, and have not the solution so ready as the objection, while you must be sensible that common sense and reason are entirely against you.'

Part VIII.—How far our difficulties arise from the transcendent greatness of the subject.

Ph. Because ' a hundred contradictory views may preserve a kind of imperfect analogy,' ' invention has full scope to exert itself.' ' Motion, in many instances, from gravity, from elasticity, from electricity, begins in matter, without any known voluntary agent, and to suppose always in these cases an unknown voluntary agent is mere hypothesis.'

CI. But the hypothesis of vegetation or involuntary development is exposed to insuperable objections. ' No form, you say, can subsist unless it possess those powers and organs requisite for its subsistence ; some new order or economy must be tried, and so on without intermission, till at last some order which can support and maintain itself is fallen upon. But according to this hypothesis. whence arise the many conveniences and advantages which,men and all animals possess? '

Ph. ' You may safely infer that the hypothesis is so far incomplete and imperfect, which I shall not scruple to allow. But can we ever hope to erect a system of cosmogony that will be liable to no exceptions ?' It is this which gives to scepticism the power it has. ' In all instances which we have ever seen, ideas are copied from real objects.' ' You reverse this order, and give thought the precedence.' ~

Part IX.—May we reason from finite existence to a self-existent Being?

Demea. ' Had we not better adhere to the simple and sublime argument a priori V It is impossible for anything to produce itself; ' we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all, or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause that is necessarily existent.'

CI. ' There is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by any arguments a priori.' ' There is no being whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.' As to the existence of the Deity, it is said that ' if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be impossible for him not to exist. But it is evident that this can never happen while our faculties remain the same as at present.'

Ph. ' The argument a priori has seldom been found very convincing, except to people of a metaphysical head, who have accustomed themselves to abstract reasoning. . . . Other people, even of good sense, and the best inclined to religion, feel always some deficiency in such arguments, though they are not perhaps able to explain distinctly where it lies.'

Part X.—The moral argument.

Demea. ' It is my opinion that each man feels, in a manner, the truth of religion within his own breast, and from a consciousness of his imbecility and misery is led to seek protection from that Being.'

Ph. ' I am indeed persuaded that the best and, indeed, the only method of bringing everyone to a due sense of religion is by just representations of the misery and wickedness of men. ... In this point the learned are perfectly agreed with the vulgar, and in all letters, sacred and profane, the topic of human misery has been insisted on with the most pathetic eloquence.' ' Disappointment, vexation, trouble, follow man's activity and ambition.'

CI. ' I can observe something like what you mention in some others, but I confess I feel little or nothing of it myself, and hope that it is not so common as you represent it.'

Ph. ' Is it possible, after all these reflections, you can still assert the moral attributes of the Deity, his justice, benevolence, mercy and rectitude,—to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power, we allow, is infinite; whatever he wills is executed; but neither man nor any other animal are happy; therefore he does not will their happiness.'

CI. ' If you can prove mankind to be unhappy or corrupted, there is an end at once of all religion. For to what purpose establish the natural attributes of the Deity, while the moral are still doubtful and uncertain'.

Demea. 'Nothing can be more surprising than to find a topic like this, concerning the wickedness and misery of man, charged with no less than atheism and profaneness.'

CI. ' These arbitrary suppositions as to wickedness and misery can never be admitted.' ' The only method of supporting Divine benevolence (and it is what I willingly embrace) is to deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man. Your representations are exaggerated. . . . Health is more common than sickness.'

Ph. ' You have put the controversy upon a most dangerous issue, and are unawares introducing a total scepticism into the most essential articles of natural and revealed theology. What! no method of fixing a just foundation for religion, unless we allow the happiness of human life.' ' By resting the whole system of religion on such a point, which from its very nature must for ever be uncertain, you tacitly confess that system is equally uncertain.'

' It is your turn now to tug the labouring oar, and to support your philosophical subtleties against the dictates of plain reason and experience.'

Part XI.—The problem of evil.

CI. ' If we abandon all human analogy, I am afraid we abandon all religion, and retain no conception of the great object of our adoration. If we preserve human analogy, we must for ever find it impossible to reconcile any mixture of evil in the universe with infinite attributes. But supposing the Author of Nature to be finitely perfect, though far exceeding mankind, a satisfactory account may then be given of natural and moral evil, and every untoward phenomenon be explained and adjusted, a less evil may be chosen, in order to avoid a greater. . . . Benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce such a world as the present.'

Ph. If a very limited intelligence were assured that the universe, with which he was at the moment unacquainted, was ' the production of a very good, wise, and powerful being, however finite,' he could never fancy that the effect could be so full of vice and misery and disorder as it appears in this life. But such a limited intelligence must be sensible of his own blindness and ignorance, and must allow that there may be many solutions of those phenomena which will for ever escape his comprehension.

There seem to be four circumstances on which depend all, or the greatest part of the ills that molest sensible creatures, and it is not impossible but all these circumstances may be necessary and unavoidable. First, ' pain, as well as pleasure, is employed to excite all creatures to action.' Second, ' the conducting of the world by general laws.' Third, ' the great frugality with which all powers and faculties are distributed.' Fourth, 'the inaccurate workmanship of all the springs and principles of the great machine of nature.' It would be too presumptuous for creatures so blind and ignorant as we ' to say that these circumstances are not necessary.'

'Some ill must arise in the various shocks of matter;' ' but this ill would be very rare, were it not for the third circumstance.' ' Almost all the moral, as well as natural evils of human life, arise from idleness.' 'In order to cure most of the ills of human life,' I do not ask that man be endowed with greater powers, physical or mental; but 'let him be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application,' with ' a more vigorous spring and activity of mind,' ' the exact execution of every office and duty' would 'immediately follow.'

Cleanthes has admitted that our difficulties in dealing with this problem of evil arise from the representation of the Deity as infinite in all his attributes. If we take the opposite course, ' supposing the Author of nature to be finitely perfect,' this old ' Manichasan system 1 occurs as a proper hypothesis to solve the difficulty; and no doubt in some respects it is very specious, and has more probability than the common hypothesis, by giving a plausible account of the strange mixture of good and ill which appears in life. But if we consider on the other hand the perfect uniformity and agreement of the parts of the universe, we shall not discover in it any marks of the combat of a malevolent with a benevolent being.' 'So long,' however, as there is one vice at all in the universe it will very much puzzle you anthropomorphites—believers in the likeness of Divine powers to human—how to account for it. You must assign a cause for it, without having recourse to the first cause, yet you must ' rest on that original principle which is the ultimate cause of all things.'

Demea. ' Hold ! Hold ! I joined in alliance with you, in order to prove the incomprehensible nature of the Divine Being, and refute the principles of him who would measure everything by a human rule and standard.'

CI. The total infirmity of human reason, the absolute incomprehensibility of the Divine nature, the great and universal misery, and still greater wickedness of men, these are strange topics surely to be so fondly cherished.' But ' your friend Philo from the beginning has been amusing himself at both our expense.'

Part XII.—Results of the discussion.

CI. 'Your spirit of controversy, joined to your abhorrence of vulgar superstition, carries you strange lengths when engaged in an argument; and there is nothing so sacred or venerable, even in your own eyes, which you spare on that occasion.'

Ph. ' I must confess that I am less cautious on the subject of Natural Religion than on any other, both because I know that I can never on that head corrupt the principles of any man of common sense, and because no one, I am confident, in whose eyes I appear a man of common sense, will ever mistake my intentions. . . . Notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of Nature. ... All the sciences almost lead us insensibly to acknowledge a first intelligent Author; and their authority is often so much the greater, as they do not directly profess their intention.'

CI. ' One great advantage of the principle of Theism is that it is the only system of cosmogony which can be rendered intelligible and complete, and yet can throughout preserve a strong analogy to what we every day see and experience in the world.' ' Whoever attempts to weaken this theory,' can only ' by remote and abstract views of things reach that suspense of judgment which is here the utmost boundary of his wishes.'

Ph. ' So little do I esteem this suspense of judgment in the present case to be possible, that I am apt to suspect there enters somewhat of a dispute of words into this controversy, more than is usually imagined. That the works of Nature bear a great analogy to the productions of art is evident, . . . but there are also considerable differences. ... As the works of Nature have a much greater analogy to the effects of our art and contrivance, than to those of our benevolence and justice, we have reason to infer that the natural attributes of the Deity have a greater resemblance to those of men than his moral have to human virtues. But what is the consequence ? Nothing but this, that the moral qualities of man are more defective in their kind than his natural abilities.' ' In proportion to my veneration for true religion is my abhorrence of vulgar superstitions.'

CI. ' Religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all.' ' The proper office of religion is to regulate the heart of men, humanise their ^conduct, infuse the spirit of temperance, order, and obedience; and as its operation is silent, and only enforces the motives of morality and justice, it is in danger of being overlooked, and confounded with these other motives. When it distinguishes itself, and acts as a separate principle over men, it has departed from its proper sphere, and has become only a cover to faction and ambition.'

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus