03 August 2008

Hume's History of England

"Luther, a man naturally inflexible, vehement, opinionative, was become incapable, either from promises of advancement or terrors of severity, to relinquish a sect of which he was himself the founder, and which brought him a glory superior to all others, the glory of dictating the religious faith and principles of multitudes."

Those are the words of David Hume, best known these days as a hyper-skeptical philosopher, was more successful in his own time (1711-1776) as a historian.

Hume was the author of a six volume work called, revealingly enough, "The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688." One measure of the success of these volumes is that despite his subsequent renown as one of the triumvirate of "great British empiricists," as the man who woke Kant from his "dogmatic slumber" and all that, the British Library, and the Cambridge University Library both still list Hume's works under the heading, "David Hume, historian."

I'm delighted to discover that "Project Gutenberg" has put the whole thing on line. It is now freely available to all the curious. And though I would imagine few of my readers will be able to invest the time necessary to read through the whole of it, the format makes it easy to take a dip here and there -- reading the table of contents of a volume, then going to the page or pages that interest you.

You'll find yourself addressed by a distinctive voice. At the beginning of Vol. III, for example, he introduces the subject of the Protestabt Reformation by discussing the clerical profession, and the reason any wise state must keep an eye on them.

"Each ghostly practitioner, in order to render himself more precious and sacred in the eyes of his retainers, will inspire them with the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavor, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of his audience. No regard will be paid to truth, morals, or decency, in the doctrines inculcated."

The creation of a state-supported Church helps the magistrates keep order, Hume continues. Without it there would be continual warring amongst the sects inspired by such "ghostly practitioners." But with state support for one Church, the clergy of that one lose the incentive to excite the devotion of their audience in such ways. Their audience is guaranteed them, and their salaries assigned.

"And in this manner ecclesiastical establishments, though commonly they arose at first from religious views, prove in the end advantageous to the political interests of society."

These general views being first clearly stated, we are unsurprised when we come to read what Hume has to say specifically -- in the passage I quoted above -- about the disturber of the official Church of all of western Europe to whom he soon turns his attention -- Martin Luther.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.