10 August 2008

More from Hume, Historian

Here's another passage, following up on last week's entry on David Hume's history of England. A little further on than the description of Luther I've already quoted, Hume discusses the fact that Henry VIII wrote a book defending Roman Catholic orthodoxy against Lutheran critiques.

"But Henry had been educated in strict attachment to the church of Rome, and he bore a particular prejudice against Luther, who in his writings spoke with contempt of Thomas Aquinas, the King's favorite author: He opposed himself, therefore, to the progress of the Lutheran tenets by all the influence which his extensive and almost absolute authority conferred upon him: he even undertook to combat them with weapons not usually employed by monarchs ... He wrote a book in Latin against the principles of Luther; a performance which, if allowance be made for the subject and age, does no discredit to his capacity."

Where do you think is the balance of sympathies here? My own take on it is that despite the enormous gulf that separates Hume from, say, Thomas Aquinas -- Hume thinks of Aquinas as a fellow philosopher, a man of learning, and thinks the less of Luther for having spoken of Aquinas with contempt. So Hume sympathizes with Henry VIII's original stance, as the defender of the Roman faith, and implicitly as the defender of his "favorite author," Aquinas.

Hume also seems to pat Henry on the back figuratively for using reason and the Latin language, rather than edicts and armies, as his chosen "weapons" in the fight against the Lutherans.

I think the freshness of that prose speaks to us across the centuries and retains the power to challenge.

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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.