David Hume

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It is difficult to categorize Hume's political affiliations. His thought contains elements that are, in modern terms, both conservative and liberal, as well as ones that are both contractarian and utilitarian, though these terms are all anachronistic. Thomas Jefferson banned Hume's History from the University of Virginia, fearing that it "has spread universal toryism over the land".[65] Yet, Samuel Johnson thought Hume "a Tory by chance... for he has no principle. If he is anything, he is a Hobbist".[66] His central concern is to show the importance of the rule of law, and stresses throughout his political Essays the importance of moderation in politics. This outlook needs to be seen within the historical context of eighteenth century Scotland, where the legacy of religious civil war, combined with the relatively recent memory of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite risings, fostered in a historian such as Hume a distaste for enthusiasm and factionalism that appeared to threaten the fragile and nascent political and social stability of a country that was deeply politically and religiously divided. He thinks that society is best governed by a general and impartial system of laws, based principally on the "artifice" of contract; he is less concerned about the form of government that administers these laws, so long as it does so fairly (though he thought that republics were more likely to do so than monarchies).

Hume expressed suspicion of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established custom, and he counselled peoples not to resist their governments except in cases of the most egregious tyranny.[67] However, he resisted aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, and he believed that we should try to balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority, without sacrificing either. Neil McArthur (2007, p. 124) characterizes Hume as a 'precautionary conservative': whose actions would have been "determined by prudential concerns about the consequences of change, which often demand we ignore our own principles about what is ideal or even legitimate",[68] He supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy, when suitably constrained. It has been argued that he was a major inspiration for James Madison's writings, and the Federalist No. 10 in particular. He was also, in general, an optimist about social progress, believing that, thanks to the economic development that comes with the expansion of trade, societies progress from a state of "barbarism" to one of "civilisation". Civilised societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens are as a result much happier. It is therefore not fair to characterise him, as Leslie Stephen did, as favouring "...that stagnation which is the natural ideal of a skeptic."[69]

Though it has been suggested Hume had no positive vision of the best society, he in fact produced an essay titled Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,[70] which lays out what he thought was the best form of government. His pragmatism shone through, however, in his caveat that we should only seek to implement such a system should an opportunity present itself, which would not upset established structures. He defended a strict separation of powers, decentralisation, extending the franchise to anyone who held property of value and limiting the power of the clergy. The Swiss militia system was proposed as the best form of protection. Elections were to take place on an annual basis and representatives were to be unpaid. It is also important to note that the ideal commonwealth laid out by Hume was held to be ideal only for the British Isles in the 18th century. Hume was a relativist, and realized that such a form of government would not be ideal for all cultures, nor would it necessarily be permanent as historical conditions change.[citation needed]

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