The Great Guide:
What David Hume Can Teach Us about Being Human and Living Well
by julian baggini
princeton, 328 pages, $24.95
Our society is polarized. Woke crusaders have captured the public imagination and are canceling their disputants. In The Great Guide, Julian Baggini suggests that by turning to the philosophy of David Hume and learning from his intellectual modesty, we might be able to overcome our polarization and temper disruptive “enthusiasms.” Hume was inclined to resist any view held with the kind of ideological rigidity that stifles intellectual inquiry. But as one reads through Baggini’s work, an important question arises: Are the social virtues of modesty and moderation robust enough to sustain a culture in crisis?
Baggini is right that reasonableness, gentleness, and amiability are missing from our tempestuous public debates. In the eighteenth century, according to Baggini, they could all be found in Hume, nicknamed Le Bon David. Thomas Carlyle reports that Hume regularly hosted dinner parties for select friends in Edinburgh, and “furnished the entertainment with the most instructive and pleasing conversation.” “For innocent mirth and agreeable raillery,” Carlyle wrote, “I never knew his match.”
Hume long admired French civility and sociability, writing that “in common life, they have, in a great measure perfected that art, the most useful and agreeable of any, l’Art de Vivre, the art of society and conversation.” “Virtue,” Hume wrote, “talks not of useless austerities and rigours, suffering and self-denial. She declares that her sole purpose is to make her votaries and all mankind, during every instant of their existence, if possible, cheerful and happy.”
But though he possessed something like a live-and-let-live mentality, his toleration did have its limits. He had no patience for rabid political partisans or religious enthusiasts. He railed against factions, in which men “are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party.” And he ridiculed the “whole train of monkish virtues,” including, “celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude.”
Hume thought that religion was especially pernicious, given its propensity to cause passionate defenders of the faith to engage in bloody battles over first principles, as evidenced by Europe’s wars of religion. “Generally speaking,” Hume announced, “the errors of religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” Hume was especially wary of the alleged intolerance produced by Christian monotheism (on this front, he preferred pagan polytheism). His aversion toward orthodox religion generated a harsh antipathy toward Catholicism in particular. He declared that books of scholastic metaphysics should be burned for containing nothing but “sophistry and illusion.”
It is to Hume’s credit, however—and consistent with Baggini’s main thesis—that he composed his groundbreaking Treatise at a Jesuit college in France, in the company of members of the Society of Jesus. Hume had little philosophical affinity with the Jesuits. Still, in this instance he surrounded himself with people with whom he disagreed.
Baggini presents this principle as a Humean aphorism by which to live: “A skeptical, open mind has nothing to fear and much to gain from seeking the company and opinions of those it seriously disagrees with.” Insofar as Hume regularly engaged in philosophical debate with people of opposing views, Baggini contends: “We should never completely dismiss even those who are almost always wrong, as they are almost always sometimes right too.”
Baggini recounts how Hume not only discussed ideas in a friendly manner, but maintained friendships with several moderate Presbyterian ministers in Scotland. Though he disagreed with these ministers on life’s questions, Hume found their company intellectually stimulating. In a letter to Rev. Robert Wallace, Hume wrote, “Why cannot all the World entertain different Opinions about any Subject, as amicably as we do?”
But Baggini tends to overlook the limits of Hume’s agreeableness. He was not on good terms with more conservative religious figures; members of the Popular party of the Church of Scotland tried to have him excommunicated for infidelity.
Strangely, it is unclear whether Baggini himself is on friendly terms with Hume. Baggini, a man of the left, frequently distances himself from Hume, criticizing him for failing to write and think like a twenty-first-century progressive. Unsatisfied with Hume’s libertine morality, Baggini rails against the “weakness” of Hume’s political analysis, that is to say, Hume’s conservatism. Baggini finds fault with Hume for being pro-monarchical, anti-democratic, and hierarchical in his views of social rank and the relation between the sexes.
Baggini is unable to avoid the progressive inclination to assail allegedly benighted thinkers of previous centuries. Dumbfounded, he asks how Hume, who articulated a radical philosophy, could be “reactionary” in his analysis of practical affairs. Baggini concludes that Hume was simply too moderate in his politics. He thereby invents an un-Humean aphorism to critique Hume’s conservative tendencies: “Moderation too must be moderated.” Presumably, according to Baggini, we should moderate our moderation until we are suitably progressive. Though he lauds Hume’s intellectual modesty and civility, Baggini fails to express these virtues himself, even toward the subject of his admittedly lively study.
As one reads through The Great Guide, it becomes apparent that intellectual modesty simply isn’t enough to heal our contemporary ills. Hume might help us avoid the dangers of extremism, but it is questionable whether he can move us to defend great truths amid persecution. Baggini regards Edinburgh as a modern Athens and Hume as a modern Socrates. But this is a false comparison. Hume, much like Socrates, was denounced by many of his contemporaries for “corrupting the youth” and “refusing to recognize the gods.” But Hume valued prudence over courage. He thought, as Baggini bluntly concludes, that “Truth is not worth dying for.” Socrates, on the other hand, died for the sake of philosophy.
Hume’s universe is ultimately a hopeless one. Hume laid no groundwork for a robust conception of charity that might support a selfless love of others rooted in their status as divine image-bearers. Hume claimed that human life is no more valuable to the universe than that of an oyster. He rejected the idea of the soul. He rejected the idea of the afterlife and even defended the morality of suicide. Who would be willing to die for these truths?
While Hume can teach us a thing or two about intellectual modesty, the content of his philosophy—even when presented with élan, as it is in this volume—leaves readers with a vacuum of meaning. This vacuum demands to be filled, precisely by the kind of ideological enthusiasms that abound today. In this case, it is uncertain whether Humean philosophy is the solution to our problems or the cause of them. But that is a subject for another book.
Aaron Alexander Zubia is a postdoctoral fellow with the Tocqueville Program in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University.
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