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DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION

DAVID HUME
was born in Edinburgh in 1711, the second son of Joseph Hume, an advocate, and Katherine Falconer, daughter of an eminent lawyer who became Lord President of the Court of Session. He devoted himself from an early age to philosophy and literature and in 1739–40 published his now highly regarded work
A Treatise of Human Nature.
In his own words it ‘fell dead-born from the Press' and he later reworked parts of the text. He applied for a professorship at the University of Edinburgh but was unsuccessful, largely due to local opposition. In 1746 he accepted a post as secretary to General James St Clair and was involved in a military campaign and, subsequently, in military embassies to Austria and Italy. By 1751 Hume had returned to Edinburgh. He was appointed librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, which gave him access to an extensive library. For the next twelve years he published a succession of works, which at last earned him an international reputation. During this time he wrote the first draft of the
Dialogues Concerning Natural religion.
A complementary work,
The Natural History of Religion
, appeared in 1757. His
Political Discourses
were published in 1752 and a six-volume
History of England
appeared between 1754 and 1762. In 1763 he was appointed private secretary to the British ambassador to France. On his arrival there he was greeted with adulation. He was briefly Under-Secretary of State in London before he retired to Edinburgh in 1769. Hume continued with his revision of the
Dialogues
, which were published posthumously in 1779. He died in 1776. Adam Smith said of Hume: ‘I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.'

J. M. BELL
was born in Nairobi in 1944. He was educated at Merchant Taylor's School, Northwood, and at King's College, Durham, the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and Linacre College, Oxford. From 1969 to 1994 he taught philosophy at the University of York. He is now Professor of Philosophy at the Manchester Metropolitan University and Head of the Department of Politics and Philosophy.

DAVID HUME

DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION

EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION AND NOTES BY
MARTIN BELL

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published 1779

Published in Penguin Classics 1990

21

Introduction and notes copyright © Martin Bell, 1990

All rights reserved

Material from Bayle's
Historical and Critical Dictionary
, translated by R. H. Popkin, is reprinted by kind permission of Bobbs-Merrill Co. Inc., Indianapolis.

Material from Cicero's
De Natura Deorum: Academica
, Vol XIX, translated by H. Rackham, is reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Loeb Classical Library. Copyright 1933 by Harvard University Press

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

EISBN: 9781101494059

INTRODUCTION
*

IN JULY 1776 James Boswell, the biographer of Dr Johnson, visited David Hume at his house in Edinburgh. Hume was suffering from the illness which led to his death seven weeks later. In his last months, he revised
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
, which he had written originally in the 1750s but had never published. But in many of the works published in his lifetime, he had discussed the nature of religious belief. Boswell knew the popular reputation Hume had as an unbeliever, and he was interested to see how he was facing death. In his journal
1
Boswell records that Hume told him that the morality of every religion was bad and that ‘when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious'. Boswell was convinced both from what Hume said, and from his manner, which was calm and cheerful, that he ‘persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes'. Boswell found the interview disturbing:

I was like a man in sudden danger eagerly seeking his defensive arms; and I could not but be assailed by momentary doubts while I had actually before me a man of such strong abilities and extensive inquiry dying in the persuasion of being annihilated. But I maintained my faith. I told him that I believed the Christian religion as I believed history. Said he: ‘You do not believe it as you believe the Revolution.'

The views about religion glimpsed in Hume's conversation with Boswell accord with his philosophical theories. In all his writings Hume argued that there is no reason to believe such doctrines as
that of the immortality of the soul; that religion is morally corrupting; that commonly ordinary men and women do not really believe what they profess to believe. Of course such views made enemies, and Hume's finest work on religion, the
Dialogues
, remained unpublished when he died largely because his friends had persuaded him not to publish it in his lifetime. Hume asked his close friend Adam Smith to supervise its posthumous publication, but he was unwilling, as was Hume's London printer, William Strahan. It appeared eventually in 1779, without a publisher's name, being brought to press by Hume's nephew who was following instructions in his uncle's will.

David Hume was born on 26 April 1711 in Edinburgh, the second son of Joseph Hume, an advocate, and Katherine Falconer, daughter of an eminent lawyer who became Lord President of the Court of Session. David did not know his father, who died in 1713. He was brought up by Katherine at the family estate, Ninewells, near the village of Chirnside a few miles from Berwick upon Tweed. He matriculated at Edinburgh University in 1723, it being common practice to go to college at a young age. After the usual course of study in Latin and Greek, ethics, mathematics, logic and natural philosophy (natural science) Hume returned to his family home. Not so commonly for the time, his study of natural philosophy had included some introduction to the theories of Sir Isaac Newton.

Katherine, to whom David was devoted, intended her younger son to follow family tradition and become a lawyer. But he preferred philosophy and literature, especially classical authors such as Cicero and Virgil. From the age of eighteen, he studied and thought with such intensity as to undermine his health. In eight years he developed the essentials of his thought, and wrote a philosophical masterpiece, the three-volume work called
A Treatise of Human Nature.

In 1734 he left Ninewells and went to England, where for a few months he worked for a sugar merchant in Bristol. Abandoning this, he went to France, where he lived in La Flèche, in Anjou. Here there was a Jesuit college, at which René Descartes (1596–1650)
had been a student. In his correspondence, Hume says that in a discussion with a Jesuit in La Flèche he first constructed an argument against the credibility of stories of miracles, which he included in the
Treatise.
He completed the work in France, and in 1737, now aged twenty-six, went to London in search of a publisher. This was not altogether easy. While engaged in negotiations, Hume also planned to seek opinions of his work from leading thinkers. One of these was the theologian Dr Joseph Butler (1692–1752). Butler had recently published the
Analogy of Religion
(1736), but he was already familiar to Hume from his
Fifteen Sermons
(1726). Hume refers to Butler in the
Treatise
as someone whose thought influenced his own, and there are reasons to think that some of the theological views examined in the
Dialogues
were derived from Butler's writings. It was partly to avoid antagonizing Butler that Hume deleted from the
Treatise.
the discussion of miracles.

The first two books of the
Treatise
, ‘Of the Understanding' and ‘Of the Passions', appeared in 1739, while the third book, ‘Of Morals', was revised and published in 1740. That year Hume returned to Scotland. He was disappointed at the reception his book received, and soon began to think that he could do better at communicating his original and creative ideas, which were not understood. Most readers perceived the
Treatise
as full of paradoxes, absurdly sceptical, and a threat to established opinions about religion and morals. In 1744 Hume was encouraged to be a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Opposition was mounted by some clergy and civic leaders, and pamphlets were written attacking him. Hume had taken a post as tutor to the Marquess of Annandale, who lived near St Albans. From there, he defended himself in
A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh
(1745) in which, writing in the third person, he summarizes his positive doctrines and replies to the charges of publishing wild and dangerous attacks on religion and morality. But his candidature for the university post failed.

Hume continued to write. He reworked some of the material from Book I of the
Treatise
, incorporated the essay on miracles,
and published the result in 1748. Originally differently titled, this work is
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Although the main philosophical ideas are the same in this book and in the
Treatise
, there are significant differences in style and structure which show a development in Hume's conception of the nature of philosophical argument. The implications of his epistemology (that is, his theory of the nature of belief and knowledge, reasoning and evidence) for religious belief are more explicit. Not only is there the discussion of the credibility of miracles, but there is a section which anticipates the
Dialogues
both in content and in literary form.

In 1746 Hume accepted a post as secretary to General James St Clair, who was to command a military expedition to Canada. St Clair's plans went astray, and his force eventually made an attack on the coast of Brittany. Hume's legal background led to his appointment as Judge Advocate in courts martial. In the following two years, he accompanied the general in military embassies to Vienna and Turin.

By 1751 Hume was back in Edinburgh. He was appointed librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, which gave him access to an extensive library. He was now at the height of his powers, and in the next dozen years published a succession of works, which at last earned him an international reputation. It was at this time that he first composed the
Dialogues
, together with a complementary work,
The Natural History of Religion.
This appeared in 1757, as one of
Four Dissertations
, which also included ‘Of The Passions', the topic of Book II of the
Treatise.
Book III, ‘Of Morals', was also restructured, appearing in 1751 as
Enguiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
– Hume believed that this was the best of all his writings. But in his lifetime Hume was probably better known for his political and historical writings than for his philosophy. (Yet it is a mistake to think of these as unconnected.) His
Political Discourses
, historically important in the development of both the conservative and liberal traditions, were published in 1752, and between 1754 and 1762 there appeared the six volumes of
History of England.
By the end of this period of his life, Hume was rich, famous, and still, in many minds, notorious.

At the end of the Seven Years War Hume was appointed private secretary to the British ambassador to France, Lord Hertford, and subsequently he was for a short time chargé d'affaires. His literary reputation in France was high. Most of his writings had already been translated, and reviews had been appearing for some years in European journals. As in Britain, Hume was praised for the clarity and elegance of his style, for his erudition, and for his powers of reasoning; but his scepticism and criticisms of religion were often condemned. Yet it is significant that he did not identify himself with the outright atheism of, for example, Baron d'Holbach.
2
His position was always sceptical rather than dogmatic.

After a brief further period of public service, this time as Under-Secretary of State, Northern Department, in London, Hume retired in 1769 to Edinburgh. He had a house built for himself in the New Town, in what was as a result jokingly called St David's Street. Here he lived until his death, devoting some of his time as was noted above to the revision of the manuscript of
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
, and making arrangements for its posthumous publication.

E. C. Mossner, author of the definitive modern biography of Hume and editor of the Penguin Classics edition of the
Treatise
, has written:

The
Dialogues concerning Natural Religion
, as an example of the philosophical dialogue, is beyond dispute the most brilliant in the English language, surpassing Berkeley's
Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous
(1713), the only serious contender… The
Dialogues
is the final marriage of philosophy with art that had been Hume's ambition throughout a long career as man of letters.
3

Here we shall consider some of the main philosophical ideas they contain, and then look briefly at the literary style they exemplify, bearing in mind Mossner's comment, for the marriage of philosophy and art Hume achieves prevents us from interpreting them in a way that divorces content from style and structure.

The
Dialogues
are ostensibly a written record made by a young man, Pamphilus, of a conversation between three characters,
Cleanthes, Demea and Philo. Pamphilus, whose education is being supervised by Cleanthes, sends the account, with an introductory section and occasional interposed remarks of his own, to a friend, Hermippus. The Greek names of the characters, and the style and topics, show that Hume is adopting the technique of modelling his work on a classical original, in this case Marcus Tullius Cicero's
De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods).
Cicero examined in dialogue form the three main theologies then prevalent, the Epicurean, the Stoic and the Academic. Similarly, different conceptions of theology and the nature of religious belief are presented in Hume's work, and examined dialectically. The work is divided into twelve parts.

The first half of the eighteenth century was a period of intense debate in theology. One element was the writings of a group of thinkers known as deists. Deism was not a sharply defined position, but roughly it consisted of the view that all that it is necessary to believe in religion is what can be established about God, his purposes, and man's religious duty, by reason alone. Christian theologians had always drawn a distinction at some point between natural and revealed religion, that is, between what can be known of God by rational argument and what is to be accepted by faith as the special revelation of God in Christ. Faith was understood to be a response to truths revealed through the working of the Holy Spirit made possible by grace, a spiritual gift from God. However, it was also held that at least the existence of God, his nature as supreme creator, infinitely wise, powerful and benevolent, and his will that constitutes the moral law, could be known without revelation. And it was also common to hold that there can be evidence, acceptable to reason, that some religious teaching is part of God's revelation. Such things as the occurrence of miracles and the fulfilling of prophecies could be cited as evidence of Christ's divinity or of the inspiration and guidance of the church by the Holy Spirit. Scriptural authority for both the possibility of rational knowledge of God and for the necessity for salvation of the spiritual response of faith, could be found in St Paul. Almost universally, theologians cited The Epistle to the Romans, chapter 1, in support of the possibility of natural
knowledge of God, and The First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 2, for the necessity of a spiritual response of faith.

Some deists rejected altogether the need for revelation and faith. Edward Herbert (1583–1648) in
De Veritate (On Truth, 1624)
had rejected the ideas of non-rational faith, an infallible church and the authority of priests as no part of ‘true religion'. For him, true religion, purged of superstition, was a wholly rational affair consisting in an acceptance of ‘common notions' that all men have. These are, that there is one supreme God; that he ought to be worshipped; that virtue and piety are the essence of worship; that we ought to be sorry for our sins and repent; and that God's goodness consists in his rewarding virtue and punishing vice in this world and the next. There is nothing especially Christian in Herbert's ‘true religion', and he made an attempt, in
De Religione Gentilium (On the Religion of the Gentiles, 1663)
to show by a comparative discussion of ancient religions that all men at all times have accepted these beliefs.

Other deists hoped to show that Christianity, when properly understood, is also a wholly rational religion. They relied heavily upon reasoned argument, and drew some inspiration from the new science of Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and Robert Boyle (1627–91). Arguments to prove the existence of God by appeal to the evidence of his ‘general providence' displayed in the order of nature, and by more traditional reasoning based on the idea of God as a self-existent or necessary being, can be found in such works as
Christianity not Mysterious
(1696) by John Tolland (1670–1722), and
Christianity as Old as the Creation
(1731) by Matthew Tindal (1655–1733).

Many deists, then, held that religion is originally a rational response to the evidence of God's existence and providence displayed in nature, and that religious cults, rituals and mysteries, taking many forms and with proliferations of creeds, are all corruptions of the one true natural religion. Deism in this form was, in Hume's opinion, wholly mistaken. In
The Natural History of Religion
he argues against Herbert's attempt to show an original, rational monotheism at the base of all religions. The idea of divine providence, he says, does not in fact originate in a
rational, detached admiration for the beauty and order of nature. Rather, religion originates in our emotional responses to the uncertainties of life, in our feelings of insecurity and vulnerability in a hostile world. Admiration of the regularity of the motion of the planets and appreciation of the divine wisdom increased by the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus and Newton is not the common state of men's minds. Although the wise, who are concerned with theoretical explanation, may be led to the idea of a single supreme creator, the vulgar, ordinary men and women, are moved by

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