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David Hume Essay, Research Paper

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion ranks among the greatest writings in the history of Western philosophy. The work addresses

the sensitive issue of the knowledge we have of God through reason alone, and, in the process, Hume presents arguments which undermine the

classic proofs for God’s existence. The arguments in the Dialogues assume an important 18th century distinction between natural religion and

revealed religion. Natural religion involves knowledge of God drawn from nature, solely by the use of reasoning. Often this involves drawing

conclusions about the natural design we see in the universe. Revealed religion, on the other hand, involves religious knowledge derived from

revelation, specifically divinely inspired texts such as the Bible. From his earliest writings, Hume attacked both of these alleged avenues of religious

truth. In the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), published when he was 27, Hume attacks natural religion arguing that our ideas reach no farther

than our experience; since we have no experience of divine attributes and operations, then we can have no conception of divine attributes. In his

infamous essay on miracles from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume goes a step further and attacks revealed religion.

He argues that it is never reasonable to believe in violations of natural laws, such as reports of miracles and prophecies, which in turn are the

foundations of revealed religion. Given the rational bankruptcy of both natural and revealed religion, what remains, for Hume, is what he calls vulgar

religion. Vulgar religion is the religious belief of the masses, and we understand this by uncovering the true psychological causes of these beliefs,

such as emotions and instincts. He examines vulgar religion in his Natural History of Religion (1757), a work he composed simultaneously with the

Dialogues. The Dialogues, though, deals exclusively with the subject of natural religion and in this work Hume offers his most systematic critique of

the subject.

THE CHARACTERS OF THE DIALOGUES. Hume’s decision to compose this work in dialog form is significant. During the 18th century,

Great Britain was among the most free countries in Europe, and political authorities allowed a great amount of unobstructed expression. However,

religious leaders believed that rational proofs for God’s existence were almost as integral to Christianity as the Bible itself. Accordingly, officials

viewed direct attacks on natural theology as an abuse of free expression. To avoid political confrontation, Hume adopted the common literary

technique of presenting controversial arguments in dialog form. There are three principal characters in Hume’s Dialogues. On the conservative side

of the issue, a character named Cleanthes offers a posteriori arguments for God’s existence, particularly the design argument:

(a) Machines are produced by intelligent design

(b) Universe resembles a machine

(c) Therefore, the universe was produced by intelligent design

The design argument rests on an analogy between the design we recognize in human-created artifacts and similar design we recognize in the

universe. This similarity of design entitles us to conclude that the universe was likewise created by intelligent design. Most of the Dialogues focuses

on aspects of the design argument. Next, a character named Demea prefers a priori arguments for God’s existence, particularly Leibniz’s

cosmological argument:

(a) The world contains an infinite sequence of contingent facts;

(b) An explanation is needed as to the origin of this whole infinite series, which goes beyond an explanation of each member in the series;

(c) The explanation of this whole series cannot reside in the series itself, since the very fact of its existence would still need an

explanation (principle of sufficient reason)

(d) Therefore, there is a necessary substance which produced this infinite series, and which is the complete explanation of its own

existence as well.

Earlier defenders of cosmological-type arguments, such as Aquinas, argued that an infinite series of causes of the universe is impossible. Thus, a

first divine cause is required to start this series of individual causes. However, Demea (and Leibniz) assume that an infinite series of causes of the

universe is possible. Even so, Demea argues, we still need an explanation of the entire collection of finite causes, which must be found outside of the

infinite collection of individual causes.

Finally, a character named Philo is a skeptic who argues against both a posteriori and a priori proofs. Philo offers a stream of criticisms against

the design argument, many of which are now standard in discussions of the issue. For Philo, the design argument is based on a faulty analogy: we

don’t know whether the order in nature was the result of design since, unlike our experience with the creation of machines, we did not witness the

formation of the world. The vastness of the universe also weakens any comparison with a human artifacts: although the universe is orderly here, it

may be chaotic elsewhere. Similarly, if intelligent design is exhibited only in a small fraction of the universe, then we can not say it is the productive

force of the whole universe. Philo also contends that natural design may be accounted for by nature alone, insofar as matter contains within itself a

principle of order. And even if the design of the universe is of divine origin, we are not justified in concluding that this divine cause is a single, all

powerful, or all good being. As to the cosmological argument, Philo argues that once we have a sufficient explanation for each particular fact in the

infinite sequence of facts, it makes no sense to inquire about the origin of the collection of these facts. That is, once we adequately account for each

individual fact, this constitutes a sufficient explanation of the whole collection.

The three characters in Hume’s Dialogues are loosely based on characters in Cicero’s classic dialog, On the Nature of the Gods and we may

reasonably assume that Hume’s audience recognized this. In Cicero’s dialog, a character named Cotta was a religious skeptic, and his teacher was

named Philo. Second, a character named Balbus voiced an orthodox Stoic view of the gods, and Balbus’s teacher was named Cleanthes. Finally a

character named Velleius presented a third Epicurean view. Cicero himself introduced and concluded his dialog, declaring Balbus the winner. In

Hume’s dialog, too, the narrator declares the orthodox Cleanthes the winner over the skeptical Philo. For Cicero, the main issue of the dialog is not

so much the existence of the gods, but the nature of the gods, and whether they intervene. However, for Hume the existence of God is the most

prominent issue.

PUBLICATION OF THE DIALOGUES. Hume began work on the Dialogues in about 1751. He apparently revised the manuscript about 10

years later, and probably again in 1776 prior to his death. During the last few months of his life, Hume scrambled to make arrangements for the

publication of his manuscript, which ultimately appeared in print three years later in 1779. For more than 100 years, the 1779 publication was the

basis for other printed editions of the Dialogues. However, because Hume did not oversee the 1779 publication, more recent editions return to the

original manuscript, which is in the possession of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is currently available on microfilm. Differences between the

1779 edition and more recent ones are insignificant, although recent editions contain annotations which describe the various revisions Hume made to

the manuscript. In his correspondences, Hume left an interesting paper trail pertaining to the composition and ultimate publication of the Dialogues.

The first indication of the manuscript is in the following letter to Gilbert Elliot of Minto, in which Hume asks Elliot to review some “sample” parts of

the manuscript (probably Parts 1-4 from the final 12 sections):

You wou’d perceive by the Sample I have given you, that I make Cleanthes the Hero of the Dialogue. Whatever you can think of, to

strengthen that Side of the Argument, will be most acceptable to me. Any Propensity you imagine I have to the other Side, crept in upon

me against my Will … I have often thought, that the best way of composing a Dialogue, wou’d be for two Persons that are of different

Opinions about any Question of Importance, to write alternately the different Parts of the Discourse, & reply to each other. By this

Means, that vulgar Error woud be avoided, of putting nothing but Nonsense into the Mouth of the Adversary: And at the same time, a

Variety of Character & Genius being upheld, woud make the whole look more natural & unaffected. Had it been my good Fortune to live

near you, I shou’d have taken on me the Character of Philo, in the Dialogue, which you’ll own I coud have supported naturally enough:

And you woud not have been averse to that of Cleanthes. I believe, too, we coud both of us have kept our Temper very well; only, you

have not reach’d an absolute philosophical Indifference on these Points. What Danger can ever come from ingenious Reasoning &

Enquiry? The worst speculative Sceptic ever I knew, was a much better Man than the best superstitious Devotee & Bigot. I must inform

you, too, that this was the way of thinking of the Antients on this Subject. … I cou’d wish that Cleanthes’ Argument coud be so analys’d,

as to be render’d quite formal & regular. The Propensity of the Mind towards it, unless that Propensity were as strong & universal as

that to believe in our Senses & Experience, will still, I am afraid, be esteem’d a suspicious Foundation. Tis here I wish for your

Assistance. … The Instances I have chosen for Cleanthes are, I hope, tolerably happy, & the Confusion in which I represent the Sceptic

seems natural. [March 10, 1751]

Three things are particularly noteworthy in the above passage. First, from the start Hume tries to portray Cleanthes as the “hero” or winner of the

dialog. Second, Hume notes his conscious attempt to present all sides of the dispute in their strongest light, and thereby elevate the literary quality of

the piece. Third, Hume argues that no public harm will result from considering Philo’s skeptical arguments.

Between 1751 and 1761 Hume worked on and further circulated his manuscript; however, at least one friend discouraged him from publishing

it, presumably for political reasons. Hume thus set the project aside, and took it up again in 1776 when he found himself terminally ill. To secure its

publication, Hume included in his Will the following request to Adam Smith:

To my friend Dr Adam Smith, late Professor of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow, I leave all my manuscripts without exception, desiring him

to publish my Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, which are comprehended in this present bequest; but to publish no other papers

which he suspects not to have been written within these five years, but to destroy them all at his leisure. And I even leave him full power

over all my papers, except the Dialogues above mentioned; and though I can trust to that intimate and sincere friendship, which has ever

subsisted between us, for his faithful execution of this part of my will, yet, as a small recompense of his pains in correcting and publishing

this work, I leave him two hundred pounds, to be paid immediately after the publication of it. [January 1776]

In spite of Smith’s assigned task, Smith felt that the Dialogues should remain unpublished even after Hume’s death. Smith himself was a closet

religious skeptic, and his hesitation was motivated more by practical concern rather than religious piety. Smith communicated his reluctance to Hume

and, accordingly, in the following letter to Smith, Hume relinquished Smith of the immediate responsibility of publishing them:

After reflecting more maturely on that Article of my Will by which I left you the Disposal of all my Papers, with a Request that you

shou’d publish my Dialogues concerning natural Religion, I have become sensible, that, both on account of the Nature of the Work, and

of your Situation, it may be improper to hurry on that Publication. I therefore take the present Opportunity of qualifying that friendly

Request: I am content, to leave it entirely to your Discretion at what time you will publish that Piece, or whether you will publish it at all.

[May 3, 1776]

In the above, Hume leaves it to Smith’s discretion as to when the Dialogues should be published. But Hume quickly became uncomfortable with this

arrangement and, a month later, asked his long time publisher, William Strahan, to arrange for its immediate publication:

I am also to speak to you of another Work more important: Some Years ago, I composed a piece, which woud make a small Volume in

Twelves. I call it Dialogues on natural Religion: Some of my Friends flatter me, that it is the best thing I ever wrote. I have hitherto

forborne to publish it, because I was of late desirous to live quietly, and keep remote from all Clamour: For though it be not more

exceptionable than some things I had formerly published; yet you know some of these were thought very exceptionable; and in prudence,

perhaps, I ought to have suppressed them. I there introduce a Sceptic, who is indeed refuted, and at last gives up the Argument, nay

confesses that he was only amusing himself by all his Cavils; yet before he is silenced, he advances several Topics, which will give

Umbrage, and will be deemed very bold and free, as well as much out of the Common Road. As soon as I arrive at Edinburgh, I intend to

print a small Edition of 500, of which I may give away about 100 in Presents; and shall make you a Present of the Remainder, together

with the literary Property of the whole, provided you have no Scruple, in your present Situation, of being the Editor: It is not necessary

you shoud prefix your Name to the Title Page. I seriously declare, that after Mr Millar and You and Mr Cadell have publickly avowed

your Publication of the Enquiry concerning human Understanding, I know no Reason why you shoud have the least Scruple with regard

to these Dialogues. They will be much less obnoxious to the Law, and not more exposed to popular Clamour. Whatever your Resolution

be, I beg you wou’d keep an entire Silence on this Subject. If I leave them to you by Will, your executing the Desire of a dead Friend, will

render the publication still more excusable. Mallet never sufferd any thing by being the Editor of Bolingbroke’s Works. [June 8, 1776]

In the above, Hume acknowledges that the publication of the Dialogues might cause some clamor because of the severity of Philo’s arguments.

Again, though, he attempts to diffuse the issue by commenting that his Dialogues are less extreme than his Enquiry, presumably meaning his essay

on miracles.

Unfortunately, Hume’s illness progressed to the point that he would not live to see this modest printing of the Dialogues. In an addendum to his

will, Hume requested that his nephew, Baron David Hume, see to the publication of the Dialogues if Strahan failed:

I desire, that my Dialogues concerning natural Religion may be printed and published any time within two Years after my Death; to

which, he [William Strahan] may add, if he thinks proper, the two Essays formerly printed but not published. … I also ordain, that if my

Dialogues from whatever Cause, be not publishd within two Years and a half of my Death … the Property shall return to my Nephew,

David, whose Duty, in publishing them as the last Request of his Uncle, must be approved of by all the World. [August 7, 1776]

A week later, though, Hume considered making additional plans to secure the survival of the Dialogues. In a letter to Adam Smith (August 15) he

notes his intentions to have two additional copies made of his manuscript, one entrusted to his Nephew, and the other to Smith. Two days before his

death, Hume dictated a final letter to Smith:

I am obliged to make use of my Nephews hand in writing to you as I do not rise to day.

There is No Man in whom I have a greater Confidence than Mr Strahan, yet have I left the property of that Manuscript to my

Nephew David in case by any accident it should not be published within three years after my decease. The only accident I could forsee,

was one to Mr Strahans Life, and without this clause My Nephew would have had no right to publish it. Be so good as to inform Mr

Strahan of this Circumstance. [August 23, 1776]

A week after Hume’s death, Strahan received the manuscript of Hume’s Dialogues. In a letter to Strahan, Smith continued voicing his belief that the

manuscript should remain unpublished:

The latter, tho’ finely written, I could have wished had remained in manuscript to be communicated only to a few people. When you read

the work, you will see my reasons without my giving you the trouble of reading them in a letter. But he [Hume] has ordered it otherwise. .

. . I once had perswaded him to leave it entirely to my discretion either to publish them at what time I thought proper, or not to publish

them at all. Had he continued of this mind the manuscript should have been most carefully preserved and upon my decease restored to

his family; but it never should have been published in my lifetime. [September 5, 1776]

Smith continues in the above letter attempting to persuade Strahan to at least publish the Dialogues in an edition separate from Hume’s forthcoming

short autobiography. Strahan apparently agreed, and the autobiography was published separately in 1777. Smith wrote him the following note of

thanks to Strahan, explaining how sales of Hume’s other works might be enhanced by properly timing the release of the Dialogues:

I am much obliged to you for so readily agreeing to print the life together with my additions separate from the Dialogues. I even flatter

myself that this arrangement will contribute not only to my quiet but to your interest. The clamour against the Dialogues, if published

first, might hurt for some time the sale of the new edition of his works, and when the clamour has a little subsided the Dialogues may

hereafter occasion a quicker sale of another edition. [October, 1776]

Almost a half of a year later, Strahan was still undecided about whether he would even assume the task of publishing Hume’s Dialogues. In the

following letter to Hume’s nephew, Strahan explains that it might appear better if it was published by the nephew himself.

As for Mr. Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, I am not yet determined whether I shall publish them or not. I have all possible

regard to the will of the deceased: But as that can be as well fulfilled by you as by me, and as the publication will probably make some

noise in the world, and its tendency be considered in different lights by different men, I am inclined to think it had better be made by you.

From you some will conclude it comes with propriety as done in obedience to the last request of your Uncle; as he himself expresses it;

from me it might be suspect to proceed from motives of interest. But in this matter I hope you will do me the justice to believe I put

interest wholly out of the question. However, you shall not, at any rate, be kept long in suspense, as you shall soon have my final

resolution. [February 3, 1777]

Ultimately, Strahan made his decision and declined to publish the Dialogues. In a letter to Hume’s brother (i.e., the father of Hume’s nephew)

Strahan repeats his reasoning that the Dialogues “might be published with more propriety” by the nephew (March 3, 1777).

The almost absurd preoccupation with public image continued as Hume’s brother strategized as to how long his son should delay in bringing the

Dialogues to the press. Hume’s brother recorded his thoughts in a reply to Strahan:

My opinion was that he [i.e., his son, and Hume's nephew] should delay the publication of the dialogues on Natural Religion till the end of

the two years, after this that he had a title by his uncles settlement upon your not publication of them; otherways it carried the

appearance of being too forward, and of more than he was called upon in duty; and if a clamour rose against it, he would have a difficult

task to support himself, almost in the commencement of his manhood. What weighs with him is, that his publishing as early as he had the

power, would look more like obedience, than a voluntary deed, and of judgement; and exculpate him in the eyes of the world… [March 13,


Indeed, Hume’s nephew delayed for two years and the Dialogues finally appeared in the middle of 1779. Upon its publication, Hume’s friend Hugh

Blair wrote to Strahan commenting on the lack of “noise” that it produced.

As to D. Hume’s Dialogues, I am surprised that though they have now been published for some time, they have made so little noise. They

are exceedingly elegant. They bring together some of his most exceptionable reasonings, but the principles themselves were all in his

former works. [August 3, 1779]

Within the following few months, four reviews of Hume’s Dialogues appeared, each of which confirmed Blair’s initial reaction. The first review to

appear was the lead article in the Critical Review journal. The review opened noting that “neither the friends of religion have any occasion to be

alarmed, nor her enemies to triumph. Freedom of enquiry can never be injurious to the cause of truth.” The reviewer concludes with only mild

criticism arguing that “If the objections advanced by Philo had been produced with modesty, and answered by Cleanthes as fully as the nature of the

question would have allowed, the author would have been applauded by every sensible and discerning reader. But when they are proposed with an air

of triumph and defiance, this work assumes a more disadvantageous form, the aspect of infidelity.” (September 1779, Vol. 48, pp. 161-172). The

second review of the Dialogues which appeared in the London Review was more flattering. The review expresses hope that “it will prove no

unacceptable present to the orthodox” and concludes that “…in our opinion, whoever carefully peruses these Dialogues will not readily be infected

with either of the two greatest corruptions of religion, enthusiasm or superstition” (1779, Vol. 10, pp. 365-373).

Finally, William Rose’s review in the Monthly Review opens noting that the Dialogues are “written with great elegance; in the true spirit of

ancient dialogue; and, in point of composition, is equal, if not superior, to any of Mr. Hume’s other writings. Nothing new, however, is advanced upon

the subjects.” Rose concludes, though, on a more negatively. For Rose, if Hume is right that God does not exist, then “the wicked are set free from

every restraint but that of the laws… the world we live in is a fatherless world; we are chained down to a life full of wretchedness and misery; and we

have no hope beyond the grave.” Rose notes that “Hume had been long floating on the boundless and pathless ocean of scepticism…” and Hume

should have desired a more secure peace at the end of his life. “But his love of paradox, his inordinate pursuit of literary fame, continued…” and, for

Rose, this formed Hume’s motive for publishing the Dialogues. Rose acknowledges that Hume lived a virtuous life, and suggests that Hume’s natural

good temper, education, and fortune overcame the negative effects of his philosophy. But if his philosophy was let loose among humankind, Rose

asks, “Will those who think they are to die like brutes, ever act like men?” Rose believes that even the best political system needs to be

supplemented with fear of divine punishment to curb immortality within the law. Nevertheless, Rose concedes that philosophically minded readers

will not be harmed by the Dialogues, although the Dialogues “may serve, indeed, to confirm… the unprincipled in their prejudices….” (November

1779, Vol. 61, pp. 343-355)

INTERPRETIONS OF THE DIALOGUES. In Hume’s day, as now, the two key interpretive questions of the Dialogues were (1) Which

character, if any, represents Hume?, and (2) What are the views of that character? Given its literary style, the Dialogues involve a complex web of

concealment, and, accordingly, Hume’s contemporaries took greater pains to understand the hidden meaning of the Dialogues. Virtually all early

commentators on the Dialogues attempted to identify Philo as Hume’s mouthpiece, as Rose does below in his review when declaring Philo the hero:

Cleanthes… defends a good cause very feebly, and is by no means entitled to the character of an accurate philosopher. Demea supports

the character of a sour, croaking divine, very tolerably; but PHILO is the hero of the piece; and it must be acknowledged, that he urges his

objections with no inconsiderable degree of acuteness and subtlety.

The London Review also made this clear from the outset of their review:

The following sentiments, which are represented as the genuine opinions of Philo, or Hume himself, seem to us so important as to

deserve insertion as a specimen of the whole.

For the reviewer, the representative sections of Philo’s views are the first half of Part XII of the Dialogues in which Philo reduces the conflict

between atheism and theism to a verbal dispute. The reviewer concludes that “This reconciliation of these two seemingly most distant opponents, is

of more service to true religion than volumes of divinity….” The reviewer is reflecting the editorial slant of the London Review as a whole, which

tended to be religiously skeptical.

Thomas Hayter made efforts to establish clearly that Philo, and not Cleanthes, speaks for Hume. The introductory comments to his Remarks

focus exclusively on this issue. After quoting Pamphilius’ portrayal of the three characters, Hayter argues,

From this representation one might at first be led to look for Mr. HUME himself under the mask of CLEANTHES, and to expect from the

mouth of CLEANTHES the celebrated Metaphysician’s own sentiments. Let us consider however that Mr. HUME, after the great nominal

superiority attributed to CLEANTHES, could not possibly, without appearance of vanity, have appointed CLEANTHES his representative.

The fact indeed indisputably is, that PHILO, not CLEANTHES, personates Mr. HUME. CLEANTHES assumes at times (p. 242 and 244) the

tone of DEMEA: while PHILO possesses in general the sole exclusive privilege of retailing the purport of Mr. HUME’s former Philosophical

productions. — Every remarkable trait and feature of those productions may be traced in the parts of the Dialogue assigned to PHILO.2

Other critics attempted to expose a deeper concealment on Hume’s part. Joseph Milner in his Gibbon’s account of Christianity considered

argues that Hume is insincere when pronouncing Cleanthes the victor of the debate:

In his dialogues concerning natural religion, we have the substance of all his sceptical essays; and notwithstanding his declaration at the

close in favour of Cleanthes, the natural religionist, it is evident from the whole tenour of the book, and still more so from the entire

scepticism of his former publications, that Philo is his favourite. Sincerity constitutes no part of a philosopher’s virtue.

He continues that Hume’s aim is to “reduce Polytheism, Spinozism, Christianity, and all sorts of views of the divinity to the same level of evidence, or

rather of no evidence; and on the ruin of all, to establish his horrible universal scepticism.”3

Perhaps the most penetrating analysis of Philo was given by John Ogilvie in his Inquiry into the causes of the infidelity and scepticism of the

times. Like his contemporaries, Ogilvie argues that Philo is Hume’s mouthpiece.4 However, Ogilvie charges further that even Philo’s concessions

cannot be taken at face value:

…Philo expresseth, in very strong terms, his belief of a Deity, such as he represents him. He even thanks this Being, or Mind, or

Thought, that atheists are very rare. And, notwithstanding his love of singular argument, he professeth to pay to him profound adoration.

P. 232. But, as Philo’s declarations upon this subject are contradictory, I construct his notions most favourably, when I consider him as

excluding a Deity from the universe.

For Ogilvie, Hume is involved in double concealment. First, he conceals his views behind the veil of the character of Philo. Second, Philo himself is

concealing his true views by making empty concessions toward God’s existence. Ogilvie’s discussion of Philo’s concealment is particularly relevant in

view of the 20th century commentators, noted above, who take Philo’s concessions as sincere.

Ogilvie continues that, for Philo, the options for believing in the creation of the universe are between “a blind nature” or “an Omnipotent

Tyrant, having neither wisdom, justice, goodness, nor any perfection.” Ogilvie argues that it would please us “much better to think that this world

was formed by a fortuitous concourse of atoms… rather than to vie

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