Aaron Alexander Zubia argues that the Epicurean roots of David Hume’s philosophy gave rise to liberalism’s unrelenting grip on the modern political imagination.
Eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume has had an outsized impact on the political thinkers who came after him, from the nineteenth-century British Utilitarians to modern American social contract theorists. In this thorough and thoughtful new work, Aaron Alexander Zubia examines the forces that shaped Hume’s thinking within the broad context of intellectual history, with particular focus on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and the skeptical tradition.
Zubia argues that through Hume’s influence, Epicureanism—which elevates utility over moral truth—became the foundation of liberal political philosophy, which continues to dominate and limit political discourse today.
Introduction: Hume and the Modern Political Imagination
1. Hume’s Critique of Religion
2. The Epicurean Critique of Religion
3. Hobbes, Mandeville, and the New Political Science
4. Hume and the Making of Liberal Mythology
5. Making Men Moral: A Humean Approach
6. Spreading the Faith: Hume and the Miracle of Modernity
7. Hume, Epicureanism, and Contractarianism
Conclusion: Return to the Rule of Honestum
A Note on Citations
Aaron Alexander Zubia is assistant professor of humanities at the University of Florida. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, and Law & Liberty.
“This book makes a timely and welcome contribution to the literature on Hume’s political philosophy by locating it in the traditions of Epicureanism and social contract thought as well as prospectively within the tradition of liberal political philosophy that flowed from the early modern period.” —Peter S. Fosl, author of Hume’s Scepticism: Pyrrhonian and Academic
"Aaron Zubia’s important book makes a robust case, historical, textual, and philosophical, for interpreting Hume as a modern Epicurean. In wrestling with the implications of the Humean project, he calls us to rejuvenate our political understanding with lost notions of the noble, the good, and the beautiful. His call is worth heeding." —Erik W. Matson, New Paternalism Meets Older Wisdom
"Zubia’s book is bold and consequential. This is a major intervention in political theory." —Pierre Force, author of Self-Interest before Adam Smith
"Aaron Zubia has written the next great book on David Hume. The conventionally-titled book—The Political Thought of David Hume: The Origins of Liberalism and the Modern Political Imagination—is unconventional in its framing, brilliant in its methods, morally serious in its ambitions, and deeply philosophic in its orientation."—Law & Liberty
David Hume (1711-1776) was the leading man of letters in the late eighteenth century. And he remains influential. In a 2009 survey, academic philosophers selected Hume as the non- living philosopher with whom they most identified. In his day, however, Hume was reputed less as a philosopher—that is, as the writer of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), for which he is best-known today—than as an historian and a best-selling essayist.
In his time, Hume was famous not only for his wit, but also for his rotundity. He was a gourmand. When describing his “elegant supper” at “Mr. Hume’s,” at which he enjoyed “three sorts of ice-creams,” James Boswell (1740-1795), in a letter to his friend, asked, “What think you of the northern Epicurus’s style?” Hume, aware of his reputation, allegedly informed a friend at whose house he was going to dine, “Ye ken I’m no epicure, only a glutton.” The renowned English historian, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), though, begged to differ, referring to Hume as “that fattest of Epicurus’s hogs.”
Although Hume, at the conclusion of his writing career, devoted himself to cooking and hosting dinner parties in Edinburgh, he had not earned his reputation as an Epicure solely on account of his refined palate and enjoyment of claret. It was not only at his dining room table that Hume could be classified as a hog in Epicurus’s pen, but also in his study. John Brown (1715-1766), for example, accused Hume of writing “with a pen truly Epicurean.”
We moderns tend to pride ourselves on being independent thinkers and inhabiting a world different from that of the ancients. We tend to view ancient philosophy as interesting, but irrelevant. It might seem a matter of little importance that Hume’s contemporaries tagged him with the Epicurean label. Even today, a person might be described as “stoical” for his discipline, or “epicurean” for his sensuality. But it is possible that Hume was called an “Epicurean” by his critics, not simply because he was corpulent, or a gastronome, but because he possessed an Epicurean mindset that shaped his moral and political writings.
This book explores the possibility that Hume’s Epicurean mindset colored the modern political imagination. If it did, as this book suggests, then the way we think and talk about political society in the Anglophone world derives from an outlook on life that is far more ancient than we realize. If this is true, then it would be not only interesting, but also instructive and useful to revisit the ancient doctrine from which our contemporary political self-understanding is at least in part derived and to contemplate ways in which we might tap into alternative classical sources to expand our political imaginations.
It is difficult to define Hume solely as an “Epicurean,” because he was an eclectic writer. In one sense, Hume, as a philosopher, was unequivocally and unrepentantly modern.4 After all, he lambasted ancient philosophers for their lack of intellectual independence, their “blind submission ... to the several masters in each school” (E-RP 123). Hume subscribed, moreover, to a Newtonian method, acting cautiously, as had Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) “in admitting no principles but such as were founded on experiment” (HIST 6:542).
In the subtitle of the Treatise, Hume presented his inquiry as an “attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects.” This was a Newtonian project, which sought to “contribute a little to the advancement of knowledge,” by locating general principles of human nature, on which to “expect assurance and conviction” and to serve as a foundation for the rest of the sciences (T 18.104.22.168). He referred to his “science of man” as an extension of the work of other modern philosophers, including “Mr. Locke, my Lord Shaftesbury, Dr. Mandeville, Mr. Hutcheson, [and] Dr. Butler,” who aimed to develop an anatomy of human nature founded “entirely upon experience” (T Abs.2).
Even Hume, though, incorporated the language of the ancients into his philosophy. When Hume was a candidate for a professorship in moral philosophy at Edinburgh, one of his critics, William Wishart (1660-1729), the Principal of Edinburgh University (1716-1728), accused Hume of forwarding principles in the Treatise that made him unfit to guide students in their moral and spiritual formation. According to Wishart, Hume advanced “[e]rrors concerning the very being and existence of a God,” while “denying the immateriality of the soul” and “sapping the foundations of morality.” Hume wrote a reply, published as A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh (1745), in which he defended himself against the charge of skepticism and irreligion. In this letter, he associated himself with the Academic skeptics, Socrates (469-399 BC) and Cicero (106-43 BC), who were frequently cited as authorities by Scottish philosophers. Hume stated, “Were Authorities proper to be employed in any Philosophical Reasoning, I could cite you that of Socrates the wisest and most religious of the Greek philosophers, as well as Cicero among the Romans, who both of them carried their Philosophical Doubts to the highest Degree of Scepticism” (LG 21).
The brand of skepticism forwarded by Socrates and Cicero in the ancient world did not appear to threaten religion. After all, Cicero defended Socrates’ argument for the immateriality of the soul. He articulated a version of the design argument for God’s existence. And he grounded morals in the natural law. It would seem safe, then, for Hume, who operated in a highly religious context, to describe his system of thought as a version of this “mitigated scepticism or academical philosophy” (EHU 12.24).
Hume was familiar with Cicero’s Academica, in which Cicero stated, “I am burning with the desire to discover the truth.” Hume portrayed this zeal, or “love of truth,” as the guiding passion of the Academic philosophy (EHU 5.1). And this led Hume to prize intellectual integrity, to follow no master—only the evidence—and to hold all views with a “degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty.” By adhering to these skeptical principles, Hume thought it possible to avoid the kind of credulity that often leads individuals headlong into falsehood.
There were two kinds of ancient skepticism, though: Academic and Pyrrhonian. While the Academic skeptics held opinions, adhering to probable truths, the Pyrrhonian skeptics were more radical, suspending judgment on all matters. Hume dismissed this excessive brand of skepticism, which he portrayed as “entirely subversive of all speculation, and even action” (EHU 1.14). Because “mankind ... must act and reason and believe” (EHU 12.23), Hume argued that the suspension of belief can only serve to launch people “into a momentary amazement and confusion” (DNR 1.6, 34).
But Hume did adhere to one element of Pyrrhonian skepticism, namely, that which called for the limitation of all inquiries to common life. Hume regarded this common-life limit as “the natural result of Pyrrhonian doubts and scruples” (EHU 12.25). This element of radical skepticism in Hume’s philosophy served as a tool by which to preclude any venture into the supernatural, which Hume considered “beyond the reach of human capacity” (EHU 8.1). There is no question that Hume wanted to free philosophy from its traditional role as theology’s handmaiden. The common-life aspect of Hume’s skepticism protected against any potential reversion to Platonic Ideas, substance metaphysics, or natural theology, all forms of “abstruse philosophy” that Hume portrayed “as a shelter to superstition” (EHU 1.17).
Hume’s skepticism, then, combined the intellectual integrity and moderation defended by the Academics and the limitations to inquiry defended by the Pyrrhonians. But Hume was also a thoroughgoing empiricist. This is where Hume seems to depart from the ancients. Cicero, for example, practiced the Socratic art of dialectic, attempting “to discover the truth by the method of arguing both for and against all the schools.” Rather than relying on for-and-against argumentation, Hume supposed that the cautious employment of the experimental method in common life was the best way “to establish ... a science ... much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension” (T Intro.10). In this way, Hume integrated skepticism and empiricism. And he did so to free philosophy from enslavement to theology and superstition. While this attempt to despiritualize the world seems entirely modern, it, too, has an ancient precedent.