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An Interview with Aaron Alexander Zubia, Author of “The Political Thought of David Hume”

Aaron Alexander Zubia is assistant professor of humanities at the University of Florida. His work has appeared in the Wall Street JournalNational ReviewInterpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, and Law & Liberty. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his book, The Political Thought of David Hume: The Origins of Liberalism and the Modern Political Imagination (February 2024). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

How did you first get the idea to write The Political Thought of David Hume

I can think of two moments that led to the writing of this book. The first occurred over a decade ago when reading Robert P. George’s book, Conscience and Its Enemies. In an essay on liberal education, George wonders whether greater blame for the popular slogan, “If it feels good, do it,” belongs to “the convention-flouting . . . Rousseau” or the “staid old ‘conservative’ David Hume.” Hume is famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for espousing a radical philosophy together with a conservative political philosophy. I wanted to determine how—and to what extent—it was possible for this to be the case. Ultimately, I arrived at the conclusion that Hume’s political philosophy is more radical than it seems.

The second moment occurred when I was in graduate school at Columbia University, walking up the steps in front of Low Library and talking with an assistant professor of political science. I told him that I thought John Rawls’s attempt to arrive at a “strictly political” conception of justice detached from any “comprehensive doctrine” of truth and the good was unachievable. There’s no way, I said, that one can separate a notion of justice from a broader philosophic understanding of nature and human nature. He didn’t believe me. I wrote this book.

What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them in our current political landscape?

One claim that I make is that Hume’s approach to politics is basic to the Left and the Right as we know them today. Members of the French Right in the late eighteenth century, for example, turned to Hume learn important historical lessons about the dangers of revolution. British liberals and utilitarians in the next century gleaned insights from Hume’s moral philosophy, particularly his focus on “utility” as a standard of virtue. I argue that in Hume’s writings we find a philosophical core shared by individuals on both sides of the political spectrum.

How did you research this book?

This book is derived from the dissertation I wrote at Columbia University. It has gone through many revisions to get to this stage, and I am very pleased with the final product. I spent many days and nights in Columbia’s Butler library researching for this book. I remember going to the Butler special collections to read Pierre Bayle’s Dictionary: Historical and Critical. I insisted on reading the physical copy, not the digitized version. Similarly, I went to Union Seminary’s special collections to read Pierre Gassendi’s Three Discourses of Happiness, Virtue, and Liberty. Their copy, however, was falling apart. In that case, I had to rely on the digitized version. I not only devoured Hume’s corpus, as well as the secondary literature on Hume, but also ancient and early modern texts on skepticism and Epicureanism to write this book.

What did you learn while writing it?

One thing I learned is that if your wife teaches fifth and sixth graders all day, then meets you at the gym after a hard day’s work, after the workout, the last thing she wants to do is listen to you talk nonstop about Hume and Epicureanism. Something else I learned is that, in Hume’s day and in our own, Hume’s writings have evoked strong reactions. He is either loved or hated. And that is one thing that makes him interesting. It is an indication that his questions—and his attempted solutions to those questions—are important and in some way central to human experience.

Who are some of your most important intellectual influences?

Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI

What was your writing schedule like while working on this book?

I wrote much of my dissertation at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York and at Butler library. In the mornings, I would take care of my—at that time—infant son. And in the afternoons, I’d research and write. As I revised my work, I would research for a few days or weeks, then I would write for a few days or weeks. It was so much fun finding clues in a variety of texts that I would then incorporate into my argument. Although the book is called The Political Thought of David Hume, a considerable portion of the book treats his influences and his inheritors. This led me to spend months reading ancient philosophy and to spend months reading reviews, responses to, and interpretations of Hume, including Rawls’s remarks on Hume in his lectures on moral and political philosophy. 

Who would you like to read The Political Thought of David Hume and why?

Anyone who is interested in the way we think and speak about politics in common life today would gain insights from this book. A reader can expect to go on a philosophic journey with me as we investigate the largely overlooked philosophic origins of the moral and political discourse we have grown accustomed to.

What books are you currently reading?

I am currently reading several books. One is another Notre Dame Press book, the excellent The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition, by Graham James McAleer and Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul. I recommend that book to anyone who is thinking about how best to define conservatism. I am also rereading Virgil’s Aeneid with my wife. It is a thrilling narrative. I had forgotten how violent it is. Aeneas, the main character, is noted for his piety, which I think is an important conservative quality. I am reading Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann with a friend of mine from my days at Princeton Seminary. I haven’t seen the Scorsese-directed film yet. I’m halfway through the book. It is a fast-paced account of an investigation (really, multiple investigations) into brutal murders of members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. Lastly, I am reading Christopher Rufo’s America’s Cultural Revolution, which I recommend to anyone interested in the origins of the DEI movement.

What project are you working on next?

I have begun exploring the relationships between two Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, David Hume and Thomas Reid, and two American founders, James Madison and James Wilson. Whereas my first book is on the philosophic foundations of liberalism, this second book will be on the philosophic foundations of the American experiment in self-government.

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