The Esoteric Writing of David Hume

Kendra Asher

Major Professor: Daniel B Klein, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Tyler Cowen, Donald Boudreaux, Thomas Merrill

Online Location, Online
April 19, 2021, 02:20 PM to 03:30 PM


This dissertation examines the works of David Hume and his use of esotericism in his historical and political writing. In the past couple of years there have been calls to rethink David Hume’s legacy and even rename buildings named after him. It is perhaps fitting and necessary to reassess the accomplishments and legacies of historical figures as culture changes. As one of the great historians of the 18th century, Hume would undoubtedly agree. Yet it is also necessary not to rush to judgment and to understand any given sentence as part of larger performance—the entire essay or even body of work—and within their historical context. Many of Hume’s popular writings encourage his reader to continually combat the natural urge to simplify historically or culturally distant concepts or people. Understanding the works of Hume, and others of his time, can sometimes be additionally complicated by the fact that some of it is written with esoteric meanings to subtly communicate an idea or sentiment.

Chapter one, “Moderation and the Liberal State: David Hume’s History of England,” examines Hume’s use of political esotericism to advance his two overarching goals. The primary goal was to disseminate the philosophy that political harmony depends on recognizing opposing points of view, and political authority should reside near the middle. The attitude does not require each to moderate his or her own views. In fact, on many subjects, Hume did not hold a view anywhere near the center; he merely promoted the notion that society should be governed temperately, with an understanding of the median viewpoint, and that requires entering into and giving due regard to opposing viewpoints. An amicable approach to politics (or what emerges in Adam Smith as “Solonic” politics) helps to avoid political extremism and instability. Hume’s secondary goal was to persuade toward the view he favored, a liberal state, a state that could be sustainable only if Hume’s primary goal was achieved. Here Hume is trying to move the median toward political liberalism by means that are liberal in the older senses of that term, as in “the liberal arts.”

Chapter two, “Interpretations of Hume’s Footnote on Race,” examines his infamous footnote, which Hume added to his essay, “Of National Characters,” a footnote that denigrates African civilizations and black people in general. The footnote creates a contradiction to readers acquainted with Hume. Hume is widely recognized as a critic of bigotry, yet his footnote is the height of bigotry. Furthermore, in 1752, the year prior to the addition of the footnote, he excoriated slavery. Modern scholars offer different interpretations of the footnote. Most agree he was prejudiced against blacks, but the degree to which the footnote collides with the anti-bigotry perspective projected in his other writings is disputed. This chapter shows the many perplexing contradictions created by the footnote in Hume’s writings and ponders whether the contradictions were intentional. I argue that Hume often wrote in an ambiguous and occasionally contradictory fashion to draw readers with opposing views into his work, yet his true beliefs were sometimes hard to discern. Conclusions over the extent of Hume’s racism are not made; in fact, this chapter argues they should only be made with caution. A very likely answer is that Hume did hold racist views, but his numerous statements suggesting the contrary should not be ignored. Hume may have written the denigration to create stark contradiction and to lampoon racist attitudes necessary to justifying slavery. Alternatively, he may have been trying to persuade pro-slavery opponents into allow a hearing to those like himself who argued against slavery—trying to reason with his opponents without recrimination for rank inhumanity and injustice. The extent of Hume’s racism might be hard to truly know, but this chapter argues that it is likely that the footnote was added and amended to improve the effectiveness of his arguments against slavery.