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Saturday, September 17, 2011


Ever since Plato gave the world his immortal dialogues, philosophers in the western tradition have been tempted by the genre. Would you believe that Aristotle wrote several dialogues? Fortunately for students, only fragments survive. [I have this on the authority of the great classical scholar Werner Jaeger, who was in his last years at Harvard when I was a student, although I was too stupid to seize the opportunity to attend his lectures.] Berkeley wrote some dialogues, of course, as have many others. The results, by and large, have not been a success, consisting for the most part of painfully wooden exercises in which cardboard characters mouth arguments that would better have been set forth in the customary expository style. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in my judgment, are actually a signal success, even though they do not rise to the literary heights achieved by Plato.

Oddly enough, what makes the Dialogues a success is Hume’s effort to conceal his real views from sight. [You will understand that I am now venturing into the realm of interpretation, and there are plenty of distinguished scholars who disagree with me, including, I think, Norman Kemp-Smith, for whom I have the very greatest respect.] The twelve dialogues are an extended conversation among three persons: Philo, Cleanthes, and Demea [all of whom, unlike Plato’s characters, are entirely fictional.] Philo is presented as a sceptic, Cleanthes as a deist who frequently deploys arguments taken directly from Hume’s Treatise, and Demea as something of a religious fanatic. From a causal reading of the text, one might naturally conclude that it is Cleanthes who gives voice to Hume’s considered opinions about matters of religion, but as I shall suggest, it is really Philo who is speaking for the author.

The subject, as the title indicates, is Natural Religion, and although the meaning of that phrase would have been immediately apparent to an eighteenth century reader, it might be well for me to take a moment to explain. [I have the vague sense that I have gone through this somewhere else on this blog, but having written so much so fast over the last year and a half, I cannot now recall where I might have done that. My apologies to my constant readers if I am repeating myself.] Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach that the Old Testament is the revealed word of God. Christianity in addition claims that the New Testament is the revealed word of God, while Islam teaches that the Qur’an is the final revelation of God [or Allah, which is the Arabic word for God.] Thus, these three religions ground their beliefs in Revelation, and are correctly described as Revealed Religions.

The centrally important fact about revealed religions is that their truths are available only to those persons who have access to the revelation. No one who has not read the Old Testament or heard its teachings expounded can possibly guess that the Lord gave to someone named Moses a set of Commandments that Man is commanded to obey. Nor can anyone who has not read the New Testament or heard its teachings expounded possibly guess that God gave his only begotten Son to save Mankind from eternal damnation. Hence the missionary efforts of generations of Christians and Muslims [but not Jews – that is another matter] to bring the Word of God to those who have not yet heard it.

But there is another religious tradition, older than Christianity and Islam and fully as old as Judaism, according to which Reason alone is sufficient to tell us of the existence of a Divine Being, a Creator, a First Cause, a Prime Mover, a Necessary Being, on whom the world depends for its existence and its orderly obedience to universal laws. As I have observed elsewhere on this blog, a good deal of philosophy in the first millennium and more of the Common Era is the story of the efforts of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim metaphysicians to sort out the relationship between these two religious traditions.

A variety or terms have been used to name these traditions. In Hume’s day, the distinction was sometimes marked by the terms “Theism” and “Deism.” But just as often, the two traditions were called “Revealed Religion” and “Natural Religion.” The subject of Hume’s dialogues, as the title indicates, is the rationalist tradition of Deism or Natural Religion. What, if anything, can reason tell us about the existence of a deity and the relationship of that deity to the world and specifically to human beings? By Hume’s day these questions had been under debate for over two thousand years, and a number of questions had crystallized into set topics. Perhaps best known and most widely debated were the various proofs that philosophers had come up with for the existence of a deity: The Cosmological Argument, the infamous Ontological Argument, and – most popular but least seriously regarded by philosophers – the Argument from Design. A second question much puzzled over by the devout was how an infinitely powerful, omniscient, and totally benevolent God could create a world afflicted with so much natural and man-made suffering. There were also a flood of subordinate questions about the nature of God, the meaning of terms like “omnipotent” and “omniscient” when applied to God, and whether there was a conflict – resolvable or irresoluble – between the teachings of Revelation and the conclusions of Rational Theology. Much of this constitutes the subject matter of Hume’s twelve dialogues.

In the composition of the Dialogues, Hume faced two problems. The first, as I have indicated, was his desire to conceal from the reader the fact that he embraces completely the sceptical position taken by Philo. The second problem is somewhat different. Hume’s arguments against any form of Natural Religion are so powerful, and he states them with such extraordinary economy, that strictly speaking he needs no more than a handful of pages to dispatch his opponents. It takes him little more than a paragraph to destroy all of the many versions of the Cosmological Argument, far and away the argument most favored by the serious philosophical tradition. The Ontological Argument costs him a paragraph. And the Argument from Design, which most philosophers do not credit at all, but which was a great favorite with the unwashed masses and the ordained ministers, serves merely as the butt of a series of wildly fanciful and comic turns by Hume. How to keep his Dialogues afloat sufficiently long to allow him to make all the points he has in mind? Hume exhibits great literary skill in making it appear that the defenders of Natural Religion are still upright and in the fight, long after they have actually been flattened, and should by any reasonable estimate have been out for the count. As we go through the twelve Parts, as Hume calls them, we shall see how he accomplishes this.

1 comment:

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Just out of curiosity, what do you think of the literary merits of Cicero's dialogue (if anything)?