Saturday, July 21, 2018

Stoicism and David Hume

David Hume, in a number of passages, suggests that stoic ideas are favorable for leading a virtuous life. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he says that a stoic (and epicurean) displays principles which are durable and have a beneficial impact on conduct and behavior. Here’s an excerpt:
For here is the chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism, that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour. We need only ask such a sceptic, What his meaning is? And what he proposes by all these curious researches? He is immediately at a loss, and knows not what to answer. A COPERNICAN or PTOLEMAIC, who supports each his different system of astronomy, may hope to produce a conviction, which will remain constant and durable, with his audience. A STOIC or EPICUREAN displays principles, which may not only be durable, but which have an effect on conduct and behaviour. But a PYRRHONIAN cannot expect, that his philosophy will have any constant influence on the mind: Or if it had, that its influence would be beneficial to society. 
It is noteworthy that Hume is saying that skepticism (Pyrrhonian philosophy) cannot be expected to have any “constant influence on the mind.” He has expressed similar doubts on skepticism in A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume offers his analysis of the four ancient schools of philosophy in four essays—“The Epicurean,” “The Stoic,” “The Platonist,” and “The Sceptic.” He sees these schools as the promoters of disciplined approaches for pursuit of happiness.

In his essay on stoicism, “The Stoic,” Hume says that the stoic holds that the life of a “true philosopher” is the best life:
But as much as the wildest savage is inferior to the polished citizen, who, under the protection of laws, enjoys every convenience which industry has invented; so much is this citizen himself inferior to the man of virtue, and the true philosopher, who governs his appetites, subdues his passions, and has learned, from reason, to set a just value on every pursuit and enjoyment. 
But why is the life of a “true philosopher” the best life? Hume says that, according to the stoic, happiness requires security which only a true philosopher can have:
The temple of wisdom is seated on a rock, above the rage of the fighting elements, and inaccessible to all the malice of man. The rolling thunder breaks below; and those more terrible instruments of human fury reach not to so sublime a height. The sage, while he breathes that serene air, looks down with pleasure, mixed with compassion, on the errors of mistaken mortals, who blindly seek for the true path of life, and pursue riches, nobility, honour, or power, for genuine felicity. The greater part he beholds disappointed of their fond wishes: Some lament, that having once possessed the object of their desires, it is ravished from them by envious fortune: And all complain, that even their own vows, though granted, cannot give them happiness, or relieve the anxiety of their distracted minds. 
However, Hume’s stoic does not speak directly for Hume—he is describing the views of the stoic school of thought with which Hume is not in complete agreement.  After all, Hume has given the longest essay and the final word to skepticism. He suggests that one cannot be a total stoic, but neither can one be a total skeptic.

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume offers a comparison between skepticism and stoicism:
I accept your comparison between the Stoics and Sceptics, replied Philo. Still, although the Stoic mind can’t maintain the highest flights of philosophy, even when it sinks lower it still retains something of its former disposition; and the effects of the Stoic’s reasoning will appear in his conduct in everyday life, flavouring all of his actions. The ancient schools of philosophy, particularly that of Zeno, produced examples of virtue and steadfastness which seem astonishing to us today… In like manner, if a man has accustomed himself to sceptical considerations on the uncertainty and narrow limits of reason, he will not entirely forget them when he turns his reflection on other subjects; but in all his philosophical principles and reasoning, I dare not say, in his common conduct, he will be found different from those, who either never formed any opinions in the case, or have entertained sentiments more favourable to human reason.

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