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Utility and Humanity: The Quest for the Honestum in Cicero, Hutcheson, and Hume

  • James Moore (a1)

Hume considered An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) incomparably the best of all his writings. In the argument advanced here, I propose that Hume's preference for the Enquiry may be linked to his admiration of Cicero, and his work, De Officiis. Cicero's attempt to discover the honestum of morality in De Officiis had a particular relevance and appeal for philosophers of the early eighteenth century who were seeking to establish what they called the foundation of morality. One of those philosophers was Francis Hutcheson; his differences with his contemporaries and with Hume are reviewed in the second and third parts of the essay. In the fourth and final section, I examine Hume's attempt to reconcile the foundation of morality, as he under-stood it, the sentiment of humanity, with the principles of utility and agreeableness. And an attempt is made, finally, to explain why Hume's critics (James Balfour, Thomas Reid) perceived Hume's Enquiry to be the work of an Epicurean and a sceptic.

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1 Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Beauchamp, Tom L., Oxford, 1998. References to sections, parts, and page numbers of this edition are placed in parentheses in the text.

2 Letter to SirDalrymple, David, Bart, , 3 May 1753, The Letters of David Hume, ed.Greig, J. Y. T., Oxford, 1932, vol. 1, pp. 174 f.

3 ‘My Own Life’, prefaced to Letters, vol. 1, p. 4.

4 There are many scholarly interpretations of the moral philosophies of Hutcheson and Hume. Among the scholars who have written on this subject are Norman Kemp Smith, David Daiches Raphael, Arthur N. Prior, Charles W. Hendel, William Frankena, David Fate Norton, and James King. For a more complete bibliography, I would invite the reader to consult my essays ‘Hume and Hutcheson’, Hume and Hume's Connexions, ed. Stewart, M. A. and Wright, John, Edinburgh, 1994 and ‘Hutcheson's Theodicy’, The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation, ed. Wood, Paul, Rochester, New York, 2000.

5 Browning, Reed, Political and Constitutional Ideas of the Court Whigs, Baton Rouge, 1982, ch. 8.

6 McLachlan, Herbert, English Education under the Test Acts, Manchester, 1931, passim.

7 Editions of this translation were published in 1699, 1706, 1714, 1720, 1722, 1732 and 1739. In the following paper, citations from Cicero's Offices are taken from the translation by Edmonds, Cyrus R., Cicero's Three Books of Offices or Moral Duties … Literally Translated, etc., London, 1887, which seems to me to convey the spirit of the text most faithfully. The copy of Cicero's De Officiis that was in Hume's possession and remains available to scholars forms part of the collected works: Opera Cum Delectu Commentarioriam, Paris, 9 vols. It is housed in the McGill University Library. See Norton, David Fate and Norton, Mary J., The David Hume Library, Edinburgh, 1996: item 275, p. 82.

8 Letter of Montesquieu to Monseigneur de Fitz James, 8 October 1750, cited in Shackleton, Robert, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography, Oxford, 1961, p. 70.

9 Cited in Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, ed. SirHamilton, William, Edinburgh, 1854, vol. 1, p. 178n2.

10 Edinburgh University Library MS. Gen. 74D. See Robertson, J. C. Stewart, ‘Cicero among the shadows: Scottish prelections of virtue and duty’, Rivista Critica di Storia delta Filosofia, xxxviii (1983).

11 Rivers, Isabel, Reason, Grace and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780, vol. 2: Shaftesbury to Hume, Cambridge, 2000, p. 29. Collins, Anthony, A Discourse of Free-Thinking, London, 1713, pp. 138 f.Toland, John, ‘Cicero Illustratus’ [1712], A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Toland, London, 1726, vol. 1.

12 Richard Bentley, Remarks upon a Late Discourse of Free Thinking, London, 1713. See Rivers, pp. 29–31.

13 Boase, Alan M., The Fortunes of Montaigne: A History of the Essays in France, 1580–1689, London, 1935, p. 428.

14 Bernier, Monsieur, Three Discourses of Happiness, Virtue, and Liberty: Collected from the Works of the Learn'd Gassendi, London, 1699, pp. 47, 71–6, 93–7, 123 ff., 207, 327, 332–4.

15 Cited by Boase, p. 255.

16 Les Offices de Ciceron, trans. Bois, Phillipe Goisbaud Du, Paris, 1691.

17 For a contemporary Stoic reading of De Officiis as a defence of the principles of the Roman republic, see Long, A. A., ‘Cicero's Politics in de Officiis’, Justice and Generosity, ed. Laks, A. and Schofield, M., Cambridge, 1995. For a more sceptical reading see Wood, Neal, Cicero's Social and Political Thought, Los Angeles, 1988, pp. 58 ff.

18 Edmonds (trans.), 1.27, p. 48.

19 Ibid., 2.22, p. 110.

20 Ibid., 2.24, p. 112.

21 Ibid., 1.9, p. 18.

22 Ibid., 1.17, p. 31.

23 In On the Ends of Good and Evil, Cicero had defined the honestum in the Stoic manner as a quality abstracted from all utility, which can be praised justly for itself, without profit or reward. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, trans. Rackham, H., London, 1914, p. 132. In that work, Cicero presented the Epicurean theory in bk. 1 and criticized it from the Stoic perspective in bk. 2. He presented the Stoic theory in bk. 3 and criticized it in bk. 4 from the Academic perspective. In bk. 5 he presented the Academic theory itself. As Hume read Cicero, the Academic philosophy represented a sceptical position inconsistent with Stoicism. From Hume's perspective, but not from Reid's, as will become clear in the sequel (n. 61, below), the Stoic position taken by Cicero in bk. 2 of De Finibus was superseded by the more sceptical perspective of the later books of De Finibus, and, particularly, De Officiis, where the problem was precisely to discover the compatibility of the honestum and the utile.

24 Wollaston, William, The Religion of Nature Delineated [1725], 6th edn., London, 1738.

25 Carmichael, Gershom, ‘A Synopsis of Natural Theology’ (1729), maintained that ‘every rightly founded distinction of moral good and evil in our actions … ought to be deduced from the perceived relationship of those actions to God and from a knowledge of the existence, perfections and providence of the Supreme Deity. I used the same method in laying the foundations of moral doctrine in the first and second supplements to Pufendorf. But some have thought otherwise, so much that, in recent years, schemes which utterly divorce morality from religion have been put before the public and commended to the world by a highly attractive combination of ingenuity and eloquence.’ See Natural Rights on the Threshold of the Scottish Enlightenment: the Writings of Gershom Carmichael, ed. Moore, James and Silverthorne, Michael, Indianapolis, 2002, p. 230.

26 On the diffusion of Shaftesbury's thought in this period, see Rivers, vol. 2, chs. 2–3.

27 ‘Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author’, pt. 3, sect. 3, in Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Klein, Lawrence E., Cambridge, 1999, p. 150.

28 ‘Miscellaneous Reflections on the Preceding Treatises and other Critical Subject’, 3, in Characteristics, pp. 415–17n.

29 See above, n. 23 and below, n. 61.

30 ‘Miscellaneous Reflections’, p. 415.

31 Mandeville, Bernard, ‘A Search into the Nature of Society’ [1723], The Fable of the Bees: or Private Vices, Public Benefits, ed. Kaye, F. B., Oxford, 1924, vol. 1, p. 331.

32 Hutcheson, Francis, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue: in Two Treatises, London, 1725.

33 Ibid., pp. 125, 153, 179.

34 Ibid., p. 178.

35 Ibid., pp. 113 f.

36 This observation was made in the manuscript of ‘A System of Moral Philosophy’, GUL MS. Gen. 110, fol. 56. It has been struck out, by Hutcheson himself or by the editor, William Leechman, when preparing the manuscript for publication. It does not appear in the published text. For discussion, see ‘Hutcheson's Theodicy’, The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation, ed. Wood, Paul, Rochester, New York, 2000, p. 495.

37 Balguy, John, The Foundation of Moral Goodness, London, 1728; repr. British Moralists, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, Indianapolis, 1964, vol. 2, p. 61.

38 Burnet, Gilbert, Letters Between the Late Mr. Gilbert Burnet, and Mr. Hutchinson, Concerning the true Foundation of Virtue or Moral Goodness, London, 1735. See esp. preface and postscript.

39 Francis Hutcheson, ibid.; also Illustrations upon the Moral Sense, sect. 1, esp. additions made to 3rd edn. (1742).

40 Campbell, Archibald, An Enquiry into the Original of Moral Virtue … with Some Reflections on a late Book, intitled An Enquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Value, Edinburgh, 1733.

41 Ibid., p. 309.

42 Letter from Hume, David to Hutcheson, Francis, 17 September 1739, The Letters of David Hume, ed. Greig, J. Y. T., Oxford, 1932, vol. 1, pp. 32–5.

43 Ibid., pp. 33 f.

44 See Lovejoy, Arthur O., Reflections on Human Nature, Baltimore, 1961, lecture 5.

45 Hutcheson, Francis, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy [first published in Latin, 1742], Glasgow, 1747, p. 21. This sentence was part of material added in the 2nd edn., 1745.

46 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Raphael, D. D. and Macfie, A. L., Indianapolis, 1982 [1759], pp. 300 f. Smith would have heard Hutcheson argue in the same manner, when, as a student at the University of Glasgow, he attended Hutcheson's lectures on metaphysics: pt. 3, ‘De Deo’, Synopsis Metaphysicae, Glasgow, 1742; 2nd edn., 1744.

47 A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, pp. ii f.

48 Letter to Mure, William of Caldwell, , 4 August 1744, Letters of David Hume, vol. 1, p. 58.

50 Roger Emerson, ‘The “Affair” at Edinburgh and the “Project” at Glasgow: The Politics of Hume's Attempts to Become a Professor', Stewart and Wright (ed.).

51 Stewart, M. A., The Kirk and the Infidel, Lancaster, 1994.

52 Printed in Hume, David, A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh, ed. Mossner, Ernest C. and Price, John V., Edinburgh, 1967, p. 30.

53 An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, p. 177. See also Box, Mark, The Suasive Art of David Hume, Princeton, 1990, pp. 239 ff.

54 Home, Henry, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Edinburgh, 1751, pp. 103–9. [Dalrymple, David], Some Late Opinions Concerning the Foundation of Morality, Examined, London, 1753, pp. 14 ff. [Balfour, James], A Delineation of the Nature and Obligation of Morality, with Reflexion upon Mr. Hume's Book, intitled, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Edinburgh, 1753, pp. 5962.

55 Bernier, , pp. 311 f. Epicurus's Morals, London, 1712, p. 147. This work attributed to Digby, John was for the most part a translation of La Morale d'Epicure, avec des reflexions, Paris, 1685 by the Baron des Coustures.

56 Philosophical Essays Concerning Natural Religion (1748), sect. 11, ‘Of the Practical Consequences of Natural Religion’, later published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sect. 11, ‘Of a Particular Providence and a Future State’.

57 Reid, Thomas, Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Edinburgh, 1788, p. 411.

58 Balfour, pp. 123 ff. and draft of a letter from Balfour to Hume (which may not have been sent) in Balfour-Melville, Barbara, The Balfours of Pilrig, Edinburgh, 1907, pp. 113–16.

59 Letter from Hume, to the Author of ‘The Delineation of the Nature and Obligation of Morality’, 15 03 1758, in The Letters of David Hume, vol. 1, pp. 172–4.

60 Hume's eighteenth-century critics disagreed among themselves on this subject. Balfour recognized that Hume had appealed to a sentiment of common humanity to provide a foundation for utility (Balfour, p. 132). But he thought that this sentiment would prove too weak in the characters of most men. Reid endeavoured to turn the authority of Cicero against Hume, citing the definition of the honestum used by Cicero in De Finibus, bk. 2 (see above n. 16) as evidence that Hume had deviated from Cicero in this matter; that Hume's morals were merely and irredeemably Epicurean (Reid, p. 410).

61 ‘Of Cruelty’, Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Frame, Donald M., Stanford, 1958, p. 318.

62 Voltaire, , Dictionnaire Philosophique, ed. Benda, Julien, Paris, 1961, p. 401.

63 Hume, , ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’, Philosophical Works, ed. Green, T. H. and Grose, T. H, London, 1875, vol. 3, p. 302.

64 Hume, , History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688, London, 1782, vol. 1, pp. 30 f.

65 This paper was written in its present form for a symposium on ‘Utility and Sympathy in Hume and Smith’, convened by Fred Rosen at University College, London. I am also grateful to Shannon Stimson for inviting me to present the paper at a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley. An earlier version of the argument, presented in Milan at a conference convened by Ronchetti, Emanuele and Mazza, Emilio, was published, in Italian, in Filosofia e Cultura nel Settecento Britannico, ed. Santucci, Antonio, vol. 2, Bologna, 2000. I am indebted to my co-participants in the London symposium, Knud Haakonssen and Nicholas Phillipson, and others present in this and other symposia for their remarks and to Roger Emerson, Tony Long, John Robertson, Ian Ross, Sandy Stewart, Frits van Holthoon, and Paul Wood for comments on the paper.

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