Those who see “the Enlightenment” as the stringent and dry dictatorship of reason should read David Hume (1711-1776). The Scottish philosopher, alongside his friend Adam Smith, is the largest fruit of the “Scottish Enlightenment,” the roots of which go back to the sixteenth century. That is when, at the hands of the Calvinist reformer John Knox, public and free education came to occupy a central position in spreading the new emergent religious teachings, thereby giving rise to several generations of elites and ideas.
It was Hume, a pioneer of the eighteenth-century “Enlightenment,” who saw that our sentiments influence us more than our reason. Though this verdict may leave us with a narcissistic wound, he argued that addressing this fact appropriately and not denying it would leave us happier and more at peace with ourselves on both the individual and social levels. Rather, pursuing a better life dictates giving our sentiments precedence over reason. This seemed, according to those who have studied Hume, a strange conclusion for a pioneer of the Enlightenment to come to.
Indeed, the Enlightenment is associated with the idea that we must train our minds to become rational, thereby preventing feelings from hindering our ability to process the evidence available to us logically. Hume presents the mind as a servant of emotion, as feelings move us and motivate us far more than analytical and logical conclusions.
Because humans are just another animal species, few of our core convictions are reached through a rational examination of the facts, and the few that are usually pertain to practical matters of daily life and work. In making the bigger decisions, the mind only reinforces choices that sentiment had already made. We initially see an idea as beautiful or frightening, and we subsequently decide if it is correct or false on the basis of this view, only deploying the arguments of the mind to support this stance.
However, this does not imply that all sentiments are acceptable and equal, which is why Hume believed strongly in cultivating feelings and emotions. Indeed, people should learn how to become more giving, patient, and empathetic with others, as well as how to become more in tune with and assured of themselves. This demands an educational system that speaks to sentiments as well, not just reason.
Meanwhile, public intellectuals must educate others on many matters, at the forefront of which is love for others. If one wants to change people’s beliefs, one should not behave like an enigmatic and obscure professor.
It is not moral ideas that make a person ethical, but being trained in the “art of decency,” through sentiment, from an early age. Qualities such as upright behavior, empathy, and intelligence are what make people’s company beautiful, regardless of any a priori rational plans that stipulate being good. One could be extremely rational without being kind or sensitive, while having the capacity to follow a complicated argument or to derive general trends from a particular set of data does not make one person sensitive to the pain of others or well-behaved, only sentiments do. If being a philosopher is desirable, then being a human being is more desirable.
According to Hume, who was not a believer, debating believers about their faith using rational arguments does not work. In fact, it is a foolish and impetuous approach. Those who do so overlook the fact that faith is emotional and spiritual. Deductive reasoning, i.e., coming to a conclusion based on the premises one is presented with, does not apply to theology. Instead, inductive reasoning is used - the causes are drawn from the results a posteriori.
This assessment led him to ardently defend tolerance, arguing that we must not address those who do not share our opinion on religion as irrational individuals making logical mistakes that we have a responsibility to correct. What we should do, on the other hand, is see them as emotional beings driven by sentiment, letting them live in peace so long as they allow others to live in peace.
Hume did not draw this conclusion through compromise or to flatter. Rather, his position stems from his firm conviction that the worlds of reason and religion are distinct. It is on these grounds that he refuted the arguments put forward by the Enlightenment figures advocating “deism,” i.e. reconciling what could be maintained of Christian revelation with the new conception of the material world that the Copernican revolution had introduced, by removing Christianity’s poetic and mythological elements, leaving us with a “natural religion” that speaks to reason and can be justified on rational bases.
As an empiricist, he repudiated this combination, insisting on linking our existence to that of time and space and on inferring it through the senses and concrete reasoning.
However, Hume also repudiated binding definitions of human beings and the existence of a “personal identity” and a “core self”. We are a collection of states and perceptions that follow one another at an inconceivable pace, thereby leaving us living in constant “flux and movement.” As for the mind breaking completely free of its past, he saw it as an impractical concoction - what we would call a rapturous coup in our day. Those old beliefs took root because of the practicality and benefits they offered believers, and they would only unravel once the practicality and benefits that made people embrace them waned. Beliefs, at the end of the day, are not tested against demonstrable facts but based on their utility and the benefits they offer.
With skill not wanting in playfulness and humor, Hume engaged in the debate from within the phenomena he critiques. In 1748, for example, he published an article on miracles without denying their existence. Instead, he goes from discussing the rationality/irrationality dichotomy to addressing the manner in which Christians of his time practiced their religion. If miracles do indeed exist, then they must also exist in other religions, but when you hear of Buddhist miracles, for example, do you believe them? Does the fact that you do not believe them not demonstrate that your convictions serve your prejudices and that you are demanding “special pleading”?
He offers us an example of a vibrant and practical intellectual - one who laughs, plays, and loves the good things in life. He was not a heroic role model who was killed, martyred, and burned. As for one of his most important books, if not his most important, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (in which we follow the dialogue between the characters Philo and Cleanthes), it was not published until after his death, because he wanted to avoid the trouble that the book could have caused. The fact is that history, according to Hume, is more patient and willing to wait than we might think.