Monday, May 09, 2011

David Hume:  Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

This book was published in 1779, a few years after Hume's death.  He studied philosophy and became a key figure in the development of English atheism.  As usual, I picked this up at random at a used book store, trusting God to guide me to the right materials!  Some comments on the prologue and first chapter:

"It has been remarked, my Hermippus, that, though the ancient philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of dialogue, this method of composition has been little practised in later ages, and has seldom succeeded in the hands of those, who have attempted it."

Having read a lot more philosophy now, I can say this is a silly statement.  Socrates via Plato and Xenophon seems to be the only example of this that I see from all the classical Greek philosophers.  Half the time Plato is simply giving a monologue with only a minimal pretense to a dialogue.  Our next candidate is Cicero, whose "On The Nature Of The Gods" is being obviously mimicked in this work by Hume.  Cicero has a debate of sorts, but it is not in any way dependent on the conversation as Plato achieved.  Moving further along, Augustine does this in On Free Choice of the Will which I just read, and Anselm does this later.  Both of these examples are at least to Plato's standards, albeit not at the level of the few really good ones of Plato.  In practice, you can't anticipate how people will answer, so the Socratic method is a bit limited in its utility and overrated.  Continuing in the first chapter from a lecture given by the fictitious skeptic, Philo:

"After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry.  All topics of the ancient Academics were adopted by the Fathers; and thence propagated for several ages in every school and pulpit throughout Christendom."

Here Hume's character, Philo, is launching off into total imbecility.   Hume also wrote a History of England, so he should be well aware of how education in Europe crashed due to the onslaught of illiterate barbarians, and the church brought them back to education.  Before this, however, philosophy and education were for the wealthy.  In the 18th century, however, it was already popular to claim that the church was the enemy of both education and all reason.  More importantly, among the various branches of philosophy, the Academics and Epicureans were the least preferred by the Christian Fathers, while the Stoics were honored for their morals and much esteem was given to Plato and Aristotle.  But if we are going to start off on the wrong foot, might as well keep tripping:

"But at present, when the influence of education is much diminished, and men, from a more open commerce of the world, have learned to compare the popular principles of different nations and ages, our sagacious divines have changed their whole system of philosophy, and talk the language of Stoics, Platonists, and Peripatetics, not that of Pyrrhonians and Academics."

It is quite an accusation, given that the imagery and morals of the Stoics, Platonists and Peripatetics is often used in the Bible.  And what happened to the Epicureans?  Surely Hume didn't miss the fact that the first character to give an extended speech in Cicero's On The Nature Of The Gods was the Epicurean?  Let's read on and see if any of Hume's other fictitious characters manage to correct the nonsense that has been spilled so far.

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