Hume's Remarks About "Monkish Virtues"

Comments on papers by William Davie and James King, for the Hume Society meetings, Las Vegas 2003



My strategy will be to discuss the three main points in Professor King's paper, which will bring us, at point three, to Professor Davie's position.

I agree with Professor King that Elizabeth Dimm does not succeed in convicting Hume of inconsistency in allowing tranquility to be a virtue in Socrates and a vice in a monk. And in general I think one is on the right track to think that Socratic tranquility and monkish tranquility just aren't the same thing. However, I don't think the difference is primarily one of withdrawal from public life, on the part of the monk. It should be noted that not all monks withdraw from public life as a permanent condition--in Hume's day or in ours. There have long been many different orders of "monks," and one of the problems in discussing "monkish virtues" is the difficulty outsiders (such as Hume) have in accurately describing what life in monasteries or monkish existence is really like, and how it relates to life as a whole. But I think Professor King is basically right in his response to Dimm. And I also think he is correct in suggesting that Socrates would not exactly be the paradigmatic moral personality for Hume. In fact, Hume would certainly have been more comfortable around many monks than around Socrates.

Next Professor King takes up Hans Lottenbach's critique of Hume. I have not read Lottenbach's paper, and am here at some disadvantage. But Professor King takes him to argue that "Hume's theory is inadequate to support" his rejection of monkish virtues, and "that Hume's theory equally supports the judgment of his rivals who would champion the monkish virtues." (p. 3) I cannot be sure that I have understood King's point with respect to Lottenbach, but he says that "Filling out more richly Hume's moral vision will allow me to conclude that properly interpreted Hume's moral theory supports his judgment of the monkish qualities." (p. 3) Thus Lottenbach would be proven wrong.

Now, how does this work? The "filling out," for Professor King, seems to be a matter of claiming, as point of reference for understanding what is "moral," a "common life." (p. 4) He says: "Morality in common life is not something the philosopher must construct de novo from formal principles--common morality is like the air we breath, the milieu around us--it is the historical actuality in which we live, feel, act. In this, as in nearly all we do, we find our thinking makes reference to life in common with others." (p. 4)

No doubt there is something to this, though in the use to which it is here put it sounds to me much more like Hegel, Wittgenstein or MacIntyre than like Hume. But can it be quite right to continue: "Now monkishness sets itself apart from common life and defines itself by contradistinction to it. By leaving the realm of our common morality behind, it forfeits grounds for affirming that its point of view qualifies as the moral one. Accordingly, it is not the case that the praise of saints and monks is on a par with the moral judgments of common life."

I don't know quite what to make of this. Of course it is a contemporary way of talking: "You wouldn't understand, it's a common-life thing," a "monkish thing," etc. But surely for Hume monks are still human, and his moral theory is tied, it seems to me, to humanity, the species. If I am not mistaken, the view in question violates Hume's view that the moral is a perfectly general point of view, not limited to a particular sub-group or to individuals. The view of "the common life" taken here seems to exclude the monk from the moral community, in which case the "monkish" qualities could not even be vices. They are just "something else." But then won't the multitudinous other sub-groups--Trobriand Islanders, etc--also fall outside the moral game. Are we to imagine that the "common life" in Ireland (especially viz-a-viz the monkish virtues) will be the same as the "common life" in Hume's Scotland?

So I am unable to see how it could be correct to say that "this [Hume's theory] is a theory about common morality and common life" in the sense of a determinant social/historical reality, as seems to be indicated by Professor King. There perhaps is such a reality, but I cannot imagine that it is, on Hume's view, definitory of what morality is, or that by reference to it Hume would "fix the term moral." (p. 4)

The public and encompassing social reality is something, as King notes, which we need to "methodize and correct." He rightly points out that for Hume we do not do this by reference to personal preferences, something subjective in that sense. (That seems to be the alternative invoked by Lottenbach.) Rather, I would say, we do it by recourse to what Hume calls "the original fabric and formation of the human mind." (Sect. I of Enquiry) Thus, Hume's theory is not, as Professor King also seems to suggest, "based on the moral sentiments of the virtuous person" (p. 5) living the common life, but is based on an observational correlation of the moral sentiment in the human being with whatever mental qualities elicit it in its positive and negative forms. In this sense only does all moral determinations resolve, for Hume, into sentiment. But the sentiment in question is not a personal preference, nor is it a social reality. It is species based. Hume is neither a personal subjectivist nor a social subjectivist, if I have got him right. Social framework and language can be taken as initial guides, and perhaps they will never be far wrong. But they can be wrong, and in any case are never regarded by Hume as the ultimate sources of moral distinctions nor of our knowledge thereof.

I must also disagree with any view to the effect that Aristotle bases his theory of the moral distinctions "on the moral sentiments of the virtuous person." (p. 5) He bases his theory, I cannot help believing, upon his analysis of universal human nature, and in that respect he is very like Hume--though their views of human nature are quite different. And I also cannot imagine that Hume has recourse to what "makes better sense of our common moral judgments" in any way significantly similar to John Rawls. (p. 5) Hume does not, I think, find himself shut off from the true moral facts of the matter in the way that Rawls does, for whom the data of ethical theory consists only of "considered judgments of competent judges" expressing their views.

So, right or wrong, I find myself in disagreement with the claim that "For Hume the monkish qualities represent not an alternative morality for common life but an alternative to morality and common life." (p. 5) I would say that Hume certainly does not see the monkish qualities as an alternative morality, but as vices within the morality and immorality dictated by the common human nature as he spells it out. If "Lottenbach argues that Hume's theory is inadequate to support that judgment" denouncing the monkish qualities (p. 3), then I would have to disagree with him too.

I take Hume's view to be the following (see the last ¶s of Section I of the Enquiry): We learn by experience and reflection that there is a moral sentiment or feeling. It is open to our reflection and we learn to identify it by experiencing it. (Here I think he is strongly influenced by Butler and Hutcheson.) We can also identify by reflection and observation which states of mind or mental qualities draw the moral sentiment upon themselves, positively or negatively. List in hand, we can then "observe that particular in which the estimable qualities agree on the one hand, and the blameable on the other." Hume thinks that this "experimental method" yields the formula: "Personal merit [or virtue] consists entirely in the usefulness or agreeableness of qualities to the person himself, or to others, who have any intercourse with him." (Last ¶ of Section IX) This is "the foundation of our moral duties" or "the foundation of ethics,...those universal principles, from which all censure or approbation is ultimately derived." (Section I) In the light of this, clearly the "monkish virtues" could turn out to be vices, as Hume judges them to be.

Of course Hume's general theory of moral distinctions would not by itself imply the "monkish virtues" to be vices (or at least not virtues). That would also depend upon the facts about those mental qualities. If they are in fact neither useful nor immediately agreeable to oneself or others, then Hume would on his own theory be correct in what he says about them.

But the actual facts of the monastic life, upon which the verdict will depend, do not seem to me to play much of a role in Hume's discussions or in contemporary ones. The suggestion (King, p. 5-6) that the monk lives in a condition in any way similar to "that of the pitiable 'solitary and forlorn' metaphysician Hume lamented in" the Conclusion of Book I of the Treatise would be regarded with great surprise by any careful reader of serious monkish literature, such as Kempis' Imitation of Christ, Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, etc., or by any normal practitioner of the monastic life past or present. A bit more empirical research on the life of the monk or nun--again, past or present--would be necessary in evaluating Hume's claim.

In responding to Professor Davie's discussions of Hume's position on the monkish virtues, Professor King continues to take "our common morality" as his (and Hume's) point of reference. Davie's position, expressed in the first paragraph of his 1999 paper (Hume Studies, XXV, pp. 139-153), is "that Hume's explicit formula for identifying virtues fails to justify his rejection of the monkish virtues if it is followed without prejudice." And this position continues to be held by the author in his paper for this meeting. Basically, the point seems to be that the mental qualities in question might be useful in some circumstances. (So far as I can tell Davie does not state that they might ever be immediately agreeable, but then see p. 151 of his 1999 paper.)

Professor King toys with the idea that the monkish qualities Davie finds (possibly) useful are so only under certain temporary conditions--dieting (fasting?) to lose weight, for example (p. 7). But he does not pursue this idea at lengths. Instead, he turns to the issue of what counts as monkishness--"to set out how Hume must have conceived of monkishness so as to class it a vice." (p. 7) I think this is an important turn, and perhaps throws light upon what was really bothering Hume, namely, the very idea of being a monk, or monkishness itself. I don't know whether Hume ever says that monkishness is a vice, but Professor Kings language here may be--inadvertently or not--getting at something rather important.

Professor King spells out something of what monkishness may have meant to Hume on his page 8.--"Leading features are a disengagement from common life and inversion of many of its values. The monkish program makes a virtue of suppressing natural desires, of repenting and dying to the world, of practicing penance so as to receive a new life," etc. etc. (p. 8) "Monks exchange enjoyment of human spontaneity for regimentation of every aspect of life under the rule set down by their founder. This rule leads them to practice mortification, i.e., to work at deadening humanity within self, to spurn pleasures and to embrace suffering. They reject common life...devaluing the ways and customs of the world. Like Pascal, they find the proof of their fidelity in resistance to the things that make ordinary lives worthwhile." (p. 8)

Here, I think, we really have come to the heart of the matter. I agree with Professor King when he says: "Something like this, I suggest, is what monkishness meant to Hume in his repudiation of the so-called monkish virtues." I think he is also correct in saying that "Davie agrees that monkishness so understood merits denunciation.... that lives, monkish or otherwise, based on twisted or perverted passions deserve our disapproval." (p. 8) Well, how could anyone not agree that "lives...based on twisted or perverted passions deserve our disapproval"? The only question is, which are those lives and how are they to be identified?

I would think that, for Hume, monkishness itself could be neither a virtue nor a vice, not being a "mental quality." It falls outside the appropriate genus. It is a social and religious form or institution, and therefore not subject to direct moral approval or disapproval. Yet, I suspect that it is indeed the primary object of disapproval by Hume, and perhaps both Professor King and Professor Davie share that attitude with him. From that point of view, the various practices that enter into the social form may be automatically condemned simply by association, and not looked at very carefully. And it should be noted that the things listed as monkish virtues are, with the exception of self-denial and humility, not virtues at all, but practices. (I believe that Professor Davie somewhere notes this, but does not develop the point.)

One should not forget that David Hume is a Scotsman, and that Scotland was in his time still heir to the Protestant Reformation to an extent few other places on earth have ever been. The passage on the monkish 'virtues'--that is, on the practices listed (not, of course, self-denial and humility)--could have come straight from the tongue or pen of Martin Luther, John Calvin or John Knox, and very similar passages actually did so come. Of course their reasons were quite different from Hume's, but because of them scorn for the "monkish" could be counted on in Hume's context. It was a part of his "common life." So he doesn't have to be careful in the manner that was his admirable custom.

Had he been more careful he would have not only have noticed the difference between a practice and a (proposed) virtue, he would have wondered if it is indeed true that "the whole train of monkish virtues...are...everywhere [my italics] rejected by men of sense...because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment?" (¶ three of the "Conclusion" to An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.)

Had he not been under the influence of a social prejudice in his "common life," he would surely have taken care to put his empiricism into practice by specifically identifying "men of sense," in some clear way independent of their views on the monkish 'virtues', and by then testing via empirical survey whether they "everywhere" held the view of those 'virtues' which he a priori ascribes to them. Perhaps the "men of sense" just a little distance away, in Ireland, would have been found to have quite different views of the monkish practices and virtues. Or would that automatically disqualify them as "men of sense." (It would be interesting to see Hume's list of "men of sense.")

And had Hume troubled to follow the empirical route by examining the actual idealism and pattern of life among the "monks" he might have been surprised at the extent to which the mental qualities he himself lists as virtues overlap the ideals and realities of monastic life: "Besides discretion, caution, enterprise, industry, assiduity, frugality, economy, good-sense, prudence, discernment....temperance, sobriety, patience, constancy, perseverance, forethought, considerateness, secrecy, order, insinuation, address, presence of mind, quickness of conception, facility of expression, these, and a thousand more of the same kind, no man will ever deny to be excellencies and perfections." (Next to last ¶ of Section VI) These are Hume's "Qualities Useful to Ourselves." But are they not also held in high regard by monastics, and is emphasis among monastics on benevolence and justice any less than among Hume's little circle of "men of sense" through which he at times views the world?

Where do the differences between Hume and monastics genuinely lie? I suggest three points:

  1. The monastics view life in a very different context of God, the human self, and the world. In that context very different things would be useful or agreeable to oneself or to others than would be in Hume's assumed context of reality. I hope this is obvious once you think of it and in need of no development. Of course it might be regarded as an open question (not by Hume) as to whether they are right about the larger context; and if they are wrong, then Hume's view that their 'virtues' are vices could be correct. He regarded the monastic view of life and world as a superstition. (No doubt that would put the Irish in their place.)
  2. As a result of 1, what the monastic tradition understands by primary virtues, such as love ("benevolence"?) and justice, is very different from what Hume has in mind--and, from the "common life" point of view, they are things much more "extreme" and difficult. Just try plopping down Paul's statements about love, from I Corinthians 13:1-8, in the middle of Hume's treatment of benevolence. And the Christian tradition of justice, in which it ultimately coalesces with love, goes far beyond anything what Hume means by "justice."
  3. The monastic tradition is concerned about how one becomes virtuous. Hume--in this, as in so many ways, a remarkably contemporary figure--has nothing serious to say on this point. (Please correct me if you know of a passage.) Indeed he says: "The end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duty; and, by proper representations of the deformity of vice and beauty of virtue, beget correspondent habits, and engage us to avoid the one, and embrace the other." (mid-Section I of Enquiry) I confess I can't imagine a Moore, a Rawls, or a Scanlon saying anything like that--though in a certain convoluted manner you might get it out of MacIntyre. But Hume then proceeds to say that this practical goal can't be achieved by reason or by teaching truth; and he says nothing here--or, I believe, anywhere else--on how the requisite "warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice" are to be cultivated. The monastic tradition, by contrast, is absolutely centered on this matter of how to do it--where "it" refers to a life of virtue defined in a much more strenuous manner than anything Hume has in mind. Most of the practices listed as "monkish virtues" were actual disciplines for the spiritual life, designed to inculcate virtue, and not virtues themselves.

So, it seems to me, Hume did not in this case do the requisite preliminary work of clarification and research before passing his judgment. "...reason," he says, "instructs us in the several tendencies of actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favour of those which are useful and beneficial." (¶ 3 of Appendix I) "All the circumstances of the case are supposed to be laid before us, ere we can fix any sentence of blame or approbation." (mid Appendix I) And: " many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection. There are just grounds to conclude, that moral beauty partakes much of this latter species, and demands the assistance of our intellectual faculties, in order to give it a suitable influence on the human mind." (Section I)

The moral sentiment for Hume is, then, a thermometer, not a thermostat. It can be wrong, and it is wrong when the tendency of the mental quality appraised is only apparently and not really useful or immediately agreeable. Whether the "monkish virtues" are really virtues or vices (in Hume's terms) depends upon the facts of monkish or non-monkish life, which Hume may not have seen very clearly--or perhaps he did.

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