Essay 11 by David Hume from Part 1

Dignity and Meanness Of Human Nature

January 11, 2020

Intellectual sects and political factions secretly form. Sometimes they do not come to an open rupture. But they give a different turn to the ways of thinking of those who have taken part on either side.

Are Humans Inherently Divine or Evil?

The most remarkable are those founded on the feelings on the dignity of human nature. This has divided philosophers, poets, and divines of the past to the present. Some exalt our species. They represent man as a kind of human demigod who comes from heaven and retains marks of his lineage and descent. An author who has rhetoric and declamation skills often sides with this.

Others insist on the blind sides of human nature. They see only vanity which man surpasses the other animals, whom he despises. An author who has irony and ridicule naturally throws himself to this side.

Not all those who have depreciated our species, have been enemies to virtue, and have exposed human frailties with any bad intention. On the contrary, a delicate sense of morals, especially when attended with a splenetic temper, tends to:

  • give us a disgust of the world, and
  • make us consider the common course of human affairs with too much indignation.

Those who think favourably of mankind are more advantageous to virtue. When a man has a high notion of his rank and character, he will naturally act up to it. He will not do a base or vicious action which might sink him below that level in his own imagination. Thus, all our polite and fashionable moralists insist on this topic, and try to represent vice as unworthy of man. They use the ambiguity of the expression in their disputes, just as they use ambiguity in other kinds of disputes.

Therefore, we should consider what is real, and what is only verbal, in this controversy. There is a natural difference between merit and demerit, virtue and vice, wisdom and folly.

Yet in affixing those good and bad terms, we add influence by arbitrary comparison instead of by any fixed standard in the nature of things. Simmilarly, quantity and size, are real things. But when we call any animal big or small, we form a secret comparison between that animal and others of the same species. It is that comparison which regulates our judgment on its size.

A large dog and a small horse may be of the very same size. The dog is admired for largeness, the horse for its smallness. In any dispute, we must always consider whether it is the comparison that is the subject of the controversy. If it is, do the disputants compare the same objects together? Or are they talking of things that are widely different? In forming our notions of human nature, we compare between men and animals. But this comparison is favourable to mankind.

On the one hand, we see a human whose thoughts are not limited by place or time. He researches into the most distant regions to the planets and looks backward to the first origin of the history of human race. He looks forward to see the influence of his actions on posterity.

On the other hand, we see an animal very limited in its observations and reasonings to a few sensible objects around it. It has no curiosity, foresight, and is blindly conducted by instinct.

What a wide difference is there between these two! We exalt the former over the latter. But this conclusion is commonly destroyed by:

  1. exposing the unfair comparison and
  2. exposing the weaknesses of human nature

We destroy it by forming a new and secret comparison between man and beings of the most perfect wisdom. Our idea of perfection is always relative to ourselves. Human understanding falls infinitely short of perfect wisdom. It is proper that we should know when this comparison takes place, that we may not dispute where there is no real difference in our sentiments.

Man falls much more short of his own ideas of perfect wisdom than animals fall short of normal human wisdom. Yet the difference between animal and human wisdom is so considerable, that it makes the difference between the wisdom between men seem insignificant. We find very few wise men and so we think that humans are not wise in general.

This fallacy is exposed by the fact that ‘wise’ and ‘virtuous’ are not annexed to wisdom and virtue. Instead, they arise from our comparison between one man and another. When call a man wise if we find his wisdom to be very uncommon. Saying that there are few wise men in the world is really to say nothing since it is only by their scarcity, that they get called wise. If our least wise were as wise as Tully or lord Bacon, we would still have reason to say that there are few wise men.

For in that case we should exalt our notions of wisdom, and should not pay a singular honour to any one, who was not singularly distinguished by his talents.

Similarly, thoughtless people say that there are few beautiful women comared to those who want it. They do not consider that we call ‘beautiful’ only those who have a degree of beauty which is common to a few. The same degree of beauty in a woman is called ugliness, which is treated as real beauty in one of our sex.it is usual, in forming a notion of our species, to compare it with the other species above or below it, or to compare the individuals of the species among themselves.

So we often compare together the different motives or actuating principles of human nature, in order to regulate our judgment concerning it. This is the only kind of comparison, which is worth our attention, or decides any thing in the present question. Were our selfish and vicious principles so much predominant above our social and virtuous, as is asserted by some philosophers, we ought undoubtedly to entertain a contemptible notion of human nature. is much of a dispute of words in all this controversy.

A man who denies the sincerity of all public spirit has never felt this passion himself as to remove all his doubts concerning its force and reality. He usually then rejects all private friendship, if no interest or self-love mixes with it. In reality, he merely abuses terms and confounds ideas, since it is impossible for anyone to be so selfish or stupid, as to make no difference between one man and another. He is also as insensible to anger as to friendship.

It only means that he does not know himself. He has forgotten the movements of his heart. Or rather he uses a different language and calls things not by their proper names. Does he define natural affection as a species of self-love? If all is self-love, then you love your children, friends, and country only because they are yours.

If the idea of self removed, nothing would affect you. You would be unactive and insensible. Or, if you ever gave yourself any movement, it would only be from vanity, and a desire of fame to this same self.

But it means that the self-love that you show in kindness to others has a great influence over human actions. For how few are there, who, having a family, children, and relations, do not spend more on the maintenance and education of these than on their own pleasures?

This may proceed from their self-love, since the prosperity of their family and friends is one, or the chief of their pleasures, as well as their chief honour. Be you also one of these selfish men, and you are sure of every one’s good opinion and good will; or not to shock your ears with these expressions, the self-love of every one, and mine among the rest, will then incline us to serve you, and speak well of you.emy opinion, there are two things which have led astray those philosophers, that have insisted so much on the selfishness of man.

In the first place, they found that every act of virtue or friendship was attended with a secret pleasure. They concluded that friendship and virtue could not be disinterested. But the fallacy of this is obvious.

The virtuous feeling produces the pleasure, and does not arise from it. I feel a pleasure in doing good to my friend, because I love him. But I do not love him for the sake of that pleasure.

In the second place, it has always been found, that the virtuous are far from being indifferent to praise; and therefore they have been represented as a set of vain-glorious men, who had nothing in view but the applauses of others.

But this also is a fallacy.

It is very unjust in the world, when they find any tincture of vanity in a laudable action, to depreciate it upon that account, or ascribe it entirely to that motive. The case is not the same with vanity, as with other passions. Where avarice or revenge enters into any seemingly virtuous action, it is difficult for us to determine how far it enters, and it is natural to suppose it the sole actuating principle.

But vanity is so closely allied to virtue, and to love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable actions for their own sake, that these passions are more capable of mixture, than any other kinds of affection; and it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former.

Accordingly, this passion for glory is always warped and varied according to the particular taste or disposition of the mind on which it falls. Nero had the same vanity in driving a chariot, that Trajan had in governing the empire with justice and ability. To love the glory of virtuous deeds is a sure proof of the love of virtue.