Essay 2

What is Luxury?

by David Hume Icon

Luxury is an ambiguous word used both in a good and a bad sense. In general, it means great refinement in the gratification of the senses.

Any degree of it may be innocent or blameable, according to the age, country, or condition of the person. Its virtue and vice cannot here be exactly fixed, more than in other moral subjects.

Religious fervor sees that the gratification and indulgence in meat, drink, or apparel, is of itself a vice. There was a monk abroad whose bedroom window had a view of alcoholic drinks. He made a covenant with his eyes never look that way to avoid being tempted with them. To him, drinking Champagne or Burgundy, preferably to small beer or porter, was a crime.

These indulgences are:

  • vices, when they are pursued at the expence of virtue such as liberality or charity
  • follies, when a man reduces himself to want and beggary for them.
  • innocent, when they do not affect virtue, but is used instead to provide for friends, family, and other people.

It is a sign of stupidity to have luxury all alone, without any pleasures of ambition, study, or conversation.

It is a sign of a lack of humanity or benevolence to confine one’s expence entirely to such a gratification, without regard to friends or family.

Since luxury may be considered either as innocent or blameable, we might be surprized at preposterous opinions about it:

  • Libertines bestow praises on vicious luxury and represent it as highly advantageous to society.
  • Austere people blame the most innocent luxury and see it as the source of all the corruptions, disorders, and factions to civil government.

We can correct both these extremes, by proving:

  1. that the ages of refinement are both the happiest and most virtuous
  2. that wherever luxury ceases to be innocent, it also ceases to be beneficial; and when carried a degree too far, is a quality pernicious, though perhaps not the most pernicious, to political society.

Advantages of Luxury

  1. The ages of refinement are both the happiest and most virtuous

What are the effects of refinement both on private and public life?

Human happiness consists in three ingredients; action, pleasure, and rest. These ingredients should be mixed in different proportions, according to the particular disposition of the person; yet no one ingredient can be entirely wanting, without destroying, in some measure, the relish of the whole composition.

  1. Rest

Rest and relaxation does not of itself contribute much to our enjoyment. But it is needed by our nature, like sleep.

In the end, that quick march of the spirits exhausts the mind and makes it require rest. If prolonged, it leads to languor and lethargy that destroys all enjoyment.

  1. Action

Education, custom, and example, strongly influence the mind into action to attain happiness.

When industry and the arts flourish, men are perpetually occupied. They enjoy their reward in:

  • the occupation itself,
  • the fruits of their labour.

The mind acquires new vigour and enlarges its powers and faculties.

Ease and idleness lead to unnatural appetites. Honest industry prevents such appetites and satisfies the natural ones. Banish those arts then you deprive men both of action and pleasure, and leave only indolence. You even destroy the desire for relaxation when you prevent the labour that requires it.

  1. Pleasure

Another advantage of industry and of refinements in the mechanical arts, is, that they commonly produce some refinements in the liberal; nor can one be carried to perfection, without being accompanied, in some degree, with the other.

The same age, which produces great philosophers and politicians, renowned generals and poets, usually abounds with skilful weavers, and ship-carpenters.

Woollen cloth cannot be wrought to perfection in a nation which:

  • is ignorant of astronomy, or
  • neglects ethics.

The spirit of the age affects all the arts. The minds of men, being once roused from their lethargy, and put into a fermentation, turn themselves on all sides, and carry improvements into every art and science.

Profound ignorance is totally banished. Men enjoy the privilege of rational creatures, to think as well as to act, to cultivate the pleasures of the mind as well as those of the body.

The more these refined arts advance, the more sociable men become. They will be less contented to remain in solitude when enriched with science and have topics for conversation.

They flock into cities love to:

  • receive and share knowledge
  • show their wit or breeding, taste in conversation or living, in clothes or furniture.

Curiosity allures the wise. Vanity allures the foolish. Curiosity and vanity pleasure both the wise and foolish.

Particular clubs are formed everywhere. Both sexes meet easily and sociably. The tempers and behaviours of men refine apace. This makes them feel an encrease of humanity, beside their knowledge and the liberal arts, from the very habit of conversing and contributing to each other’s pleasure and entertainment.

Thus industry, knowledge, and humanity, are linked together by an indissoluble chain. These become more polished in the more luxurious ages.

Disadvantages of Luxury

The more men refine their pleasures, the less will they indulge in excesses. This is because those excesses are most destructive to true pleasure.

The Tartars are oftener guilty of beastly gluttony, when they feast on their dead horses, than European courtiers with all their refinements of cookery.

Drunkenness is a vice more odious and pernicious to mind and body than marital infidelity. In polite ages, marital infidelity is more frequent than drunkeness.

I do not appeal to an Ovid or a Petronius, but to a Seneca or a Cato. During Catiline’s conspiracy, Caesar gave Cato a billet-doux which showed an intrigue with Servilia, Cato’s own sister. Cato threw it back to him with indignation. In the bitterness of his wrath, he called Caesar a drunkard. It was a more opprobrious term that what was supposed to be given.

But industry, knowledge, and humanity, are not advantageous in private life alone. They:

  • diffuse their beneficial influence on the public, and
  • render the government as great and flourishing as they make individuals happy and prosperous.

The encrease and consumption of useful commodities are advantageous to society because they simultaneously:

  • multiply those innocent gratifications to individuals
  • store labour which may be used for the public service in times of exigencies

A nation with no demand for such superfluities may:

  • sink into indolence,
  • lose all enjoyment of life, and
  • become useless.

They cannot support its fleets and armies, from the industry of such slothful members. The huge difference between the power and grandeur of Europe with itself 200 years ago is only owing to the encrease of art and industry.

  • Charles VIII of France invaded Italy with around 20,000 men. Guicciardin says that this armament exhausted the nation that it could not raise troops for some years.
  • The late king of France maintained over 400,000 men from the time of Mazarine’s death to his own, in a course of wars that lasted nearly 30 years.

Knowledge and Humanity Leads to Industry

Modern industry is much promoted by the knowledge derived from art and refinement, just as refined knowledge enables the public to employ the industry of its subjects. Laws, order, police, discipline can never be perfected unless human reason has refined itself:

  • by exercise, and
  • by an application to the more vulgar arts, at least, of commerce and manufacture.

We cannot expect that a proper government can be created by a people who did not know how to make a spinning-wheel, or use a loom advantageously. All ignorant ages are infested with superstition, which throws the government off its bias and disturbs men in their pursuit of interest and happiness.

Knowledge in the arts of government naturally begets mildness and moderation, by instructing men in the advantages of humanity. This would be better than the rigor and severity that leads to rebellion. The softening of the tempers and improvement of knowledge makes this humanity appear more conspicuous.

It is the chief characteristic which distinguishes a civilized age from times of barbarity and ignorance.

  • Factions are then less inveterate, revolutions less tragic, authority less severe, and seditions less frequent.
  • Even foreign wars abate of their cruelty.

Honour and interest steel men against compassion and fear before a battle. Afterwards, the combatants divest themselves of the brute, and become men again. We do not need to fear that men will lose their martial spirit because of the arts.

On the contrary, honour and interest lead to industry and adds new force to the arts and the military.

Anger is said to be the whetstone of courage which loses its roughness through politeness and refinement. A sense of honour is a stronger, more constant, and more governable principle. It acquires fresh vigour by that elevation of genius from knowledge and education.

Courage can neither have any duration, nor be of any use, when not accompanied with discipline and martial skill, which are seldom found among a barbarous people.

  • The ancients remarked that Datames was the only barbarian who ever knew the art of war.
  • Pyrrhus saw the Romans marshal their army with art and skill. He said with surprize: “These barbarians have nothing barbarous in their discipline!”

The old Romans applied themselves solely to war. They were almost the only uncivilized people that had military discipline, just as the modern Italians are the only civilized European people that ever lacked courage and a martial spirit. Some ascribe their effeminacy to their luxury, politeness, or arts. But this is wrong because the French and English also love the arts and commerce, yet their bravery is as uncontestable.

The Italian historians instead say that the Italian sovereigns dropped their swords all at once when:

  • the Venetian aristocracy became jealous of its subjects,
  • the Florentine democracy applied itself entirely to commerce
  • Rome was governed by priests,
  • Naples by women.

War was assigned to mercenaries who spared each other, fighting battles the whole day, returning at night to their camp without the least bloodshed.

The Arts and Sciences Did Not Cause the Decline of the Military

The blame against the arts as causing effiminacy comes from the observations of ancient Rome. It went from rags to riches, falling into corruption after conquering provinces with Asiatic luxury. This led to its civil wars and collapse.

All the Latin classics are full of these sentiments. They universally blame their ruin to the arts and riches imported from the East.

Sallust thinks that a taste for painting is a vice just like lewdness and drinking. This feeling was prevalent during the later ages of the republic, that Sallust abounds in praises of the old rigid Roman virtue, even if he himself lived in luxury and corruption.

Those writers mistook the cause of the disorders in Rome and ascribed to luxury and the arts what was really caused by:

  • an ill-modelled government and
  • the unlimited extent of conquests.

Refinement on pleasures has no natural tendency to beget venality and corruption.

The value which we put on any pleasure depends on comparison and experience. A porter is not less greedy of the money that he spends on bacon and brandy, than a courtier who buys champagne and expensive birds. .

Riches are valuable at all times to all men because they always purchase pleasures. Only a sense of honour and virtue can restrain or regulate the love of money. This sense will naturally abound most in ages of knowledge and refinement.

Of all European kingdoms, Poland seems the most defective in military science, mechanics, and the liberal arts. Yet venality and corruption prevails there the most. The nobles preserved their crown elective to regularly sell it to the highest bidder. This is almost the only species of commerce that the Polish know.

The liberties of England started to flourish so much during the improvements in the arts. Corruption has increased recently. This is chiefly due to that liberty which then necessitates the prince to rely on the parliament. This corruption prevails much more among the electors than the elected. Therefore, it cannot justly be ascribed to any refinements in luxury.

A progress in the arts is favourable to liberty. It has a natural tendency to preserve or produce a free government.

In rude unpolished nations, where the arts are neglected, all labour is agricultural. The whole society is divided into two classes:

  1. Proprietors of land, and
  2. Vassals or tenants.

The vassals are dependent and fitted for slavery and subjection especially where they possess no riches and have little knowledge in agriculture.

The proprietors naturally become petty tyrants. They must either:

  • submit to an absolute master for the sake of peace and order, or
  • stay independent like the ancient barons, but have constant feuds which throw the whole society into confusion

But where luxury nourishes commerce and industry:

  • the peasants become rich and independent through a proper cultivation of the land
  • the traders and merchants acquire a share of the property and draw authority to the middle class who are the best and firmest basis of public liberty

These merchants do not submit to slavery. They cannot tyrannize others like the barons, so they covet equal laws which:

  • secure their property and
  • preserve them from monarchical and aristocratical tyranny.

The lower house of parliament owes its chief influence to the encrease of commerce which threw the balance of property into the hands of the commons*.

*Superphysics Note: Hume blames the fall of liberty to the imbalance of the 4 classes

It is therefore wrong to violently blame the refinement in the arts for the fall of liberty and public spirit!

People tend to blame the present times and magnify the virtue of distant ancestors. Only the sentiments and opinions of civilized ages are transmitted to posterity. This is why there are so many severe judgments against luxury, and even science.

The fallacy is easily seen by comparing nations that are contemporaries. Treachery and cruelty are the most pernicious and odious of all vices. These were peculiar to uncivilized ages. The refined Greeks and Romans ascribed them to all the barbarous nations around them.

Wherever luxury ceases to be innocent, it also ceases to be beneficial. When carried farther, it begins to be pernicious to political society.

Luxury is only vicious when it:

  • engrosses all of a man’s expence, and
  • leaves no ability for duty and generosity

No prejudice would form in society if a man corrected his vice and spent his money instead to:

  • educate his children,
  • support his friends, and
  • relieve the poor

The same money will go into society, but will satisfy hundreds instead of just one man. The same care and toil that buys a dish of peas at Christmas would buy bread for a whole family for six months.

Some say that without vicious luxury, the labour of making that luxury would not exist at all. This really means that some human defects, such as indolence and selfishness, are remedied by luxury, just as one poison may be an antidote for another poison. In this case, virtue is like wholesome food. It is better than poisons.

I think that all the people in Britain could be happier without vice. All other ills spring from some vice, either in ourselves or others. Even many of our diseases proceed from vice. Remove the vices, and the ills are removed. But be sure to remove all the vices. If you remove just a part, then you may render the matter worse.

By banishing vicious luxury, without curing sloth and an indifference to others, you only:

  • diminish industry in the state, and
  • add nothing to men’s charity or their generosity.

Thus, two opposite vices in a state may be more advantageous than either of them alone. But we should never call vice as advantageous in itself. It is very inconsistent to say that:

  • morality is a political invention for public interest, and
  • vice is advantageous to the public

Morality is a philosophical question, not a political one. This does not concert the magistrate who aims only at possibilities. He cannot cure every vice by substituting it with a virtue. Very often he can only cure one vice by another. In this case, he should prefer what is least pernicious to society.

Excessive luxury is the source of many ills. But is in generally preferable to sloth and idleness, which commonly follows excessive luxury. When sloth reigns, a mean, uncultivated way of life prevails.

If the sovereign demands the service of his subjects during such times, the state’s labour can only furnish the necessaries to the labourers and nothing to those in the public service.


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