Essay 2

Moral Prejudice

by David Hume Icon

Some men try to distinguish themselves by ridiculing everything that was sacred and venerable to mankind.

They rail against Reason, Sobriety, Honour, Friendship, Marriage perpetually. They even regard public spirit and nationalism as fake.

If the schemes of these anti-reformers were to be implemented, the bonds of society will break. and make way for licentious mirth and gaiety.

  • Drunken frollics would be preferred to friendship.
  • Dissolute prodigality would drain away every valuable thing.
  • Men would have so little regard to anything beyond themselves.
  • In the end, it would make a free constitution of government perfectly impracticable.
  • The government would then degenerate into fraud and corruption.

There is another Humour, which may be observ’d in some Pretenders to Wisdom, and which, if not so pernicious as the idle petulant Humour above-mention’d, must, however, have a very bad Effect on those, who indulge it.

The serious philosophic endeavour for Perfection strikes at all the most endearing sentiments of the heart, and all our useful biases and instincts. The Stoics were remarkable for this folly among the Ancients.

I wish that later generations had not copied them too faithfully. They have caused:

  • the virtuous and tender sentiments to suffer mightily.
  • a certain sullen Pride or Contempt of Mankind to prevail

These were esteem’d the greatest Wisdom, even if they were the most egregious Folly.

Statilius was solicited by Brutus to make one of that noble Band, who struck the GOD-like Stroke for the Liberty of Rome, refus’d to accompany them, saying, That all Men were Fools or Mad, and did not deserve that a wise Man should trouble his Head about them.

My learned Reader will here easily recollect the Reason, which an antient Philosopher gave, why he wou’d not be reconcil’d to his Brother, who sollicited his Friendship. He was too much a Philosopher to think, that the Connexion of having sprung from the same Parent, ought to have any Influence on a reasonable Mind, and exprest his Sentiment after such a Manner as I think not proper to repeat.

Epictetus says that:

  • when your friend is in affliction, you may have fake sympathy with him to give him relief.
  • But take care not to allow any compassion into your heart.

Diogenes was asked by his friends in his sickness: ‘What should be done with him after his death?’ He said:

'Throw me out into the fields and place a cudgel by me, to defend myself from the beasts. I cannot use it anyway.'

How different are Epictetus’ words from the Maxims of Eugenius! In his youth he studied philosophy with all his strength and nothing was able to draw him from it. When he was 30, he was determin’d to quit the free Life of a Batchelor (in which otherwise he wou’d have been inclin’d to remain) by considering, that he was the last branch of an ancient Family, which must have been extinguish’d had he died without Children.

He chose the virtuous and beautiful Emira for his consort and had many children with her which led to her death. Only the consolation from his young family could have supported him under so severe an affliction. He had a favorite daughter who resembled his wife. He conceals this partiality as much as possible. Only his intimate friends know it. They know that:

  • he still keeps the birthday of Emira with tears
  • he preserves her picture with the utmost care
  • he has left orders in his last will to be buried with her and that a monument shall be erected over them and their mutual Love celebrated in an Epitaph, which he has composed

A few years ago I received a letter from a friend about an example of departing too far from the standard Conduct and Behaviour and going into a refined search for Happiness or Perfection.

Paris, Aug. 2, 1737. Sir,— I know you are more curious of Accounts of Men than of Buildings, and are more desirous of being inform’d of private History than of public Transactions; for which Reason, I thought the following Story, which is the common Topic of Conversation in this City, wou’d be no unacceptable Entertainment to you. A young lady of fortune decided to stay single because she observed many unhappy marriages. She had a strong spirit and an uncommon way of thinking and so it was easy to decide such. But she wanted to have a son and to educate him. And so she looked for a male-acquaintance with a character that she liked. She sees a modest man that she likes and asks for him. Every conversation inflamed his love for her more even if they were unequal in fortune. She discovered, that her man's qualities were agreeable and so she told him her plan. After some time, she bore his son. But she found that the boy's father was too passionate for her, so she sends him a bond of annuity for 1,000 crowns for him to stop seeing her and to forget all past favours and familiarities. He was thunder-struck at this message and so he commences a Law-suit against her before the Parliament of Paris. He claims the he has a right to educate his Son according to Law in such cases. She pleads, on the other Hand, their agreement and pretends that he had renounced all claim to any offspring from her. It is not yet known, how the Parliament will determine in this extraordinary Case, which puzzles both the Lawyers and the Philosophers.

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