Section 10

The Influence of Belief

by David Hume Icon

Impressions and Ideas are Balanced by Nature

Education is disclaimed by philosophy as a fallacious assent to any opinion.

Nevertheless, it prevails in the world. Education is the cause why all systems are apt to be initially rejected as new and unusual. This perhaps will be the fate of what I have advanced here concerning belief. My proofs appear perfectly conclusive to me.

But I do not expect to make many converts to my opinion.

Men will never be persuaded that the effects of such consequence can flow from principles:

  • which are so inconsiderable, and
  • that all our actions and passions are derived from nothing but custom and habit.

To address this objection, I shall introduce the topic of the passions and the sense of beauty.

A perception of pain and pleasure is implanted in the human mind as the chief spring and moving principle of all its actions.

But pain and pleasure have two ways of appearing in the mind.

The effects of these two ways are very different.

They may appear:

  • in impression to the actual feeling, or
  • only in idea.

The influence of these on our actions is not equal.

Impressions always actuate the soul in the highest degree.

But not every idea has the same effect. Nature has proceeded in this case with caution. It has carefully avoided the inconveniences of two extremes. If impressions alone influenced the will, we would always be subject to the greatest calamities. Because, though we foresaw their approach, we would not be provided by nature with any principle of action which might impel us to avoid them. On the other hand, if every idea influenced our actions, our condition would not be much mended. The images of everything, especially of goods and evils, are always wandering in the mind. If the mind were moved by every idle conception, it would never enjoy a moment’s peace. Nature, therefore, has chosen a medium.

It has not:

  • bestowed the power of actuating the will on every idea of good and evil, nor
  • entirely excluded the idea of good and evil from this influence.

An idle fiction has no efficacy.

The ideas of those objects, which we believe are or will be existent, produce in a lesser degree those impressions which are immediately present to the senses and perception.

The effect of belief is then to:

  • raise up a simple idea to an equality with our impressions, and
  • bestow on it a like influence on the passions.

It can only have this effect by making an idea approach an impression in force and vivacity.

The different degrees of force make all the original difference between an impression and an idea.

They must be the source of all the differences in the effects of these perceptions. Their removal must be the cause of every new resemblance they acquire. Wherever we can make an idea approach the impressions in force and vivacity, it will likewise imitate them in its influence on the mind. Vice versa, where it imitates them in that influence as in the present case, this must proceed from its approaching them in force and vivacity. Belief causes an idea to imitate the effects of the impressions.

Therefore, belief must make it resemble them in these qualities. Belief is nothing but a more vivid and intense conception of any idea. This may both: serve as an additional argument for the present system give us a notion how our reasonings from causation are able to operate on the will and passions. Belief is almost absolutely needed to excite our passions.

The passions in their turn are very favourable to belief. The facts that convey agreeable and painful emotions become more readily the objects of faith and opinion. A coward has his fears easily awakened.

He readily assents to every account of danger he meets with, as a sorrowful person is very credulous of everything that nourishes his sadness. When any affecting object is presented, it gives the alarm. It immediately excites its proper passion, especially in persons naturally inclined to that passion. This emotion passes through an easy transition to the imagination. It diffuses itself over our idea of the affecting object. It makes us form that idea with greater force and vivacity. We consequently assent to it, according to the precedent system. Admiration and surprise have the same effect as the other passions.

Because of their magnificent pretensions, quacks and projectors meet with a more easy faith among the vulgar, than if they had moderation. The first astonishment which naturally attends their miraculous relations, spreads itself over the whole soul. It so vivifies and enlivens the idea, that it resembles the inferences we draw from experience. We shall find less difficulty in explaining the effects of beliefs on the imagination, however extraordinary they may appear.

We cannot take pleasure in any discourse where we cannot assent to those images presented to our fancy. The conversation of those who have acquired a habit of lying, never gives any satisfaction. The ideas they present to us are not attended with belief. They make no impression on the mind. Poets Adds Vivacity to Ideas Poets are liars by profession.

They always try to give an air of truth to their fictions. Where truth is totally neglected, their performances, however ingenious, will never be able to afford much pleasure. Even when ideas have no influence on the will and passions, truth and reality are still needed to make them entertaining. But if we compare together all the phenomena that occur on this head, we shall find, that the only effect of truth is to: procure an easy reception for the ideas make the mind acquiesce in them with satisfaction, or at least without reluctance. But this is an effect supposed to flow from that solidity and force which attend those ideas established by reasonings from causation. It follows that all the influence of belief on the fancy may be explained by that system. Wherever that influence arises from any other principles beside truth or reality, they: supply its place give an equal entertainment to the imagination. Poets have formed what they call a poetical system of things, which is not believed by themselves nor by readers.

But it is commonly a sufficient foundation for any fiction. We have been so used to the names of Mars, Jupiter, Vernus, that the constant repetition of these ideas makes them: enter into the mind with facility in the same way that education infixes any opinion. prevail on the fancy without influencing the judgment. Similarly, tragedians always borrow their fable or the names of their principal actors from some known passage in history. They will frankly confess that they are not true, not to avoid deceiving the spectators, but to procure an easier reception into the imagination for those extraordinary events which they represent. But this is a precaution not required of comic poets. Their personages and incidents: are a more familiar kind, enter easily into the conception, and are received without any such formality, even though at first night they are known to be fictitious. This mixture of truth and falsehood in the fables of tragic poets shows that the imagination can be satisfied without any absolute belief or assurance.

In another view, it may be regarded as a very strong confirmation of this system. Poets borrow the names and chief events of their poems from history, in order to: procure an easier reception for the whole, and cause it to make a deeper impression on the fancy and affections. The several incidents acquire a relation by being united into one poem or representation. If any of these incidents are an object of belief, it bestows a force and vivacity on the others related to it. The vividness of the first conception diffuses itself along the relations. It is conveyed, as by so many pipes or canals, to every idea that has any communication with the primary one. This can never amount to a perfect assurance because the union among the ideas is accidental in a way. But still it approaches so near in its influence. It may convince us that they are derived from the same origin. Belief must please the imagination by its force and vivacity, since every idea which has force and vivacity is agreeable to that faculty. To confirm this, we may observe that: the assistance is mutual between: the judgment and fancy, and the judgment and passion. belief gives vigour to the imagination, and a vigorous and strong imagination is the most proper of all talents to procure belief and authority. It is difficult for us to not assent to what is painted with eloquence.

The vivacity produced by the fancy is in many cases greater than the vivacity which arises from custom and experience. We are hurried away by the lively imagination of an author or companion. Even he himself is often a victim to his own fire and genius. A lively imagination very often: degenerates into madness or folly, makes the imagination resemble madness in its operations, influences the judgment after the same manner, and produces belief from the very same principles. When the imagination is intoxicated with alcohol, it acquires a vivacity that disorders all its powers and faculties.

It loses the means of distinguishing truth from falsehood. But every loose idea, having the same influence as the impressions of the memory, or the conclusions of the judgment: is received on the same footing, and operates with equal force on the passions. A present impression and a customary transition are then no longer necessary to enliven our ideas. The brain’s every fancy is as vivid and intense as: any of those inferences we formerly called conclusions on matters of fact, and the present impressions of the senses, sometimes. Poetry has the same effect in a lesser degree.

This is common both to poetry and madness. The vivacity they bestow on the ideas is not derived from the particular situations or connections of the objects of these ideas. It is derived from the person’s present temper and disposition. No matter how great the pitch this vivacity rises in poetry, it never has the same feeling with the pitch which arises in the mind, when we reason on the lowest species of probability. The mind can easily distinguish between the one and the other. Whatever emotion the poetical enthusiasm cause in the spirits, it is still the mere phantom of belief or persuasion. The case is the same with the idea, as with the passion it occasions. There is no passion of the human mind but what may arise from poetry. Though at the same time, the feelings of the passions are very different when excited by poetical fictions, from what they are when they are from belief and reality. A disagreeable passion might provide the highest entertainment in a tragedy or epic poem.

In such a case, the disagreeable is not so heavy on us. It feels less firm and solid. It has an agreeable effect of exciting the spirits. Such difference in the passions is a clear proof of a like difference in those ideas that create those passions. Where the vivacity of the idea comes from a habitual connection with a present impression, the imagination might appear not so much moved. Yet there is always something more forcible and real in the imagination’s actions, than in the fervors of poetry and eloquence. The force of our mental actions in this case are not stronger than in any other mental action. It is not to be measured by the mind’s apparent agitation. A poetical description may have a more sensible effect on the fancy than an historical narration. It may: collect more of those circumstances, that form a complete image, and set the object before us in more lively colours. But the ideas it presents are different to the feeling from the ideas which arise from the memory and judgment. General Rules Check the Vivacity of Ideas There is something weak and imperfect in the vehemence of thought and feeling that goes with the fictional ideas of poetry.

A poetical enthusiasm and a serious conviction have similarities and differences. The great difference in their feeling proceeds from reflection and general rules. Poetry and eloquence give the vigour of conception to fictional ideas. This vigour of conception is merely accidental. Every idea is equally susceptible to this. Such fictions are connected with nothing real.

This observation:

  • makes us only lend ourselves to the fiction, and
  • causes the idea to feel very different from the eternal established persuasions founded on memory and custom.

Those established ideas are somewhat of the same kind as the fictional ideas.

But the fictional ideas are much inferior to the established ideas, both in its causes and effects.

A like reflection on general rules keeps us from adding our belief on every increase of the force and vivacity of our ideas.

We give full conviction on an opinion that admits no doubt, even if the lack of similarity or contiguity may render its force inferior. The understanding corrects the appearances of the senses. It makes us imagine that an object 20 feet away is as large to the eye as one of the same dimensions, 10 feet away.

We may observe the same effect of poetry in a lesser degree.

The only difference is that the least reflection:

  • dissipates the illusions of poetry, and
  • places the objects in their proper light.

In the warmth of a poetical enthusiasm, a poet has:

  • a counterfeit belief, and
  • a kind of vision of his objects.

A blaze of poetical images which have their effect on the poet himself and on his readers, contributes most to his full conviction.


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