Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fourth Salvo

Actually, this is hardly more than a promissory note advertising a book, on which I am currently dispensing finishing touches, entitled “Greatness of Soul, in Hume, Aristotle and Hobbes”, featuring a greater and a lesser “missing chapter in the history of philosophy”.
            If the greater of the two can be seen in retrospect to be already signaled in my previous post by Hume’s riveting Nietzschean Paragraph, the lesser missing chapter also recalls my earlier post, by picking up on its theme of straddling, only now a straddling as between Hume’s Treatise and his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.  The issue here turns on how we are to think in tandem about this passage launching his Paragraph – “The generality of mankind consider heroism or military glory as the most sublime kind of merit” when it is juxtaposed with the following in his chapter “Of benevolence” early in the Enquiry:  “The epithets sociable, good-natured, humane, merciful, grateful, friendly, generous, beneficent, or their equivalents, are known in all languages, and universally express the highest merit, which human nature is capable of attaining.”
            The operative word in the two passages being “merit”, it is hard if not impossible to square the most sublime variety of it, according to the generality of mankind, with the highest kind as expressed universally in all languages by Hume’s seven epithets or their equivalents.  Resolving the puzzle is the task set by the fifth chapter of my book.
            By no means altogether promissory, this post I take to supply a missing chapter in the history of philosophy in its own right, simply by focusing attention on this exegetical puzzle in Hume studies, the relevance of which to our understanding of his theory of personal merit (= ethics) I leave here largely as an open question.  That these two sorts of merit at least smack of Nietzsche’s distinction between master and slave morality is not likely to be contested. Or is it?

1 comment:

  1. Jose,

    The distinction Hume draws here calls to mind Adam Smith's distinction between the amiable virtues of compassion and benevolence, on the one hand, and the great and respectable virtues of self-command, on the other. (Given their close friendship, some mutual influence would not be surprising.) The union of these virtues constitutes the highest degree of moral perfection: "And hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety" (Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.I.44).

    The Hume passage also calls to mind some of Kant's comments in "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime," where he applies the notions of the beautiful and the sublime to conduct.

    I would conjecture that, like Smith and Kant, Hume is distinguishing here between different kinds of merit.


    Bob Fudge