Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary
Part III, Essay II
OF MORAL PREJUDICES*4
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. I mean that grave philosophic Endeavour after Perfection, which, under Pretext of reforming Prejudices and Errors, strikes at all the most endearing Sentiments of the Heart, and all the most useful Byasses and Instincts, which can govern a human Creature. The Stoics were remarkable for this Folly among the Antients; and I wish some of more venerable Characters in latter Times had not copy'd them too faithfully in this Particular. The virtuous and tender Sentiments, or Prejudices, if you will, have suffer'd mightily by these Reflections; while a certain sullen Pride or Contempt of Mankind has prevail'd in their Stead, and has been esteem'd the greatest Wisdom; tho', in Reality, it be the most egregious Folly of all others. Statilius being sollicited 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.*5
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.*6 When your Friend is in Affliction, says Epictetus, you may counterfeit a Sympathy with him, if it give him Relief; but take Care not to allow any Compassion to sink into your Heart, or disturb that Tranquillity, which is the Perfection of Wisdom.*7 Diogenes being askt by his Friends in his Sickness, What should be done with him after his Death? Why, says he, throw me out into the Fields. "What! reply'd they, to the Birds or Beasts." No: Place a Cudgel by me, to defend myself withal. "To what Purpose, say they, you will not have any Sense, nor any Power of making Use of it." Then if the Beasts shou'd devour me, cries he, shall I be any more sensible of it? I know none of the Sayings of that Philosopher, which shews more evidently both the Liveliness and Ferocity of his Temper.*8
How different from these are the Maxims by which Eugenius conducts himself! In his Youth he apply'd himself, with the most unwearied Labour, to the Study of Philosophy; and nothing was ever able to draw him from it, except when an Opportunity offer'd of serving his Friends, or doing a Pleasure to some Man of Merit. When he was about thirty Years of Age, 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 antient Family, which must have been extinguish'd had he died without Children. He made Choice of the virtuous and beautiful Emira for his Consort, who, after being the Solace of his Life for many Years, and having made him the Father of several Children, paid at last the general Debt to Nature. Nothing cou'd have supported him under so severe an Affliction, but the Consolation he receiv'd from his young Family, who were now become dearer to him on account of their deceast Mother. One Daughter in particular is his Darling, and the secret Joy of his Soul; because her Features, her Air, her Voice recal every Moment the tender Memory of his Spouse, and fill his Eyes with Tears. He conceals this Partiality as much as possible; and none but his intimate Friends are acquainted with it. To them he reveals all his Tenderness; nor is he so affectedly Philosophical, as even to call it by the Name of Weakness. They know, that he still keeps the Birth-day of Emira with Tears, and a more fond and tender Recollection of past Pleasures; in like Manner as it was celebrated in her Lifetime with Joy and Festivity. They know, that he preserves her Picture with the utmost Care, and has one Picture in Miniature, which he always wears next to his Bosom: That he has left Orders in his last Will, that, in whatever Part of the World he shall happen to die, his Body shall be transported, and laid in the same Grave with her's: And that a Monument shall be erected over them, and their mutual Love and Happiness celebrated in an Epitaph, which he himself has compos'd for that Purpose.*9
A few Years ago I receiv'd a Letter from a Friend, who was abroad on his Travels, and shall here communicate it to the Public. It contains such an Instance of a Philosophic Spirit, as I think pretty extraordinary, and may serve as an Example, not to depart too far from the receiv'd Maxims of Conduct and Behaviour, by a refin'd Search after Happiness or Perfection. The Story I have been since assur'd of as Matter of Fact.
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 Birth and Fortune, being left intirely at her own Disposal, persisted long in a Resolution of leading a single Life, notwithstanding several advantageous Offers that had been made to her. She had been determin'd to embrace this Resolution, by observing the many unhappy Marriages among her Acquaintance, and by hearing the Complaints, which her Female Friends made of the Tyranny, Inconstancy, Jealousy or Indifference of their Husbands. Being a Woman of strong Spirit and an uncommon Way of thinking, she found no Difficulty either in forming or maintaining this Resolution, and cou'd not suspect herself of such Weakness, as ever to be induc'd, by any Temptation, to depart from it. She had, however, entertain'd a strong Desire of having a Son, whose Education she was resolv'd to make the principal Concern of her Life, and by that Means supply the Place of those other Passions, which she was resolv'd for ever to renounce. She push'd her Philosophy to such an uncommon Length, as to find no Contradiction betwixt such a Desire and her former Resolution; and accordingly look'd about, with great Deliberation, to find, among all her Male-Acquaintance, one whose Character and Person were agreeable to her, without being able to satisfy herself on that Head. At Length, being in the Play-house one Evening, she sees in the Parterre,° a young Man of a most engaging Countenance and modest Deportment; and feels such a Pre-possession in his Favour, that she had Hopes this must be the Person she had long sought for in vain. She immediately dispatches a Servant to him; desiring his Company, at her Lodgings, next Morning. The young Man was over-joy'd at the Message, and cou'd not command his Satisfaction, upon receiving such an Advance from a Lady of so great Beauty, Reputation and Quality. He was, therefore, much disappointed, when he found a Woman, who wou'd allow him no Freedoms; and amidst all her obliging Behaviour, confin'd and over-aw'd him to the Bounds of rational Discourse and Conversation. She seem'd, however, willing to commence a Friendship with him; and told him, that his Company wou'd always be acceptable to her, whenever he had a leisure Hour to bestow. He needed not much Entreaty to renew his Visits, being so struck with her Wit and Beauty, that he must have been unhappy, had he been debarr'd her Company. Every Conversation serv'd only the more to inflame his Passion, and gave him more Occasion to admire her Person and Understanding, as well as to rejoice in his own Good-fortune. He was not, however, without Anxiety, when he consider'd the Disproportion of their Birth and Fortune; nor was his Uneasiness allay'd even when he reflected on the extraordinary Manner in which their Acquaintance had commenc'd. Our Philosophical Heroine, in the mean Time, discover'd, that her Lover's personal Qualities did not belye his Phisiognomy°; so that, judging there was no Occasion for any farther Trial, she takes a proper Opportunity of communicating to him her whole Intention. Their Intercourse continu'd for sometime, till at last her Wishes were crown'd, and she was now Mother of a Boy, who was to be the Object of her future Care and Concern. Gladly wou'd she have continu'd her Friendship with the Father; but finding him too passionate a Lover to remain within the Bounds of Friendship, she was oblig'd to put a Violence upon° herself. She sends him a Letter, in which she had inclos'd a Bond of Annuity for a Thousand Crowns; desiring him, at the same Time, never to see her more, and to forget, if possible, all past Favours and Familiarities. He was Thunder-struck at receiving this Message; and, having tried, in vain, all the Arts that might win upon the Resolution of a Woman, resolv'd at last to attack her by her Foible. He commences a Law-suit against her before the Parliament of Paris; and claims his Son, whom he pretends a Right to educate as he pleas'd, according to the usual Maxims of the Law in such Cases. She pleads, on the other Hand, their express Agreement before their Commerce, and pretends, that he had renounc'd all Claim to any Offspring that might arise from their Embraces. It is not yet known, how the Parliament will determine in this extraordinary Case, which puzzles all the Lawyers, as much as it does the Philosophers. As soon as they come to any Issue, I shall inform you of it, and shall embrace any Opportunity of subscribing° myself, as I do at present.
Your most humble Servant.
Notes for this chapter
[This essay appeared only in Essays, Moral and Political, vol. 2.]
[See Plutarch's Lives, in the life of Brutus, sec. 12. According to Plutarch's account, Brutus kept the conspiracy against Caesar secret from his friend Statillius the Epicurean, because earlier, when put to the test indirectly in a discussion, Statilius had replied in the way that Hume describes.]
[The editor could not identify this ancient philosopher or the source of Hume's story.]
[See Epictetus, Encheiridion (Manual), sec. 16: "When you see someone weeping in sorrow, either because a child has gone on a journey, or because he has lost his property, beware that you be not carried away by the impression that the man is in the midst of external ills, but straightway keep before you this thought: 'It is not what has happened that distresses this man (for it does not distress another), but his judgement about it.' Do not, however, hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and, if occasion offers, even to groan with him; but be careful not to groan also in the centre of your being" (Loeb translation by W. A. Oldfather).]
[Diogenes of Sinope (400?-325? B.C.) was founder of the Cynic school of philosophy, which sought happiness in an austere life, devoted to the satisfaction of only one's few natural needs and to the open disdain for things conventionally thought to be desirable. Hume here follows the account of Diogenes' savings in Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.43 (104).]
[The editor could not locate a Eugenius, either real or fictional, whose life conforms to these details. This story, like the letter that follows, is probably Hume's fabrication. Thus Eugenius (literally, "nobly born," "good spirit," "good inclination," or "good character") may personify the philosophic life in which the sentiments of the heart are properly accommodated. Joseph Addison uses Eugenius as a name for one of the participants in his "Dialogues upon the Usefulness of Ancient Medals" (1721); and Laurence Sterne would later give the name to a character in his novel Tristram Shandy (1760-67).]
Part III, Essay III
End of Notes
Return to top